A great film score complements without burrowing too far into the ideas, wrestles with genre without locking the picture into a fixed identity, amplifies actors and actress” choices without spilling the beans. A composer”s job is a balancing act. More and more, movie music finds itself backing off too far, devolving into incidental muzac, or going too far, where full-blast orchestral sounds pummel us like the Transformers” energon punches. There”s a sweet spot, and the best film scores of the year ride it for an entire runtime.
I shouldn”t be surprised that my favorite film scores of the year line-up closely with my favorite films of the year. As someone who goes to the movies with his ears as wide open as his eyes, I found myself captivated by 2014″s audio-visual offerings. Below, what I”d consider the “best” of the year (along with a few runner-ups, because the more the merrier):
15. “The Monuments Men,” Alexandre Desplat
Yes, George Clooney”s World War II caper fizzled from Oscar-vehicle to February counter-programming (although it still earned a solid box office), but Desplat”s throwback score prevails. Tipping his hat to Dimitri Tiomkin, John Barry and other war movie legends, Desplat strikes up the military band to hit every genre touchstone. There are brassy marches, lone horns, booming bass lines and even circus tunes, adding moments of levity. It”s a score that barely needs a movie attached to encapsulate a genre”s history. Clooney”s visuals wind up bringing it down to reality.
14. “The LEGO Movie,” Mark Mothersbaugh
An adventure score for 2014″s dubstep-scarfing, YouTube-surfing, high-on-sugar-cereal 8-year-olds, Mothersbaugh hustles to keep up with Phil Lord and Chris Miller”s berserk animated film. The movie”s bouncy worker bee main theme catapults the Old West, faux-“Lord of the Rings” epicness and Batman superhero badassery at ludicrous speed, translating the creative rush of playing with the LEGOs into a sonic colorsplosion. Maybe the most Devo-like sounds Mothersbaugh has produced since turning his attention from the New Wave band to film music.
13. “Virunga,” Patrick Jonsson
Grand documentary scores run the risk of suffocating Intimate subjects or overdramatizing sweeping stories. With “Virunga,” Jonsson takes a chance, echoing the sounds of summer blockbusters to find danger and urgency in a localized issue. In its examination of Virunga, a Congolese national park and one of the few protected homes for African mountain gorillas, Orlando von Einsiedel”s conservationist expose stumbles into corporate spycraft and guerrilla war. Jonsson sucks us into conflict with contemplative ambiance and orchestral cues that would pair well with James Cameron”s oeuvre. Familiar sounds take on new life against von Einsiedel”s astonishing footage, turning a “foreign issue” into a matter of life or death.
12. “The Boxtrolls,” Dario Marianelli
Routinely accompanying Joe Wright”s classically styled dramas, Marianelli branched out in 2014 to score his first animated feature. Playful and macabre, the composer finds a Chaplin-esque rhythm to the Boxtrolls' silent antics and 18th Century sounds to match the Dickensian mode. In its strolling moments, Marianelli”s score sounds like a darker “Sailor”s Hornpipe,” with whistles, honky-tonk piano and squeezebox melding into whimsy.
11. “Listen Up Philip,” Keegan DeWitt / “Life Itself,” Joshua Abrams
This year, jazz emerged from the hearts of two radically opposed characters. DeWitt”s crackling quintet recordings capture a macro (New York”s here-before-you-know-it seasons) and a micro (Jason Schwartzman”s Philip), erratic, nostalgic and constantly chilled. Abrams' work on Steve James” Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” is the other side of a coin, a bright, bluesy elegy to the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic. Hints of the jazzier “Roger”s Theme” constantly drift over melancholy orchestral lines, achieving totality for all of Ebert”s ups and downs.
(Head to the next page for my Top 10 Best Scores of the Year!)
10. “Snowpiercer” / “The Homesman,” Marco Beltrami
Beltrami made his name as a horror and western guy, a genre connoisseur. In 2014, he spliced skills, giving Bong Joon-ho”s incremental sci-fi a rootin” tootin” grunge fit for a speeding locomotive and Tommy Lee Jones” Old West spine-tingling sizzle. It shouldn”t feel so rare for propulsive action scores to nurture dread, but that”s what Beltrami”s hanging piano notes do for “Snowpiercer,” which cranks it up to 11 when the the lights go out and the axes start swinging.
For “The Homesman,” the composer drags traditional period sounds – guitar, piano and a lone violin –to hell and back, sprinkling in otherworldly sounds that produce a ghastly soundscape. Finally, the western has its “Rosemary”s Baby.” If they get around to making those “Dark Tower” movies, Beltrami is the guy to call.
9. “The Guest,” Steve Moore / “Cold in July,” Jeff Grace
Synthesizers returned in 2014, thanks to a wave of '80s-inspired thrillers that transmuted nostalgia into mood. “The Guest” soundtrack sounds like Moore ripped Brad Fiedel”s discography off worn down VHS tapes, laid it over John Harrison”s “Day of the Dead” score, ripped it to shreds and percolated the bits as Dan Stevens runs and guns his way through the genre-defying picture. Indebted to the past and, somehow, wholly original. Grace”s blossoms with Carpenter-esque minimalism, bad decisions rippling through forward-moving events as fuzzy melodics. Advancing the post-rock indie soundtrack by cultivating 30-year-old concepts, Grace displaces “Cold in July” from a rigid setting, maximizing the story's existing, unnerving qualities.
8. “The Imitation Game,” Alexandre Desplat
Moving like clockwork, Desplat”s spindly score adds the finishing touches to Benedict Cumberbatch”s interpretation of mathematician and World War II hero Alan Turing. Desplat provides “The Imitation Game” with a web of sounds. At the front there”s racing piano lines, mechanical and puzzle-like. Behind it, the composer conjures Turing”s repressed memories and sexuality like ghosts at a séance, creeping into view and blurring the work at hand. Desplat”s score feels outputted directly from Turing”s computational brain, a tactic that could feel cold and obvious in any other setting, but feels purposeful in “The Imitation Game.”
7. “Under the Skin,” Mica Levi
Underscoring Scarlett Johansson”s ferocious performance, Levi, frontwoman for Micachu & The Shapes, reminds us that sound is physical and can seriously fuck with your body. Resembling the abstract, improvised narrative while grating Jonathan Glazer”s striking images into fine dust, Levi slices through our brains with high-pitched noise and steady percussion. There are distinct themes that can”t be hummed, tonal registers that only dogs can hear and terror from start to finish. Levi”s “Under the Skin” score is radical, unenjoyable and perfect.
6. “Birdman,” Antonio Sanchez
The Oscars disqualified Sanchez”s drum kit score for being diluted by sourced classical music. Anyone with ears on their head can recognize the ineptitude of the decision. Sanchez”s improvised “Birdman” music is rambunctious and reactive, intertwined with Alejandro González Iñárritu”s visceral picture like DNA”s double helix. If Michael Keaton takes a step, Sanchez responds. Or is it the other way around? Chaos has never been so toe-tapping.
5. “Still Alice,” Ilan Eshkeri
Closer to what one might find in Brooklyn”s chamber music scene than anything emerging out of Hollywood, Eshkeri”s score pierces with jagged instrumentals and resolves to haunting melodies, simulating an Alzheimer's patient”s dissolving mind without didactically consuming Julianne Moore”s performance. It”s the year”s most delicate experiment, always in tune with what Moore externalizes or lets bubble underneath. Pianos pang and linger, themes reemerge like memories and Eshkeri achieves an emotional undercurrent that never twists our arms to tell us how to feel. It all comes naturally.
4. “The Double,” Andrew Hewitt
Movies are too realistic. If they could loosen up, dip their toes into the theatrical, maybe there”d be more room for scores like Hewitt”s “Double” music, a symphonic tour-de-force with the swell of high, Russian drama. The composer turns Richard Ayoade”s second feature into a kinetic opera with a Bernard Hermann touch, mysterious and paranoid. Hewitt lulls us into a longing gaze with piano digressions, situating us for the terror to come when his full orchestra comes swooping in. “The Double” score achieves chiaroscuro for the ears.
3. “Interstellar,” Hans Zimmer
Zimmer and his crack team of composing underlings have homogenized Hollywood event films, his factory”s scores acting as steroids for already-beefy blockbusters. That doesn”t mean the music producer-turned-composer can”t put his head down and weave together a beautiful tapestry once in awhile. Wearing influences to Philip Glass, John Tavener and Goblin on his sleeve, Zimmer scales back “The Dark Knight” trilogy”s bombardment that”s become synonymous with his name for a reserved, introspective organ score that still has the balls to go big when all of spacetime is staring the audience in the face. Encapsulating the vastness of space and the gear-turning involved with wrapping one”s mind around a galactic endeavor, Zimmer throws “Inception” BRAAAM! to the wind for his most compassionate score to date. At the center of a black hole: Where sensitivity and adrenaline-pumping go hand and hand.
2. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”, Joe Hisaishi
There would be no Studio Ghibli without Hisaishi, the studio”s longtime collaborator who gave soulful voice to Hayao Miyazaki”s films. Hisaishi lends his services to Isao Takahata”s coming-of-age fairy tale and delivers a score that grows alongside its main character. There”s youth in the woodwinds, sorrow in their minor inversions. Time becomes fluid in Hisaishi”s music, present day city sounds making way for ethereal nostalgia, days when Kaguya roamed the bamboo forest. The film”s final fanfare is explosive and tinged with sadness – everything the film pulls off in a nutshell. In Studio Ghibli”s films, music translates fantasy into something understood. Hisaishi is our interpreter.
1. “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Alexandre Desplat
Wes Anderson”s wartime farce sports a sizable ensemble, but ranking among the leads, Ralph Fiennes” M. Gustave and his young accomplice Zero, is Desplat”s score, the Grand Budapest”s audible spirit and the film”s page-turning throughline. The composer is with Anderson”s troupe every step of the way, turning “The Grand Budapest Hotel” into something of an unsung musical. Summoning Eastern European instrumentation and a yodeling backbone, Desplat pieces together his version of “Inception,” each line digging deeper and deeper into the heart of Anderson”s dreamworld, uncovering danger, laughs, scares, romance and action variations along the way. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the most eclectic score of the year, reflective of the movie it swirls about, and yet there”s fear at its core, that this could very well be the last time we hear something so radical, that man could step in and obliterate joy in an eighth note”s time.
Three Brilliant Uses of Sourced Music: “Force Majeure,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” and “Boyhood”
An Unexpectedly Faithful, Rousing Throwback: “A Million Ways to Die,” Joel McNeely
Score Earning Love from Fellow Film Music Geeks That I Don”t Understand at All: “Maleficent” by James Newton”s Howard
Franchise That Needs to Get Its Film Score Act Together: The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Radical Enough That It Deserves a Mention: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” by Hans Zimmer and The Magnificent Six (Pharrell Williams, Michael Einziger, Junkie XL, Johnny Marr, Andrew Kawczynzki and Steve Mazzaro).
A Few Close Runner-Ups: “Enemy,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Locke,” “Inherent Vice,” “Night Moves,” “The Zero Theorem”