Mike’s Favorite Film Scores of 2017
I make it a point to write this article every year because it forces me to listen to film scores. Like the movie poster, the art of film music writing is something that has been slowly deteriorating over the past twenty years. Now, it feels like so many of the scores sound exactly the same. There’s always a handful of really good ones, but by and large it all feels homogenized and by-the-book.
I am by no means someone who understands the complexities of music, but I do enjoy a good film score. The really good ones I tend to spot during the film. I’ll catch the score doing something interesting and make a mental note of it. But that happens so rarely now, because so many of the scores are underscoring the action rather than working alongside the action. To my point, name me one new movie theme you found yourself humming after you left a theater.
So I do this article to see where the good stuff is. I feel like, if we all individually listened to a bunch of scores on their own, without comparing notes, and then came back and listed our favorite ones, we’d all generally have the same group. And then we each have our own preferences on top of that. I don’t fanboy over Michael Giacchino the way others do, while I think Alexandre Desplat is the best working composer today and regularly have at least two of his scores on my list every year.
As I said, I’m no music expert, nor do I claim to know anything about music. I just pick whichever films scores sounded the best to me. Also — scores, not soundtracks. Because, yeah, we get it, Baby Driver had a lot of cool songs on it. That’s not a film score.
Anyway, let’s get into the picks. Here are my favorite film scores of 2017:
25. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Geoff Zanelli — I like these pirate scores, what can I tell you?
24. Wind River, Nick Cave & Warren Ellis — Sure, they’re trading on that same sound of theirs, from The Assassination of Jesse James, but I like that sound. This score is more sparse than the others, but it works for the film.
23. Wonder Woman, Rupert Gregson-Williams — It’s an epic score on the scale of Gladiator. It’s hopeful and uplifting, and that “No Man’s Land” track is great.
22. Prevenge, Toydrum — Very nice, electronic-style score. If you liked stuff like The Guest, this has that kind of energy to it. I also appreciate how these underrated movies always seem to have good scores. Maybe all it takes is someone thinking to not do the obvious thing for once.
21. Lady Bird, Jon Brion — Jon Brion is the king of sparing, but memorable music. He did all the early PTA stuff, and I always remember his work in I Heart Huckabees, which has a few tracks I still listen to now. Also, Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine. His scores are always good, but there’s never really enough of them for me to want to put him higher on these lists.
20. Suburbicon, Alexandre Desplat — It sounds like something out of The Sims, or those oft-parodied 1950s advertisement videos. And it has those dark undertones for the dramatic moments, and some jazzy moments, too. I love it. Desplat, as I always say, is my favorite working composer, and it’s rare for him to not have at least one entry on this list (hell, 2014 he had five). There’s something about this score in particular that just reminds me of being a kid. Listening to those obvious musical cues in things. One of the tracks, “A Sweet Aroma,” with the oboes, just felt like a comedic horror score, like Clue or something. It just feels like all those movies I grew up with in the 90s. I loved it.
19. A Ghost Story, Daniel Hart — This is a very good score. It’s very classical, and could almost be the score of a western with a few tweaks. (I’m sure if I listened back, it would sound a lot like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which he also scored.) I prefer the simpler tracks to the ones that try to add tension or vocals to them. Still, it’s very well done.
18. Coco, Michael Giacchino — I’m typically not a big Giacchino fan, even though I know he’s the trendy choice for everyone’s favorite composer. I tend to really only like his stuff when he’s doing Pixar. His Inside Out score was either my #1 or #2 for that year. As was Up. The big budget stuff — ehh. (Really not looking forward to him being our de facto Star Wars composer after Williams is done.) He seems to pull out all the cool tricks when he scores Pixar, and I just respond to them. This one, especially, influenced by Mexican music, just soars. It didn’t immediately make me giddy the way Inside Out’s score did, but it was very good.
17. Logan, Marco Beltrami — Beltrami was a great choice for this score. He did 3:10 to Yuma with Mangold, and The Wolverine, so they had a working history before this. His scores tend to be more understated than overstated, which helps a movie like this, which is reliant on being a drama and not a superhero movie. So the music grounds you in the drama of the characters. It never overdoes it, and really sets the scenes perfectly. Even the action cues work. I love the “Main Titles” theme. When that harmonica kicks in, providing that Sergio Leone kick — love it. And “El Limo-Nator” — the discordance at the beginning is so wonderful. Huge fan of everything about this movie, including the score.
16. Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman, Tom Howe — This feels like it could have been a Thomas Newman score. I really like it. This is one of those scores I can listen to almost entirely on its own. I like “Elizabeth Is Pregnant” and “Love Me For All My Days” a lot.
15. Good Time, Oneohtrix Point Never — I like scores that do something different. There’s been a trend lately of more experimental musicians and engineers coming in to compose, and they tend to be the ones that create scores that sound like nothing else out there. It’s like when Trent Reznor started composing and his scores were so wildly different from everyone else’s. This is an electronica style score that completely fits the frenetic pace of the film. Definitely one of those offbeat little gems for the year that I appreciate.
14. The Post, John Williams — It’s hard not to love a John Williams score. One of the greatest to ever do it. Especially when he works with Spielberg, the results usually turn out well. This one was one I liked, but didn’t love. I feel like the score didn’t always fit the film. Sometimes it would add a grandeur and a feeling of tension that just wasn’t there on screen. But on its own, the music itself is quite good. That final track is pure Williams.
13. Darkest Hour, Dario Marianelli — Every Dario Marianelli/Joe Wright score ends up on this list. Atonement was a top five for that year, Anna Karenina was #3. They’re just great. I love what they accomplish together. This score, like the film itself, is very classical, hitting all the right notes and lifting up its subject in a grand way. Can’t ask for much more than that.
12. Wonderstruck, Carter Burwell — This just barely missed the top ten. I love this score. Any score with a silent film component is gonna be high on my list regardless. But I love what he does here. The main theme that runs throughout is wonderful. The whole score doesn’t quite get it to where I’d want to say I’d put it in my top ten, but when this thing does work best, it’s glorious.
11. Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer — Hans Zimmer is also one of those guys who changes it up from film to film. He experiments. He finds interesting ways to bring the themes of the movie into its music. Especially when he’s working with Christopher Nolan. That Interstellar score was incredible. And who can forget the Inception score, with the blaring horns that were slowed down versions of Edith Piaf? Here, he takes the tact of slow building tension for the scenes on the beach, because that’s what they are — people waiting to be let out of there as the German army is closing in around them. He also uses the ticking clock motif throughout, which is nice. All of the tension and growing horror really help bring a cathartic release once the full orchestra portion of “Home” hits. This is a score building to that big orchestra score, and it’s completely worth it all the way.
My Top Ten Film Scores of 2017
10. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Carter Burwell
Carter Burwell is one of those guys I love dearly, who always makes my top ten, yet he never gets the just respect of the Academy. He got his first nomination in 2015! Thankfully this got nominated this year, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of these scores were ignored over the years: Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Adaptation, No Country for Old Men, Where the Wild Things Are and True Grit. True Grit especially was not only my #1 for that year, but it’s also something I still listen to.
This score is very simple, with shades of the True Grit score, and shades of Hell or High Water. It’s one of those that I initially pegged at around 15-20, but I found that I kept listening to it more and more and liking it more and more. It stays with you. It doesn’t try to do anything more than it needs to, and it surprises you at how moving it can be.
9. Thor: Ragnarok, Mark Mothersbaugh
I’ve always loved Mark Mothersbaugh as a composer. Another one of those guys who came from pop music. Dude was the lead singer of DEVO back in the day. Then he got his start on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. And the first films that got him noticed were the Wes Anderson films. Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums. I first got into his stuff on Life Aquatic. I still listen to “Let Me Tell You About My Boat” and “Ned’s Theme (Take 1).” He doesn’t necessarily work a lot in the big, classy stuff that gets noticed. You look at his output, a lot of the films he’s scored are family films. Ones where you wouldn’t even notice his contributions most of the time. Here, he really gets to flex his muscles, and deliver a score that stands out as one of the best of the Marvel catalogue (which, admittedly, doesn’t say much). The “Ragnarok” theme sounds like something out of an 80s movie. Like the final showdown in Revenge of the Nerds or something. I love it. But aside from the synth-heavy parts, there’s also some great orchestral stuff in there too. Though admittedly, it’s the synth stuff I came here for. That stuff is awesome. It’s the kind of thing that Guardians did to stand out from the pack. And it still works.
8. Murder on the Orient Express, Patrick Doyle
Patrick Doyle is a Scotsman who’s been working pretty consistently for the past thirty years, yet rarely gets his proper due. His first film score was, coincidentally, also for Kenneth Branagh in Henry V. And he’s done all the Branagh stuff since then. He also did Carlito’s Way, A Little Princess, Sense and Sensibility, Donnie Brasco, Gosford Park, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Brave.
Here, though — even while watching the movie I heard this score and went, “Oh man, this should be nominated for an Oscar.” It’s so great. The first couple tracks in the Middle East are a bit on the nose, but once you get to “The Orient Express,” it’s just great. Especially those final fifteen seconds. And then it settles into a nice chamber mystery type score. A lot of piano with some backing strings.
Where this score really begins to turn it up a notch is when it gets into “The Armstrong Case,” and that theme starts to pervade until the wonderful climax in “Justice,” which is just a beautiful piece of music. The theme is also wonderfully expanded upon in “Never Forget,” which has the added bonus of having Michelle Pfeiffer sing the lyrics, adding an extra dimension to them that it might otherwise lack with another singer.
7. Blade Runner 2049, Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch
Hans Zimmer was the perfect person to do this score. Johann Johannsson was originally gonna do it (he did Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival for Villeneuve), but they replaced him late in the process. (He also essentially got his score cut out of Mother! too, which is a damn shame.) I haven’t heard that score, but having heard the Zimmer score, it fits about as well as you can hope for.
Zimmer is good with making booming, atmospheric scores, which is what this universe needs. It starts sparse, with few melodies, and then, as the film progresses, we get closer and closer to the iconic Vangelis score we heard in the original film. That all crescendos with “Sea Wall,” which is probably the track that most people would shout out from this score. It’s just a great soundscape that really highlights everything the music is about. I’m partial to “Tears in the Rain” myself, but it’s all great.
6. The Mountain Between Us, Ramin Djawadi
The one score of the year that probably no one saw coming, because no one saw the movie and it’s probably not something you had in your head as one of the more memorable scores. But it is.
Ramin Djawadi is perhaps best known as the guy who composes Westworld and Game of Thrones. He also has a few features under his belt. Nothing overly memorable. The first Iron Man, Clash of the Titans, Safe House, Pacific Rim. This is really his triumph so far (though he does have A Wrinkle in Time coming up pretty soon).
Just listen to the opening track of the score. Immediately you can feel a great, classical film score, evocative of all the big Oscar winners of the past 30 years. It doesn’t even sound like the score of a disaster/survival movie. It could be the score of A Beautiful Mind and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It’s also a consistently good score. A lot of scores have ‘down’ tracks, where they work in the context of the film but aren’t really tracks you can listen to. This score doesn’t really have those. Maybe like one. It feels cohesive, and each track works completely well on its own. Not that that’s a criterion for inclusion on this list. It’s just rare for a score to be that way.
5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, John Williams
It’s a John Williams Star Wars score. Was there any doubt this would make the top five? I normally would expect this to be top three, but this was a particularly strong year for scores, so number five it is.
This franchise is one of the few times I want them to incorporate and build off of previously used themes, but only because it’s John Williams doing Star Wars.
4. Loving Vincent, Clint Mansell
Most of my favorite working composers are the ones who consistently churn out scores I want to listen to independent of their films. They also tend to be the composers who never get their due respect from all the awards bodies. Clint Mansell is one of those composers. He got recognized for his iconic Requiem for a Dream score, and has since churned out a bunch of great pieces of work. Black Swan was particularly memorable. My personal favorite is The Fountain. A few of those tracks I straight up have on playlists with regular music.
Here, he crafts an immaculate score for an immaculate film. Since the entire film is comprised of hand-drawn paintings — and the story isn’t exactly taxing on the brain — you spend most of the time just watching the gorgeous images wash over you and listening to the score. The score is the second most important thing about the film, and man, does it not disappoint. It bears subtle similarities to his previous works, like The Fountain, which drew me in immediately. But it just builds on itself, crescendoing with some beautiful, beautiful pieces of music.
3. Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
Well this was certainly a given, wasn’t it? This would have been #1 most years. I love this score. Jonny Greenwood has been delivering really solid work in the Paul Thomas Anderson films for years, and finally comes through with a score that cannot be denied. The three “Phantom Thread” themes are incredible. Even hearing “Phantom Thread III” in the context of the film, it’s just overpowering. The “House of Woodcock” theme is incredible. Hell, every track is incredible. What a beautiful coda “For the Hungry Boy” is as well. He probably won’t win the Oscar for this score, but man, will it be deserving if he does.
2. Jane, Philip Glass
I don’t really watch documentaries. And if I am, I’m probably barely paying attention, because for me, it takes a lot in a nonfiction form to grab my attention. And it takes a lot for me to even notice the music of a documentary. So for me to be actively watching this documentary, and then sit up and go, “Whoa, that’s a great score” — that’s saying something. I thought long and hard before putting this above Phantom Thread, but in the end, I figured the rankings didn’t matter, since all the top three are so far and above the rest that it’s all good. What matters are the scores I’m gonna take with me going forward, and these three definitely are the ones for 2017.
Philip Glass is one of those composers who surprisingly works a lot in film. You only really remember the incredible scores, like The Hours. But did you know he scored Leviathan? How about Cassandra’s Dream, the Woody Allen movie? Or No Reservations, the Catherine Zeta-Jones/Aaron Eckhart chef movie? He scored Secret Window, for crying out loud. I thought he was one of those guys who worked once every six years and churned out a score like this.
The reason this ended up at number two instead of number three is because he is a classical composer. So the piece of music feels like it could be something you listened to at a symphony and not in a movie. This score is absolutely stunning, and I guarantee you that if you watch this documentary, you will notice the music.
1. The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat
And there he is. I told you guys he’s my favorite working composer. Took me about thirty seconds of this score over the opening credits to know this was gonna be #1 for the year. It’s just so beautiful, and I love how he takes his melodies and adapts them to the story he’s telling. He has that sort of whistling/theremin quality here to evoke water, which is just gorgeous. And then there’s that sort of Amélie/whimsical French side to the score, which is perfect for Sally Hawkins’ character. The melodies here are so wonderful. I can just listen to this score on its own and not even care that it’s from this movie. That’s why I love Desplat’s work so much. I have tracks from at least five of his scores in my regular rotation, that’s how much I love his music. And I’m so happy he’s (likely) gonna win his second Oscar for this score, which I think is just remarkable work. And if he doesn’t win, then I know what is, and it’s also a good decision. (Also of note — three of the Best Original Score nominees are in my top five, and the other two are #10 and #11. One of the few years where I completely agree with their choices.)
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