Mike’s Favorite Film Scores of 2019
I usually try to post this article as late as possible, just because there’s so much work involved in it and I want to give each score a proper listen. So usually it becomes the last thing I post before every day becomes about Oscar categories. But this year, everything is so early, I couldn’t even get 80% of the Release Calendar up before that happened. So this is the first article you get post-Oscars.
I listened to 89 different scores for this article over the past five weeks. Typically how I work is, I realize this article is coming around November and start compiling as many scores as I can. Then January starts and the Top Ten list is over and I start looking to what the big workload articles are gonna be. Which invariably begins with this one. So I start doing quick listens of all the scores to get an idea of what my general ‘pool’ is gonna be. And then I ignore it for about a month until I realize, “Oh shit, that’s going up in a week.” Then I frantically listen to every score, come up with a list of 25 and write everything up in the span of about four days.
You’d think I’d know better, but on the other hand, you’d think we’d have properly studied for all our tests and done all our papers and projects on time in school. Sometimes that’s just how we work. So yeah. I listened to all those scores and picked my favorites. I am by no means someone who understands the intricacies of music. I’m just listening for stuff I like, and I do my best to explain why I liked it. That’s pretty much it.
Here are my favorite film scores of 2019:
The Outer Tier:
25. Just Mercy, Joel P. West — I really like this one. It’s very jazzy, very smooth, and does a good job of evoking emotion without ever going too big or too small. It’s a nice score.
24. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Nate Heller — It’s not a full-on score, but what’s there really works. The simple piano and the uncomplicated arrangements… they fit the simplicity and ease of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.the movie perfectly.
23. Long Shot, Marco Beltrami & Miles Hankins — I like this one. It’s fun and offbeat and goes a couple of different ways throughout it. I like it. It’s a score you may not expect out of a movie you may not expect. And, like the movie, it charms you by the end.
22. Uncut Gems, Daniel Lopatin — It’s more of the same as he did in Good Time, but that doesn’t make it worse. That score was awesome. This one has a little bit more confidence behind it, now that he’d done it before, and it’s trying new and different things. Which is cool. It really works within the film and is a nice score to listen to on its own.
21. Waves, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross — I love these Reznor and Ross scores. They’re perfectly moody yet also are completely listenable on their own. This is a score that, like its film, you don’t quite realize you’re gonna be affected by as much as you are until it’s already grabbed hold of you.
More Good Stuff:
20. Avengers: Endgame, Alan Silvestri — Count on Alan Silvestri for a fun, epic score. Dude did Back to the Future. And he’s one of the few composers to do a Spielberg film that’s not John Williams (he did Ready Player One, obviously due to his having done stuff like Back to the Future). This is just a fun movie that uses the Avengers themes well and just gives you a score befitting a film of its size and scope. And it’s hard not to really like that piece he wrote for the funeral at the end, which does a great job of emotionally wrapping up the entire saga, or whatever you want to call it.
19. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Graham Reynolds — Love this score. It’s flighty and quirky, just like its main character. The plucky strings and jazzy tempo just perfectly capture the reality this character is living in, and then when things get real or emotional, they work the full orchestra stuff in there.
18. Jojo Rabbit, Michael Giacchino — This is a very nice score. A bit uneven for me, but the parts that work really work. I’ve always found Giacchino a bit too on the nose when it comes to creating scores, which is probably why the ones of his that truly work best for me are the Pixar ones, which have to have an element of that because they’re for children. Plus all his track titles are puns, which just feels so wonderfully unnecessary. But really, for me, that piano theme he scores for the ‘butterfly’ moment is truly beautiful, so on that alone, it’s deserving of a spot on this list.
17. 1917, Thomas Newman — Thomas Newman has a pretty identifiable sound. His scores tend to be of a certain type. This one has shades of what he did in Skyfall. And I get it, you want that action-type score for this, a movie where the tension has to stay up the whole time. What I find about this score in particular is — it’s not a score I really want to listen to on its own, but is something I love when in the context of the film itself. It works really well in the film and as part of the action. It’s weird that it really can only be taken (for me at least) as part of the film as a whole, but really, if you want a score to work anywhere, that’s the optimal place for it.
16. Dark Phoenix, Hans Zimmer — This might be the most underrated score of the year. We know how great Hans Zimmer is, but I feel like the film being as reviled as it was led to people dismissing it entirely. Even when you think about what movies had great scores, you’re almost gonna discount this one automatically. But this one — this score is great. Give this one a listen. It’s epic, it’s moody, it’s got soaring moments of real beauty in it. You’d be surprised at how good this score is compared to the rest of that movie.
The Honorable Mentions:
15. The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Emile Mosseri — I love this score. It’s so low-key majestic. I was in love with this score from the trailer, with its use of the horns and strings to create this really beautifully evocative sound, and then segueing into the amazing rendition of ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’, which does have vocals, but is also part of the film score as well. Listen to this and tell me this isn’t just transcendent:
14. A Hidden Life, James Newton Howard — I love the central theme of this one. He weaves it in and out of the different tracks, and it’s beautiful. That achingly beautiful violin that somehow perfectly fits the tone of a Terrence Malick movie. The fleeting ethereal beauty of the world, which also fits the subject. And anything with a major piano theme is something that appeals to me as well. So this whole score is very much up my alley.
13. Dolemite Is My Name, Scott Bomar — It’s a score meant to evoke all the 70s blaxploitation films. How can you not love that? There’s really nothing more to add. It’s just an awesome score and you immediately hear it when you listen to it.
12. Freaks, Tim Wynn — This is such a terrific score from perhaps the biggest hidden gem of the year. This score is so epic for a movie that doesn’t appear like something that’s gonna require something epic. But once the secrets start getting unveiled, the score goes to some really amazing places. If you’re into scores, I urge you to check this one out. It’s one of the better scores of the year.
11. Out of Blue, Clint Mansell — I love Clint Mansell. He’s composed some of my favorite scores over the past 15 years. His second score ever was Requiem for a Dream, a score that most people would instantly recognize if played for them. To me, the one that made him one of my favorites was The Fountain. That’s still a score I listen to all the time. And generally he didn’t work that often, and didn’t always put out stuff most people would have heard. Black Swan’s another big one for him — he’s Aronofsky’s guy — and he did Stoker. Loving Vincent is a tremendous score by him. And this one is his most recent. It’s a film that I did not really like that much. It’s based on a Martin Amis novel about the death of an astrophysicist, and it’s this weird metaphysical detective thing that I just could not get into. Here, he creates a score that’s very cosmic. It makes you feel like you’re out floating in the cosmos. Which I guess is what you want. For me, it doesn’t reach the heights of his other scores, but it’s a wonderful piece of work. It’s nice and moody and perfect for when you wanna give yourself an existential crisis.
My Top Film Scores of 2019
10. Parasite, Jung Jae II
What I love about this score is that it’s really throwing you off the movie’s scent for a lot of the way. There’s an air of mystery about it, giving you the idea that something shady is going on, and making it like you’re watching this poor family infiltrate the rich family, making you wonder if every little moment is going to end with them being discovered. Plus it’s varied. There are piano bits, straight percussion moments… if I isolated certain tracks and just played them for you and asked you to guess what kind of film they’d be from, you wouldn’t guess this one. It’s almost like they came from a 90s movie where bumbling criminals are breaking into a house to steal an anthropomorphic animal or something. I really like that about it. I also like that it never fully falls into the trap that American scores do, which is nice. It doesn’t telegraph what it’s trying to evoke in the music. It’s a really great piece of music.
9. Fast Color, Rob Simonsen
Rob Simonsen’s been working his way up my lists for a few years now, and it’s nice to see him get a top ten spot, finally. He scored stuff like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Spectacular Now and The Way Way Back — all stuff that never really would get him noticed. His first big score is Foxcatcher, though I’m not sure people really remember that as a ‘score’ per se. I first took notice of him with his score for Nerve, which was a fun, video game type of score. And then last year, he did the score for The Front Runner for Jason Reitman, which was fantastic. This time, though, he really knocked it out of the part.
Fast Color is basically a more indie version of Midnight Special. Midnight Special was Jeff Nichols doing a superhero movie. So he grounded it and made it character-based. This is like if you took a Sundance drama and added superpowers. It’s fantastic. So Simonsen creates a score that’s simultaneously epic but grounded. He goes into that low key suspense stuff for a while, but when he lets loose and really lets the score fly to its greatest heights, it’s a wonderful thing to hear.
8. Honey Boy, Alex Somers
I was not expecting this score to affect me as it did. It might not even be a score you fully notice while watching the film. But put the score on by itself. Trust me, you’ll feel something. There’s a simple beauty to it. The opening track, how he takes simple sounds that seem to be made by everyday items and then brings in that beautiful piano melody… it does something to you. I don’t know what it is or what part of my childhood it’s reminding me of, but I fell in love with this score almost instantaneously.
There’s something really beautiful and really cathartic about this score for me. There’s a lot of tracks here, and some stand out more than others, but the ones that stand out all evoke a certain memory of childhood that you can’t even quite explain. Each track just feels like a different aspect of being a kid to me — going to the beach or being in the car on the way to someone’s house or playing in the backyard. It’s all just right there for me as I listen to it, and for that reason I really loved this score a lot.
7. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, John Williams
Hey man, it’s hard not to put a John Williams Star Wars score on this list. We all grew up with these sounds. There’s something about that fanfare that really does something to you, emotionally. Even if you don’t care about any of that stuff, you still have that innate reaction whenever you hear the music. It’s perhaps the single most memorable and well-known film cue of all time. It evokes every single emotion you can possibly have about the wonder of cinema. That’s why Steven Spielberg has used Williams all these years as his personal composer. The man is synonymous with the joy of movies. And these Star Wars scores really bring out the best in that.
What’s great about these newer ones is how he can play off old themes while still keeping everything new and fresh. He’s got nine movies and forty-two years’ worth of music stored up in this franchise, so he can give you bits and pieces of other stuff to immediately trigger a certain emotion within you with zero effort. It’s beautiful. It’s hard not to get emotional when you hear some of those familiar refrains. This music is gonna go down in history as some of the greatest ever written.
6. Marriage Story, Randy Newman
It’s funny. Randy Newman doesn’t compose all that much anymore. He used to do it all the time — he wrote the score for The Natural! And his Pleasantville score might be one of my five most listened-to film scores of everything. Most people know his Pixar stuff, which makes sense. But that’s also mostly the only stuff he’s done over the past 20 years. He did the Meet the Parents films, he did Seabiscuit, he did Leatherheads and he did Meyerowitz Stories (which I somehow maybe missed or just don’t remember). I honestly had no idea he even did this score until the credits rolled and I saw his name pop up. I didn’t even necessarily notice the music as I was watching. But now that I go back and listen to it/watch the film again, the music is unmistakably Randy Newman. He has such a distinct style, and it’s often great.
He was a perfect choice for this film, because his scores evoke the sort of simplicity of childhood and, whether you realize it or not, remind you of stuff like Toy Story. There’s a familial atmosphere to them, is I guess what I’m trying to say. And I think, even though this horrible shit is happening on screen, this family is falling apart, the lawyers are taking over and throwing everything out of proportion… the music makes it feel as if everything’s gonna be all right in the end. It’s great. I love Randy Newman scores.
5. Ford v Ferrari, Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders
Marco Beltrami is one of those composers who’s style doesn’t always work for me. But when it does, it really works. This score is awesome. The ‘main’ track, for the Le Mans race, is just absolutely thrilling, and whenever they get into it within the score in the film, you’re really along for the ride and rooting hard for Bale to win the race. But there’s also some great stuff alongside it. Some nice jazzy moments, or just offbeat instrumentation that feels like it’s meant to evoke all the different car parts coming together. I appreciate a score that tries different styles for different tracks. Each thread of the film has its own distinct style, and it’s nice to hear. But it’s really the racing stuff, and the ‘awe of racing’ stuff (you know, the ‘waxing poetic’ moments of the score/film) that really stand out to me here.
4. The King, Nicholas Britell
God, I love Nicholas Britell. He’s really come on strong as one of my absolute favorite composers. Moonlight was only his fifth film score, and it’s one of the scores of this entire decade. And then he did If Beale Street Could Talk and Vice last year, both of which made my top ten (Beale Street was my #1!), and most people now know him as the guy who did the Succession theme song (which I’ve yet to hear, but I’m sure is as great as all his other stuff). And now this. Dude’s scored six features from 2016-now and four of them made my top ten. I love this dude.
This score is just beautiful. It’s just pure classical. Most of this score sounds like something this king would be listening to in a performance put on for him in one of the rooms of his castle. And even the war stuff doesn’t feel like war stuff. Which is why I love Britell so much. He doesn’t get ‘action-y’ when there are action moments within the film. His scores really are something else.
3. Motherless Brooklyn, Daniel Pemberton
Daniel Pemberton is sneakily becoming one of my favorite composers. I absolutely loved his work a few years ago on Steve Jobs. And I’ve been keeping an eye (and ear) on him ever since. Most people really wouldn’t spot his scores from afar. He worked on Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur movie, and Molly’s Game, and All the Money in the World. I thought his Ocean’s 8 score was really great and perfectly captured the tone of the Soderbergh films while also being its own thing. And of course, the score of his that everyone would probably recognize is last year, with Into the Spider-Verse. I like composers that can change up their style and do something unique for the film. With the Jobs score, he used a lot of computer sounds and effects. And with Spider-Verse, he did a mixture of big epic film score while also incorporating the soundtrack’s hip-hop elements into it pretty gracefully. It’s a score that’s really aging well so far.
Here, he takes to the world of 1950s New York noir, so clearly his song is very jazz-influenced. Jazz trio, quartet. Very drums, piano, bass, horns. Some strings, of course, but the roots of the score are in improvisational jazz. The ‘Emergency Room’ track, as they’re taking in Willis as he dies and everything’s all crazy — there’s just an improvisational trumpet solo in the middle that just evokes the craziness of the situation and the craziness going on inside Norton’s character’s head at the time. It’s really evocative.
But also, you give me a score with some nice drum brushes, a piano and a lonely sounding horn on it, and I’m there. This score just feels like a detective.
2. Knives Out, Nathan Johnson
How could this not be here? You can hear it in the trailer, that this score is amazing. The use of the violins just evokes the sense of mystery and murder, don’t they? Each staccato is like a knife stab. But there’s also some really great orchestral work in the middle of this score as well, and then that amazing solo piano theme for the Thrombey family. That’s worth a place on this list alone. This is just a beautiful score all around, one that never betrays itself by becoming one of those other scores, with obvious action cues (the car chase sounds like something you’d hear in a ballet, or something Danny Elfman would do).
1. Little Women, Alexandre Desplat
I started making these lists in 2012. Which means this is the eight list I’ve published on this site. Just looking purely at the top ten lists I’ve posted in that time, the composer with the most overall top ten scores is Alexandre Desplat. He has 8, which means an average of one per year. He’s got three top ten scores in 2014 alone.
Just to take a minute to break down the numbers, since I found them out and have no other place to put them: the next closest composers to Desplat in terms of pure top tens are John Williams and Carter Burwell, both of whom have 4 top ten scores apiece over that span. Nicholas Britell, Patrick Doyle, Jonny Greenwood, Justin Hurwitz and Howard Shore all have 3 top ten scores. And the only other composers with more than one top ten score (meaning 2) are Alexander Ebert, Johann Johannsson, Clint Mansell, Ennio Morricone, Steven Price and Hans Zimmer.
Now, outside the pure top ten (since I just did a top ten that first year, then expanded it to 20 for a couple of years, then went to 25 the past few, because apparently I like making things difficult on myself), when you count total appearances in the Favorite Scores articles — Desplat has 14! He adds another six appearances in lower tiers. Meaning this is his fifteenth total score to appear on one of my lists, an average of about two per year. He almost doubles the next closest composer.
(Also, since we are here with numbers, when you expand it to overall appearances (including this year), Hans Zimmer jumps to second place with a total of 8. John Williams has 6 overall. Carter Burwell, Johann Johannsson have 5. And Marco Beltrami, Nicholas Britell, Michael Giacchino, Jonny Greenwood, Thomas Newman and Howard Shore all have 4.)
The point here is, I’ve been saying all along that Desplat is my favorite working composer. And it’s really no surprise that this score is my favorite of the year. Especially given how little a lot of the scores from this year leapt out at me as being great. Maybe it’s a down year, maybe scores have just grown closer to becoming ‘underscores’ that basically force feed every emotion they want you to have. I don’t know. But I will tell you this — within about five notes, I knew this was my favorite score of the year. You can just tell. This feels like a real film score. This is something I want to listen to. This is something I’d put on while writing. There’s such beauty and elegance to this score that works both within its film and on its own as a piece of music. I’m glad the decade in Scores is coming to an end with a Desplat score. Because he’s really defined this decade of film music for me.
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And that (finally) concludes our 2019.
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