5. “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Nicholas Britell)
Nicholas Britell and Barry Jenkins make magic together. That’s just a fact. Britell’s knotted, cathartic score for “Moonlight” helped propel that film towards glory, and his music plays an even more prominent role in Jenkins’ sensuous James Baldwin adaptation, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Britell’s strings tremble and swoon with a timelessness that allows this celebration of black love and perseverance to reverberate through the years. The music assumes the same shape as Jenkins’ languid imagery; the swirl of “Eden (Harlem)” is the sound of Kiki Layne looking into the lens in a slow-motion close-up, or Stephan James exhaling a puff of cigarette smoke as he thinks about her. “Eros” is the purest distillation of what it feels like when people in love are separated by cinder blocks or a panel of plexiglass. As thick and honeyed as Britell’s score for “Moonlight” was sharp and bloody, the score for “If Beale Street Could Talk” makes it that much easier to trust in the love that takes this movie all the way.
4. “Eighth Grade” (Anna Meredith)
Nothing is conventional about Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” which brings a radical (and hugely uncomfortable) sense of urgency to its portrait of junior high school as the actual manifestation of hell on earth. But the most unusual element of all — and the one that best indicates his promise as a gutsy filmmaker with a knack for good choices — is Anna Meredith’s volatile and high-pitched score, which sounds like it’s being pumped out of a helium-powered synthesizer. Meredith, a British composer who flirts with the avant-garde and has never written music for a film before, created a present (and LOUD) soundscape that pulses with the nervous possibility of being 13-year-olds. From the war-like dread of the pool party scene, to the chipper resilience that backdrops the bits where young Kayla Fisher finally comes into her own, Meredith’s score is present and alive — hyper-reactive to the world around it, but also out of sync with its surrounding. It’s the sound of being in eighth grade, and of not having the perspective to recognize that you won’t be there forever.
3. “Mandy” (Jóhann Jóhannsson)
IndieWire’s Eric Kohn reflected on the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s last film score earlier this year, and his overview cuts right to the heart of things:
In “Mandy,” Nicolas Cage goes on a wild-eyed quest for revenge, but the movie’s plot comes secondary to the experience of watching it. Director Panos Cosmatos’ follow-up to his similarly atmospheric ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ is a heavy metal tone poem, replete with leather jackets, shadowy landscapes, and unfiltered bursts of rage. Much of its expressionistic power comes from an undercurrent of music that envelops nearly every moment, evoking dread and wonder in equal doses.
The ‘Mandy’ score is one of the best of the year, a fierce emotional arrangement of mournful synth and somber guitars, interspersed with jarring eruptions of percussion — all of which demonstrate the complex vision of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who died in February at the age of 48, shortly after “Mandy” premiered at Sundance.
2. “First Man” (Justin Hurwitz)
On “First Man,” it was composer Justin Hurwitz’s daunting task to find a sonic articulation of Neil Armstrong’s humanity; to build a two-way bridge between Armstrong as a pioneering symbol of American exceptionalism, and Armstrong as a grieving friend and father who had to reach the stars in order to make peace with the loved ones he’d lost to the heavens. To do that, Hurwitz made tremendous use of the theremin, using the spacey instrument to split the difference between humanity and technology. You can hear its aching warble front and center in the moments following Armstrong’s one giant leap for mankind, but it also sobs in the background of the track that first establishes Armstrong’s marriage with his wife Janet, like an echo from deep within the hole in their hearts.
At times, it feels as though Hurwitz is Armstrong’s only companion. Nowhere in the film is his score more present than in the Moon-landing sequence, a breathless crescendo that epitomizes Chazelle’s synesthesia-like approach to cinematic sound; the score is so completely bonded with the image that it almost feels as if you’re watching the music. Houston, we have one of the most complex, majestic, and emotionally lucid movie scores in recent memory.
1. “You Were Never Really Here” (Jonny Greenwood)
Fresh off his majestic score for “Phantom Thread” — which he wrote after this — Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood re-teamed with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” director Lynne Ramsay for another of his inimitably dissonant symphonies. And thank God for that, because there’s no telling how long it might be until Paul Thomas Anderson gets around to his next movie.
“You Were Never Really Here” is a brutal, fractured story about a destabilized hitman (Joaquin Phoenix) who can only find himself through violence, at least until a similarly traumatized little girl offers him a chance for solace, if not salvation. Greenwood’s warped accompaniment is like a headache you can dance to. “Sandy’s Necklace” marries the Stravinsky-esque panic of “There Will Be Blood” to the surfer grooves of “Inherent Vice,” resulting in a piece that articulates a troubled cool that Phoenix will only allow himself to grumble. “The Hunt” imagines the violence that Ramsay cuts out of the most elliptical action scenes in recent memory, in much the same way as Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violins implied the stabbings in “Psycho.” Most resonant of all are the cascading strings (and synthesizers) that are washed over the scenes that bookend the film, Greenwood — and the London Contemporary Orchestra — finding a rare measure of grace for Ramsay’s hero. This is a gnarly film, but Greenwood wraps it in tenderness.