The Ten Best Film Scores of 2012

It’s been awfully quiet at Movie Music Musings for the past few months, but that’s changing this February.  As people who follow the movie industry know, Hollywood’s year doesn’t end until the annual Academy Awards ceremony wraps in late February.  With that in mind, for the next several weeks I will be contributing my own “best of” lists for the year’s end, as well as my reflections on the Oscar Nominations themselves.  Because this would be a gargantuan blog post if I attempted to do this all in one go, I’ve elected to break the year-end reflections up into 4 separate posts:  Best scores of 2012, Best films of 2012, my rundown of the Best Picture nominees, and my rundown of the Best Film Score nominees.  If, by February 24 you aren’t sick of Movie Music Musings, it won’t be for lack of trying on my part.

With that in mind, here are my personal choices for the ten best film scores of 2012.  Picking this list was not easy.  Most film scores have two different lives – one in the film itself, and one on the soundtrack album.  In making my selections, I tend to favor the former and single out the scores that have significant impact in their respective films, regardless of any entertainment value on the standalone soundtrack albums.  This isn’t a hard and fast rule, however.  Sometimes music that was clearly had the potential to make a film shine gets either edited beyond recognition in post-production or mixed so poorly beneath the dialogue and sound effects that it might as well not exist.  In the occasions where it seems clear to me that great film music was given less than ideal treatment in a film, I often go with my gut instinct and include the score in my list anyway.  This list is of course always a work in progress, and I suspect that my thoughts on some of these scores will change years down the line.  But my below are my best guesses for the present, in reverse order:

The 10 Best Film Scores of 2012

10.  Zero Dark Thirty – Alexandre Desplat

At some point in the last half-decade, Desplat went from being a well-respected composer of European art scores to being the most prolific and in-demand composer in Hollywood .  In truth he’s probably too prolific, and his scores can often fall into listless monotony as a result.  But when he’s on, as he is in Zero Dark Thirty, his dramatic instincts perfectly compliment his sense of restraint.  This score is subtle and sparsely spotted throughout the film, but when it does appear – often under the dialogue – it always has a tangible psychological effect on the drama.  But it’s his music for the journey to Bin Laden’s compound is the real reason the score is on this list.  As the SEALS’ helicopters chug quietly over the mountains leading into Pakistan, Desplat’s  relentlessly grim strings churn with the helicopter blades while brass chords heave with mounting anxiety.  The music elevates the sequence to cinematic poetry, and serves as a chilling prelude to what is by far one of the greatest sequences in any Hollywood film of the past decade.  I have problems with Zero Dark Thirty as a film that I’ll elaborate on in a different post, but Desplat’s music is certainly not one of them.

9.  Prometheus – Marc Streitenfeld

Believe me, nobody is more surprised than me than this ended up making my cut.  Prior to Prometheus, Streitenfeld seemed like one of the single worst composers working in Hollywood, a musician capable of little more than generic keyboard noodlings whose best quality was that he knew how to stay out of the way.  Yet in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s provocative science-fiction epic/backdoor prequel to Alien, the composer reveals an imagination that he never even hinted at in his earlier scores.  This is bleak, probing orchestral music that very much in keeping with the best scores of the Alien franchise.   Streitenfeld strikes a perfect balance between grim, long-winded melodies and atmospheric probing that isn’t a million miles away from Goldsmith’s own experiments in the original Alien score.  Synthesizers play a role, but they’re treated like unique instruments rather than substitutes for the orchestra (their usage here actually reminds me of later Goldsmith scores like Legend and Total Recall).  A majestic choral piece by Harry Gregson-Williams ends up playing a much more obvious role in the film itself, but it’s Streitenfeld’s theme, heard most prominently during the climatic collision sequence, that cuts to the heart of the story.  Tragic and portentous, it carries the weight of the film’s futile theological inquiries. If this is what Streitenfeld is actually capable of when given free rein, I actually do look forward to seeing what he does next.

8.  Cosmopolis – Howard Shore and Metric

I don’t know if any contemporary composer’s range astounds me more than that of Howard Shore.  Much of his greatness, as both a film composer and an artist in general, comes from his constant willingness to throw himself into unfamiliar territory.  Here, the man most famous for his operatic Lord of the Rings scores abandons himself entirely to moody synth-pop, collaborating with Metric for an extremely rare thing – a contemporary electronica score that’s actually current with contemporary electronica.  This being a Shore score for  Cronenberg film, the music favors texture and rhythmic drive over melody, but it’s amazing how seamlessly Shore’s signature menacing mood music flows into Metric’s idiom.  And though that mood remains consistent, Shore and Metric do give the score a musical arc that mirrors that of the anti-hero’s rapid fall from non-grace.  What begins as a seemingly unbreakable tone of gloomy ennui gradually builds in intensity until the score explodes into raw despair in its final minutes.  Cronenberg never manages to turn Delillo’s oblique novel into a wholly successful piece of cinema, but Shore and Metric have found the story’s ideal musical corollary.

7.  Beasts of the Southern Wild – Behn Zeitlin and Dan Rohmer

I wrote about this score at length in my earlier review, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  Suffice to say though, this was one of the purest expressions of raw musical affect in any film this year.  True, the score is simple and rough around the edges.  But like the film itself, this music is emotionally direct in ways that, without resorting to sentiment whatsoever, are almost certain to reduce even the curmudgiest of curmudgeon to tears.

6.  Paranorman – Jon Brion

Brion’s jangly indie rock sensibility usually finds its home in projects from Charlie Kauffman, David O Russel, and Paul Thomas Anderson, so the idea of him scoring an animated children’s film was certainly a surprise.  Even more surprising, however, is the fact that Brion has managed to keep his signature sound more or less intact.  It’s one thing to hear Brion’s ambling melancholy guitars over a Charlie Kauffman monologue, but it’s quite another to hear them juxtaposed over a lonely animated boy’s interactions with cartoonish zombies.  Rather than water down his style, Brion uses it to provide unique insight into a genre usually dominated by madcap Mickey-Mousing.  Though the score has its moments of traditional orchestral mayhem, Brion ultimately treats his lonely child hero the same way he treats every damaged Emo hero in his indie films – with quirky charm that only barely holds back a core of nearly unbearable sadness.

5.  Brave – Patrick Doyle

Doyle is one of our best living film composers, but he disappointed a lot of his fans last year when he opted to adapt his signature orchestral style to the more contemporary language of power anthems and drum loops for films like Thor and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  While I personally thought those scores were just fine, it is nice to see him back in more traditional Doyle mode in Brave, the biggest showcase he’s had for his considerable musical gifts in some time.  A rare Celtic-flavored score that actually sounds like authentic Celtic music, Doyle manages to capture both the sweeping Scottish setting and the intimate character drama, all the while constantly keeping his finger precisely on the film’s emotional pulse.  His best contribution, however, is his song “Noble Maiden Fair,” a lullaby that features prominently both in the plot and in the non-diegetic underscore.  A duet sung by both mother and daughter that could easily be mistaken for an ancient Celtic air, the melody manages to wed the story’s dual concerns about the power of the mother-daughter bond and the value of ancient legends far more gracefully than the film does itself.  When the lullaby reappears at a pivotal moment during the film’s climax, it’s one of the most powerful moments in any movie this year.

4.  The Master – Johnny Greenwood

I reviewed this one a few months back, so there isn’t much need to go into it again, but in short:  this is brilliant, beguiling, and thoroughly challenging music from one of the most astonishing director/composer relationships of recent memory (though in fairness, the same could also be said for Anderson’s earlier work with Jon Brion).  I was reserved in my praise in the earlier review, but repeated listens continue to reveal more nuances in this multilayered work.  It doesn’t totally upend film music conventions the same composer did for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but Greenwood’s score for The Master is immensely intelligent and original film music.

3.  Dark Shadows – Danny Elfman

Another score I’ve already reviewed, so little more to say here other than that Danny Elfman had an incredible year, with six, SIX major scores, each strong in entirely different ways.  Dark Shadows is easily the best of the lot, however – it refines and perfects the gothic melodrama upon which Elfman made his name, but it also seamlessly reinvents long-forgotten cult horror music idioms from the ’60s and ’70s.  Like Burton’s film, Elfman’s score is a concentrated attempt at reanimating a long-forgotten pop cultural memory – unlike Burton’s film, the music is an unqualified success, virtually a conversation between Elfman and the ghosts of composers like Les Baxter and Robert Cobert.

2.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Howard Shore

For quite a few people in the film music community, no score from 2012 was more anticipated than The Hobbit.  With the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Howard Shore wrote what is frankly one of the greatest and most important works of film music, period.  It was going to be impossible to write anything that lived up to that, especially given that The Hobbit is far slighter material.  But Shore responded in the best manner possible, taking the lighter story as an opportunity to take a more playful approach to the action, all while subtly planting the seeds for his later scores in the saga.  While familiar themes return, what’s most impressive is the way he manages to build new motifs that somehow still develop directly into the later Rings films (listen, for example, to the way he builds the theme for the dwarfs from a brief chord progression that accompanied the reveal of the abandoned dwarf kingdom in Fellowship of the Ring).  In fairness, the score in the film itself was heavily edited and re-worked into something much less subtle and more melodically extroverted (Shore’s original conception can be heard undiluted on the Special Edition album).  A few strange thematic juxtapositions result, but honestly, the music is excellent in both its film and album forms.  The film version gives the picture the visceral kick of adventure it needs, while the album version provides rich fodder for countless hours of closer study for geeks such as myself.  The music technically falls short of the Lord of the Rings scores in that it isn’t one of the ten greatest scores ever written, but Howard Shore’s worst Middle Earth music is better than all but a few of his peers’ career high points.

1.  Life of Pi – Michael Danna

The biggest surprise this year, and thankfully one that other people seemed to notice as well.  Danna has always been one of the smartest composers working in the film industry, but in the past his intellect has sometimes been a mixed blessing – Danna can be SO intellectual in his music that he at times comes across as cold and clinical (qualities that ultimately resulted in his last score for an Ang Lee film – 2003’s Hulk – getting rejected by the studio).  This could not be further from the case with Life of Pi, which is quite simply the most moving and piercing beautiful score of 2012.  Though the East-Asian influences, subtle melodies, spiritual choral music, and delicate orchestration are very much hallmarks of the composer’s previous work, here all of those elements merge into a disarmingly innocent and vulnerable musical perspective.  Like the title character, the score quietly wears its heart squarely on its sleeve, and it guides us through both the charming whimsy and the devastating crises of faith that oscillate throughout the film .  This is a score that completely deserves all the accolades it’s been receiving, and it’s a high-water mark for one Hollywood’s most undervalued composers.

Ten more well worth your time:  The ImpossibleAnna Karenina, HitchcockPromised LandFrankenweenie, Les Souciens des SuicidesSkyfall, The Avengers, John Carter, and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

Best Song Compilation Scores from 2012:  I tend to evaluate film scores themselves rather than the song compilations that often make up film soundtracks, but I couldn’t let this post end without mentioning three particularly excellent song scores from the past year:  Django Unchained, Moonrise Kingdom, Lawless, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Great Score Albums that Don’t Quite Work as Film Scores:  Film scoring is a delicate balance, and sometimes music that is great in its own right ends up having a detrimental effect in the film it’s meant to support.  Below are three scores that fit that description – I’ve spent far too much time listening to and enjoying them this year to not mention them here, but I can’t in good conscience include them in the list above when they each actively harm the films they accompany.

Lincoln – John Williams

As a tone poem about Abraham Lincoln, Williams’ score is pretty faultless – built on noble and stoic harmonies that suggest Copland without quoting him, Williams’ score is the ideal accompaniment for a tour of the National Mall.  But in the film itself, the score too often forces an uplifting interpretations of ethically dubious events that are best left up to the audience.  I’ll talk about this more when I write about the Oscar nominees, but the best way to appreciate this score is on the soundtrack album, where you can enjoy the noble Americana without feeling as though its twisting your arm.

The Dark Knight Rises – Hans Zimmer and friends

As a score album, The Dark Knight Rises contains some of my favorite material of the year, including some legitimately epic payoff to the prolonged restraint that plagued Zimmer’s first two Batman scores.  But in the film, the score embodies both everything that Zimmer’s good at and everything that he’s done to seriously damage the art of film scoring.  When the score is at it’s best, it brings a genuine element of emotionally charged drama to the proceedings.  But as with seemingly Zimmer score, the composer and his team have spotted the music so haphazardly; it surges to extreme levels when nothing of note is happening onscreen, yet somehow whispers anonymously when climactic things actually are happening.  A lot of this is a result of Zimmer’s committee approach to film scoring that I probably shouldn’t get into here.  Whatever his methods, however, I wish Zimmer would just approach a film score as a complete narrative entity, rather than a series of vaguely connected cues that can be plastered onto the screen at random.

The Amazing Spider-man – James Horner

This one is less a great score album than a guilty pleasure album, but Horner’s Spider-man score  makes for a very enjoyable and relaxing fantasy concept album if you can get over the dated new age beats.  That said, it’s a terrible film score.  Horner’s fans often laud him for his ability to write emotional music, but frankly, Horner in the past 15 years has demonstrated that he can score precisely 2 emotions: sentimental joy (“That’s so wonderful that you should just cry!”) and sentimental sadness  (“That’s so terrible you should just cry!”).   These two emotions are the extent of his contribution to The Amazing Spider-man, and they smother the film from start to finish, with absolute disregard to what’s actually happening onscreen.  Every now and then a cue works in context, but because Horner expects us to be just as unspeakably moved by Peter’s casual exit from the subway as he does for the death of Peter’s uncle, the few moments that do work get buried in the sap.  This is, make no mistake, very pretty and pleasurable music in its own right, but it couldn’t be more at odds with the angsty teen character drama and superheroic action onscreen.

And with that negativity out of the way, I’ll end with my…

Favorite Movie Music Moments from 2012 (in no particular order):

Batman clawing his way out of the pit while Zimmer’s urgent music pounds along with him in The Dark Knight Rises– one of the rare moments where Zimmer’s Batman music is completely in-synch with the drama onscreen.  The impact is only slightly compromised by the fact that the same cue plays earlier during a far less significant action scene.

The cathartic reprisal of the main theme as Hush-Puppy marches towards the camera at the end of Beasts of a Southern Wild – it’s about as close as a film score can come to bursting into song without actually bursting into song.

The return of “Noble Maiden Fair” during the last sunrise in Brave.

Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme emerging for the first time when the superheroes gather into a huddle during the final showdown – it actually gets a cheer out of the audience.

Michael Danna’s overbearing anguish as Pi screams at his maker during the last storm in Life of Pi.

The racing variation on the Shire theme as Bilbo Baggins giddily sprints through Hobbiton to catch up with the dwarfs in The Hobbit.  

The theme song from “Trinity is my Name” during while Django makes his horse strut in f Django Unchained – has there been a more purely joyful moment in a Tarantino film?

Victor reunited with his newly resurrected dog as Elfman’s Sparky theme surges in Frankenweenie – one of the purest musical expressions of love for a pet that I’ve yet heard in a film score.

The combination of Adele’s “Skyfall” chorus and the image of James Bond frantically shooting at his own reflection in the opening credits of Skyfall – probably the closest I’ve come to getting choked up during a James Bond title sequence.

Norman shuffling his way to school and greeting the ghosts only he can see as Brion’s bittersweet guitars strum along in Paranorman – I can’t quite explain why, but when the strings swoop in midway through the scene, I find the effect almost unbearably despairing.

Eddie Redmayne managing to break down in tears during his performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” without once compromising the operatic quality of his voice – I didn’t even realize that was possible.  I hated a lot about the Hooper’s treatment of Les Miserables, but that scene nearly redeemed the entire film.

And that, my friends, was 2012 in film music.  Keep an eye out in the next few weeks as I do a similar run-down of my favorite all-around films from last year.  And thank you all for following this blog for the past year.  I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive feedback I’ve received, and it’s heartening to know that so many other people are interested in this stuff.


3 thoughts on “The Ten Best Film Scores of 2012

  1. Andrew King says:

    Solid list, its nice to see that people take the time to appreciate this kind of thing in movies that is so generally overlooked. However, I am a little disappointed that Cloud Atlas is not on this list, I thought Tom Tykwer really knocked it out of the park with that one.

  2. Paul says:

    Yeah, unfortunately I was unable to catch Cloud Atlas before it left theaters. The soundtrack album honestly doesn’t do anything for me until the last three tracks, but a lot of people have told me it’s incredible in the film itself. Maybe when it comes out on DVD I’ll have a change of heart and add an addendum to this piece.

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