Monthly Archives: March 2012

Sound – in 3D!

My friend Carolyn passed this link my way yesterday.  It raises quite a few interesting questions about the future of sound in cinema:

If you don’t have time to watch the video in full, it tells us about a new development in audio-visual technology known as 3D sound.  According Dr. Edgar Choueiri, 3D sound is unique in that it actually spatially places every sound that comes from the speakers in a specific location.  As near as I can tell, this means that if, for instance, a character on the far right of the screen speaks, 3D sound can make it seem like her voice is actually coming from her exact spot onscreen.  In theory, 3D sound is able to simulate the actual auditory space of the image you see on-screen.  In an age where 3D films are becoming more and more immersive, this certainly seems like the next step in cinematic world-building.

But while the idea is intriguing, it comes with major conceptual obstacles if we try to apply it to narrative cinema.  When I first saw this video, my response was simply, “well that’s a great idea, but good luck getting the studios and movie theater chains to invest in it!”  Upon further reflection though, the concept of 3D sound has even bigger conceptual challenges.  The overriding hook of this new technology is that it gives sounds in film specific locations.  The problem with this idea, however, is that it assumes that every sound in film actually has a concrete location.  This is not the case, because A) not every sound has an actual visual referent on-screen, and B) a sound that does have a visual referent isn’t always meant to match that visual referent’s location in space.

That’s probably a mouthful, so let me break this down in slightly simpler terms.  In film, there are roughly two major categories of sound – diegetic sound and non-diegetic sound.  Diegetic sound is sound that exists within the film’s story world – sound that characters themselves can hear.  Dialogue and sound effects tend to be diegetic sounds, for example.  Non-diagetic sound is trickier – it’s sound that exists outside of a film’s story world.  Omniscient narrators and instrumental film music (hey, that’s the topic of this blog!) are generally non-diegetic, because only the audience has access to those sounds.  Why is this relevant?  Because if we’re thinking about sound in terms of three-dimensional film space, non-diegetic sound is impossible localize.  Elements like film music are not actually a part of the three-dimensional space that the audience can see – these audio components exist outside of that world.  Where then, can non-diegetic sound fit in this new 3D sound technology?  It might make sense to have a character’s voice come from that character’s spot onscreen, but what does one do with the massive unseen orchestra that isn’t even part of that onscreen world?  Do we place the score behind the audience, to keep it firmly separated from the visuals?  Do we try to integrate it seamlessly into the images in front of the audience?  Do we arbitrarily assign spatial locations for every instrument of the orchestra?  No matter where we place this music, we’re stuck trying to integrate a huge body of sound into a fictional space where that sound is not actually supposed to exist.  And once we create an expectation that every sound does need to exist in a three-dimensional plane, every sound that doesn’t fit into that logic is going to seem distracting – we’ll be that much more conscious that these non-diegetic sounds don’t belong in this auditory space.

It actually gets even more complicated when we talk about diegetic sound.  In theory, creating a three-dimensional sound space for the dialogue and sound effects should be as simple as attaching each sound to its object in the film’s visual space.  But in practice, sound perspective is not always synchronized to visual perspective.  Frequently, for example, we’ll encounter a long shot of two characters having a conversation that we can hear perfectly.  Even though the camera is very far away from these characters, we can still hear them as though we’re standing right next to them.  Film sacrifices audio clarity for spatial fidelity all the time – if it didn’t, we’d only be able to hear dialogue when the camera was literally right next to the characters.  This means that if we want to develop three-dimensional sound-space, it’s not going to be as simple as placing each diegetic sound on corresponding location on-screen.

Here, however, I do think 3D sound actually does have potential if it’s handled carefully.  In particular, it has the potential to take what theorist Michel Chion refers to as the “point of audition” to exciting new places.  The “point of audition” is essentially the audio equivalent of point of view – our auditory perspective.  Where our point of view is the position from which we see, our point of audition is the position from which we hear.  While it seems like these two points would always be the same – that we would see and hear from the same position – in practice this isn’t the case.  Frequently, film will actually place our points of view and audition into counterpoint with each other.  In a horror film, for example, we might see a man running away from a monster.  Our point of view is that of an outside observer – we don’t see things the way the character sees things, because we’re looking at the character himself.  Our point of audition, however, may very well be designed to situate us inside the character’s head.  While we see the character in front of us, the character’s breathing and the monster’s footsteps have been amplified so that we hear these sounds as the character hears them.  3D sound has the potential to make our point of audition even more vivid.  If it works as well as Dr. Choueiri claims that it works, 3D sound could actually construct a detailed audio perspective in which all sounds come from specific locations around the listener.  A monster’s footsteps wouldn’t simply be amplified – they’d actually sound like they were directly behind us.  In this regard, 3D sound may move us one step closer past the line that separates our subjectivity from a character’s subjectivity.

But in order for that to work, filmmakers would have to think of sound as an entity that is entirely separate from the images onscreen.  This is ultimately the only way I can see this three-dimensional sound concept working in film.  In the video linked about, Choueiri speaks of audio depth as though it were an extension of visual depth.  This logic might be conducive to filming a live event from a single camera, but it is not conducive to narrative cinema.  If 3D sound is going to have a place in our movie-going future, then it needs to develop a logic that isn’t strictly image-bound.  This logic will likely be extremely complex, and it will force filmmakers to constantly make decisions that weren’t even possible prior to this technology.  It will mean constantly making very specific decisions about point of audition – filmmakers will need to account for the audience’s specific location in the film’s soundscape for literally every moment in the film.   Non-diegetic sound is still going to be an obstacle, but it wouldn’t be such an insurmountable obstacle if we don’t think of sound as a literal extension of the visual space.  In an ideal scenario, three-dimensional audio equipment would not simply attempt to make  CGI-enhanced 3D fantasies seem more real.  Rather, three-dimensional audio equipment would enhance the independent power that sound already carries in the cinema.


Film Score Review: John Carter

Composed by Michael Giacchino.  Released by Walt Disney, 2012.

The media decided that Andrew Stanton’s massive-budgeted space opera, John Carter, was one of the cinema’s greatest commercial disasters before the film even premiered this weekend (more evidence, as if we needed any, that 24-hour entertainment journalism is severely distorting the way we look at movies).  I haven’t seen the film yet, but I hope it manages to prove the naysayers wrong for two reasons.  One, because Stanton, director of Pixar’s Finding Nemo and WALL-E, is a brilliant filmmaker, and it would be a shame to see his live-action filmmaking career cut short in its tracks because Disney didn’t know how to market John Carter.  Two, because the film has given composer Michael Giacchino the rare chance to write a bold, thematic, and epic orchestral score, the kind that studio heads are convinced that audiences don’t want anymore.  I want the movie to do well in part because I want the studios to realize that, hey, there actually is an audience for old-fashioned symphonic adventure music.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s productive to place too much stock in what the score stands for.  I miss the days when popcorn movies received shamelessly melodic orchestral scores as much as the next child of the ’80s, and I’d like to see them come back.  But I also recognize the danger in mindlessly lavishing praise on a new score just because it’s competently orchestrated and has a discernible theme.  I’m not particularly pleased with today’s film music climate, but I also think we should be cautious of getting so caught up in nostalgia that we blind ourselves to genuine innovation.  With that in mind, Michael Giacchino is a composer who’s balanced nostalgia and innovation as deftly as any I can think of in his generation.  With scores for The Incredibles, Star Trek, Up, Super 8, and the last two Missions: Impossible, he’s written music that fondly recalls the film music of bygone eras, but he’s also developed a contemporary voice that keeps him from seeming out-of-date to modern-day directors and producers.  I’m not always the hugest fan of his music, but I respect what he’s been able to do immensely.  In his 8 years writing feature film scores, he seems to have become the most sought-after contemporary composer after Hans Zimmer, and that he’s managed to do it without playing Zimmer’s game is pretty admirable.

John Carter is in many ways the cumulation of everything that he’s achieved so far.  I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say it’s his best (his work on Ratatouille and Lost sets a high bar), but it’s easily his biggest crowd-pleaser.  Here he’s written a score that’s nearly impossible for film music fans to dislike.  It has the grandeur and earnestness of old-fashioned Hollywood adventure, the contemporary Middle Eastern exotica of modern-day Hollywood epics, and its all rounded off with Giacchino’s own signature action/drama music that he’s been developing since Lost.  Moreover, he manages to tie all of this together in a very coherent and very entertaining package that seems to bring out the best in all of the above-mentioned worlds.  In many ways, it feels much more like a hybrid of Giacchino in Lost mode and James Horner at his fantasy peak in the early ’90s.  The theme, as others have pointed out, even has a vague hint of Horner’s Glory (not to mention every score in which Horner reuses that theme), and the score feels like it would fit right in with any of the big thematic fantasy scores that were all over the place two decades ago.

That said, I do think it’s worth pointing out that while it would fit in with the much-loved fantasy scores of decades past, it wouldn’t necessarily stand with the best of them.  Many members of the film music community have been bursting with superlatives for this score, even going so far as to compare it to Williams at his peak in the late 1970s.  While I’m happy that so many people have found new music to love, I also think a little perspective might be in order.  Midway through my 3rd listen to this album, I came to the following series of realizations:  A) a brief passage reminded me of Goldsmith’s 1999 score for The Mummy, B) I didn’t find this score anywhere near as memorable as Goldsmith’s The Mummy, C) The Mummy is actually pretty low on my list of favorite Goldsmith scores, D) I’m not even the world’s biggest Goldsmith fan, and finally, E) that this line of thinking is really depressing.  Now it’s ridiculous to knock John Carter down because it doesn’t quite hold its own with the best scores it’s recalling, particularly as Giacchino’s managed to keep the music resolutely in his own voice.  But while the score is very entertaining, coherent, and satisfying, I don’t know that it’s a lot more than that.  It doesn’t move or excite me the way the best adventure music moves and excites me, and while I imagine that in five year’s time I’ll still occasionally give the score a spin (erm…through my iPod…), I doubt there will be many occasions in which I choose John Carter over Star Wars, The RocketeerCutthroat Island, or, yes, The Mummy.

Now this is not a reasonable expectation to set for any new piece of music, and it probably seems churlish to complain about a score that’s this good, simply because it doesn’t quite stand with the best of the best.  But my reservations aren’t really for Giacchino’s music itself, which is very, very good.  My reservations are rather for the prevailing attitude that champions an entertaining diversion as the best of the best, simply because it represents something that we miss.  Regardless of how well the film performs, I hope that Michael Giacchino gets the chance to write more scores like John Carter.  I also, however, hope that he gets to expand his palate further, that he finds more chances to be innovative, that he finds more opportunities to experiment with music that isn’t immediately crowd pleasing, even if it’s more substantial.  And I hope that the people who have been so quick to herald John Carter as the return to film music’s glory days are just as receptive when Giacchino takes them to more meaningful places.

Rating: **** out of *****

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Thoughts on The Lorax

As the title of this post indicates, I caved and saw The Lorax.  Actually, caved isn’t the right word, because I always knew this was going to happen.  I’ve been an enormous admirer of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) for as long as I’ve had memories, so much so that I even made him the subject of my undergraduate honors thesis.  As terrible as the film adaptations have generally been, I’m always compelled to see them.  And it isn’t just masochism, though it certainly feels like that sometimes.  I’m fully aware that Hollywood’s adaptations of Seuss books have ranged from mediocre (Horton Hears a Who!) to wretched (The Cat in the Hat), but I maintain that these films have the potential to be good.  A lot of critics blame the awfulness of these films on the impossibility of adapting a slim children’s book into a feature-length film, but there’s no reason that this couldn’t work in the right hands.  Ted Geisel himself expanded his short children’s stories into 24-minute animated specials, and in each case the expansion actually enriched the original story.  Moreover, there is something inherently compelling about the idea of seeing Geisel’s iconic images come to life in a cinematic context.  So despite the mediocre reviews and horrid marketing campaign (more on this later), I did walk into The Lorax with as open a mind as possible.  I didn’t expect to be pleased, but I was more than willing to be surprised.  Now after seeing the film, I’m still sorting through my reaction.  It certainly has its share of problems, some of which it shares with previous Seuss adaptations.  But the film is fascinating, even in its shortcomings, in ways that put it slightly ahead of its immediate predecessors.  The film ultimately doesn’t work, but its reasons for not working are as much a reflection on the nature of The Lorax as a story itself as they are a reflection on the challenges of making a contemporary Hollywood children’s film.

Before I even go into the film, it’s worth spending a little time reflecting on the book itself.  It’s easy for those of us who grew up with the book not to notice this, but The Lorax is a very strange children’s book.  Earlier Dr. Seuss books had heroes with big imaginations and ambitions, heroes who strove to remake the world into one of their fantasies.  They faced opposition from stern, severe father figures who lacked imagination and attempted to suppress those fantastical flights of fancy.  This dynamic accurately describes The Lorax too, but with a severe difference.  Here, the imaginative hero has big ambitions that ultimately destroy the world, and the stern father figure rebukes the hero because he’s trying to stave off that destruction.  Think back on it – who is the protagonist of this story?  It’s not the title character.  No, it’s the Once-ler – he’s the character who tells the story, who drives the action, and who appeals directly to the audience’s sympathies throughout.  Yet from the start, he is a selfish, manipulative, entrepreneur, and his greed escalates until he finally transforms the world into a barren wasteland.  As if this wasn’t bleak enough, we also learn at the end that he’s spent his last several decades isolated in his tower, stewing over his guilt as his buildings crumple around him.  And just to make the character just-that-little-bit extra hard to sympathize with, Geisel doesn’t even show us the Once-ler’s face.  The character is represented entirely by his arms, which keeps the story’s protagonist from even looking human.

And yet somehow the character still does feel extremely human, which is part of the reason that the book has endured so long despite it’s darkness.  The Once-ler goes through a personal journey over the course of 60 illustrated pages, and while that journey is bleak, it’s powerful enough to resonate even with the children who don’t fully understand it.  The Once-ler has many appealing character qualities, not the least of which is his ambitious imagination.  And while he does destroy the world, he isn’t evil – he sympathizes with the animals he’s displacing, and he feels guilt when he watches them leave.  But he rationalizes and rationalizes that guilt until finally, guilt is all he has left.  It’s a powerful concept, and, I would argue, one that is just as much about Geisel’s own guilt as it is about the dangers of deforestation.  Four years prior to the publication of The Lorax, Ted Geisel’s wife committed suicide, spurred largely by Ted’s affair with Audrey Stone (who he later married).  Biographical speculation is always dangerous, but it’s hard not to see The Once-ler locked in his tower “worrying and worrying away” over the destruction he caused and not see Geisel worrying about his own role in his wife’s fatal spiral into depression.  That’s not to say that the book only has a private biographical meaning, but it does help us make sense of the book as a broader apology from one generation to the next. The Once-ler stands in for a generation took what exactly what it wanted from life and didn’t look at the consequences until it was too late.  With The Lorax, Geisel is apologizing to the next generation, and grimly informing his audience that the only way things can get “better” is if today’s children learn to be better than their parents.

That’s an awful lot for a filmmaking team to take on.  Even if we push aside my biographical speculation, we still have with a story in which our protagonist turns the world into a barren wasteland and our title character is an irritating nag (who just happens to be right).  Having said that, there are ways in which The Lorax is the Seuss book that most befits a feature-length adaptation.  It has an epic scope that takes place over the course of decades, and it actually recalls Citizen Kane in the way it charts the life of a man who rises and falls through his own ambition.  Geisel depicts the gradual decline of both the character and his environment remarkably effectively in such a short space, but the story could easily benefit from a fuller expansion.  This would all be well and good if Hollywood was willing to make The Lorax as “My First Greek Tragedy” and embrace the darkness of the story.  But there’s no way they could market a film like that in a post-Shrek era.  Ultimately, the filmmakers have to take a story that has the arc of a Greek tragedy and turn it into something fun and upbeat.  It’s a project that seems so impossible that it has to be interesting no matter how badly it turns out, right?

But here’s what’s fascinating about the finished film itself: the filmmakers have tried to both embrace the darkness AND keep things light-hearted.  They have, on the one hand, created a film that mostly exists in a sunny world filled with cute animal antics, catchy songs, and a happy ending.  But they also include segments full of corporate satire that is just as vicious as anything in Geisel’s original story, and they keep Lorax and Once-ler’s final confrontation startlingly bleak.  These two poles don’t manage to co-exist coherently, but it’s remarkable that they manage to co-exist at all.  The filmmakers have attempted to stave off the darkness of the story, not by softening it, but by surrounding the darkness in large swaths of lighthearted merrymaking.  The logic seems to be that if the film compresses all of the bleak material into one small section, the audience won’t be overly bothered.  This makes sense to a point, but it certainly seems more risky than it would be to simply eliminate the darkness all-together.

As it stands, the filmmakers have taken an interesting strategy, but it backfires on the film.  For one thing, it leaves us with a narratively lopsided story.  The film technically maintains the story arc of the book, from the Once-ler’s arrival in the pristine valley to the reveal of the last Truffula seed.  But because the film is squeamish around the bleaker aspects of the story, it squeezes the bulk of this narrative into a single musical number.  The entire middle section of the book – from the creation of the Once-ler’s first factory to his final confrontation with The Lorax – is conveyed through a montage/music video.  When the montage begins, Truffula Valley is pristine, and the Once-ler is a decent-ish guy who’s just made a single bad decision.  By the time we leave the montage, years seem to have passed, and the Once-ler is now corrupt, rich, and moments away from chopping down the last Truffula tree.  Even for an audience that hasn’t read the book, this should seem strange.  We have time for over a half hour of inconsequential pratfalls involving teddy bears and chipmunk fish, but we don’t have time to witness our formerly sympathetic protagonist’s moral corruption?  Isn’t that supposed to be the plot of this movie?  And when the Once-ler’s story is over and he’s passed on the last seed to the boy, we still have time to waste.  We sit through a solid 15 minutes of the kid’s various adventures trying to plant the seed, as though the needless chase scenes that ensue are the real climax of the story.

To further take our attention away from any darkness, the film also gives us a much happier ending than that of the book (so SPOILER ALERT and all that).  To an extent, this is justifiable.  While we never actually see the child at the end of Geisel’s book planting the last Truffula seed, we understand that this is likely going to happen.  So it doesn’t bother me that the film wants to depict that moment and milk it for its emotional payoff.  The crowd gathering round to sing about the new tree, kumbaya though it may be, echos the ending of The Grinch nicely, and I even liked the moment where the Once-ler hears the crowd and breaks through his window.  It’s more explicitly hopeful than the book, but it’s emotionally satisfying in a way that enhances the message without undermining it.  This would be a fine place to end, but unfortunately, this still isn’t happy enough for the filmmakers.  So we jump ahead a few years and see that Truffula trees have now been re-planted all over the valley.  The Lorax even returns to give The Once-ler a hug and congratulate him on the good job he’s doing.  Here, the film moves past a message of tentative hope and into a message of, “See, everything’s all better!”  That message rings false in reality (we haven’t exactly fixed the environment yet), and it rings false in the context of the film’s story.  The Once-ler and his kind did tragically destroy the world, and to end on a note of “it’s fixed!” undermines the severity of those bad decisions.

Yet for all the film’s attempts to balance out the gloominess with smiles, there are aspects of the film that keep the book’s power.  The film doesn’t get dark frequently, but when it does, it pulls no punches.  The Once-ler’s corruption montage, for example, hits about every satirical target from Geisel’s story and then some.  The Once-ler becomes the embodiment of every hypocritical corporate spokesman of the past decade, and the film is particularly savvy about the Once-ler’s PR spin for his destructive practices.  Ironically in fact, the film even seems to satirize its own marketing strategy.  It’s no secret that Universal has turned The Lorax into a marketing shill over the past several months – we’ve seen the character whored out to sell everything from iHop pancakes Mazda SUVs.  Those of us who grew up with the story have been unsurprisingly outraged, as the SUVs in particular seem to go against every environmental message that The Lorax stands for:

But what’s strange is that the film seems to agree with us.  At one point, for example, the Once-ler justifies his actions by noting that “a portion of proceeds goes to charity,” a line that recalls Mazda’s own paltry donations to school reading programs as justification for using The Lorax to invade elementary schools and push SUVs on children.  At another point in the montage, the Once-ler uses a photoshopped picture of the Lorax to advertise “Lorax-approved Thneeds,” a move that recalls Mazda’s own disingenuous “Truffula Seal of Approval” in their SUV commercials.  Studio filmmaking involves so many competing artistic and corporate interests that it’s not surprising when the film and the marketing aren’t completely in-synch.  But I can’t think of another instance in which a film, coincidentally or not, has attacked its own marketing campaign with such vicious specificity.

And satire aside, the film also maintains the raw power of that final showdown between the Onceler and the Lorax.  The scene arrives abruptly, but it’s devastating nevertheless.  While the filmmakers don’t retain any of the book’s verse dialogue, they do paraphrase the content faithfully, and the Once-ler’s indignant “I haven’t done anything illegal!” defense is a particularly nice dig at modern corporate ethos.  And however much they try to hide the sequence between catchy musical numbers, the filmmakers do understand its visceral iconic power.  The Onceler’s near-demonic rant atop his balcony, the image of a single tree falling in a vast wasteland, and the Lorax’s grim expression as he ascends out of the wreckage are all hauntingly captured.  The sequence also works so well because it allows the music to carry a large portion of the emotional weight.   Composer John Powell spends most of the movie busy with cheesily catchy musical numbers and light-hearted Mickey-Mousing, but in this sequence he lets the full tragedy of the story rip without any restraint.  The near-biblical choir gives the sequence mournful gravity, and the brass blast that cuts off the Onceler’s rant as the last tree falls is particularly gut-wrenching.  The sequence succeeds where the rest of the film fails in making all of this loss feel real.

Granted, the film does everything it can to rush right back into light-hearted territory when the sequence is over (it even manages to make the Onceler’s explanation of his decades spent fretting over the “Unless” monument seem like a light-hearted aside).  But when all is said and done, I suspect that these intensely bleak scenes will linger far longer than the fluffiness that surrounds them.  They’re rare moments that enhance the affective power of Geisel’s book, and they transcend the needless filler that makes up the rest of the film.  It is perhaps for this reason that I have a hard time fully condemning the movie.  I can’t actually say that it’s a good film, because as a whole, it’s not.  The film has all of the market-research-driven irritations that make up so many non-Pixar animated films, and it constantly sacrifices story for crowd-pleasing fluff.  But it also contains a precious few genuinely moving standalone sequences that nearly attain greatness.  I’m sure this is in part due to a talented team of filmmakers getting away with the little art they can slip in to a formulaic studio film, but much of that credit also belongs to Dr. Seuss himself.  With The Lorax, he created a story so moving and so compelling that it’s even managed to survive a trip through Hollywood’s cookie-cutter factory with some of its original power left intact.


Best Film Scores of 2011

It’s pretty rare for film music to receive any attention outside of its niche, but 2011 was an interesting exception.  Film music, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, persistently became the subject of media controversy.  Between Kim Novak calling “rape” because The Artist used a passage from Bernard Herrmann’s score to Vertigo, Sasha Frere-Jones lashing out at the Academy’s Music Branch for overlooking critical darlings like Drive, and The Music Branch reducing Best Original Song to near-nonexistence, film music received more coverage from the press this year than it has in the past 10 years combined.  Now that the Oscar fervor has finally died away, I thought this might be a good time to share my own thoughts on the year’s best in film music.  Not every film you’ll see in the list below is great, but they all inspired exceptional music from their composers.  Below are some thoughts on my five favorite scores from last year, as well as a few runners-up that are also well-worth your time:

The Tree of Life – Alexandre Desplat

This is arguably a cheat, given that Desplat’s score was scarcely used in Malick’s film at all.  Malick, after having Desplat compose and record his score, ultimately decided on a soundtrack comprised of more overtly emotional concert music.  But while Desplat’s music, which the composer apparently wrote before he’d even seen the film, only receives a few minutes of screen time, his soundtrack album practically plays like a symphony in its own right.  With its delicate orchestration, contemplative minimalism, and movements through both grace and agony, Desplat’s score reflects the film’s thematic exploration even if it rarely appears in the film.  Beautifully developed pieces like “River” and “Circles” are as close as film music comes to pure concert music, and the album as a whole is remarkably organic.  It’s iffy as to whether Tree of Life counts as a film score, but in its way, Desplat’s music is just as powerful and profound as the film that inspired the score.

Hugo – Howard Shore

If we’re speaking purely in terms of in-film effectiveness, Shore’s score would be at the top of this list.  Scorsese may have directed his first children’s fantasy, but Shore does not give the film children’s fantasy music.  Instead, he creates a mix of old-world Parisian accordion waltzes, 1920s silent film idioms, and Shore’s own particular brand of blunt melancholy.  Despite the disparate styles, the music always feels completely coherent, and while it’s achingly affecting in the film, it’s never sentimental.  Shore’s accordion waltz in particular is a great sideways approach to affect – it doesn’t seem like music that would make sense for a lonely orphaned child, but it ultimately creates far more empathy for the character than a more straightforward lullaby or lyrical “children’s theme” might have.  And Shore somehow manages to write a large portion of this score in a long-forgotten musical idiom without sacrificing any emotional accessibility.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Alberto Iglesias

I was very happy to see this get an Oscar nomination, even though it was far too subtle to win.  I didn’t particularly like the music when I heard it on album, but it’s brilliant psychological scoring in the film itself.  The music in the final act is particularly powerful, as Iglesias rapidly builds layer upon layer of urgent anxiety while the plot closes in on the characters.  Music, more than any other element in film, has the ability to place the audience in a character’s subjective position, and it’s rare for a score to achieve that as thoroughly as Tinker, Tailor.

War Horse – John Williams

I don’t necessarily agree with the people who are calling this Williams at his best, but Williams’ defiantly old-fashioned score is integral to Spielberg’s film.  The themes are more subtle than they’ve been in the past, but Williams evocation of Vaughan-Williams pastorale is beautiful, and the material develops with subtle intelligence.  Some film critics accused the score of overt “pushiness,” but they seemed to miss that the score is harkening back to an earlier era in Hollywood when film music was supposed to take an active storytelling role.  Williams is much more subtle than any of John Ford’s composers, but he drives the film just as powerfully as Max Steiner drove films like The Informer and The Searchers.  The music for Joey’s race through the trenches is especially powerful, and it’s remarkably effective in communicating the horse’s urgent desperation.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Patrick Doyle

Doyle took a lot of flack from the film music community for this score.  This is in part because he turned away from his romantic orchestral style in favor of contemporary Remote Control percussion, and in part because his score is so much more conventional than any other score for The Planet of the Apes series (the franchise is famous for bringing out the most extreme avant-garde impulses from its composers).  But while he doesn’t attempt any of Goldsmith’s brazen experiments from the original film, Doyle does carry much of the film’s emotional narrative.  For all the debate over whether Andy Serkins or Weta deserves primary credit for Caesar’s performance, it’s worth pointing out that Doyle is much of the reason that we have so much access to the hero’s emotional life.  Doyle is the reason that we feel so much exileration when Caesar discovers the Redwood forest, and so much raw rage during the prison revolt.  The composer’s newfound attention to minimalistic simplicity has also lead to a remarkable level of clarity in his writing, and his subtle motifs develop organically as the story progresses.

Beyond the top five:

Dario Marianelli’s Jane Eyre is an beautiful composition that features some exquisite violin solos.  Patrick Doyle’s turn to Nyman and Glass’s brand of minimalism in La Ligne Droit produced some vibrant small-ensemble work.  Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a monster at three hours, but much of the material is compelling, and the production is brilliant.  Mars Needs Moms wasn’t much of a movie, but it gave John Powell the canvas for some of his most dynamic work, with big theme-driven music that was alternately quirky, thrilling, and wrenching.  Similarly, Abel Korkeniowsky’s music for W.E. may have accompanied a critically lambasted film, but taken alone, his romantic score is practically a primer on late 20th century concert hall minimalism.

Ultimately, I didn’t love anything from 2011 the way I’ve loved the best music from the past decade, but there was nevertheless a wealth of excellent music written for the screen last year, and it gave me much to savor.