The 15 best film scores of 2014

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.