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.