2013's film scores surprised me. Typically there are a couple of big-budget productions that speak to the qualities one can and should expect from a film score, while the majority of the highest achievements are on the edges, where composers for indie films can take greater risks and break boundaries. However, last year, there were many great scores across the board; much of what I heard and valued came from the least likely places.
Six fine composers were nominated this year in the Academy Awards' Best Original Score category: Win Butler and Owen Pallett (Her); Alexandre Desplat (Philomena); Thomas Newman (Saving Mr. Banks); Steven Price (Gravity); and John Williams (The Book Thief). (Hear music from these scores February 28 on Performance Today.) That leaves hundreds of films that weren't nominated. Who among the film composers you won't be seeing on the podium did the best work last year?
Here are eleven scores that caught my ear last year. All of these are great examples of craft; they also exemplify the way a great score makes a great film better, the way music becomes the glue that holds a story together.
Cliff Martinez, Only God Forgives
Whether the film was a success for you or not, it inspired Martinez's best work to date; and that is saying something considering the paths he's traveled since his Red Hot Chili Pepper days, clearing the way before him with a constantly evolving array of sounds. In this particular instance, Martinez uses a crime saga as the occasion to craft an amalgamation of music evoking both horror and worship. This is a score for the ages and one that raises Martinez's bar very high indeed.
Thomas Newman, Side Effects
As the late Roger Ebert declared, "The music tells us what kind of movie Side Effects is going to be. It coils beneath what seems like a realistic plot and whispers that something haunted and possessed is going on. Imagine music for a sorcery-related plot and then dial it down to ominous forebodings. Without Thomas Newman's score, "Side Effects" would be a lesser film, even another film." It's one of my favorite scores of the year, and helps lift Side Effects to a Hitchcockian level.
Randy Newman, Monsters University
Marching band is the last aesthetic choice one might think to use for a film's entire score, but that is precisely what Newman did for the sequel to Monsters, Inc. — and amazingly, it works. While it originates from the narrative demands, the score goes much further than just the theme and develops a unique musical signature, most notably a varied use of marching snare, that could inspire future composers.
Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
Filmmaker/composer Carruth's long awaited follow-up to Primer was again accompanied by an original score that is primarily textured ambience. Beautifully minimalist in its approach, the work plays constantly with the rhythms of the film and speaks to its presence as a singular work.
Brian Tyler, Now You See Me
While this may not be the best film ever made, the major reason it works is because of the score, which takes the aesthetic of a Las Vegas show and turns it into a score that never upstages, but informs the aesthetic of the film: not naturalistic, not indie, but big and glamorous and larger than life. Magic works by misdirection, and the score works tirelessly to keep you aware that it's all a trick, all a show, but that doesn't mean you can't have a good time with it.
Johann Johannsson, Prisoners
One of the greatest achievements of this score is that while watching the film you are completely unaware of the extent who which the haunting, magical music is influencing your perceptions. The craft Johannsson deploys is unique; forging percussion from the hitting of four double basses with beautiful strings and the combined Cristal Baschet/Ondes Martenot sound. To learn more about the process behind the score's production see my interview with Johannsson from late last year.
Daniel Hart, Ain't Them Bodies Saints
I love this score for one main reason: the use of hand claps. It's connective fiber for the entire production and adds a homemade element that is spot-on. Arising out of necessity due to recording space on a previous production, it's the score's signature that I latched onto early and has stuck with me ever since. The track titled "The Last Shootout" is an incredible, weird, surrealist experiment that is absolutely stunning to hear.
Hanan Townshend, To The Wonder
I spoke with Hanan earlier in the year about his multi-year process working with Terrence Malick, developing an aesthetic to match the narrative and visual flow. While in tune with aesthetic choices of previous composers such as Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat, the evolutionary process that allowed for the score and film to take shape is the finest musical encapsulation of Malick's visual aesthetic to date.
Roque Banos, Evil Dead
When Banos set out to compose for the Evil Dead remake, he made a decision to use an orchestra and keep the sounds organic.
"We wanted to have a 'classical' type of score," he said. "We didn't want to use any electronic music, which is so often the case these days. We based the sound of the music on a symphonic orchestra, then added other elements like a choir to give a Gothic, demonic sound to the score. We used wood crashes to represent the forest's attack, and an acoustic siren, that certainly put us on alert that something scary was going to happen."
This is why a score to a film that is altogether kind of forgettable is a really important contribution to the game. Working beautifully in the movie, it's also well worth listening on its own to get the full weight of what Banos has accomplished musically. However, I will advise that the experience of listening to this score takes its toll.
Hans Zimmer, Man of Steel
Man of Steel was one of the most talked-about films of the year, with Hans Zimmer heavily highlighted for the grandness of his palette. But what many missed was something addressed in his WNYC Soundcheck interview regarding the distinct piano piece that runs throughout the film's score:
"I'm not a great pianist and we had great pianists play it and it never sounded right. It had to have this sort of dilettantism about it. And it's an upright piano, it's not a beautiful grand here, no, it couldn't be that. And the background is actually eight pedal steel guitars playing just because I thought there is more than country western to be gotten out of this instrument."
For all the criticism that Man of Steel had no humanity, no center, this piano is the answer. It's the question of character, the flaw in the chain: it is the humanity in what many saw as nothing more than a punch-fest.
James Newton Howard, Hunger Games: Catching Fire
It would have been easy for James Newton Howard to rest on what he did with the first Hunger Games film and simply add a few beats to make it a second coming. Instead, he reimagined, redeveloped, and brought a dynamic to the film for one of his best scores to date. There's plenty of loud percussion here, but there's also subtlety and brilliant nuance that speaks to the complexity of the narrative.