My Favorite Film Scores of 2014

I’ve started doing this every year. Because I always feel like I’m on that weird level where I’m extolling specific film scores that never get any awards attention, while also not listening to enough scores on their own. So I’ve started forcing myself to actually listen to the scores on their own on top of in the movies to see which ones I actually liked best.

Every other year, this has been a top ten list. Last year, I managed to get to 20. This year, I’m expanding it to as many as I felt truly made me go, “All right, that was pretty good.” The ultimate goal here is to point out great film scores, and to give credit to one of the parts of a movie that often gets far too little credit.

Also keep in mind, I’m talking film scores here, and not soundtracks. So all the musicals and movies with great songs in them don’t count. We’re talking score, and score only. Because even though the iconic scores like Jaws and The Adventures of Robin Hood are few and far between, I still need to be on the look out for the modern day greats.

So here are my favorite film scores of 2014:

There’s only one film I’m not quite sure about this year, which is The Guest. I have no idea how much of that was original or sourced. So I’m just leaving it out entirely and simply mentioning that the music in the film was very good.

Oh, and even though it’s TV, the score from The Knick stands out to me more than everything but about five other scores on this list. Great stuff there, even though I’m not counting it due to my resolute TV bias. Anyway, onto the list.

The Honorable Mentions:

20. X-Men: Days of Future Past, by John Ottman

It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s big and bold and what more franchise movies should be doing with their scores. Basically, it’s a lesser version of another score that’s going to appear on this list later on. I respect it, but that’s just because I like when big franchise movies take a little risk with their scores, instead of sounding like the same rehashed thing over and over as they usually do. This did just enough for me to give it a slight recommendation.

19. The Theory of Everything, by Johann Johannsson

It’s a little bit “tortured genius score,” and a little bit “overcoming adversity.” It’s nice, and the music goes down well, but you’ve heard this before. Everyone seems to love it and wants to nominate it for everything. Which I’m not against. But it’s not exactly breaking any ground. (Not that I feel it needs to. My point is that I was surprised when I saw the amount of love this was getting. I think it’s just a fine score.) This is the second composer in a row who had a really great film score come out the last few years (in Johannsson’s case, it’s Prisoners) that I feel is better than this one, even though this is the one he’s getting all the credit for. Go figure.

18. Under the Skin, by Micah Levi

Remember, this is a list of my favorite scores, not the best scores. The issue with this one for me is, yeah, it’s a really good score, but I’m not gonna go back and listen to it again. It’s really good and fits the film perfectly, but it’s grating on my ears and isn’t something I want to sit down and enjoy on its own. So while this is better than a handful of the scores below this on my rankings, I don’t want to listen to this again outside of the film, so it’s staying as an honorable mention. I know everyone loved it and wants to put it in their top five to be trendy like everyone else, but it’s just pretty good. It fits the movie and it works. But let’s not pretend like we actually are gonna put this shit on just for fun while cleaning the house.

17. Noah, by Clint Mansell

I always like what Clint Mansell does, but this feels more generic than his usual ones. Probably because of the scope and nature of the film. But it’s nice. He always has enough uniqueness in his scores to make them stand out for me. This one deserves an honorable mention.

16. Unbroken, by Alexandre Desplat

Desplat is probably my favorite working composer (more on that later). I first became aware of him in in 2006, after he won the Golden Globe for scoring The Painted Veil. I distinctly remember this for two reasons: one, that score beat the score for The Fountain, which was easily the best score of that year (and went unnominated at the Oscars… kind of like the All Is Lost score this year), and because, when it won, Hugh Grant (who was announcing the award with Drew Barrymore, because they were promoting their shitty movie Music and Lyrics at the time) read Desplat’s name like an asshole when he won. That year was his big breakthrough. He had already scored Girl with a Pearl Earring and Syriana, but The Painted Veil and The Queen were his big breakthroughs. And since then, he’s been responsible for a shitload of amazing scores (including some of my absolute favorite scores of the past seven years), like Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Ghost Writer, The King’s Speech, The Tree of Life, The Ides of March, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Moonrise Kingdom, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Philomena. He even did the scores for New Moon and both Deathly Hallows movies. Dude is responsible for the most amount of scores I’ve loved over the past decade. There are some scores I love more than his, but in terms of pure quantity, he has a lot. And this year – get this – he had five scores that he did for films. Five. And all five of them ended up on this list. That is not a joke, and that is not a bias. I listened to a lot of film scores, and I picked the 25 that I enjoyed most. And all five of his scores ended up on my list. That says something.

This one is the one everyone was expecting to be his big triumph. Here’s a movie based on a Laura Hillenbrand bestseller, with the Coen brothers writing it, and Jolie directing, and Deakins shooting — it had A++ elements all around it. So you figure, this is it, this is his chance at the Oscar, this is the one he’s gonna get nominated for, it’s gonna be amazing because it’s him — all of that. And then I listened to it… it’s fine. It’s very standard, as uplifting, sentimental war biopic scores go. It’s nice to listen to, and it has quality to it, because it’s Desplat, but I didn’t love this as much as I loved his other four scores. It’s not a disappointment (because how can you be disappointed by a score?), but I really thought for sure this was a top ten for me. But instead, three of his other scores ended up in the top ten. So who can argue? But, this is good. It’s a nice score. Well worth the mention here.

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Very Good, But Not My Favorite:

15. Inherent Vice, Johnny Greenwood

There’s not a whole lot of score here, but it’s effective. It gets you in the mood of the story. Which is what you can say about all of his stuff. The other thing that works is that it’s a nice smattering of score tracks and songs on the album. You really get into the whole groove of it all. But yeah, overall not my favorite, but an effective score from the year.

14. The Homesman, by Marco Beltrami

It’s very easy to do a western score nowadays. Simple piano melodies, and a nice orchestra behind it. This does it beautifully. It’s just a nice, soothing listen.

13. The Monuments Men, by Alexandre Desplat

This could basically be a score for a silent movie. I mean, sure, there’s a lot of Saving Private Ryan in there too, but the more… jaunty tracks sound straight out of a silent movie score. I’ll give it a mention purely for that.

12. The Congress, by Max Richter

This is beautiful. I heard this one near the end of my score listening period. It blew me away. I didn’t much consider the score when I watched the movie (probably because it was doing its job correctly), but man, listening to this on its own was an experience. This is one of the great unheralded movies of the year, and features one of the best scores of this year. I can’t imagine anyone is talking about this one.

11. The Double, by Andrew Hewitt

This is one of the five most unique scores of the year. I love it. Completely fits the tone of the film, and adapts itself to anything. Great, great score. Just missed the top ten because of… well, personal reasons. (You’ll see when you see #10.) But consider this one as a 10A. This score is one of my favorites.

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My Top Ten Favorite Scores of 2014:

10. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, by Howard Shore

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that a Middle Earth score will make my list. It’s just comforting to me to hear familiar themes. The Rings scores were a big part of my adolescence. That familiarity is what makes me partial to these. If it weren’t for that, this might not have cracked the top 15. But because of that familiarity, it goes here. That’s just the nature of the beast. This is the last one, so I won’t be forced to do this any more. But on the other hand, these scores are actually a really major accomplishment in the history of film scores. They’ve gotten more diluted as we’ve gotten along, but Shore has done a great job, being able to see the whole thing through from start to finish.

9. Fury, by Steven Price

Like it a lot. Like the piano melodies and orchestra stuff. And the hints of the “Red October” style theme aren’t too annoying. Overall, I find it a very solid, and effective score. I can’t put it that high on my list, because I wouldn’t want to listen to it over and over again, but I it’s a very effective score from one of my favorite films of the year.

8. A Most Violent Year, by Alexander Ebert

Alex Ebert is fast becoming one of my favorite composers. It seems he’s only working on Chandor’s stuff, but I still get really excited at the prospect of another one of his scores. Last year, he finished #2 on this list with All Is Lost. I didn’t quite like this score as much as that one, mostly due to the fact that this score doesn’t have to do the work that one did, and takes a more secondary role to the drama. But it’s still a terrific score. Not a must-listen for me, but definitely one of the best of the year.

7. Whiplash, by Justin Hurwitz

The score is essential to the movie. So it stands to reason that one of my top five favorite films of the year would also have one of my favorite scores. It’s a nice, jazzy score that’s a real easy listen. Why is it so low? I don’t know. I just liked others better than it. But it’s hard to argue that this isn’t one of the top scores of the year. I’m aware that it’s reliant on standards like Caravan and Whiplash, but it’s still a great score on its own. I honestly just couldn’t put it higher because the score didn’t stick out to me on its own as much as the others did. If I’m ranking scores, I have to take the score on its own. This one’s tied to the movie more than the others, and doesn’t work as well apart from it.

6. Gone Girl, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

I always think I’m gonna go in and not like these Reznor and Ross scores. And yet, every time, I do. I really liked this one. I found myself grooving along to it. I can’t remember if I was the same way with Dragon Tattoo and Social Network. I know they were before I started ranking, so I don’t know where I’d have put them, but I feel like every time, I think they’re gonna be moody, electronica kind of scores that won’t be my type of thing, but then I come out going, “Damn, that was really good.” Big fan of this score. I legit would put it this high. That’s not the “it’s supposed to be here” ranking I’m giving it. I legit was this much of a fan of it.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel, by Alexandre Desplat

This is Wes Anderson’s first film with a real score in a while. There’s a full score here, as opposed to the snippets we usually get. And, pretty much, no matter what, you’re going to get a great soundtrack to a Wes Anderson movie. I’m pretty sure I even put Moonrise on my top scores of 2012, even though that only had about four tracks of real score on it. It’s just great stuff. But here, Alexandre Desplat is allowed to do a full score (or, at least, they released a full score this time), and it’s wonderful.

It’s just a great listen. It sounds like his work on the other Wes Anderson movies, but there’s more of it, which I like. I didn’t want to put it too high on my list, since it doesn’t break new ground and feels exactly how you’d expect a Wes Anderson score to sound (some of the tracks are straight out of Fantastic Mr. Fox), but it’s still a great piece of work. And, to be honest, when you get down to it, I still liked it better than all the other scores below it. So there’s that.

4. Interstellar, by Hans Zimmer

Hans can get into his tendencies a bit often… slipping into his big action score that reminds you of Pirates, or he can revert to the big, one-note Inception/Dark Knight score. But occasionally, he’ll throw out something that feels (at least for the most part) unique and beautiful. I remember his Sherlock Holmes score felt new and original. I think what gets him into that original mode is when he gets to experiment and play with different types of instruments. Here, I think he was told about the grand scale of the project that also contained really intimate themes, and he just went to town. He busted out the church organs and the intricate melodies. This score is beautiful. He gets to do his big action things and his Inception stuff during the big moments (and I’ll give him credit… he doesn’t slip into it often. He stays restrained more than I thought he would), but the best parts of this score come when he gets to slip into that family theme he wrote for it. The score really does work well for the film, and carries it through a lot of the difficult moments. It ends up as something quite moving He’s one of those people who, every year, we think is gonna get nominated for something. And a lot of the time I’m begrudgingly going along like, “Yeah, but… it’s kind of the same score as (x movie).” This time, I’m wholly on board with a nomination for him. I loved this score. This one was beautiful.

3. The Imitation Game, by Alexandre Desplat

I put this on before I even saw the movie. I heard the first notes of the score and immediately went, “Oh damn. This shit is fire.” This actually should win the Oscar for Best Original Score. If we’re talking best pure film score out there, this is your winner. By a landslide. I almost have a hard time keeping it at number three. Because this is perfect. #2 and #1 have other factors working for them, which is why they went higher. But this score is perfect. You can listen to this on its own easily. No one pulls off the film score you can keep on your iPod nowadays more often than Desplat. There’s a reason he’s my favorite working composer. There’s a reason he has five scores on this list. Three in the top five. He better win the Oscar for this. It’s so good.

2. Godzilla, by Alexandre Desplat

This score had me from the trailer. I’m aware that’s not the actual film score, but it still had me. And then, if we’re counting actual movie, they had me from the opening credits. And by about ten minutes into the movie, during the power plant sequence, I found myself going, “This is a ballsy move for a studio movie.” I heard the orchestra playing out over the action. It wasn’t trying to underscore the whole thing. This shit was taking center stage, and the only reason it wasn’t full on in the center of the stage is because the soundtrack lowered the volume so we could see some emotional shit happening with the actors. That doesn’t happen anymore. John Williams type scores don’t get to drive the emotion. It’s a damn shame. This is a big, bold score that has big moments during the non action scenes. And then you get those memorable moments when they’re doing the halo jump — this score fires on all cylinders and works all throughout the film. How could this not be one of my favorites?

1. Birdman, by Antonio Sanchez

I couldn’t put anything else here. This score is pure brilliance. And the whole thing was improvised, too, which makes it even better. This score is so essential to its movie, it actually becomes diegetic at points. It’s a must-listen. And it’s a score you can listen to over and over again. At this point, I’m pretty sure that one of two things will happen every year: either the score I put at the top is going to win the Oscar (like The Artist or Gravity), or it’s going to be ruled ineligible for some dumb reason and won’t make the list (like countless others over the past decade). Never fails. It’s almost as if the sign of a brilliant score is not being eligible at the Oscars. Either way, this was my favorite of the year, and it would be pointless to pretend like it was anything else.

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Tomorrow, we kick off 2015 with the Film Release Calendar.

2 responses

  1. I’d do housework to the Under the Skin score. But I’m weird.

    January 3, 2015 at 1:56 pm

  2. Film scores are probably one of my favorite aspects of movies. Soundtracks are cool too, but they are not as interesting to me. In my opinion, those tend to be more about the events within plot while film scores convey the feel of those events, and for me, they can make or break a movie.

    I haven’t seen most of these movies, so I can’t speak for them. However, I would like to add that the Lord of the Rings film scores have always been favorites of mine as well. There are other scores that are just as good or better, of course, (I’ve never been disappointed by a Ghibli film score and I listen to those a lot as well!) but there’s something about the way the Lord of the Rings film scores make me feel that makes them special to me.

    January 3, 2015 at 4:32 pm

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