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The Best Film Scores of 2022

From Michael Giacchino to Michael Abels, a number of the best film composers working today were on their game in 2022

Clockwise from upper left: "Babylon," "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery," "The Batman," and "TÁR"

Clockwise from upper left: “Babylon,” “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” “The Batman,” and “TÁR”

Screengrab; Netfllix; Warner Bros. Pictures; Focus Features

Of all our craft Best of 2022 lists, film scores was the one where there was the widest list of nominees and least amount of consensus about a top 10. There was just such a wide variety of great work done that delineating what was best wasn’t always clear.

What was clear from our picks, however, was that a number of the best composers working today — from Michael Giacchino to Michael Abels — were on their game in 2022; it was also apparent that this was a year of innovative uses of film music that played a subtle and almost sound design-like role. And by no surprise, so much of that best work came from director-composer collaborations that started early and stretched over many months, sometimes over year, and evolved to find the best way for the music sit in the film.

Chris O’Falt, Steve Greene, David Ehrlich, and Erik Adams also contributed to this article.

25. “Kimi” (Cliff Martinez)

Call it “Rear Browser Window”: Steven Soderbergh’s Hitchcockian technoparanoia thriller knows when to lay out and let the sounds of its housebound protagonist’s day-to-day drive the suspense. But it also knows when to ditch Franz Waxman and go the Bernard Herrmann route, in one of go-to Soderbergh composer Cliff Martinez’s more beguiling blends of the organic and the mechanical. Orchestral swell mingles with synthesizer pings in an (Amazon) echo of a storyline in which human intervention improves AI performance — and maybe solves a murder in the process. —Erik Adams

24. “Bros” (Marc Shaiman)

Billy Eichner and Nicholas Stoller’s “Bros” may have broken new ground, but its appeal comes from its unabashed classicism — a romantic comedy with an unprecedented amount of LGBTQ talent in front of and behind the camera delivers the same old-fashioned pleasures the genre has provided audiences since the days of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, and delivers them with wit and heart. Among the film’s many virtues is an infectiously melodic score reminiscent of rom-com favorites like “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” which is no coincidence since “Bros” shares composer Marc Shaiman with those classics. For “Bros,” Shaiman leans into the deliriously romantic feelings that the characters have for each other but often have trouble expressing; even when they’re not saying how they feel, the music says it for them. When Eichner’s Bobby finally does open up in a song Shaiman crafted in collaboration with the actor/writer, it’s one of the funniest, sweetest moments in any movie this year. —Jim Hemphill

23. “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” (Disasterpeace)

Much like the film it’s a part of, the “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” score feels like eating a dessert that’s somehow not only delicious but good for your health. With a hodgepodge of electronic and organic layers, Disasterpeace comes up with something as creative as all of tiny Marcel’s day-to-day necessities. In the process, there’s a musical can-do spirit that flows through the score, perfect for a story of a misfit trying to find their way in the world. This isn’t all cotton candy grapes, though: There’s a real feeling of loneliness and loss in certain stretches, with the wistful attitude of someone looking at the world from the outside. But much of that gets swept away in the sequences of wonder, with Disasterpeace offering that dreamy, technicolor floating feeling that you usually only get from underwater scenes. It all culminates in a jubilant, movie-capping, calypso-style celebration that pulls out every one of the character’s and the composer’s tricks. May we all be so lucky to have our own stories end that way. —Steve Greene

22. “The Menu” (Colin Stetson)

Just as Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) has responded in a very specific way to the stifling, over-intellectualized culture of high cuisine, there’s something unnervingly fancy about Colin Stetson’s score for “The Menu.” The composer plucks strings and arranges vivace flourishes with the same precision as the chefs at Hawthorne brush snowflakes onto the plates of their diners. There’s a glee to all of the neo-classical, and deeply satirical, fanfares on the score, and if that were all that was going on, it would certainly be enough to support the mayhem that unfolds at Slowik’s final dinner service. But Anya Taylor-Joy is also present among the guests getting their just deserts, and accordingly there’s an electric undercurrent in Stetson’s music that comes out at key moments to help the audience look past the film’s initial presentation. It is this mix of slightly discordant elements, playing sometimes for the kind of white-knuckle tension that would make Bernard Hermann smile, and playing sometimes gently, just for contrast, that gives the score for “The Menu” a little extra bit of a kick. Stetson finds the exact right notes for us to hear the horror and the comedy in “The Menu,” and understands that both are equally sharp. —Sarah Shachat

21. “3000 Years of Longing” (Tom Holkenborg)

Much of George Miller’s treatise on the nature of storytelling is funneled through its two stars. There are long, silent stretches when the film is laser-focused on the words and ideas that Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton are delivering. For the sequences when Miller is harkening back to the fantastical epics of generations past, Tom Holkenborg (working under his given name rather than Junkie XL, his usual nom de remix) is there with his own version of these glimpses into the past. It’s when Holkenborg takes center stage twice in the film with his “Song of Transference” that the movie’s emotions and ideas start to sync up. A showcase for violin soloist Maxwell Karmazyn that also serves as a bridge between sounds from multiple continents, it gives way to a timeless love melody drenched in strings and sorrow and the occasional shimmer of hope. You can hear the rise and fall of centuries past, present, and future, reverberating in humble flats and grand palaces—SG<

20. “Till” (Abel Korzeniowski)

Abel Korzeniowski’s sublime score for the tragic biopic follows the aftermath of the lynching of teenager Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) and the emotional transformation of his mother Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler), his family, and the community. The score functions as a requiem, tracing Mamie’s journey to becoming a legendary educator-activist. According to the composer, the musical themes tell the story of coping with the effects of violence by those who survived, finding strength where there is no more hope, and finding courage where the pain is unbearable. The final piece, “Emmett’s Room,” reworks the main theme beautifully with strings and woodwinds that build to a moment of transcendence. It’s a mother’s symbolic reunion with her son as a daydream, seeing the way he was in all his innocence, and the way he could have been. —Bill Desowitz

19. “Descendant” (Ray Angry, Rhiannon Giddens, and Dirk Powell)

Documentary music is usually doing the bare minimum of emotional cueing and getting out of the way, because audiences usually aren’t as willing to accept big, swelling orchestrations alongside the “objective,” real-life images they’re seeing. But the music in “Descendant” is a little bit different, and with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter of The Roots on board as producers that maybe shouldn’t be surprising. The film is able to peer into the past through the instrumental work done by folk music legend Rhiannon Giddens, playing on instruments that existed the year that the Clotilde sailed into Mobile Bay with the last group of enslaved people brought to the United States before the American Civil War. Giddens, along with fiddle master Dirk Powell, creates a potent sense of connection between past and present, but the film also finds ways to musically elevate the voices of the descendants of the Clotilde voyage through the contributions of Questlove and Black Thought’s bandmate Ray Angry. Angry’s compositions add an undeniable emotional charge that fits the challenges the film’s subjects are grappling with, never telling us how we should feel with the score but sonically getting us to lean forward a little bit and think. —SS

18. “Decision to Leave” (Cho Young-wuk)

For his masterful detective thriller/love story, director Park Chan-wook called upon his usual collaborator, Cho Yeong-wook, to compose the score. The resulting music was anything but familiar, however, as composer and director leave the lush, melodic compositions of their earlier collaborations behind in favor of a more nuanced, textured, and subtle approach — the perfect aural language for a film in which the characters are constantly hiding their feelings from themselves and each other. Cho makes particularly interesting use of his string section, which moves between lulling the audience and generating palpable anxiety; his music keeps the viewer as seduced and on edge as the film’s ill-fated protagonist. —JH

17. “Turning Red” (Ludwig Göransson)

Ludwig Göransson’s had a really good year and found music fit for fantastical places, from Tatooine to Wakanda — and yet it’s worth remembering he kicked 2022 off with some lovely orchestrations for a heartfelt coming-of-age drama set in the exotic locale of Toronto, Canada. And he came up with some legitimately catchy Boy Band bops while he was at it. Domee Shi’s story of a girl who discovers her family heritage of turning into giant red pandas around puberty is rewardingly specific about universal themes, and Göransson’s score responds in kind, balancing clear Asian influences with millennial beat-boxing and electric guitar, and adding in some aggressive fluting just for fun. Without giving away what happens, much of “Turning Red’s” resolution hinges on musical moments, and Göransson is able to go as big as the animation without losing track of the sonic cues that help make us care about the characters. “Turning Red” is a great example of how to score moments of action, comedy, and connection by a master of all three. —SS

16. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Ludwig Göransson)

Göransson followed up his Oscar-winning “Black Panther” score with another cultural journey for “Wakanda Forever”: the rediscovery of lost Mayan music to represent the underwater civilization of Talokan. With the aid of musical archaeologists in Mexico City, Göransson learned about ancient flutes, turtle shells, and drums. By day, he recorded the unique sounds; at night, he worked with contemporary Mexican artists, Mayan rappers, and singers, writing songs for the movie that appear on the soundtrack. He also set up recording sessions in Lagos, Nigeria, another cultural influence. The result was a more immersive sound experience, with music, songs, and score blending seamlessly. One of the standouts is “Árboles Bajo El Mar,” co-written and performed by Vivir Quintana along with Mare Advertencia Lirika. This stirring piece occurs during the origin story of King Namor (Tenoch Huerta), in which the Mayans are forced to become Talokan with magical assistance to live under water. —BD

Click here to read more about the “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” score

15. “The Northman” (Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough)

One way to get a score as original and bold as this is to recruit to modern avant electronic masters of the ominous who’ve never scored a film before, and have them initially toss away their modern production apparatus and work on the score for 18 months. Taking an ethnographic approach that mirrors how writer/director Robert Eggers tackles the period authenticity of the details and dialogue of his scripts, Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough started their work with ancient Danish instruments that have long been forgotten, but without forgoing the emotion of a traditional string orchestra or capturing the percussion of war. The result is a cacophony of sound, that immerses you in the big action, captures the savage brutality, and a swirling sense of mythology and powers from the the great-beyond. —Chris O’Falt

14. “Halloween Ends” (John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies)

It seems highly unlikely that the horror franchise John Carpenter began in 1978 with “Halloween” is really as finished as this film’s title claims. But if “Halloween Ends” truly is the finale it must be said that Carpenter — collaborating with his son Cody Carpenter and co-composer Daniel Davies — has delivered the horror movie music goods with a score that is as terrifying, propulsive, and atmospheric as the film it accompanies. Director David Gordon Green swings for the fences with an unexpected structure and a finale that finally gives heroine Laurie Strode the closure she deserves, and the Carpenters and Davies show a comparable audacity in their layered, experimental electronic score. Their accompaniment to Laurie and Michael Myers’ final showdown is worth the 44-year wait, pounding the audience into the kind of sadomasochistic submission that those of us who truly love horror films want and expect from our slasher flicks. One of the most inventive scores of the year from 2022’s most underrated film. —JH

13. “She Said” (Nicholas Britell)

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s “She Said” script presents some tremendous challenges — 200 scenes, bouncing between numerous investigative threads, in addition to taking the time to ground the audience in the personal lives of the two intrepid New York Times reporters investigating Harvey Weinstein. And it is to Lenkiewicz and director Maria Schrader’s credit that the story never feels choppy, rushed, or disjointed, but some much of what weaves an emotional thread through the film is the cello of Caitlin Sullivan, and the score composed by her husband Nicholas Britell. On the film’s surface is a docudrama set in the real Times building, but Britell explores the internal experience of the women who lived and reported the story — and that mounting sense of dread of uncovering these traumatic stories and facing the reality that they might never see the light of day. You are made to feel that weight, and the waiting to exhale, reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) felt for months. Sullivan’s playing – the cellist also co-produced the score — and the way she’d pluck or use her finger nail against the metal strings brings to the surface chards of conflict and internal discord, in the midst of the subtle and beautiful music. —CO

Click here to read more about Britell and Sullivan’s collaboration on the “She Said” score

12. “The Fabelmans” (John Williams)

It’s so weird that this is probably John Williams’ last collaboration with Steven Spielberg, and so wonderful that the score for “The Fabelmans” continues to see the legendary duo experimenting. There’s less anthemic material than one would perhaps expect from Williams and Spielberg together here and a lot more piano zooming from one end of the keys to the other, adding to the creative energy injected into Sammy Fabelman’s (Gabriel LaBelle) home life by his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams). But when Williams wants you to feel all warm and special inside in that way that only watching a movie will do, he can make it happen in under four seconds with just some guitar. Williams’ ability to articulate a sense of yearning for a Spielberg dreamer protagonist is unmatched, and the theme he crafts for Sammy is particularly tender and special; it rides the same line the film traces between the play and pain of storytelling, how creativity takes us somewhere special and necessarily takes us away from the people we love. Williams could have written a score for “The Fabelmans” earlier in his career, but probably not one that’s simultaneously this innocent and this wise, and that sounds like a sunset over Monument Valley. —SS

11. “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Carter Burwell)

As Carter Burwell told IndieWire earlier this year, director Martin McDonagh gave him one specific instruction when it came to scoring “The Banshees of Inisherin”: “I hate ‘deedle-dee,’ old world, Irish film music.” And so McDonagh’s long-time collaborator devised a score that granted the director’s wishes, eschewing the sonic fingerprints of the story’s isle-off-the-Emerald-Isle setting to seize instead on its fairy-tale-like qualities. There’s an overcast mystery to Burwell’s “Banshees” compositions that’s reminiscent of his best work for the Coen brothers, fit for puzzling over the falling out at the film’s core. As it ambles toward grimmer (and Grimm-er) conclusions, the celesta and harp at the score’s core take on characteristics that will haunt you long after you’ve left Inisherin. —EA

Click here to read more about the score of “The Banshees of Inisherin” score

10. Pinocchio (Alexandre Desplat)

Alexandre Desplat’s haunting score was built around a bold concept: Since Geppetto is a woodcarver, it made sense of only use instruments made of wood. This also served as a way of musically capturing the wooden boy’s innocence and rebellious spirit. That not only included piano, guitar, mandolin, marimba, flutes, and oboe, but also the French horn because in France the instrument is part of the woodwinds section. Rather than being a limitation, though, director Guillermo del Toro found it liberating. Also, since this was the first musical collaboration between composer and director, the songs themselves were expressed thematically throughout the score. The father-son story, therefore, benefited from the use of themes used in unexpected moments of great terror and tenderness. —BD<

9. “Bones and All” (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross)

How does a director find the right music for a lyrical romance that’s utterly sincere yet also darkly comic, profoundly unsettling, and punctuated by gory scenes of cannibalism? If you’re Luca Guadagnino, you call Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who ended up creating some of the most moving and evocative work of their careers for Guadagnino’s achingly romantic horror film. Building their score around a lonely guitar that poignantly conveys both the deep feelings between the lead characters and the doomed hopelessness of their situation, Reznor and Ross bring a new romanticism to their work while also indulging in their propensity for making audiences uncomfortable with the chilling motifs associated with Mark Rylance’s villain. Haunting and moving, it’s a one-of-a-kind score for a one-of-a-kind movie. —JH

Click here to read more about the “Bones and All” score

8. “My Father’s Dragon” (Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna)

One of the most sweetly touching and magical films of 2022 provides one of the most tonally varied and life-affirming scores in recent memory courtesy of brothers Mychael and Jeff Danna. In keeping with the uniquely personal quality of the film’s hand-drawn animation, the Dannas combine sweeping and enthralling orchestral pieces with DIY sound effects and offbeat instrumentation to jump between themes that are longing, frightening, inspiring, and hilarious – sometimes all within a matter of a few minutes. Seamlessly extrapolating their musical motifs from the story (as in the case of a “secret friendship whistle” that becomes an essential part of the film’s aural arc), the Danna brothers also weave their music in and out of the film’s highly expressive sound design to draw the audience in to an immersive but never oppressive sonic experience. —JH

7. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (Son Lux)

The subversive, multiverse spectacle from directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known as Daniels) required a maximalist score, and the directors chose L.A. post-rock band Son Lux. Although their sound is minimalist, keyboardist and vocalist Ryan Lott, guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, and drummer Ian Chang are adept at coalescing different musical elements, which is what they achieved in their nearly two-hour, genre-bending score — ranging from synthetic beats to Chinese opera. This became a microcosm of the movie, in which Michelle Yeoh’s badass Evelyn traverses the multiverse. Lott, Bhatia, and Chang employed certain melodies for specific relationships, creating the effect of flipping between TV channels — but the key was connecting the intimate moments to everything else, along with avoiding a sense of musical monotony for the lengthy fight sequences, including experimenting with Chinese drums and tuned gongs. —BD

Click here to read more about the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” score

6. “The Woman King” (Terence Blanchard)

There’s something special that happens in historical epics where the thrill isn’t wholly in big battles or court intrigue, but in seeing characters we care about inch the world closer to the place it ought to be, even if just for a moment in time. “The Woman King,” Gina Prince-Bythewood’s story of the female warriors who defended the Kingdom of Dahomey, is no different, but a lot of the sense of triumph throughout the film comes in through Terence Blanchard’s warm, wonderful score. There’s strong horns and worshipful choruses with stirring percussion underneath, because of course there is, but Blanchard also mixes in and charges more traditionally delicate elements with a sense of strength and power. The way that Blanchard arranges the strings like the strong flow of an ocean tide conveys a poetical sense of place and sonically situates this moment of West African history in a properly heroic context. And what a relief that the female tribal wailing seemingly required in period soundtracks when something bad happens gets repurposed here, into an exultant solo vocal that conveys the majesty of these characters as surely as silks or crowns would do. The score for “The Woman King” is the voice of the Agojie (literally, with actors Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and Adrienne Warren contributing to a couple tracks) and it prompts listeners to stand up a little straighter, but also to smile. —SS

5. “The Batman” (Michael Giacchino)

A career-best score that pounds into your head as if Bruce Wayne were sitting at the piano and playing it himself, Michael Giacchino’s music for “The Batman” is every bit as heavy and operatic as the movie that inspired it. Frantic strings and furious horns are par for the course when it comes to the Caped Crusader, but Giacchino textures the expected sounds with elegantly melancholic piano melodies, sounding out the layers of pathos that Robert Pattinson’s performance tries to clench quiet. It all builds to the year’s most virtuosic movie track, as the 12-minute “Sonata in Darkness” runs up and down the scales over the closing credits, tumbling through the worst Batman’s of pain in order to reach the grace he earns for all of Gotham City. —David Ehrlich

4. “TÁR” (Hildur Guðnadóttir)

Despite being ruled ineligible, Oscar winner Hildur Guðnadóttir (“Joker”) achieves her boldest and most personal score to date with Todd Field’s “TÁR.” It’s about the power of art and how power can be abused by the artist, and stars Oscar favorite Cate Blanchett as the titular conductor/composer, who rehearses Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 5 and Edward Elgar’s under-appreciated Cello Concerto in E Minor with the Berlin Philharmonic. Guðnadóttir’s role was threefold: First, she created a tempo map for Blanchett that helped inform her character’s demeanor and the way she walked, which she listened to in an earpiece as they were shooting. Second, she wrote a minimal score that’s electro-acoustic. (Given that it represents Lydia’s jumbled state of mind — a blurring of memories, dreams, and imagination — the score was mixed low and is almost imperceptible. This is primarily where it went afoul with the music branch). Third, she wrote the unfinished piece that Lydia works on throughout the film, “For Petra,” named after the protagonist’s adopted Syrian daughter (Mila Bogojevic). It’s more of a neo-classical work in the vein of Charles Ives, and it forms the centerpiece of the Deutsche Grammophon concept album “TÁR (Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture).” —BD

Click here to read more about the “TÁR” score

3. “Glass Onion” (Nathan Johnson)

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” doesn’t have much in common tonally with “Bros” or “Decision to Leave,” but it’s another film in which the music tells us what the characters can’t or won’t; in this case, Nathan Johnson’s lush, grandly classical score hints at the secrets, sins, and hopes of an ensemble cast made up of characters who are all keeping dangerous secrets. The music throughout is extraordinary, but the high point of the score is the theme Johnson creates for Janelle Monáe’s Andi, the heart of the film and the character with the most surprising secret of all. Mysterious, romantic, and multi-faceted, this piece of music creates different responses in the viewer each time it’s heard thanks to the shifting contexts – but it’s a stunner in each instance. —JH

Click here to read more about the “Glass Onion” score

2. “Nope” (Michael Abels)

Cementing Michael Abels and Jordan Peele as one of the film world’s most exciting composer-director pairings, the “Nope” score hides its cards a little longer than its two predecessors. Unlike the unapologetically ominous choral setups of “Get Out” and “Us,” this one finds a different (and in some ways, equally unsettling) way into the possibilities of the unknown. That patience and overarching sense of curiosity also gives Abels the freedom to explore the other areas of this show business parable: There are the warmer melodies of sibling connection and a playful readapting of the musical iconography of Westerns for this movie’s specific purpose. When the danger does come, Abels is ready with those percussive strings and a particular brand of chaos he employs so well. It all culminates in a rousing version of Abels’ “Urban Legends,” which sets the scene for one of the year’s most thrilling spectacles. For a movie with few easy answers, this is all inviting you to join OJ and Em rather than just be passive listeners. —SG

Click here to read more about the “Nope” score

1. “Babylon” (Justin Hurwitz)

Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is a gloriously excessive pop epic that races by like a rocket, moving nimbly from outrageous comedy to devastating tragedy and every tone in between as sex, drugs, ambition and anxiety propel the characters through one audacious set piece after another. Yet even with all its disparate tones and an enormous ensemble that contains around a hundred speaking parts, “Babylon” never spirals out of control like its characters do; what holds it together and adds an entirely new dimension of emotion and excitement to the piece is composer Justin Hurwitz’s extraordinary score, one of the most original and thrilling pieces of film music in years. The aggressively percussive compositions, filled with exhilarating (and sometimes unnerving) horns, not only tie the various storylines together and drive the narrative forward but pull off something miraculous: they’re technically faithful to the 1920s period in which most of the movie takes place yet feel completely modern. By applying modern rock and EDM techniques to period-accurate instrumentation, Hurwitz creates a score as timeless as it is completely original – a score for the ages. —JH

Click here to read more about the “Babylon” score

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