The Best Film Scores of 2013

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Around this time last February, I looked back at the year’s film music highlights and actually thought I saw signs that things were changing for the better.  In 2012, a remarkable number of big-budget studio films seemed to be allowing composers with distinct voices more leeway.  Love them or hate them (and I’ll admit I hated some of them), Michael Giacchino’s John Carter, Alan Silvestri’s The Avengers, James Horner’s The Amazing Spider-man, Thomas Newman’s Skyfall, and Carter Burwell’s Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part 2 were all clearly written by their respective composers; each represented its author’s distinct dramatic instincts, and none could be mistaken for the work of anyone else.  For a moment, the pendulum seemed to be swinging away from the Remote Control factory music that has dominated film music throughout the twenty-first century.  Sadly, 2013 saw that pendulum abruptly stop mid-swing and turn right back around.  A brief survey of 2013’s biggest films – commercially successful or otherwise – reveals a long list of scores that rigidly adhere to the clichés that Hans Zimmer and his various protégés have steamrolled over the industry.  Listen to the music in Oblivion, Iron Man 3Man of SteelPacific RimCaptain PhilipsEnder’s GameThor: The Dark World, or Gravity and you’ll hear variations on the same looped ostinatos, the same three or four pop chord progressions, the same orchestras recorded to sound like synthesizers, and the same blaring “BWAAAAAAMPs” that sound like a garbage truck just cut you off.  These scores aren’t all irredeemably bad (Oblivion in particular has a handful of standout moments where M83 actually gets to cut loose), but they’re built on such tired, simplistic, and superficial foundations that they’re practically interchangeable.  On a surface level, some have basic entertainment value, but enjoying music like this requires so much aggressive intentional amnesia that I just can’t do it anymore.

Granted, my lack of patience may have as much to do with my own drifting tastes in music as it does with current trends in film music itself.  It actually embarrasses me to say this now, but 10 years ago, I listened almost exclusively to movie scores.  I like to think that the quality of said movie scores was generally higher 10 years ago, but I also know I was much more forgiving of mediocre work back then.  If a score featured 60 minutes of monotonous padding and 15 minutes of halfway pleasant melodies, that was usually enough to keep me listening.  After all, when your CD collection is largely limited to the used soundtracks you’ve found at Wherehouse Music, you tend to be more willing to grasp at those straws.  Somewhere along the line, however, I started branching out into other genres of music, and I found myself falling in love with the sorts of trendy indie bands and popular musicians that used to make me feel alienated (it helps that so many indie bands in the 2000s have started incorporating the same ornate orchestrations and pretentious compositional quirks that drew me to film music in the first place).  I still care deeply about film music and I still listen to copious amounts of it, but my perspective on listening to it has changed.  When so much fresh and exciting music gets released every month from so many different genres, I find myself growing less willing to sit through film score albums that strike me as generic or derivative or generic.

This may be coming across like a negative rant, which isn’t my intention.  2013 also gave us some wonderful and original film music, much of which I will no doubt still be pouring through years down the line.  What I’m finding though is that the scores I gravitate towards today are actually the sorts of scores I’d have vehemently opposed 10 years ago.  Where I used to staunchly defend traditional composers writing “proper” orchestral music, I now tend to drift towards smaller experimental scores for independent films, scores written by people who are largely outsiders to the industry.  I’ll always have a soft spot for big traditional orchestral scores with memorable themes (and a few made it on to my top ten list this year), but these qualities alone are no longer enough for me.  At this point, I don’t particularly care whether the score is written for a full symphony orchestra or for a Casio keyboard; I just need it to sound – if not unique, then at least distinct.  Something that doesn’t sound like it could have been tracked in from another film.  Something that doesn’t sound like it could have been written by anybody but the person (or people) who wrote it.

As a result, the scores you’ll see in my yearly top 10 list below are primarily written by either veteran composers who developed and mastered their voices before the industry became a factory, or industry outsiders who have actually been given the space to try something fresh and original.  Few of these scores are perfect, and I already know that many of my fellow film music critics absolutely hate some of my top choices (my top 2 in particular). But every score you’ll see below place is sensitively and thoughtfully attuned to its film, and each serves as a reminder – for me at least – that film music can still be one of the most powerful contemporary forms of expression.  They’re reminders, in other words, that film music can still be an art, even when Hollywood seems intent on turning into a craft.

10.  To the Wonder by Hanan Townshend

Director Terrence Malick has a strange habit of inspiring film composers to do their best work for his films, then hacking all but a few minutes of that work out of his finished films in favor of classical music.  Newcomer Hanan Townshend is the first composer in a long while to emerge with his score relatively intact, which is perhaps ironic as he’s easily the least prestigious composer Malick has worked with since Badlands in 1973.  Yet to listen to this confident and sensitive classically attuned music, you would never know that this was Townshend’s first film score.  Apparently he was also Malick’s music licensee in Tree of Life, so perhaps it would make sense that he’s so in key with the ethereal melancholy “Malick sound” that so many eclectic composers struggle to replicate. While it’s not quite on the level of Morricone’s Days of Heaven or Desplat’s Tree of Life, Townshend’s To the Wonder is still a beautiful, graceful composition that at least deserves a place alongside those earlier Malick masterworks.  Its centerpiece, “Marina’s Theme,” is in many ways Malick encapsulated in a single piece of music: pastoral, graceful, and aching with a sense of loss and spiritual yearning.  While the score can at times get a little too withdrawn for its own good, it’s nevertheless an extraordinary achievement.

9. The Best Offer by Ennio Morricone

By most conservative estimates, Ennio Morricone has written music for approximately 145,346,345,678 films.  It’s easy to take someone for granted when they’re that prolific, even when that person is very possibly the great living film composer.  Yet his work for Giuseppe Tornatore always seems to particularly spark his creative energy, and if The Best Offer is never going to rank among Morricone’s greatest works, it certainly displays more than enough evidence of the man’s brilliance.  Tornatore’s attempt at turning his signature treacle into a Hitchcockian thriller is more than a little ridiculous, but Morricone’s music creates emotional dimensions that the film arguably doesn’t deserve.  Of particular note is his dazzling music for the protagonist’s horde of artwork – as Geoffrey Rush’s characters sits and gazes at the hundreds of great artworks hanging in his secret room, Morricone responds with a canon of solo sopranos, fluttering voices that twist over and under each other as they ripple across the sonic spectrum.  In moments like this, it’s almost as though Morricone is scoring from the perspective of the artwork itself, suggesting a legacy of aesthetic beauty that rises above the convoluted plot machinations and implausible character behavior that otherwise dominates the film.

8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Howard Shore

I’ll admit that I’m of two minds about this one.  On the one hand, this is easily the least enjoyable of Shore’s middle earth scores, lacking the instantly memorable themes and emotionally vibrant moments that characterized his Lord of the Rings music (which remains film music’s greatest achievement of at least the 21st century).  But the film also didn’t give Shore much to work with, offering little of the drama or character development that used to inspire such so much emotionally charged music in these films.  Shore then at least deserves to be commended for creating so many distinct musical landscapes within the narrow confines he’s been given. From the unsettling echoing string effects for the forests of Mirkwood, to the distorted reversal of his elf music for the woodland elves, and finally to the exotic metallic percussion music for Smaug’s cave, the score is rife with inventive textures.  And once again, the long-term thematic development is extremely impressive; as he did in the Lord of the Rings sequels, Shore gradually reveals that throwaway melodies from the last Hobbit film have actually been character motifs all along (Smaug’s theme, referenced briefly at the start of the first film, practically takes over the last act of this one).  Part of me wishes that Shore the restrained intellectual would have made a little more space for Shore the crowd pleaser, but this is still substantive and original music.  I only hope that the final film in the series stops wasting its time with subplots nobody cares about and centers back on Bilbo Baggins for its last installment– if for no other reason, then because the hobbits themselves seem to bring out Shore’s most lyrical music.

7. The Book Thief by John Williams

It always seems ridiculous to call any John Williams score underrated, especially one that’s been nominated for an Oscar (I can almost promise you it won’t win)  Yet this one seems to have taken a lot of guff that it didn’t deserve.  While it doesn’t push the composer into any new frontiers, The Book Thief is easily the best of Williams’ “post-retirement” scores, sensitive and restrained in ways that Williams hasn’t been in decades.  There are certainly similarities to the composer’s score for Angela’s Ashes, but where that score tended to have an overbearing impact on its film, The Book Thief is a gentle and delicate score never overwhelms the story’s central drama.  Like the film’s personified version of Death, the score sympathizes with the characters from certain point of removal.  The music responds to emotional currents of the story, but it does so from a distance, always maintaining a wry tone that skirts the balance between whimsy and melancholy.  While certain critics are inclined to see Williams name on the credits and assume that they’re in for overbearing Hollywood schmaltz, Williams’ music here is easily the most thoughtful and nuanced aspect of this misguided holocaust drama.

6. Grand Piano by Victor Reyes

The entire concept of this movie almost forces a high level of quality from its film score: a disgraced classical pianist comes to a concert hall for a comeback performance, only to learn that an anonymous gunman is threatening to kill him if he plays a single wrong note.  What follows is a stylish mesh of Speed and The Man Who Knew Too Much, but if the film works it’s 80% because of the elaborate score/source piece by Victor Reyes.  Reyes composed the central piano concerto that Elijah Wood’s protagonist performs onstage, and it’s music that functions both as an insanely difficult showcase piece for piano virtuosity and as dramatic film music for the suspense plot.  I’m not crazy about some aspects of the recording – the orchestra often sounds at least partially synthesized, which is particularly odd given that we often see actual instruments playing onscreen.  Yet the music is so memorable and so effective at generating tension that it’s easy to overlook any reservations about the recording.  The piano writing is suitably insane, written to be as difficult as humanly possible while still reflecting the protagonist’s tumultuous character arc.  Reyes succeeds in paying homage to composers like Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, but members of a certain generation will likely be more reminded of the gothic excess of 1990s Batman music. As a members of said generation will tell you, this comparison is the best compliment I can give a score.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines by Mike Patton

Synth choirs, electric bass, and keyboards – if you had walked up to me 10 years ago and told me that I’d love a score with these ingredients, I’d have said, “What?! Who are you?! I don’t have any change,” and likely called the police (seriously, don’t do that to people).  But 2014 Paul will tell you that you’re absolutely right, even if he’ll also ask you to please not follow him home.  Mike Patton creates a feverishly compelling atmosphere from these inauspicious elements, with sharp choral bursts and menacing bass creating a larger-than-life soundscape.  The resulting score is harmonically and sonically inventive for all of its simplicity, and it signals to the audience that this seemingly small-scale character drama has epic ambitions.  In the film, the score is augmented effectively with music by Avro Part and Ennio Morricone, but Patton’s score is ultimately what gives the film such a unique hallucinatory glow.

4. The Wind Rises by Joe Hisaishi

Hiyao Miyazaki’s apparent retirement also marks the end of one of the most fruitful director-composer relationships of the past three decades.  For nearly 30 years, Joe Hisaishi has been accompanying Miyazaki’s flights of fancy, often serving as the tender earth-bound anchor that grounds Miyazaki’s outlandish fantasies in pure human emotion.  For The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s love letter to flight and the pre-industrial Japanese countryside, Hisaishi responds with a stroke of counterintuitive genius: old-world European romance.  Essentially ignoring period-specific Japanese music, Hisaishi writes in the dreamy style of mid-20th century European film composers like Maurice Jarre (Doctor Zhivago) and Nino Rota (La Dolce Vita), and the result almost makes you wish you could jump several decades into the past.  It’s an old-Hollywood score written to a film with intensely conflicted feelings about Japan’s military history, and it aids immeasurably in tipping the film’s balance away from militant nationalism.  For by evoking another culture’s musical tropes for bittersweet nostalgia, Hisaishi keeps the film from seeming like a glamorization of the WWII-era Japan itself.  Instead, both film and score emerge as a more universal attempt at savoring life’s fleeting moments of beauty, even if the horrors of industrial warfare ultimately can’t be suppressed.  The end result registers as an achingly poignant coda to one of the international filmdom’s most treasured artistic partnerships.

3. Only God Forgives by Clint Martinez

When I listened to this score by itself, I was at a loss for why anyone was paying attention to it; all I could hear was an eclectic and unpleasant grab bag of gothic pipe organ music, synthesizers that sound like they belong in a 1980s Yamaha demo, and pan-Asian percussion, all operating with no melody to speak of.  Yet somehow, this ugly mix takes on a level of brilliance in Nicholas Refn’s film.  Only God Forgives is essentially Refn’s Drive stripped of its charm and romance, an intensely abrasive journey into highly stylized depravity that almost seems to punish its audience for taking enjoyment from Drive’s extreme violence.  Somehow, despite sounding for all the world like a series of minimalistic doodlings, Martinez’s score takes on a level of operatic grandeur when it plays against the film.  The score amplifies the cruel and avant-garde aspects of the onscreen violence so much that the finished product registers less as a thriller than a modern art installation.  I’d hesitate to recommend anyone the album – or the film for that matter – but combined, I can’t deny that they create an aura of fevered brilliance.

2. All is Lost by Alex Ebert

Here we get to the point where I start enthusing about scores that other members of the film music community seem to hate.  Make no mistake: Ebert’s score to J.C. Chandor’s character study about an old man lost at sea could not be further from traditional film music.  Indeed the score is often so subtle that it almost registers as sound design.  But this is also one of the most legitimately organic scores I’ve come across in a very long time, and Ebert’s score quietly adds layers of spiritual meaning to this intensely minimalistic film.  The score largely eschews a traditional orchestra, but the ensemble is also entirely acoustic.  Woodwinds dominate, often blending so seamlessly into the ocean wind that it’s difficult to tell where the music ends and the environment begins.  But when the score gradually does lean forward, pushing into long-lined melodies (complete with chord progressions straight out of Ebert’s work with Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes), the effect is mesmerizing.  The film is extremely light on dialogue and narrative, and it relies almost entirely on Ebert to probe at any deeper layers in the straightforward story.  Ebert responds by finding moments of quiet grace in small details.  When Robert Redford’s character takes a brief pause in his labors and savors the cooling rainstorm that’s drifted overhead, for example, Ebert’s soothing main theme gradually pours out of the woodwinds, making the moment one of gentle transcendence.  The score also avoids restating the obvious, favoring sympathetic serenity over suspense – even in climactic scenes when the protagonist seems close to death.  And the end credits song, “Amen,” is one of the most powerful things Ebert has ever written, a riveting musical catharsis that easily equals anything he’s sung as Edward Sharpe.  I don’t think I’ve listened to any film score more in 2013 than I listened to All is Lost.

1. Her by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet

While not as flashy as the type of score that typically stands out as the year’s best, Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet’s score, more than any other released in 2013, positively makes its film.  Spike Jonze’s mediation on human relationships in the digital age is a beautiful, thought-provoking, and deeply affecting film on just about every level, but it would not work without its music.  The film rests on its ability convince the audience that a man’s relationship with his operating system deserves to be taken seriously.  And without discounting Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson’s excellent performances, I would argue that the music is ultimately what ensures we’ll take this relationship as more than a bizarre joke.  In a pivotal love-making scene – a scene that essentially determines whether you the audience are going to be able to buy into this love story – the score surges with so much vulnerable longing, tenderness, and heartbreak that you practically need to be a smartphone app yourself to not give in.  Arcade Fire fans may be particularly inclined to find this moment potent, as it climaxes with a string arrangement of the finale from their song “Porno” (it’s taken from the point in the song where Win Butler starts wailing, “I’m not over it”).  The band apparently composed this score while writing songs for Reflector, and the motifs and themes from that album that bleed into Her’s score add rich extra-textual dimensions to the music.  Yet you don’t need to be familiar with Arcade fire as a band to feel the impact of its score for this film.  This is deceptively complex music that evolves alongside the film’s characters, a score where every individual instrument, timbre, and harmony reflects on the characters’ psychological development.  Though it begins as a slightly off-putting series of electronic distortions, it gradually evolves with the characters and their relationship, growing more emotionally accessible as both Theodore and Samantha learn to come to terms with themselves. Sadly, the score has yet to see release as an album release, but it’s really at its best in the context of the film.  Her is my favorite film of 2013, and I’d even go so far as to call it one of the great films about human relationships, period.  But as much as I love the film, I doubt it would have anywhere near this profound impact without Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet.

Runners up:  While I didn’t have room for them in my top 10, Joe Hisaishi’s romantic Miracle Apples, Angelo Bandalamenti’s rousing Stalingrad, Javier Navarrete’s elegant Byzantium, M83’s seductive and ethereal You and the Night, and Danny Elfman’s charmingly cornball Oz: the Great and Powerful are all very fine 2013 scores that come highly recommended.

And that’s it: thank you all for coming back.  I know that it’s been a long time since I updated this blog, but I do mean to change that in the future.  Despite my grousing at the start of this piece, few things give me more excitement than great film music, and I look forward to exploring more of it in this blog in the months to come.

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4 thoughts on “The Best Film Scores of 2013

  1. Beautiful, as always, Paul, and obviously I agree wholeheartedly with the review of the score for “Her.” I am interested in hearing you say more about the distinction between an “art” and a “craft,” the latter of which seems, for you, to carry negative connotations in the context of the Hollywood meat market.

  2. John Cunha says:

    Wouldn’t exactly be the way I order things (and missing a good number of my favorites), but I can definitely see and appreciate your taste! Well written and a lot of good thoughts here. “All Is Lost” and particularly “Her” rank much higher on my own list than most other people’s as well. Cheers!

  3. This is much belated, but thanks for the kind words, everyone. Rachel, to answer your question way after the fact, the idea of art versus craft tends to be used as a common shorthand both by film critics and people in the industry. It’s typically a way of distinguishing between film as a commercial product and film as a means of artistic expression. For example, a composer who painstakingly uses every cliche and gimmick that the producers have requested might defend himself by calling himself a “craftsman” – somebody who’s only job is to provide the specific product his employers have asked of him. Conversely, I met a woman who’s worked extensively as a sound designer when I was at SCMS, and she was emphatically argued that sound designers resent being referred to as craftspeople; for her, the term implies that their work is somehow less than creative or artistic.

    The truth is that the the two terms shouldn’t need to contradict each other – there’s no reason a great work of art can’t also be crafted as a successful commercial product (and when you’re playing with $200 million budgets, you’d be insane not to have commercial considerations in mind). But my comment in that post was more a reaction against the common defense that pops up every time somebody recycles Hans Zimmer’s latest gimmick and then uses the argument that film music is just a “craft” as an excuse for any creative laziness.

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