Mike’s Favorite Film Scores of 2016

The reason I do this every year is because it forces me to listen to film scores, which is something I don’t do enough of. I appreciate film music, but so rarely do I actually sit down and listen to a film score. Usually what I’m doing is complaining about certain scores not getting nominated and wondering why that is. Or complaining about the decay of good film music. Quick, name one memorable theme from any of the Marvel movies. (Right? Almost all movies are like that now.)

So I use this space as an opportunity to talk about what I liked, and because of that, I have to listen to enough scores to actually have something to say. It works out very nicely.

I’ll put a disclaimer on this: I know nothing about music nor do I claim to. I’m just picking which scores were most aurally appealing to me. I’m sure people who know about music will think much differently. That’s fair. Oh, and I also am only dealing with scores and not soundtracks. (Because if we’re talking soundtracks — Sing Street, man.)

I always have my top ten list of scores, but after that, there’s no cap. If I don’t have more than ten that I liked, I’ll only talk about those ten. If there’s 20, I’ll put 20. I really only want to mention the scores that made me go, “Oh, that was good.” I’m not putting ones on there just to fill out a list. This will go as high or as low as need be.

Here are my favorite film scores of 2016:

Quick hitters:

25. Zootopia, Michael Giacchino — It’s a jazzy Michael Giacchino score. I liked it. It’s fun.

I’d also like to point out, you will not be seeing Rogue One on this list. I felt I should spoil that now, because I’m not gonna want to get into it near the end and force the issue when I’m actually talking about the scores I liked. Rogue One’s score sounds like Michael Giacchino doing Star Wars, not a Star Wars score. I’m not gonna slurp it the way everyone else does just because it’s Star Wars. It doesn’t feel authentic, and I’m just not putting it on here.

I’m very open about my dislike of Giacchino’s non-Disney/Pixar scores. I think his action scores are fine, but not spectacular. They’re not for me at all, and I think it’s a lack of theme writing. Big movies need big themes. I couldn’t tell you what 80% of the Dark Knight scores were, but that Batman theme, I remember. That’s why I prefer his scores like this, when they’re jazzy and fun and light and fit the animated world perfectly. (Also, remember, his Inside Out score was my #1 last year, so it’s not a bias thing. It’s a personal preference thing.)

24. Hell or High Water, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis — I like just about anything Nick Cave and Warren Ellis do. It’s shades of their Assassination of Jesse James score… very light shades… but I appreciated it nonetheless. The songs they put in this movie also helped. I assume those weren’t original, otherwise this would have gone higher.

23. Hacksaw Ridge, Rupert Gregson-Williams — It’s a big, sweeping war score. I like those. Not overly spectacular, but it gets the job done.

22. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL — Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome? All those times I watched it, I guess it sank in. But honestly, I like the Junkie XL stuff he’s been doing. It might run its course, that’s certainly a possibility. But this one, I liked it. And it’s not just the Wonder Woman theme, which I’ll admit is pretty badass, even if people overrated it to try to say something nice about this movie. There’s actually solid work here. Zimmer is good at composing big scores. He’ll typically wind up on this list for me.

21. The Witch, Mark Korven — I had to shout this one out. I don’t love the score on its own, but no score was as perfect for its movie as this one was. This score and the sound design made The Witch as atmospheric and creepy as it was, and that needed to be recognized. Great, great work here.

The next tier:

20. The Secret Life of Pets, Alexandre Desplat — It wouldn’t be a year without an Alexandre Desplat score on my list. I mean, it wouldn’t be one without multiple scores of his on my list, one in the top ten, but this is a start. This is not only a jazzy score that I thought was better than Giacchino’s jazzy scores, but it sounded a lot like video game music. The kind on those old CD-ROM games I used to play on Windows in the mid-90s. That goes a long way for me. I don’t love the entire score, but for the most part, I loved the jazzy stuff.

19. A Monster Calls, Fernando Velazquez — Velaquez’s last two scores were on my lists for their respective years. Crimson Peak was #5 for me last year. This one is half good score and half generic thriller music. It felt safe. It felt compromised like some of this movie felt at times. It’s a lovely score, but not my favorite by him.

18. Kubo and the Two Strings, Dario Marianelli — The score gets the job done. Not one I’ll be listening to on its own a lot, but it’s big and exciting and fits the film perfectly. Also, that “When My Guitar Gently Weeps” cover — perfection.

17. Arrival, Johann Johannsson — Johannsson has made this list twice in a row for Villeneuve films. Prisoners was an incredible score, and everyone remembers Sicario. I thought this would make the top ten for me, but after listening to it twice — ehh. It’s good, but I don’t love it enough to put it top ten. Great work though, by someone who is now becoming one of my favorite composers working.

16. Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Moniker — Fun as shit soundtrack. Very much of that 80s video game variety. Lot of fun. Definite fan of this one.

Honorable mentions:

15. 20th Century Women, Roger Neill — There’s not a whole lot of score here, but it’s a very memorable one at that. I’m surprised this hasn’t gotten more love all around. If I had to pick the scores I remember most from this year, this would be in the top ten. (It’s the score you hear in the trailer. It’s very memorable if you’ve seen it.) This is really solid work, and I feel like if there were more of this score, it probably would have cracked the top ten.

14. Nerve, Rob Simonsen — It’s a fun, synthy, video game type of score. And it fits the movie and is fun to listen to. This is the kind of score I like seeing in movies, because it’s them taking some chances rather than going with the “safe” scoring. You hear me rail every year about scores that just underpin the moment rather than soar on their own. I prefer the John Williams method to the Marvel method. And this, while not anywhere in that top tier, is closer to the John Williams method, since it’s a pulsating piece of energy that adds to the scenes rather than do exactly what the scene wants it to do.

13. Swiss Army Man, Andy Hull and Robert McDowell — Yeah, yeah, I know. This was your favorite score of the year. Fucking everyone has this in their top ten. Because it’s certainly the most original score of the year. But in case you haven’t been reading, this is a list of my favorite film scores. I don’t care who loved this score. It’s fine. It’s good. It’s just not in the top ten for me. It’s hard not to appreciate what they did here. I just — don’t love it. That’s all.

12. The Jungle Book, John Debney — This is fun. It’s everything you’d want for this movie. It’s very Lion King meets John Williams. Big and loud during the moments where it needs to be, action-heavy during those moments, and really emotional during those moments. Beautiful score that just missed out on a top ten.

11. The Little Prince, Hans Zimmer and Richard Harvey — Give this score about thirty seconds and you’re in. This has shades of one of my five favorite scores of the past ten years, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. This is a really perfect piece of work, and I love that it exists. Hans Zimmer is so good, and he’s constantly switching up his style for each film (even if he does have certain tropes he goes back to for certain genres). This score is so glorious. Another one that barely missed out on the top ten.

My Top Ten Film Scores of 2016

10. Midnight Special, David Wingo

One of those scores that stuck with me throughout the year. Wingo had two solid ones this year. And if you’d asked me months ago which was more likely to make this list, I’d have assumed it would be Loving. But this one managed to hold up. It’s so beautiful and sparse and spatial. The atmosphere he creates here is wonderful. There are a bunch of different ways you can create a sense of wonderment, and he chooses the way of sparseness, atmosphere, and then bringing in the base near the end. I loved it. This score makes me feel happy. He never overdoes it and always makes you feel warm.

9. Jackie, Mica Levi

This score grabs you from the opening seconds of the film, and it’s a steady presence throughout the rest of it. Really strong work here. It’s not one of those that I’d listen to on its own, but it’s definitely one that complements its film really, really well. Anyone seeing this movie could feel however they want about it, but they’re gonna come out saying three things were good: Natalie Portman, the costumes, the music. Those three things are unassailable. He got nominated for this, so there is some justice in the world.

8. Lion, Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka

What I loved about this score is that it doesn’t give into the instincts to give you the “Indian” flavor the way all movies set in these locations do. Look at Queen of Katwe. It’s got the “African” flavor. This score eschews that in favor of straight dramatic stuff. A great piano theme, and great string work to bring you into the emotions of the situation. Beautiful work, and rightly nominated.

7. Manchester by the Sea, Lesley Barber

I LOVE this score. I’m a fan of the piano and string tracks over the chorale tracks, but still, this is a tremendous piece of work. This score contains all the emotion that our main character lacks, and that’s what makes it so good. I feel like this score was disqualified by the Academy because there’s not enough original music in there, which I get. But what is there is so memorable and so good. I had to put it on here. Few scores were as memorable to me this year as this one was.

6. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, James Newton Howard

Did not expect this to happen. It starts off reminding you of the brilliance that was John Williams and his score for the Harry Potter franchise (which then spun off on its own thing in the later films) and then pushes past into its own thing. He was a sneaky good choice for this job because he doesn’t have a big set of tropes we all recognize, and doesn’t readily do the same thing over and over that we’d expect. So he’s able to create a score that feels both familiar and yet its own thing. His touch is perfect for this franchise, and this score really works. It’s got just the right amount of lift and magic feeling as well as the jauntiness and orchestration to feel like it fits right in with John Williams’ early Potter scores while being its own separate thing. Absolutely wonderful stuff. I couldn’t have asked for more out of this.

5. Hail Caesar, Carter Burwell

Not only does this sound exactly like Old Hollywood, there are original songs in it too! “No Dames” technically counts as part of the score. It’s not like they threw in something we already knew.

Carter Burwell is the unheralded genius that I’m constantly putting in my top ten who never gets any Oscar love. The man composes all the Coen brothers stuff and he’s only been nominated for one Oscar! And that was last year!

There’s great stuff here. All the scores feel like you’re on a studio film set in the 50s, and they all fit their situations. The score, like the film, has grown on me more and more each time I watch/listen to it. Damn shame Carter Burwell doesn’t get more love.

4. The Light Between Oceans, Alexandre Desplat

It wouldn’t be a top ten scores list without Alexandre Desplat in there. This man continues to amaze me with great work after great work. He’s my favorite working composer, and I love hearing all the new scores he has each year. This score is the one that was always gonna get on here. It’s big, it’s sweeping, it’s romantic. It’s everything I love from Desplat. It’s a score reminiscent of those scores like The Hours or The Piano. Very melodramatic and melodic pianos playing over emotional strings, along with simple piano themes. I love it. I’ve been defending everything about this movie since it came out.


3. The Red Turtle, Michael Dudok De Wit

There’s no dialogue in this movie. The score is all you have. And this score — you can hear it from the trailer — it’s just beautiful. I don’t even have anything to say, just listen to this:

Few scores from 2016 are both as good and as important to their films as this one is.

2. Moonlight, Nicholas Britell

Hard to see this film and not remember this score. This score stays with you. It’s big and orchestral and just so emotional. It’s hard not to be moved by this. Any other year and this would be #1 and be the score that deserved to win the Oscar. I loved this so, so much. But, it couldn’t be number one, simply because….

1. La La Land, Justin Hurwitz

This was a foregone conclusion. Even if it wasn’t just me. I could take this on pure score and it would still be #1. That’s before you factor in all the original songs too. I don’t even need to talk about those. And they’re GREAT. That’s how strong this is. I haven’t seen such an automatic #1 in a while. Just listen to this — no. Your argument is invalid. This is the best film score of 2016:

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow we get into category breakdowns.

Oh, that’s right, we’re all downhill from here. It’s Oscar time.


3 responses

  1. Great post. Not enough coverage on the film scores. Have you heard The Handmaiden score?

    January 31, 2017 at 2:02 pm

  2. BlueFox94

    Love La La Land and Justin Hurwitz, but…I don’t care. I love Mica Levi’s score for Jackie immensely and could listen to it regularly. From the very first note, I knew I was going to love it. “The Children” gives me chills. Finally, John Hurt’s recent death gives “The End” so much more weight; it’s my single favorite score cue of 2016.

    Kinda sad that it’s the first female-composed score to get nominated for the Best Original Score Oscar since Rachel Portman’s score for Chocolat, all the way back in 2000.

    January 31, 2017 at 2:35 pm

  3. Brennan

    Yeah, just to piggy back off the above, Mica Levi is a woman. Really great score.

    February 2, 2017 at 7:47 pm

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