Mike’s Favorite Film Scores of 2018
I both greatly look forward to and dread this article every year. I look forward to it because it’s amazing and fun to do and gets me to listen to film scores. I dread it just because I know film scores are not something I keep up with throughout the year, other than a mental note here and there of ones that really stood out during the initial watch. So usually I have to do the first deep dive in December, pulling everything I can and compiling it all, and then I just have to spend the next month sampling and whittling down to a workable number until I can hone a list. It’s more work than you think. Still, having this article makes it worth it.
I say the movie poster is a lost art. I feel like film music is something that, while not lost, has lost its way. So much of film scores now is underscoring, so you never notice it and it’s never interesting. Here’s an example: you get a tense moment in a movie now, and they draw everything back and there’s the undertone of “dread” and then staccato violins and stuff. You know what I mean? And compare that to a John Williams Star Wars theme. Sure, one doesn’t call attention to itself, but the other one you remember 40 years later. That’s my only point there. So I like to look at which scores are particularly good pieces of music, especially since, if I just pulled the films on the list below and said, “What do you remember of their scores?” I bet a lot of people would go, “I don’t even remember a score from that.” Most people don’t necessarily listen for it.
So yeah, this is just me listening to a bunch of stuff and picking my favorites. I am by no means someone who knows anything about music. In fact, I know nothing about music. I have no ear for it, I don’t know what pitch is, I couldn’t tell you anything other than a general, “Oh that sounds nice.” So that’s how I pick my choices. Generally I have the composers I like, and sometimes a new one comes along that does something cool and it allows me to track what they score from there on out. You never know. Also, scores, not soundtracks. So A Star Is Born will not be on this list. And also, since this is my list, it will probably differ from what a lot of other people will have on theirs. I don’t care what’s trendy or will get clicks. I like what I like.
Here are my favorite film scores of 2018:
Also, just know – I listened to everything. I’m not just picking the only ones I’ve heard. All the big stuff I left off I did listen to. I just didn’t like it enough to put it on over these. Anything that made it onto this list had at least two listens. I did the work.
The outer tier:
25. Aquaman, Rupert Gregson-Williams — It’s big and loud and it has synthesizers. And to that end, it’s almost like, “Look, this is all nuts, he’s riding a kraken, there’s an octopus playing drums, and we’re just gonna give you video game music to go with it.” And you know what? Works. The parts that aren’t generic action shit are actually pretty uplifting pieces of music. But also, that Black Manta theme is straight fire. When that beat drops? Yeah, man.
24. I Kill Giants, Laurent Perez Del Mar — I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for the pseudo-weird (part Danny Elfman, part Pan’s Labyrinth) score with the operatic voice singing over them. And big, emotional, soaring climaxes that make you feel like things are gonna be great and elated that this movie transported you into a different realm and made you feel something. I would have loved the hell out of this movie if it came out when I was 7.
23. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, James Newton Howard — It’s not Harry Potter. It’s never going to be Harry Potter. But it’s fun and whimsical and evokes the wonder of all the magical elements of this franchise. It’s also an old school kind of score. And I like those. Too many movies underscore now. I like it when the music is right out front and taking charge of a scene.
22. Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Hildur Guðnadóttir — It’s not the OG (he’s coming up next), but this is both reminiscent of his amazing score for the first film and also broadens the score out a little bit. Each of these movies are meant to be standalone but also with the same characters. And this is a perfect score for that. It brings the theme back in the right place, but ultimately stands on its own, doing what it needs to do for this story. And it was scored by Johannsson’s protege, so it doesn’t feel like a bastardization of what we already had but rather a passing of the baton. Which is cool.
21. Mandy, Johann Johannsson – Johann Johannsson scores are very atmospheric, so him doing a crazy movie like this fits perfectly. This is almost the horror version of Sicario for the first bit. But it’s great. It’s just different and it’s its own thing, which is very much what this movie is all about.
More good stuff:
20. Ocean’s 8, Daniel Pemberton — I’m starting to become a huge fan of Daniel Pemberton. The first score of his that I heard was Steve Jobs, which was incredible. And he’s worked consistently since then, scoring movies you’ve heard of: King Arthur, Molly’s Game, All the Money in the World, and apparently also that Star Trek-inspired Black Mirror episode. He has two scores this year, both of which appear on this list. This one is a throwback to all the other Ocean’s scores by David Holmes. So while I can’t rank it that highly, since it is (as the movie is) trading on a feeling and tone we already know, that doesn’t prevent it from being fun as hell. Pemberton also gets to put his particular spin on things, which I really like.
19. Revenge, Robin Coudert — This is a product of my loving this movie. Otherwise I might not have listened to the score at all. But also, you know how much I love a good synth score. This is such a fantastic piece of work. My only real complaint about this score? I wanted it to do more. I wanted it to be weirder and try more things. But even so, it’s so awesome. The best kind of music for getting revenge against asshole dudes.
18. Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson — This is a pretty dope score. I generally like African-inspired scores, especially when they don’t feel exploitative. This one feels powerful. And it takes all the expected elements of the score and makes them fun. This score makes you want to move, and makes you just feel like a badass. Goransson is Coogler’s guy, and his Creed score was fantastic a few years ago. This is his coming out party. People have been catching on for a while, but this one in particular is the one where people now realize the things he can do. This is not a standard action movie score. This one, you remember. That Wakanda theme is already pretty iconic. Which is impressive. What I really liked most about this score, though, are the quiet moments. “Ancestral Plane” — it’s just a simple solo guitar at the beginning. And then, sure, it turns into Lion King, but it has to. That Kilmonger theme is also straight fire, though.
17. The Old Man & the Gun, Daniel Hart — This is beautiful, smooth jazz. And I love it. Daniel Hart is David Lowery’s composer, and his scores for both Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story made my list for their respective years. I really like what he does. He feels like he has a style and uses it to fit his movie. And this score really matches the Redford character, which is a nice, worn-in kind of feel. It’s classic, it’s comfortable, and it’s like sitting down by the fire with an old friend.
16. Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat — It wouldn’t be a year without an Alexandre Desplat score making my list. No surprise, he has two this year, but why would you expect anything different? I tell you every year that he’s my favorite working composer. All of these Wes Anderson scores he does are starting to sound exactly the same, so while I like them (obviously), they’re not gonna automatically end up in the top ten. It’s fun, though. I like how he takes taiko drums and incorporates them throughout the score, and the chanting. I think this really works and is a nice addition to his scoring relationship with Wes Anderson. Though I do wish he’d branch out a bit more next time. Maybe for French Dispatch.
The honorable mentions:
15. The Front Runner, Rob Simonsen — This score is amazing. It feels a bit like pure improvisation, but you realize, that’s kind of the point. That’s what they’re doing. The shit is hitting the fan so now they’re just tap dancing to try to get through it. And what starts as improvisation becomes history. It’s really well done.
14. Into the Spider-Verse, Daniel Pemberton — I really liked this score, and I’d have had it higher if it were more hip hop influenced throughout. There are a lot of changeups throughout, like when he switches to the romantic piano score on the MJ track and stuff like that, but it devolves into obvious film score for too much of it for me to put it higher than this. I like so much of this, but I was hoping the whole score would be as unique as the animation of this one. It is a very fun score though.
13. Ready Player One, Alan Silvestri — It’s just a big, blockbuster Spielberg type of score. Not John Williams, but still fun. You can’t tell me that you can’t immediately identify a Spielberg score and that it doesn’t immediately evoke the feelings of all the other ones for you loved. Besides, the whole story is built on 80s nostalgia. How am I gonna fault a score for doing exactly what it’s supposed to do?
12. At Eternity’s Gate, Tatiana Lisovkaia — I really like this score a lot. It’s very simple. Basically just a piano for most of it. And it’s absolutely stunning. And then when they bring in strings, it just soars. And it sounds like they did it on really old pianos, the kind you’d see in one of those places Van Gogh stayed, which only adds to its brilliance. This score is just beautiful, and the whole film is beautiful. I wish more people saw/knew about this one.
11. Solo: A Star Wars Story, John Powell — It’s not quite Star Wars, but it’s awesome. And it’s Star Wars adjacent, which is what this movie is. No one can come close to John Williams in this universe, but this score is really fucking good. John Powell is one of those composers I forget I love until I hear his stuff. He also doesn’t work as much as you think he does. And mostly it’s animated kids stuff. He did the Bourne movies and Pan, but his last live-action movie before Pan? Knight and Day. It’s crazy. Dude’s awesome, though. This is a great score. It’s fun, it’s epic, and it’s got that Star Wars feel that you want, without trying to be John Williams. Honestly as I listened to this score, I kept bumping it up higher and higher on my list. I’m a really big fan of this one.
My Top Film Scores of 2018
10. Suspiria, Thom Yorke
This was Thom Yorke’s first film score. And when they announced him as the composer of the new Suspiria movie, I both said, “Oh, that’s kinda perfect,” and also, “I wonder what the hell that’s gonna sound like. Turns out, it sounds like this. And it’s weird, atmospheric, and somehow perfect for what this movie is and is trying to be.
I feel like the roughness of this and the fact that he’s not really a composer of film scores quite yet actually helped this. I may be a little biased toward it because it’s Suspiria, but I still think this accomplished what it needed to for its film and think it’s one of the best I heard this year. Definitely not gonna be listening to this a whole lot on its own (maybe the main song a little bit), but I think this is still pretty terrific. The best thing about it is you can’t compare it to the Goblin score from the original, because it’s not trying to be anything like the original. So it can stand on its own and not invite comparisons.
9. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Carter Burwell
Carter Burwell has scored every single Coen brothers movie, save the two that are music heavy (O Brother and Inside Llewyn Davis, which T Bone Burnett did tracks for instead of a score). That includes Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, True Grit and Hail Caesar. I know you all know what the Coen brothers movies are, but you have to realize — all those amazing themes you remember, he wrote them all.
He also was Spike Jonze’s composer for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are and is Martin McDonagh’s composer, having done In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards. Not to mention that he scored Three Kings, Twilight (the first one and Breaking Dawn), Carol, Anomalisa and Wonderstruck. Dude’s responsible for some amazing scores.
So it stands to no surprise that a Coen brothers western score from Carter Burwell was gonna be great. Hell, True Grit may have been the best score of 2010 (top two or three for certain. That year was insane for great scores). It definitely has all the hallmarks of a Carter Burwell score. I hear shades of Fargo in here, and I definitely hear shades of Three Billboards from last year. But it’s great. I find myself liking it more and more each time I listen to it. I’m a big fan of “How Deep” and “Goodbye Canyon” and of course, the main theme, which is quite great. Carter Burwell is one of our most underrated composers. It’s nuts that in all those scores I mentioned, dude only has two Oscar nominations. And they both came in the past three years.
8. The Sisters Brothers, Alexandre Desplat
And here we are. It’s almost a given that Alexandre Desplat is going to make my top ten. I say it every year that he’s my favorite working composer. And it shows when you look at all the evidence. I started this list in 2012. So this is the seventh time I’m doing the list. In 2012 and 2013, he had one top ten score. 2014, he had three (and two more in the top 20). 2015, he missed the top ten, but had one in the top 15 (he only scored two films that year, only one of which was particularly “major”). 2016, he had another top ten and one more in the top 20. Last year, he had my #1 and a second score on the list.
I feel like I get into this every year, but I also feel like I need to and should. I’d never even heard of him until the Golden Globes for 2006, when they announced Best Score and Hugh Grant announced his name with particular affect and I thought it was humorous. But that made the name stick in my head, and then all of a sudden he started showing up places. The Globes score he won for was The Painted Veil, but at the Oscars that year he was nominated for The Queen. And after that, he started doing much more American stuff. The first major score of his that I fell in love with was Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Then there was Benjamin Button. Then Fantastic Mr. Fox. Then The Ghost Writer. The King’s Speech. Deathly Hallows 1 and 2. Moonrise Kingdom. Argo. Philomena. Grand Budapest. Godzilla. The Imitation Game. And then last year was Shape of Water. Dude makes amazing film scores. I know people go nuts about certain composers, but he’s the guy for me.
I loved this score because he wasn’t even trying to make a western score. He just scored the story. The main theme is a repeating piano motif with a jazzy orchestra running through it. It’s the kind of score I’d expect from a 70s thriller or Michael Clayton or something. I love his choice to not go obvious with it. It’s very piano based and has a bit of the “western string/twang” feeling you’d normally get. But it’s never overwhelmed by that. It also has a bit of that Rain Man/road trip kind of vibe, like in “To San Francisco.” But again, just a little bit. The score is doing its own thing. I really like what he does in “Gun Fight,” where he uses the drum beats as gunshots, and rather than underscore it with tense music, it’s just a rhythmic, repeating, almost war chant. Which I like, because the gunfight in the western is almost a ritualistic event. That’s the beauty of a Desplat score — it never does what a modern film score would in that situation. It’s always about the music first. And it always makes them a treat to listen to.
7. Vice, Nicholas Britell
You don’t necessarily expect a movie like this to have a great film score. For instance, The Big Short… Britell also did the score, but I’m not sure I particularly remember any passages from it. Here, I remember the theme to this movie. And even while watching it, I somehow never quite put together the fact that this was an actual film score for the movie. I guess because I just figured it would be a compilation of existing material. But it’s not. It’s its own score, and it’s great.
What I love about this score is that Britell changes up his style throughout. It’s a very versatile score. Most scores tend to be mostly the same thing, unless there are action sequences or tense moments and then they do the usual thing. Here, he goes into a lot of different moods and tones. He alternates between standard film score, to up tempo jazzy, to straight up 70s exploitation music. “Master of the Switchblade” sounds like Quentin almost put it into Kill Bill but decided not to at the last minute. “Taking Over the Damn Place” sounds like it’s out of Ocean’s Eleven. Which is perfect, since it’s basically a heist movie, what he does to the government. Also, how amazing is it when he switches into full blown, uplifting “film score” for “Dick’s Heart Is Healthier Than Ever” and the false credits? It’s amazing! (Also, how good is “The Washington Game Board”?) He also gives the tracks operatic names, which only just adds to the appeal of the whole thing. One of the tracks is called “The Iraq War Symphony.” It’s a brilliant juxtaposition that fits perfectly.
Britell is quickly establishing himself as one of my favorite composers. The Moonlight score aside (which is incredible), he’s also done Battle of the Sexes recently and another score we’re gonna get to pretty soon. Dude’s amazing.
6. You Were Never Really Here, Jonny Greenwood
The second member of Radiohead to make the top ten. Who’d have guessed that after OK Computer?
Greenwood typically only really does Paul Thomas Anderson movies. The only two before this he had done that weren’t for Anderson were Norwegian Wood and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Which is how he ended up doing this. And man, this score is great. His PTA stuff is always good (Phantom Thread was superb last year and made my top three), but this one is just so much more symphonic and beautiful. “Tree Synthesizers” is such an incredible piece of music. But even the lower key tracks are fantastic. They’re not what you’d expect out of a movie like this, which is pretty much everything about this movie. None of it’s what you’d expect, and that’s what makes it great.
Stuff like “Sandy’s Necklace” escapes the usual trappings where I thought it was going. Or “Hammer and Tape” starts almost like elevator music and then just completely breaks down. It’s fascinating to listen to. This is one of those scores I doubt I’d go back to a bunch, but it deserves its placement on this list and is perfect for its film.
5. Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman
It’s Mary Poppins, and it’s magical. If you don’t immediately get swept away and start smiling from the overture, then I don’t know what to tell you. They had me from that alone, and it’s just a wonderful score. I don’t remember if the original had a score to it, but I know that this had to be almost all original because they nominated it for an Oscar, and they’re very militant about things standing on their own. There’s a certain percentage things have to hit. And I feel like the original score was based on the songs. This one sounds like it stands on its own. Maybe I’m wrong. But even so, this was utterly delightful. I have a slight gripe with the songs, because I don’t think they’re particularly memorable, but that does not include the score. The score I think is really terrific. I love a film score that allows you to close your eyes and feel like a child again, and this one does just that.
4. Mary, Queen of Scots, Max Richter
These classical kind of movies always have amazing scores. This is one that I knew, immediately, from the first 30 seconds of the first track, that this was gonna go top five. Sometimes you can just tell immediately. The shortest it’s ever been was The Imitation Game, where I knew within two seconds that it was automatic. And then by 15, the score didn’t need to do another thing for me to know it was worthy. Of course, you listen to the rest of it anyway, but it just makes it even more of a treat when you know going into the rest of it that it’s gonna be great.
Max Richter is not a composer I really know. Looking at his stuff — he works a lot. The earliest stuff I recognize, apart from Waltz with Bashir, was Wadjda and The Congress. There’s not really a whole lot of English language stuff before now people would know for sure. He did The Leftovers, which I guess people know. Hostiles. White Boy Rick, Never Look Away. This, though, this is his coming out party. This score soars. (P.S. He’s got Ad Astra coming out next year, which I suspect might get him a lot of awards love. It’s a space movie, so I suspect the score is gonna be integral to it, and it’s James Gray’s first time using a proper score, I think, too. I guess Lost City of Z had one, but I don’t really remember it. Either way, remember his name. I think it’ll be a big deal pretty soon.
Anyway, back to this score — it’s amazing. I started listening to it, thinking, “Okay, what track is gonna be the first ‘filler’ track?” That is, which one is gonna be the one where, it’s fine, but it’s clearly just underscoring and not the juicy stuff you wanna hear. Usually you don’t get past like, the third track before you get one of those. Six tracks. And even that sixth one is pretty good. But it was six tracks before I got one that was just basic film score level and not, “Holy shit, this is amazing.” Still, this whole score is so good. That Scotland/Mary theme, though. So much of a good film score is having that one great main theme that you can weave into other stuff, and this movie really has that.
3. First Man, Justin Hurwitz
This score is incredible. It does something that I love when songs do. It builds slowly. It introduces a couple of themes and styles little by little and then by the end they all come together in glorious crescendo. There’s the family/Armstrong theme, which he starts in “Armstrong Cabin”, the NASA theme he starts in “Another Egghead” and then there’s this nice moon theme he starts in “It’ll Be an Adventure” (which has a great use of a theremin that you kind of only get in space movies, but not the way they use it here). I remember almost gasping when I saw the film for the first time and heard the “Docking Waltz” segment, because the way they use the theremin is actually the way you’d hear it in a cartoon or something, and yet it totally works. But then he also brings it back for the most emotional moment in the score, and it actually enhances it. This is a very bold score. And of course, it’s Justin Hurwitz, so he uses the jazzy foundations he established in his previous scores to lay the groundwork for the majority of what he does. But that only makes it better for me. But then you get into stuff like “Spin” and you have the score working in tandem with the sound design too, which is just crazy.
This whole score peaks once you get to “Apollo 11” launch, which is how a film score should be. By this point, all the things they’ve been layering in are paying off in grand fashion, at the most thrilling part of the film. And the best part is, once they get to the moon, they’re just calling it back and calling it back. “The Landing” is just a masterwork of composition. I was on the edge of my seat watching that. They’re hitting you with it all and it’s just working. I can’t get enough of this score. There were only a few times where I was truly cognizant of how amazing the score was that I was listening to in the midst of watching the film, and this was for sure one of those.
2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Jonathan Kirkscey
Put it this way — we all cried at the trailer, and this was the music they used. There was no way this score wasn’t gonna feature highly on my list if it made me cry in a trailer for the movie.
It’s just a score full of childlike wonder. “Mr. Rogers Day” just makes you feel great. Or “Values and Communication” reminds me of that scene in Eternal Sunshine where they cut to Jim Carrey as a child, being pressured into hitting the bird with the hammer, and the score just feels like it was to be that age. But even “143”, “Hearings”, “Superheroes and Old Friends” — it doesn’t just tug at your heart strings, it lifts them up into the sky. I dare you to say you didn’t feel anything while listening to this score.
1. If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Sometimes you just know immediately that a score is the best of the year. Every track of this is perfect. This score, and this film — it’s about love. Emotion and pure love. And it’s just dripping with it. “Agape” alone — oh my god. There are times when even I am at a loss for words for something. But truly, listen to this score and tell me this doesn’t deserve every award there is:
This is the best film score of 2018 and it’s not even close.
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