In a year when most films were watched at home, film scores became ambient music by default, and often in a way that may have distracted from the power of their purpose. There weren’t any breakout scores that seemed to take on a life of their own and make their way beyond the small circle of people who actively pay attention to such things; we didn’t get any major new work from stalwarts like Jonny Greenwood, OPN, and Nicholas Britell, while rising stars like the Oscar-winning Ludwig Göransson delivered the most exciting pieces of their careers to empty movie theaters.
And yet, wherever it came from, the best movie music of 2020 arrived like a vital, wordless diary of how it felt to live through the last 12 months — or at least to survive them. Even when they were reduced to mere background noise, some of the year’s standout scores pulsed with inescapable anxiety, others spoke to a purgatorial sense of longing, and a small handful even offered a much-needed respite from the world around them. All of them were invaluable to the movies for which they were written, and invaluable to us in return.
These are the 10 best film scores of 2020.
10. “Driveways” (Jay Wadley)
“Drama” would be too harsh a word to describe Andrw Ahn’s “Driveways,” as this gentle film about a young Asian-American boy who befriends the gruff Korean War vet (the late Brian Dennehy) who lives next door to his recently deceased aunt was one of the few genuinely anxiety-reducing films this year. And composer Jay Wadley — whose excellent work on the ultra-neurotic “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” was on the far other side of the spectrum — provided the beautiful, blood pressure-lowering music to match.
In addition to being the most independently listenable score on this list and the essential chill-out album of 2020, Wadley’s score makes for a wonderful accompaniment to Ahn’s film. It’s as simple and poignant as the story for which it was written: A lilting and gracious piano theme surrounds an elegiac string melody in a warm hug, the notes occasionally kicked up in a light tizzy like a bundle of brown leaves on a gust of wind. It seldom gets much fancier than that. But there’s hurt in this music, and comfort too, and in the last track “Everything Is Different” those two energies fuse into a sweet catharsis that’s palpable enough to make your own.
9. “First Cow” (William Tyler)
Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” is a nice and (deceptively) simple movie about two cool dudes named Cookie and King-Lu who cross paths in Oregon Country circa 1820 and hatch a plan to manifest their destinies as the best donut makers the Pacific Northwest has ever seen — a plan that depends on them stealing some fresh milk from the only pair of udders north of California. While that premise may not seem to call for a particularly involved soundtrack, Reichardt knew that whatever music she commissioned for it would have to vibe with the film’s fluffy subject while also resonating with its more serious reflections on how capitalism shaped the soul of the country we live in today.
She found the perfect guy for the job in folk musician William Tyler (a solo artist who played with bands like Lambchop and Silver Jews in a past life). Tasked with writing his first score, Tyler strove to mesh his music into Reichardt’s rustic images without getting in their way. That approach resulted in a series of short, spare, but deeply evocative pieces that lend the film a tragic aftertaste without being at all precious about it. Tyler’s anachronistic reliance on the dulcimer is an especially inspired touch, as the instrument’s hard-to-place twang dislocates the soundtrack from the film’s setting, or from the point-of-view of any of its characters. The music tells their story, it buries them in it, and leaves us thinking about the scraps of a country they left behind.
8. “Ammonite” (Volker Bertelmann & Dustin O’Halloran)
The wait for a third proper installment of Dustin O’Halloran’s “Piano Solos” is now about to enter its 17th year, but the prolific composer hasn’t exactly been resting on his laurels, least of all since he Voltron-ed together with Hauschka (aka Volker Bertelmann) and started churning out some of the loveliest and most aching film music in recent memory. Francis Lee’s “Ammonite” may have left some critics a bit cold, but the accompaniment that O’Halloran and Bertelmann provide for it — their best score since “Lion” in 2016 — helps thaw the brittle period romance until you can all but hear Saoirse Ronan’s heart beating underneath the film’s goosebumps of Southern English gray.
So evocative of what a “Piano Solos Vol. 3” might sound like that you naturally assume O’Halloran brought it to the table, the score’s tentative piano theme can feel like rays of light poking through a cloudy sky or the puncture wounds of a broken heart depending on the context given to it by the ebb and flow of the seasick violins around it. It’s a spare and beautiful duet that leaves behind a damp shadow of itself long after it’s washed back out to sea.
7. “Mank” (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
Just because Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross stormed into the film music world with a series of chilly digital scores doesn’t mean they can’t do anything else — or, as they proved with their 2020 contributions to “Soul” and “Mank” — everything else. Both scores find two of the 21st century’s most ineffably modern composers riffing on the signature sounds of the 20th, but the one for Fincher’s black-and-white Netflix drama about “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and the moral struggles that gave way to his masterpiece stands out for the space it gives Reznor and Ross to run free.
Their characteristically epic accompaniment wallpapers “Mank” from start to finish, and exhumes that old Hollywood energy with a virtuosic side-eye and a pinch of soured romance. The scenes where Mank is cooped up in bed and working on his new script are cut with a Bernard Herrmann-esque buzzsaw of ominous strings, as tracks like “Welcome to Victorville” evoke “Citizen Kane” without being confined to Xanadu. The harp that twinkles underneath “First Dictation” hints at something magical in the works without getting all “Shakespeare in Love” about it (“A Fool’s Paradise” inevitably works typewriter sounds into the score, but does so better and with more purpose than any film music this side of “Atonement”).
Later, a handful of jazzy numbers conducted by Conrad Pople — along with some big band showstoppers arranged by Dan Higgins — honk with a degree of period-appropriate verisimilitude that it’s hard to imagine a track like “Glendale Station” wasn’t lifted wholesale from a 1930s talkie about the big city, or “Every Thing You Do” from a Maurice Chevalier musical. As a film, “Mank” pinballs through time in a way that can make it hard to maintain a clear view on what it’s trying to do, but if your eyes get crossed towards the end, Reznor and Ross ensure that your ears can always hear what Fincher is trying to say.
6. “Wolfwalkers” (Bruno Coulais & Kila)
Even co-composers Bruno Coulais and the Irish folk group Kila would probably agree that the most memorable (and catchy) music in Cartoon Saloon’s magnificent “Wolfwalkers” isn’t a piece of scoring, but rather the re-arranged AURORA bop that soundtracks a crucial scene in the film: “I’m running with the wooooolves tonight, I’m running with the wooooo-oooo-ooolves!” If you know, you know. But it’s a testament to the score around that standout pop track that you don’t spend the rest of the movie waiting for the chorus to kick back in with a vengeance.
Coulais’ enchanted themes bring this help bring this beautifully animated fable to life, with pitter-patter percussion capturing the rush of a pack on the move, and stormy ostinatos articulating the timeless inhumanity of Oliver Cromwell’s forces as they threaten Ireland and its forests. Coulais uses harpsicords and strings to craft a medieval flavor, but his score isn’t so beholden to the film’s 17th century setting that its young heroine can’t transcend the world she knows. Of course, Coulais knew that Kila was there to ensure a zest of local flavor, and the band’s “Tunes” for the two main characters are as evocative and detailed as any of the woodsy environments they tumble through together.
5. “Shirley” (Tamar-kali)
After first shining through her mutually supportive (and continuing) collaboration with Dee Rees, “Mudbound” composer Tamar-kali firmly established herself as a star unto herself this year with her scores for “The Last Thing He Wanted,” “The Assistant,” and “Shirley.” All three are special in their own right, but it’s the Penderecki-esque suite of sawing and staccato music that Tamar-kali lent to Josephine Decker’s seductive and delirious Shirley Jackson biopic that best showcases her talent for transfiguring the human psyche into sound.
Decker has always used music as a disquieting force — as a way of making her films as destabilized and feverish as their characters — and Tamar-kali has an absolute field day with this fact-adjacent portrait of poisoned eros, female friendship, and women on the brink of losing their minds in a man’s world where “normalcy” is its own kind of madness. An erratic seduction of plucked cello strings, jolting piano keys, and the occasional blanket of chanting voices (among other elements), Tamar-kali’s jagged sonic textures help forge “Shirley” into a story of confinement sharp enough for its women to cut holes right through the walls around them.
4. “EMMA.” (Isobel Waller-Bridge & David Schweitzer)
Pre-Victorian period pieces are home to some of the laziest film scores ever recorded, as directors tend to think of the music like wallpaper — as if all those flutes and strings are only there to sell the illusion and anchor its characters to some collective idea of what the past must have been like. If the scores written for Jane Austen adaptations (or the soundtracks assembled for them) often provide the exceptions that prove the rule, perhaps that’s because their timeless characters are so involved with the world around them that a generic musical backdrop would seem noticeably lacking and not just serviceable.
That’s especially true in the films made from Austen’s most frivolous book, as the music in “Emma” can’t afford to blindly support its eponymous socialite with the emotional scaffolding she needs to support her various schemes. Rachel Portman had the right idea in the Gwyneth Paltrow version, and Amy Heckerling weaponized Radiohead’s mid-90s mope rock against Cher Horowitz in “Clueless,” but Autumn de Wilde’s lively and lavish “Emma” feels like the first adaptation in which the score — for all of its perky cheer — is openly critical of the poor little rich girl at the heart of this story.
From the clock chime that kicks off Isobel Waller-Bridge and her assistant David Schweitzer’s score, to the music box minuet that twinkles throughout, so much of the film’s sound comes off as a commentary on the smallness of Emma’s world, and the way she treats everyone in it like dolls for her to play with. The puffed-up opera pieces are ostentatious in a way that reflects the vanity of the people around them, and the humor baked in to the music allows the movie to straddle “Howards End” and “Looney Tunes” in the span of a single scene. It all might have felt a bit too much had de Wilde not stitched the score into the fabric of the images themselves, so that every strut, smile, and touch is folded into a greater dance. Class has seldom been so palpably choreographed, to the point where the film’s one pivotal dance sequence almost seems redundant. Even the ringlets in Emma’s hair appear to have their own blocking, as they bounce and sway in sync with the woman who wears them.
And it’s not all mean. Waller-Bridge and Schweitzer love their lead character, and it’s only because they’re so unafraid to throw her a little side-eye that the music is able to capture her vulnerability as well, and feels so sincere in the moment when she finally steps beyond the narrow confines of her own self-control.
3. “Tenet” (Ludwig Göransson)
It’s hard to imagine how intimidating it would be to step in for Hans Zimmer as Christopher Nolan’s resident composer, least of all on a loud, brutalist, and brain-twisting action movie that has so much in common with “Inception” that even its quietest scenes trigger a sense memory of those signature “BRRAHHMMMS!” But Ludwig Göransson, riding the momentum of his Oscar-winning “Black Panther” score, was undaunted. Embracing the conceptual nature of Nolan’s storytelling in order to create a soundscape that made you feel time being destabilized like goosebumps on your skin (as opposed to deconstructed into pieces, as it was in “Dunkirk”), Göransson’s score combines the bombast of a typical blockbuster with the nervous trill of reverse entropy. The music makes sense of the movie even when the movie can’t make any sense of itself, vibrating backwards and forwards with a loud self-insistence that earns those ALL CAPS track names. Göransson is no Zimmer, and “Tenet” is all the better for that.
2. “Minari” (Emile Mosseri)
Two years ago, Emile Mosseri didn’t have a single professional credit to his name. By the end of January 2020, he was unambiguously one of independent cinema’s most in-demand collaborators, and the closest thing that Sundance has to an official composer. Watch “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” or “Kajillionaire” and it’s easy to hear why: Mosseri’s ethereal yet full-bodied scores lilt and soar with a poignant sense of yearning that makes it feel like the characters on screen are walking around with their hearts outside of their bodies. In the music he wrote for Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” that pulse is strong enough that you can palpably feel it syncing up with your own in the trailer alone — in the first 10 seconds of the trailer, even.
Embossing Chung’s tender immigrant story with a bittersweet hide of myth and hope, Mosseri’s score weaves together airy vocals (often wordless, but sometimes in Korean), twinkling pianos, and — on the instantly indelible track “Birdslingers” — an acoustic guitar that’s as forceful and unyielding as the Steven Yeun performance that seems to have inspired it. Always delicate but never precious, the music sounds like someone wistfully looking back at the formative years of their family, and hearing a beautiful new harmony between an uncertain past and the present it must have made possible.
1. “Time” (Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou)
Okay, so this is a bit of a cheat, but anything goes in 2020. Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou did not write this music specifically to soundtrack Garrett Bradley’s documentary “Time,” even though her flowing piano solos flow through the entire film like a kind of ragtime fairytale; no, the 96-year-old Ethiopian nun wrote this music to raise money for an orphanage in 1967. Bradley discovered the fuzzy recordings through a YouTube algorithm some half a century later, and in the gentle perseverance and DIY spirit of Guèbrou’s ivory-tickling, she heard echoes of the story she’d been trying to tell about Fox Rich, a Louisiana mother of six who spent 21 years working to have her husband released from prison.
Entirely composed of home video footage that Rich shot over that span, the film runs through the decades with the strength and resolve of a brook in springtime, as Bradley’s non-chronological approach smooths “Time” itself into a flat circle that makes every moment feel like the present and every future seem possible. Guèbrou’s time-less music lends the edit an immediate shape — even a sense of destiny — framing the casual indifference of our world with the scale(s) of the beauty we’re able to find in it. It’s enough to make you want to call Christopher Nolan, hold up the phone to your Spotify playlist, and say “Chuck! You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well listen to this.”