7. “Isle of Dogs” (Alexandre Desplat)
A brilliant musical polymath in a field that’s dominated by brilliant musical polymaths, Alexandre Desplat has — for better or worse — become one of Wes Anderson’s favorite collaborators, as his compositional fluency empowers the auteur to put his stamp on virtually any place or period of time by amplifying the local sound into a Times Square caricature of itself. Armed with nothing but whimsy and a rare talent for hearing irony in all the world’s instruments, Desplat has recolonized some of cinema’s most familiar milieus, and it was only a matter of time before someone turned his ear towards the Land of the Rising Sun.
Set in the futuristic dystopia of Megasaki City, “Isle of Dogs” affords its Oscar-winning composer a chance to honor the great Japanese film scores of yore, and he honors them well (even if the film’s musical highlight remains the snippets that Anderson borrows from “Seven Samurai” and “Drunken Angel”). While Kaoru Watanabe’s feverish taiko drumming is the movie’s dominant sound, Desplat complements it with a swirl of flutes, triangles, and low vocal drones that captures the gravitas and the playfulness that Fumio Hayasaka lent to several Akira Kurosawa classics. But for all its transparent influences, the “Isle of Dogs” score ultimately belongs to Desplat, who ties it all together with the same buoyant sense of optimism and adventure that lifts all of his Wes Anderson collaborations.
6. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (Carter Burwell)
Carter Burwell, one of the greatest composers in the history of American cinema, has never been the Academy’s favorite; until recently, even his most iconic scores (e.g. “Fargo,” “Being John Malkovich”) were overlooked for Oscar nominations. It’s anybody’s guess as to why. Perhaps the music was too searching, too sad, too brilliantly enmeshed with the movie around it for some people to even hear it all. Whatever the case, the tide is finally turning in Burwell’s favor. In 2015, his swooning and propulsive score for Carol” — a career-high — was forceful enough to make the Academy take notice, and last year, even his (relatively) pedestrian contribution to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” earned him an invite to the Dolby Theatre. With his score for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Burwell’s 15th collaboration with the Coen brothers, the composer is well-positioned to land his third nomination in the last four years.
Less morbidly eccentric than the anthology of Western tales it accompanies, Burwell’s suite is carried by a bittersweet melody that burns like an orange sunset, and always seems to be just a bit too far on the horizon for any of the characters to hear; it binds their stories together in ways they’ll never know. Harmonizing between the beauty and the brutality of the Coen brothers’ worldview like only Burwell can, the score is able to love the sin and laugh at the sinner in the span of a single note. Ominous dirges like “The Mortal Remains” are tinged with dark humor, while a saloon ditty like “Randall Collins” drips with staccato violence. Listen to the blustery winds of hope that blow through the aimless “Wagon Train.” The Wild West has never sounded like such a slaughterhouse, or felt so full of life. The music may not resonate on the bone-deep level of Burwell’s greatest hits, but it’s impossible to imagine “Buster Scruggs” without it.
5. “BlacKkKlansman” (Terence Blanchard)
It’s legitimately insane that Terence Blanchard — the New Orleans jazz great who’s scored virtually every movie that Spike Lee has ever made — has never been nominated for an Oscar. In all likelihood, that’s finally about to change. Blanchard’s playful but embittered “BlacKkKlansman” score may not convey the same degree of dirge-like regret he brought to “25th Hour,” or match the righteous fury that his trumpet breathed into “Malcolm X,” but the eclectic suite of music he wrote for Lee’s most recent provocation is proof that he’s one of the most gifted and intuitive composers in the game.
There’s a career-defining element to how this score manages to keep pace with (and cohere) a buddy cop comedy that manages to touch on everything from “The Birth of a Nation” to Charlottesville. It’s a hectic stew of different stuff, but most of this music is locked in to the sound of ’70s police procedurals. What’s amazing about Blanchard’s work here is how — with a few crunchy guitar licks above a tender bed of strings — he’s able to pull something profound and bone-deep from the kind of melody that might be used as ambient noise on an episode of “Law & Order.” Meanwhile, “Ron’s Theme” effortlessly pivots from a searching, wary saxophone to a cool, crime-busting groove; it’s code-switching you can dance to.
4. “Annihilation” (Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow)
“Annihilation” is a movie that’s literally about its atmosphere — in this case, the soapy bubble of the extraterrestrial “Shimmer” that’s growing out of a lighthouse off the tip of Florida — and so writer-director Alex Garland had a certain mandate to create a palpable alien ecosystem for his characters to explore. Enter “Ex Machina” composer Ben Salisbury and Portishead instrumentalist Geoff Barrow, who teamed up to create a dense and amorphous soundscape that (appropriately) begins to assume the qualities of the movie around it. After strumming along to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Helplessly Hoping,” the score gradually starts to lose its edges, rounding into something more akin to Mica Levi’s music from “Under the Skin.” Towards the end, the music evolves to find a life all its own, as its various influences and voices cohere into something new — a low rolling drone (heard on “The Alien”) that sounds like a hymn from another world.
3. “Black Panther” (Ludwig Goransson)
Kendrick Lamar’s involvement guaranteed that “Black Panther” was going to have one of the year’s best soundtracks, but people had little reason to suspect that the film’s score was going to rise above the generic bombast that accompanies most superhero fare. And then composer Ludwig Göransson delivered music that was every bit as specific, forceful, and full of life as the rest of Ryan Coogler’s afropunk epic. Weaving South African and Senegalese drumming into the base of his compositions, Göransson creates a prickly, percussive sound that rumbles with anxiety and power. The regal horns of “Waterfall Fight” sounded unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the rest of the score only strengthened the feeling that “Black Panther” was so much more than just another chapter in an endless cycle of movies.
2. “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.
1. “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.