Mike’s Favorite Film Scores of 2020
I love doing this article every year even though I always leave myself mountains of work to be done in very little time. Fortunately this year I started compiling scores two months in advance, started listening to them just after New Year’s, had a rudimentary version of this list by the end of January and even finished writing this article two weeks ago. Which is way better than how things usually go with me. Usually a month out I’m like, “Oh shit, I need to do scores.” And then I rush and get everything and the whole thing is done in the span of like, three weeks. But I do it because I love listening to film scores. I have almost 40 gigs of film scores on my computer. I’m not bullshitting you. I really do like this stuff. That’s part of the reason I started writing this article.
The other part is because, when I would look up what the best film scores of the year were, I’d only ever find one of two lists: the list that’s just mainstream movies and designed to get people to engage with the site and doesn’t remotely care about the scores themselves, or the ‘cool kids’ list that’s almost exclusively festival darlings, one or two really obvious foreign films and then scores by underground indie music artists that you’d know about if you lived in Bushwick. And sometimes, god help you, you got the third list, which is when a site would lump a staff of 3-4 people in one article and have them talk through their favorites. So you’d end up with some weird mutant stepchild version of lists A and B, but worse, because it would be in paragraphs, so now you’re skimming through trying to figure out where the fuck one entry ends and the other begins. And on top of all of this? There are only like seven total lists! Maybe things have gotten better since I stopped looking and just started doing it myself, but at the time there were only a couple of actual lists and everyone else parroting those. And they all had the same scores on them. To the point where you just felt like no one was actually listening to the scores. So I said ‘fuck it. I’ll do it myself’. Because I’m doing this stuff anyway. Maybe it would’ve been 40% less than it is now, but I still would’ve done it. And unlike everyone else, I don’t give a fuck if anyone reads this. I’m in this for love of the game.
I’m very up front about how I do this. I don’t know much of anything about music except knowing what I like. Sometimes I can say something smart but a lot of the time it’s just simply liking stuff. I have no idea how similar or different my list ends up being to everyone else’s but at least I know that I did listen to a broad spectrum of stuff (this year was 73 scores, which is a lot for someone who doesn’t make that their primary duty as a filmgoer and probably 50-60 more than most people who put out a scores article), actively considered each one on its own merits and picked the ones that sounded the best to me, based solely on my own ears and my own opinions.
In a year where movies generally fell by the wayside given all the real-world stuff going on, film scores for sure were gonna get overlooked. So here’s a bunch that I felt are worth a listen. Here are my favorite film scores of 2020:
For accountability purposes, here’s how I created this list (and how I always create this list):
- Round 1: The Blinds
- I put on each score without knowing what any of them are. Occasionally I can figure it out, but I don’t look at what any of them are for at least 20 minutes. By about the 20-25 minute mark, I can usually confidently decide whether or not I like something. If something is a like, it stays on the list and I move on. If I don’t like it, I will then give it another track or two just in case it turns around, but if nothing changes I will remove it from the list then and there, regardless of what it is. The reason I do it blind is so I’m not swayed by a film’s stature, composer or anything else. If I know what something is as I listen, I might try to make excuses for it and convince myself I like it more than I do and try to force it further on in the process. This way, it’s just about ‘like/don’t like’. There have been many situations where high profile scores (including a very recent winner) got removed very early in the blinds process because I just didn’t like them. I highly recommend this process. You’ll be surprised what happens when all the layers of pretension and social influence get stripped away.
- Round 2: The Molding
- By this point, I’ve usually got a list of around 32-35 scores. So now, what I do is (ideally two-or-more weeks after Round 1) go back and listen to the scores blind one more time. Though this time I’m operating on the assumption that everything is on the list. So instead of deciding a score’s fate, I’m trying to decide where on the list it’s gonna go (though an occasional cut does happen). And I separate everything into three (unnumbered) tiers: ‘top ten’, ’11-20′ and ‘maybe’. The ‘maybe’ tier has the scores that will comprise the bottom of the list (21-25) and the ones that will eventually be cut. Then (ideally a week after this, though most years it ends up being a couple of days), I go back without listening to anything and assign numbers to everything. And what ends up happening is, by the time I get down to 23-25, the cuts start to become really obvious. Because if you get to a point where you have 22 sure-fire scores and 8 scores left but only 3 spots, you’re gonna know real quick which of those 8 you think can go. So I make my cuts and finish my numbers, leaving me with a list of 1-25, plus 2, sometimes 3 alternates (because sometimes in Round 3 I will hear something again and either think it needs to get on or can drop off).
- Round 3: The Final Countdown
- By this point, I’ve figured out my top 25, have my alternates and now it’s just a matter of locking it all in and… you know, writing the damn article. So I do one final round of blinds (which I don’t really need to do blind, but I do anyway because it’s fun, even if by this point I can identify 90% of the scores immediately). I’ll start listening to a score, go, “This belongs (here),” (here) being a specific number. And I’ll check to see where I’d numbered it on the list previously (ideally some time has gone by and I’ve forgotten where I numbered stuff. Which, with me, sometimes only needs to be two days), make any necessary tweaks to the spot and then write up the entry as I finish listening to the score. Then that score becomes ‘locked’. Meaning it’s written, it has a spot, 1 down, 24 to go. And then I repeat the process. Sometimes things will shift a spot or two (rarely more than three, honestly), but largely this last listen through is about me writing up what I’m gonna say about each of the scores and locking everything into place.
The Outer Tier:
25. Wild Mountain Thyme, Amelia Warner
I like that I get to start this list off with a female composer. For reference, since I started this list in 2012, only four female composers have been cited: Mica Levi (twice, for Under the Skin and Jackie), Lesley Barber (Manchester by the Sea), Hildur Guðnadóttir (Soldado) and Tatiana Lisovkaia (At Eternity’s Gate). That’s five total in nine years, with all but the first year having at least 20 scores cited. Spoiler alert: we’re gonna almost double that total with just this year alone. Because composing has long been a male-dominated section of the industry (like most things, only this one hasn’t really been examined since few people actually pay attention to it). So it’s nice to see a sea change here along with everywhere else.
But Amelia Warner. This is only her third film score! This one I like just because of that Irish countryside feel to it. I love scores that do this. Listen to the first track (“Welcome to Ireland”). You’ll know immediately whether or not this score does it for you. This reminds me of all those ‘outdoor’ movies from the 90s I grew up watching. River Runs Through It, Legends of the Fall. The films that takes place in their own little rustic pocket of the world. They all had scores like this. This one has the Irish bend to it as it probably should. This is just one of those scores that works for me, and I’m not gonna pretend like I don’t like what I like.
24. Rebecca, Clint Mansell
Clint Mansell’s fourth appearance on this list (the other three were Noah, Loving Vincent and Out of Blue). I just love his style. His score for The Fountain is one of my all-time favorite scores and one I go back to constantly. This one is very muted for him, but still quite beautiful. It’s interesting how infrequently he seems to work and how much I gravitate to his stuff even despite that. This is just one of those scores where, even as a Mansell score I almost didn’t have it on this list. But whatever qualities he brings to the table as a composer kept me coming back to this one and going, “There’s something there that I like.” Even as I kept hearing it and being unsure. And then I realized it was a Mansell score and it all made sense.
22. Da 5 Bloods, Terence Blanchard
Surprisingly, this is Terence Blanchard’s first entry on one of these lists. I still go back and listen to his 25th Hour score. But this one — he does a bit of the John Williams/Private Ryan thing with the patriotic-sounding strings, but it’s a solid piece of music and works well for the film.
22. The Trial of the Chicago 7, Daniel Pemberton
Pemberton is quickly making his way up the ranks of my favorite composers. He burst into my sphere with his beautiful score for Steve Jobs in 2015, which was a top three score for me that year, and he’s had three more entries in the past two years (Ocean’s 8, Into the Spider-Verse and Motherless Brooklyn, which was #3 last year). This was a deceptive score because, the first time I heard it I thought, “What the hell is this?” It didn’t do much for me. And then each time I listened to it, I found myself responding to different things in it and liking it more and more. It begins with that opening track with something that sounds like it’s out of an Ocean’s Eleven-inspired heist movie. And then it moves immediately into “The Trial,” which is almost something out of an 80s cop show. And it’s almost like they said, “Okay, let’s get all the big stuff out first.” And then you settle into the heart of the score and it works so much better. Not that the first two are bad, just — they make a really strong impression. Like that person you meet and go, “They’re intense.” But then you get to know them in quieter moments and they become a really good friend. It’s a really solid score.
21. Emile Mosseri, Minari
Mosseri has come on really strong, really quickly for me. His first major film score was last year, for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which made my list last year. So now he’s got on two years running and for two of his first three film scores. (His third score was Kajillionaire this year, which I’d say was probably in my 26-30 range and just missed making the list.) I’m loving his work thus far and I expect he’ll be making lots more appearances on these lists for years to come. This score in particular is so nice. Simple piano melodies with an ethereal choral feel to them, somehow taking you to this dreamlike memory state, which is kind of what the film is. It’s memories of childhood, which exists in this pure state in our minds. The score really works for me.
The Overlooked Stuff:
20. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Julia Holter
A newcomer, who only has one other film score to her name (Bleed for This, which was a great movie). Very happy whenever we can get a female composer on this list. Breaks up the sausage fest that usually is this field. And she’s our third so far (and there’s two more to come)! This score I like because it’s beautifully atmospheric. It captures the low key spirit of the film and somehow gives you the feel of wandering around New York. It’s funny. I usually am not one to go for the more atmospheric type scores, but this one completely works for me. I did a double take when I looked and realized it was this movie. But I feel like a lot of times the scores that get on always seem to be films I liked a lot. But I can’t really argue with it because I know how I compile the list. Sometimes you just like what you like.
19. Over the Moon, Steven Price
Price’s third entry on this list. His first entry was a #1 for Gravity and his second was a top ten for Fury. Since those two scores, he seems to have settled (largely) into less successful versions of what he did in those two films, which usually results in loud ‘boom’-heavy scores that largely sound the same to me. But here, he scores an animated film, which feels very unlike what he usually does. And the result is quite magical. Sure, he gets the big, epic stuff in there, but it’s the smaller, more personal stuff that I was drawn to. There are some really beautiful moments in this score that, like the film, highlight Chinese culture without making a mockery of it. I like this new look for Price. I hope he does more orchestral stuff going forward.
19. Underwater, Marco Beltrami & Brandon Roberts
This is Beltrami’s fifth entry on this list. He’s one of those composers who I always think, “Sure, he’s fine,” and yet he keeps popping up on these lists. Three of his four previous entries came in the past three years (including two last year, one of which was a top ten entry). I was also surprised when this was the film that made it on the list. Most people wouldn’t think of a January-release monster movie to have a good score. Some, if they were making an article like this, might skip the score entirely. But, from the person who watches everything, I also try to listen to as much as I can. And I was real surprised when I put this score on (blindly, mind you. I put all the scores on blind first and see which ones pique my interest before I find out what they are) and realized it was for this movie. Beltrami is a sneaky great composer. His scores do sneak up on you. And this one, I like how understated it is. It’s that dull roar of suspense without constantly hitting you over the head with the loud “BAD THINGS ARE HAPPENING” sound that so many movies hit you with (and just listen to most generic blockbuster scores nowadays to hear what I mean). This one goes there surprisingly little, and when it does, it usually finds some sort of wrinkle to make it work to its advantage or (somehow) further the actual… you know… themes of the story. There’s way more full orchestration in there than you’d think as well (“Walkie Talkie” is a beautiful track). This is a hugely underrated score from a hugely underrated composer.
18. Wonder Woman 1984, Hans Zimmer
This is Zimmer’s eight entry on these lists, and he’s one of those people you almost expect to get on. He works enough and scores enough high profile stuff that it’s almost a given he’ll get on most years. Ironically, a lot of his eight entries were for superhero movies. His Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman and Dark Phoenix scores all got on previous lists (often in spots just like this one). And I think that’s because, while he does occasionally do things that sound repetitive, he always takes a different tack on each of these scores. For this one, it’s clear he just said, “Oh, I can do 80s.” And to his credit, he almost completely eliminated the Wonder Woman ‘theme’ (that guitar riff and the beating of the drums. You know the one) and focused on just writing a fun film score. The “1984” theme is a lot of fun. It’s still got its blockbuster moments, but you can tell they wanted to go for fun and colorful here (which is the antithesis of the D.C. universe to this point). The refrain I always have for scores like this is that it’s big and bold and fun. As long as it’s not too leading on the action moments and sounds enough like its own entity, I’m usually very pro these types of scores. And, especially here, I like when they can get the emotional stuff in as well. And since this movie wears its emotions on its sleeve, something like “Wish We Had More Time” actually gets prominence instead of Zimmer sneaking it on. This is probably a better score than even I’m giving it credit for now.
16. Let Them All Talk, Thomas Newman
This is Newman’s fifth entry on these lists, with two entries being Bond scores (and a third also being a Soderbergh film). Newman is one of those composers I love and have loved for years (Shawshank, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Wall-E), but lately he’s really only gotten on for me when he’s gone big or gone quirky. This is him going quirky. Honestly I almost didn’t expect this out of him. It’s so jazzy. It sounds almost like one of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s scores. It’s almost like this is meant to be a score for a different movie. You could put this score over a 70s crime movie like The Hot Rock or something or you could put it on a sex comedy about a guy trying to secretly have an affair and not have his wife find out. But in a way, using a jazz score over a film that was largely improvised does make a lot of sense. I just really like listening to this one. There’s no real analysis here. I just like it.
The Honorable Mentions:
15. Enola Holmes, Daniel Pemberton
Pemberton again. Two entries so far this year. Further underscoring the notion that I consider him one of the most exciting working composers. (To me, of the ‘newer’ composers who have come on more recently, the most exciting ones to me are Pemberton and Nicholas Britell. With maybe a little bit of Rob Simonsen thrown in, and I’m keeping my eye on Max Richter as well. I’d also throw in Justin Hurwitz, but he seems to only score Damien Chazelle movies.) This score just is wonderful. It captures the sense of fun while also someone maintaining the sense of period. There’s also a fun air of mystery here in a way that feels very ‘Danny Elfman scoring a kids movie I watched in the 90s’. There’s a certain tone to kids movies that I remember that this score feels very much like a throwback to.
14. News of the World, James Newton Howard
This is Newton Howard’s fourth entry on these lists. This one — it’s a western score. I love a good western score. And mostly I love the quiet uplift Newton brings to this. It’s not a flashy score, but it’s steady, it’s quiet (until it needs to get loud) and it makes you feel like everything’s okay. Which is exactly Tom Hanks’ character in this movie. There are obvious western moments in it (like “Arrival at Red River”), but for me, it’s about the other moments. The ones that are more subdued, like with “Castroville.” It’s just a quietly beautiful song. And to me, that’s what the bulk of this score is and that’s why I like it as much as I do.
13. An American Pickle, Michael Giacchino & Nami Melumad
I love the feel of this. It’s Jewish without being overly offensive-sounding (since you can always tell when a score goes a little too ‘ethnic’ and it starts to feel icky) and it’s got a real sense of fun to it while also knowing when to go emotional and dramatic. It’s a really lovely score. I should also note that Nami Melumad is the primary composer of the score, while Giacchino contributed the main themes that Melumad wove through the rest of the music. So while both are credited, this is much more a Melumad score than it is a Giacchino score. But, in the interest of fairness, since both did work on the score, both deserve to be credited here. Anyone who reads this article knows my history with Giacchino, so on one of the few times I did like something he worked on enough to put it here, I want to give him his proper due.
12. The Broken Hearts Gallery, Genevieve Vincent
Another newcomer, and I love that so many newcomers on these lists are women. It’s awesome that female composers are not only getting more opportunities but that they have such unique and original voices that make their work stand out from the globs of same-sounding shit we usually get in movies. This is her first film score too! I’m a huge fan of this one. Because it’s got a really pleasant sound that feels different from scores like it. And by that I mean, rom com scores. Netflix puts out a dozen rom coms every year. None of them have scores that jump out at you the way this does. It’s funny how this score, if you tweaked it six inches to the left, it’s the basis for a really great indie group in Brooklyn. Six inches to the right, it’s video game menu music and possibly the background on some commercials. But, here — it’s a perfect score for this absolutely lovely movie. This is a score that wins you over by about 60 seconds into the second track. Once the guitar kicks in, how can you not be fully in love with it? Which is kind of like a good rom com. By a certain point, you realize, “Oh I fully love this.” I’m just such a fan of everything Vincent did with this score and this is gonna be one I go back to over time and whenever it comes on, I’m gonna hear it, not realize what it is, go, “What is this? This is great.” And then I’ll realize and I’ll go, “Oh yeah!” That’s the best kind of score.
11. The Willoughbys, Mark Mothersbaugh
This score legitimately just missed the top ten. I even had it in there for a hot minute, too. But man, do I like this score a lot. Mothersbaugh always has such a different and distinct sound from other composers and it always serves his films well. He’s more suited to more family/kids stuff (which, by the way — he composed music for THE SIMS. That unique sound that game has. Some of that is him!), which makes sense. There’s just such a joy here, the fun, jazziness of everything. I can’t lay claim to loving the film, but I do really like this score. It’s so much fun and wears its lack of subtlety on its sleeve in the most wonderful of ways. He doesn’t always end up on these lists (somehow this is only the second time he’s been on one), but I love Mark Mothersbaugh and I love the way he composes music.
My Top Film Scores of 2019
10. Sylvie’s Love, Fabrice Lecomte
This is Lecomte’s first film score, which was strange to me, since he seems to have been working for a while. But apparently it’s all been on the stage and in commercials. And so it’s just amazing that Eugene Ashe found him and got him to create this score and that it ended up being one of the better and more memorable scores of this year. This score, though — brilliant. It feels like a score of that era. That jazzy 50s melodrama feel. It’s wonderful. Honestly I’m upset that there weren’t enough spots to include this in the top ten. Because this is a beautiful score and I like it just as much as the ten that are about to be in the list below. It’s just a simple, unassuming score that never tries to do anything more than it needs to. Much like the film. The film isn’t trying to make any statements or be some grandiose thing. It’s just a simple, straightforward love story. And sometimes knowing exactly what you need to do and doing it is the best possible outcome. And that’s what this score is. It’ll never get the recognition it deserves, but I’ll always speak fondly of this one.
9. Let Him Go, Michael Giacchino
I’m not usually a big Giacchino fan (which is something I say every time he appears on one of these lists). I looked back to make sure it wasn’t one of those deals where I just thought I didn’t like his scores but in reality I have him on every year. This is his fifth entry on these lists. The previous four were Inside Out (which was a #1), Zootopia, Coco and Jojo Rabbit. Which is respectable, but given the large scale level of films he scores (just this decade, he’s scored Let Me In, Super 8, Ghost Protocol, Star Trek Into Darkness (and Beyond), John Carter, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and War), Jupiter Ascending, Tomorrowland, Jurassic World (and Fallen Kingdom), Doctor Strange, Rogue One, Spider-Man: Homecoming (and Far from Home) and Incredibles 2), I imagine most people would have him on a lot more than I do. And I don’t know what to say except — apparently his style doesnt’ resonate with me the way it does other people. He’s clearly a great composer. My ear is my ear. But, I will say, it’s surprising to me that not only did he get on twice this year, but both were for live action films. Most of his previous entries were for animated fare and his only other live action entry came last year. Which… three in two years. Either he’s slightly altered his style or I’ve reached a place where I’m responding more to it than I used to.
But this score is absolutely beautiful. There’s a very elegiac feel to this. It’s somehow romantic and wistful but also has that touch of ‘Unforgiven’ in it. You know what I mean? That sort of requiem for a genre and that eulogy feel. But eulogy in the sense of celebration and not sadness. And each time I went back to this, I kept thinking, “It’s just that central theme I’m responding to, right?” But even as I listened to tracks in the middle of this score, I found myself responding to it. It somehow fits the tone of the mood absolutely perfectly. I hear this score and I think of Costner and Lane
8. The Last Vermeer, Johan Söderqvist
Johan Söderqvist produced one of my all-time favorite scores (in one of my all-time favorite movies), Let the Right One In. So since then, I’ve known his name, even though he’s primarily worked in Sweden. I heard the title track to this score and immediately went, “Oh my god.” Because it’s really quite wonderful. Even with tracks like “Van Meegeren’s Story” and “The Execution/Van Meegeren in Prison” and “Sublime Art” it holds up as a score. It’s a wonderful piece of music and Söderqvist of those composers I feel never gets his proper due because he so often works outside of America and makes films people might not necessarily reach to for their scores. Give this one a few years and this might wind up overtaking some of the ones above this.
7. The Midnight Sky, Alexandre Desplat
I mean, what more is there to say about Alexandre Desplat? The man is my favorite working composer and is perennially on these lists. There hasn’t been a scores list I’ve published yet on this site that doesn’t include a Desplat score. And even if you reach back before I started the lists, he’s still got ones that would’ve made it (specifically The Ghost Writer, which is one of the best scores of the past decade, bar none). He was #10 in 2012, #5 in 2013, #2, #3, #5, #13 and #16 in 2014, #15 in 2015, #4 and #20 in 2016, #1 and #20 in 2017, #8 and #16 in 2018 and #1 last year. So yeah, I love this dude and it’s almost assured that he’s gonna make this list. His style speaks to me in ways that other composers speak to other people. He’s had a top ten score for me in now 8 of the 9 years I’ve created this list, and if I were to extrapolate, at least 9 of 11 years (I can’t say about what I’d have done if I’d have made a list in 2011, but there’s a solid chance he’d have made it there too). I love the way this guy makes music.
This score is quite beautiful. There’s a lot of music here, too. And he creates two separate landscapes, one for the spaceship and one for Earth. I love the little piano additions he throws in for tracks like “Mission”. And honestly the rest of that track too. The way he crescendos it at the end is beautiful. This is a score that, I hear the initial theme and I go, “Yeah, that’s fine.” But the deeper I go into it — tracks like “Families and Friends,” “A Child,” “Visual on Earth” — the more I love it. I love the way he handles big, tense moments. Because it sounds so different than how most other composers handle those moments. It gets the point across in the film yet somehow remains completely listenable if you’re just listening to it as a piece of music as well. So often are those tracks just immediate skips for me on a lot of other scores because their only function is to highlight the ‘oh my god, we have to (x) before (x)!’ But with
Honestly, at this point, what more is there to say when Desplat gets on a list. It’s like Meryl Streep on a best performances list. You just instinctively get why they’re there.
6. I’m Your Woman, Aska Matsumiya
I knew within three seconds that this was gonna be a top ten score. Just listen to that piano riff at the top of the first track and you’ll see what I mean. It’s like when you see a film from a newcomer and immediately know you’re in good hands because of their command of the frame and storytelling. Matsumiya is a newcomer to film scores. She worked on the indie Skate Kitchen in 2018 and then scored Selah and the Spades, 37 Seconds and this film this year. She’s immediately become someone I want to look out for with future scores, because this one is amazing. The way she begins with such a simple, but catchy piano theme and then builds that slow, steady beat of dread and, in a way, fate, as the score continues and the character gets drawn deeper and deeper into this story that she has almost nothing to do with. I love when she steps away to do something totally-different sounding from the rest of the score, with a track like “Far Away from Home,” with that almost-lullaby feel to it. It’s a terrific score and, while I feel like I’d want more to it, I think what’s there appropriately fits the film. It fits the milieu, it fits the period, the look, it’s perfectly done and it’s one of the rare situations where I can say that no one else could have done this score in quite this way and quite as well as it fits the film.
5. Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, Daniel Pemberton
And that’s the hat trick for Pemberton this year. I love that if you look at all the scores he’s done that’ve made my lists — Steve Jobs, Ocean’s Eight, Into the Spider-Verse, Motherless Brooklyn, Trial of the Chicago 7, Enola Holmes and this — they all sound wildly different. It feels like he takes the spirit of each film and imbues it into the music, whereas a lot of composers (even the big ones) all sort of sound like themselves. Some people like Hans Zimmer have multiple sound wells in which to dip, but Pemberton always feels like he’s doing something new and fresh, and I love that.
Not only that, this entire score does that as well. It starts with that ominous/moody first track and then just bursts out with a track you are just not expecting to hear (the fittingly titled “The Fantabulous Emancipation Explosion”), which somehow fits quirky, confident woman with deeply unhinged. The opera singer? Perfect. And then the next track (“Harley Quinn”) is straight hard rock and sounds like it almost could’ve come off one of the later Soundgarden albums. Then there’s that badass “Birds of Prey” theme that brings back the cuckoo bird sounds (which… also really fitting. Between Harley being unhinged and the whole cartoon bird idea of this being almost cartoonish in execution). Then there’s a techno track that sounds like it came out of a Matrix soundtrack, a low key orchestral tension track (doing a bit of the ‘Jaws’ thing), there’s a track with fucking whistling on it (“Bad Ass Broad”). I’m telling you, the styles are all over the place. The score is somehow wildly over the top and yet perfect. And the best part? You can listen to it. All the tracks are wonderful.
This will for sure only grow in stature for me as time goes on. I love this score.
4. Wendy, Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin
(Technically this is Romer and Zeitlin’s first appearance on a list, but that’s because the 2012 list was very rough and I wasn’t as disciplined and on top of listening to stuff as I am now. But their Beasts of the Southern Wild score is legitimately a top five for me for the decade. So I’m counting this as #2 in spirit.)
What disappointed me with the film itself was absolutely no problem when it came to the score. I really love the Beasts of the Southern Wild score and I still listen to “There Once Was a Hushpuppy” regularly. I have it on my main music playlist along with songs. And so, while this film is essentially them doing “Beasts” again but with a different core story and the score is essentially a different variation on the same sound Romer and Zeitlin used in that film… I’ve got no problem with it. I love the score, so why would I be upset with more of that score? It’s really no different than listening to a bunch of John Williams’ Star Wars scores or Indiana Jones scores. There, he weaves the same couple of themes in and out for the new films and keeps a lot of the soundscape the same while creating different wrinkles for each film — here they’re just using that same energy and feel while making the score feel specific to this film and this story. So I have no problem with them essentially repeating themselves. If it works, keep doing it. What’s that stat — the Kinks found a chord progression that worked so they kept using it? So there’s “You Really Got Me,” “All Day and All of the Night” and I think one more — all were like #1 hits and all sound almost exactly the same. And all great songs. I really have no problem with this. It’s amazing to listen to.
3. Tenet, Lugwig Göransson
(This is Göransson’s third score to make my list, with his Creed score and Black Panther score getting honorable mentions in their respective years.)
I love this score. I’m not surprised. Almost all the original Nolan stuff has made my lists. Interstellar was a top five score for me that year and is one of my favorites of the decade and Dunkirk was #11 that year. So this is no surprise at all. Honestly I like that Göransson added a nice beat below this one. There’s a nice soundscape to it and when he drives up the tension, he does it with bass and not strings. It’s more of a steady, pulsating heartbeat than what we’re used to with Nolan (which, as unfair as it is, we still all come back to Hans Zimmer’s ‘kick’ noise from Inception, which is also how the Dark Knight scores felt a lot of the time as well). The ‘747’ track is a perfect example of how he finds a way to do the big action moments differently while not sacrificing the scale and feeling you want to portray on the screen. Also here, the quieter moments are just as good, if not better, than the big stuff. “Windmills” is wonderful in how it keeps all the major themes going but also gives an undercurrent of emotion (more than it even feels like the film itself has a lot of the time). Even stuff like “Meeting Neil” is great, the way it starts with a relatively simple sound and then builds out the complexity into the larger soundscape of the film. Seriously, there’s not a single bad track on this score.
2. Mank, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
This is only Reznor and Ross’s third appearance on this list, mostly because I began making them in 2012, which came after their Dragon Tattoo and Social Network scores, both of which would’ve for sure made my lists in their respective years. And then when you consider that Reznor has only composed scores for nine films total and six of those scores have been (or are about to be) represented on my lists (Ross has done a few more), that’s pretty impressive.
This score — you just get it immediately. It has shades of Hollywood of the 20s, 30s and 40s. And I think we know I’m a sucker for this type of score. The Artist was my #1 for that year, and I still love that score. And while that one was trying to be very specific to the silent era, this one is more evoking the feel of that era of Hollywood rather than a specific era of film history. It dips its toe into all sorts of genre pools in different tracks, going from silent to almost horror-y (since film scores of those eras weren’t exactly subtle, so Reznor and Ross rightly use the tracks to convey the emotion of each scene), and they even manage to get a little bit of Reznor’s trademark electronic sound in there at times under without making it seem out of place. I really love tracks like “Every Thing You Do,” which just sounds like the background music to some 50s TV show, or “San Simeon Waltz,” which is a completely different pace than all the other tracks, underscoring how life at San Simeon (or Xanadu, if you will) is a completely different reality from the rest of the world. I also love that there’s like 50 tracks on the album. That’s amazing. I know Reznor and Ross tend to have a lot of tracks on their albums but this one somehow feels more fitting, given the era, and how each piece of music is specifically composed for each scene and sequence. This is just one of those wonderful scores. Admittedly it won’t be the one I listen to a ton, but it’s one I respect immensely and will always rate highly.
1. Soul, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross & Jon Batiste
And there you gave it. Double Reznor and Ross. But inarguably, these are two of the absolute best scores of this year. Jon Batiste deserves a lot of credit for his work here, and in a sense, this is two scores in one. So you get double bang for your buck, and both halves of this film score are perfect. This is the sixth animated film score to make my top ten (with only Inside Out being the other film to get #1. Which, as a spiritual cousin to this film, feels fitting). The jazz half of this score is wonderful, and it’s hard not to bop along to all the great stuff Batiste brings to it. There’s a humanity and a life to it that works perfectly with the more ethereal electronic stuff that Reznor and Ross bring to the Great Beyond parts.
It’s funny — I feel like working for Pixar brings out the best in composers. And I’m not sure if it’s that the bar is so high on their material or if they demand composers work harder and put in more effort on the scores or it’s simply that Pixar is the equivalent of total freedom creatively and the fact that they can go further and do these films that go places most live action films can’t that it allows composers to really stretch themselves and go to those places where the best types of creativity come out. But almost consistently, Pixar scores manage to be some of the best scores that come out. This is the third or fourth time I’d rank a Pixar score as my favorite film score of its respective year, and that can’t be by accident. There’s something about what Pixar brings to the table that consistently gets the best out of a composer, both people who I don’t typically put atop my usual year end lists with their other scores (like Thomas Newman and Michael Giacchino) or people you wouldn’t necessarily think are great fits for what Pixar normally does (like Reznor and Ross). And yet, here we are.
– – – – – – – – – – –