Putting film music year-end lists together tends to be the fun version of “work.” Before I actually have to sit down and write the damn piece, making the list just means listening to mass quantities of music. Sure I jot down the occasional note, but it’s primarily a process of absorbing a year’s worth of film scores while doing other work. Eventually it can be a bit maddening, but the film music binge does allows me to see certain trends that weren’t always clear throughout the year. Looking back at the scores that have ultimately stood out to me the most since last January, I’m tempted to dub 2014 The Very Qualified Return of the Film Composer. That is to say, it’s a year when the people who have put in their time toiling in Hollywood for the past several decades, frequently doing thankless work on generic blockbusters, finally had a chance to do what they do best.
Contrast this with my take on this a year ago, when I’d have told you that the best and most interesting stuff happening in film music was happening outside of Hollywood, at the hands of indie musicians and first-time composers who were managing to work on films that didn’t court excessive studio interference. That’s probably still the case overall, but for whatever reason, the only people surprising me in 2014 were the people who have been at it for decades. Indie and alt-rock moonlighters like Johnny Greenwood, Alex Ebert, and Trent Reznor have all written fresh, game-changing film music in the past, but their scores this year – Inherent Vice, A Very Dangerous Year, and Gone Girl, respectively – all felt like watered down versions of music that sounded fresh and exciting only a few years ago. Meanwhile, veterans like Marco Beltrami and Christopher Young – composers I respect but rarely get excited over – reminded me how brilliant they can be when they’re actually given the space for it.
And though it’s reflected less in my personal list, 2014 was also a year when Hollywood finally started to reconsider its embargo on traditional, intelligently orchestrated film music. It wasn’t consistent enough to be a trend, but if you look at several of the more successful mega-budgeted films this year – say, Godzilla, Maleficent, or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – you see a surprising number of films willing to allow composers to write old-fashioned orchestral music that doesn’t sound like it’s been processed through a synthesizer or tailored to imitate a temp track. Granted, that doesn’t automatically reflect the scores’ qualities, and none of the above examples struck me as particularly memorable pieces of work (Desplat’s Godzilla and Howard’s Maleficent both struck me as moderately entertaining genre scores that wouldn’t have stood out when this sort of music was dime-a-dozen twenty years ago, and I thought Giacchino’s Planet of the Apes was actively damaging to the film). And the moderate resurgence of orchestral music also doesn’t mean that Hans Zimmer’s studio, Remote Control Productions, has somehow lost its influence over Hollywood – the soulless factory scores in this year’s Captain America and X-Men sequels attest to that. But the fact that there’s even space for old-fashioned stuff alongside the market-tested schlock in today’s film music climate at least indicates that variety hasn’t been entirely stamped out. And as the list below demonstrates, there’s still plenty of space outside of Hollywood for both members of the old guard and bright freshman voices to write powerful, exciting new film music.
- The Monkey King – Christopher Young
For film music fans of a certain age, Christopher Young will always have a free pass for his outlandishly gothic Hellraiser scores in the 1980s. But while he’s worked diligently in a wide number of genres since, he’s rarely had an opportunity to write anything approaching that level of grandeur until now. His score for this Chinese epic might be his grandest score to date, and it punches just about every button that people used to want from high-scale fantasy scoring. This is the definition of a fan favorite – the themes are huge and memorable, the pastoral cues are lyrical without veering into sentimentality, the action cues alternate between riveting dissonance and stirring anthems, and the finale is as glorious and over the top as anyone could dream. I can’t speak to its qualities as film music per se, as the film is so ridiculous that just about any music attached to it is going to seem ridiculous by association (watching the film is like watching the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers and the Mike Myers Cat in the Hat attempt to remake Lord of the Rings). But taken on its own terms, Young’s music is grand popcorn entertainment of the best kind.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat
There’s little to say here that I didn’t say in my review, but my appreciation for Desplat’s deceptively simple score has grown in the intervening months. Anderson’s tragicomedy needed an even more nimble tone than usual from the composer, and Desplat never makes a wrong step in his tightrope walk between out-and-out silliness, tongue-and-cheek suspense, and bittersweet longing. On the one hand, the music serves a very practical purpose of keeping the film moving at a racing pace, and it would be easy to discount the feather-light music as being only superficially effective. But if you rewatch the film with the foreknowledge of its gut-punch of a conclusion, it becomes clear that even when the music is goofing on cimbalom jam sessions, it’s simultaneously planting the seeds of the film’s deeper tragedy.
- La Rançon la Glorie – Michel Legrand
No living composer is a bigger legend than Michel Legrand, who was both a defining voice of the French New Wave and an instrumental figure in popularizing jazz in Hollywood in the 1960s. He’s understandably been less prolific in film throughout the past couple of decades, which makes La Rançon de la Glorie such , seemingly out-of-nowhere surprise. This is the first thing I’ve heard from him in a very long time that sounds just as energetic and creative as his innovative jazz scores in his 1960s heyday; the composer has written an endlessly charming combination of old Hollywood nostalgia and dizzying New Wave jazz. Particularly stunning is the standalone piece, “Un Moment de grace,” where the composer turns his main theme into a cathedral mass, then gradually juxtaposes the reverb-heavy church organ and choir against his insane jazz experiments. Clearly age has done nothing to soften one of film music history’s most brazenly innovative voices.
- Interstellar – Hans Zimmer
I have somewhat mixed feelings about this one, but it’s hard for me to deny that Interstellar is overall one of the most impressive and satisfying Hans Zimmer scores to date. To be sure, it is by no means a perfect score, and Zimmer’s habit of treating every moment like a cathartic climax nearly severely hinders the film’s opening scenes. Yet as the action moves out into the cosmos and the film lurches clumsily between jaw-dropping visuals and ham-fisted expository dialogue, Zimmer’s emphatic music gradually turns into an asset, finding emotionally charged profundity in scenes that would otherwise drag on endlessly. The score isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking as Zimmer indicates in his interviews (there are times that when seems to think he’s pushed the boundaries of sound itself), but even if you can clearly hear the influence of Philip Glass, Vangelis, and Richard Strauss, the result is nevertheless a remarkably fresh and visceral career highlight for the composer.
- The Tale of The Princess Kaguya – Joe Hisaishi
Hisaishi has been associated with Studio Ghibli since its earliest days, and his sensitive, playful, and lyrical music has been a crucial component of the animation studio’s aesthetic signature. If The Tale of the Princess Kaguya turns out to be Ghibli’s swan song, Hisaishi has certainly given the studio a worthy musical coda. Delicate and exquisitely orchestrated, the score is in many ways Hisaishi’s Ghibli music distilled into its most intimate essence. You can hear the influence of both traditional Japanese music and Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” but more than anything else, the score comes across as the bittersweet cumulation of all of the spare and beautiful animation music that Hisaishi has been writing for decades.
- Under the Skin – Mica Levi
Taken as pure music, Mica Levi’s score is an endurance test, a near constant screech of white noise that only occasionally lurches into anything even resembling melody. Yet while I take no pleasure from listening to the soundtrack album, the shrill score is brilliant and essential in the film itself. The film follows Scarlett Johansson as an alien predator who scours the Scottish countryside for unsuspecting male victims. Much of what separates the film from your average B-level sci-fi horror flick, however, is the way the film makes human life seem as unnerving and otherworldly to the audience as it does to the protagonist. This essentially happens through the music, which grinds on so abrasively over ordinary footage of human interactions that it makes human bodies seem like insects. It’s easily the most groundbreaking, provocative film score on this list, and it signals Mica Levi as a force to be reckoned with if she decides to do more work in film.
- Visitors – Philip Glass
I’ve been sitting on this one since September of 2013, and before I realized the film itself wasn’t going to be released until January of 2014, this was going to be my choice for 2013’s best score. Philip Glass’s work with Godfrey Reggio has resulted in some of the most important audio-visual experimentation of the past three decades, with Koyaanisqatsi in 1983 being a particularly huge landmark both in non-narrative film and in minimalist concert music. While Visitors is not the barn-burner that started the collaboration, it’s a perfect iteration of Glass’s late-period meditative style. The polar opposite of the frantic time-lapse cinematography in Koyaanisqatsi, Regio’s latest film moves at a glacier’s pace, consisting largely of slow-motion footage of human faces. Glass responds in kind, with a ponderous score that takes its time building momentum, laying out its ideas brick by brick in mammoth, 15-minute cues. Yet Glass knows what he’s doing, and if listeners willing to put in the time will gradually hear the music ascend to some of the most powerful, openly moving music Glass has yet written for the cinema.
- How to Train Your Dragon 2 – John Powell
I already raved about this one in my review, so I’ll keep it short: this is John Powell’s best work to date, taking everything that was exciting and moving about his original 2010 score and pushing it forward with new musical and dramatic maturity. This is probably the score I spent the most time listening to in 2014, and as emotionally direct, heart-on-the-sleeves film music goes, this was easily the year’s best.
- The Unknown Known – Danny Elfman
This is Danny Elfman’s second collaboration with Errol Morris after Standard Operating Procedure in 2007, and in many ways it’s a continuation that score’s restlessly inventive minimalism, a provocative side of Elfman that we rarely hear outside of the concert hall. Elfman’s music in The Unknown Known plays a uniquely crucial role, as the composer is essentially responsible for creating a critical counterpoint to its subject’s obfuscating verbal gymnastics. The film consists primarily of interviews between Morris and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the later of whom spends most of the film denying any accountability for mistakes made during the Bush administration or the Iraq War. Morris himself puts pressure on Rumsfeld, but the primary source of critique comes from Elfman, who puts pressure on Rumsfeld’s words without explicitly mocking them. Sometimes he does this through somber, repetitive piano music that creates a sense of nervous agitation, suggesting a central instability in Rumsfeld’s defense. In its most powerful moments, however, Elfman uses the music to underline the human tragedies that Rumsfeld would rather downplay. While Rumsfeld plays rhetorical chess with Morris, Elfman responds with a choir of ghostly children’s voices, a haunted reflection of war’s devastation. The score becomes a refusal to reduce the thousands of lives that were lost to a verbal tete a tete, and it turns The Unknown Known into a rare film that uses music to interrogate, rather than passively support its subject.
- The Homesman – Marco Beltrami
This was a very tough call – really any of the top five scores on this list could have ended up in the number one position had I woken up on a different side of the bed. But The Homesman ultimately wins out because, more than anything else I’ve spent time with this year, it’s a score that balances rigorous intellectual experimentation and viscerally wrenching drama. In Tommy Lee Jones’ harrowing Western, a pious women and a shiftless drifter attempt to transport three mentally ill women across the mid-19th century frontier. Beltrami, who previously did excellent work on Jones’s Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, may have composed his masterpiece this time around, with score that is cerebral and compassionate in equal measure. The score pulls from a wide range of seemingly disparate threads, mixing warm Americana, frontier hymnals, echoing children’s voices, and bracing music concrete experiments (the latter of which often come on new instruments the composer has invented specifically for the film). In the midst of this alternately melodic and nerve-wracking collage, Beltrami’s music provides insight into internal lives of the silent women whose minds have been broken by the frontier. The mentally ill characters have little-to-no dialogue, and it would be easy to see them as marginal to the central relationship between Jones and Swank’s characters. Beltrami’s music, however, gives the mentally debilitated characters a constant presence in the film, even when the camera isn’t focused on them. By layering jarring cacophony over sentimental nostalgia, the composer compels us to both imagine the trauma the characters are currently facing and mourn everything they’ve lost in the process. In giving a voice to characters who have no other means of expressing themselves, the score does the most important thing a film score can ultimately do in my book: it turns film music into an act of empathy.