Nicholas Mennuti, one of the authors of Weaponized, is a true cineaste. In this post, written at the end of 2013, he shares with us his favorite film scores of the year. You can stream these scores as a playlist via the Spotify widget below.
There’s still a few scores I’ve been waiting to get my hands on: Roque Banos’s Oldboy, Arcade Fire’s Her, Danny Elfman’s Unknown Known, and Explosions in the Sky and Steve Jablonsky’s work on Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, so I hate to make this list without hearing them—because judging from the composers’ prior work, I’m sure one of them would have made it—however, December is winding down and being cursed with a sense of impending time comparable only to a Italian railroad official, I wanted to get my thoughts down on film scoring in 2013.
I’ve been told by those “in the know” that lists of ten are so common they tend to get passed over by search engines, so here are the 11 best film scores of 2013.
CLIFF MARTINEZ – ONLY GOD FORGIVES
It’s hard to justify one’s love for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive follow-up, Only God Forgives, without dropping caveats up front—yes, it sure is excessive and slow; luckily, you don’t have to do the same for Cliff Martinez’s score.
Refn and Martinez both hit it big with Drive, which relied as much on songs from Johnny Jewel’s “Italians Do It Better” label—as it did Martinez’s score—to back a meticulously executed, but seriously derivative film that at times felt like a cryogenically frozen fetish object.
Only God Forgives is Martinez’s solo show and this film—which has been compared to a vomitorium—is the furthest thing from derivative, excepting a few discreet borrowings from The Grifters. Refn has seemingly invented his own genre this time around; if not invented, then thrown so many together, from Leone and Jodorowsky to Hitchcock, that Martinez gets the opportunity to put his unique stamp on five different film scoring standards.
With tracks like “Sister Part 1” Martinez evokes his traditional eerily moving ambient sound that he’s patented during his years with Steven Soderbegh. In tracks like “Chang and Sword,” he creates a soundscape with twanging guitars and long plucks that sounds like electro-Morricone, or a Spaghetti Western unfolding on the banks of the River Styx. With “Mai Quits Masturbating”, we’re almost in Bernard Herrmann territory, with anxious, mournful strings providing a sonic analogue to distorted sexuality. With “Wanna Fight” we enter something akin to John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” with an Asian flair. However, the most stunning to my ears was Martinez’s descent into what can only be called Thai Hell, which consists of Mike Oldfield pianos, gongs, chimes, shrieking strings, and an avant-garde rumble—almost Pendericki—that truly sounds like sulfur spitting or tectonic plates shifting.
Whether or not you think Refn’s film will endure—I tend to think it will—I have no doubt that Martinez’s score will.
THOMAS NEWMAN – SIDE EFFECTS
The penultimate film in Steven Soderbergh’s mad pre-retirement dash (including Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, and Behind the Candelabra) was this unjustly overlooked thriller that takes place in the nebulous world of healthcare kept afloat on big Pharma money. It’s the type of movie that rarely escapes from Hollywood these days: mid-budget, actor-driven, provocative without being preachy, and R-rated for all the right reasons. And it’s the type of film Soderbergh tends to do best: rigorous formal control (bordering on icy) with a burning center.
Soderbergh has a stable of composers and tends to dole out scoring duties depending on the genre, illustrated in the brief breakdown below:
Cliff Martinez: Has been with Soderbergh from the beginning (1989’s Sex Lies and Videotape) and tends to be his stylistic soul mate. They both employ a hypnotic ambient arsenal of texture, misdirection, and tonal ambiguity. In fact, I’m shocked Martinez didn’t get the Side Effects job, but I’m going to bet it had to something to do with the fact that he already had three movies lined up to score this year.
David Holmes: Generally gets the job within the crime/thriller genre when Soderbergh wants a funkier, lighter, 70’s Schifrin-esque vibe to complement his Pop-Art visuals.
Alberto Iglesias, Marvin Hamlisch: The biopic composers. Both superlative talents brought in for Che, The Informant, and Behind the Candelabra respectively, and finally,
Thomas Newman: Tends to get Soderbergh’s—for lack of a better word—“prestige” projects: Erin Brockovich, The Good German, and Side Effects. Newman—more than any composer today, I think (outside maybe James Newton Howard), is a master of giving the director what they need musically to tie a film together. In fact, Newman’s music is so good that in some cases he can literally create the illusion of continuity and sense (see The Adjustment Bureau for example) where none exists.
Side Effects didn’t need his sonic glue to hold it together—Soderbergh’s craft has never been better—but let me allow the late Roger Ebert to say exactly what Newman’s spell-binding and spine-tingling music brings to the project, because I can’t put it any better:
The music tells us what kind of movie Side Effects is going to be. It coils beneath what seems like a realistic plot and whispers that something haunted and possessed is going on. Imagine music for a sorcery-related plot and then dial it down to ominous forebodings. Without Thomas Newman’s score, Side Effects would be a lesser film, even another film.
SHANE CARRUTH – UPSTREAM COLOR
Steven Soderbergh may shoot, edit, and direct his movies, but Shane Carruth can go one (nay two) better: he also scored and acted in Upstream Color, the movie I’m sure all Terrence Malick fans hoped To The Wonder would be. A film that’s simultaneously about romance, recovery, thieves, parasites, mysterious pig farmers, and the interconnected heartbeat of the universe. Somehow it works. The highest compliment I can pay it is this: It rewards all the attention you give it; there are mysteries in there worth searching out. And Carruth’s own score plays a huge role in making the viewer feel this way; the music binds together and deepens the film’s mysteries.
One can use all the stock terms to describe the score: ambient, airy, pillowy, ethereal, Eno-esque. And they’re all true. But there’s something more going on here, and it’s what makes both the film and the score vault past abstract metaphysical concerns: the beautiful, broken romance at the center. Although neither the film nor the music make it explicit, they both seem to say the same thing:
There are more mysteries in the world than one can even begin to conceive of, nothing makes sense at all, and the thing that makes the least sense of all is love. And be thankful for that.
STEVEN PRICE – GRAVITY
I’ll be upfront about this one: I don’t think Gravity is the most overrated movie of the year. I think it may be the most overrated movie since American Beauty or Crash (another Sandra Bullock project. Ha! I just realized that). But this is a list about film scoring, and on that front, Steven Price’s score is such a marvel of mood and scope (moving from ambient to all out action) I didn’t even have to think about its inclusion on this list.
On top of which, the score itself is also a potent illustration of two larger trends in film scoring:
1. Bands or single band members (Air, Arcade Fire, Alex Ebert, Kevin Shields, Jonny Greenwood, Steven Price comes from Basement Jaxx) or electronic artists (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, M83, Daft Punk, Skrillex) muscling into film scoring, and snaring it away from traditional orchestral sound, which brings us to point two…
2. Narrative film has fundamentally changed, thus so have the traditional requirements of film scoring.
Movies have become fractured, employing editing techniques something akin to digital cubism, and the music itself reflects this, falling somewhere between electronic scoring and sound design. Some movies today aren’t even designed for a traditional big-screen intake; they’re for you to stream on whatever’s handy. Modern life just doesn’t sound like Korngold or Herrmann or Miklos Rosza anymore, and film music must reflect this fact. Modern life doesn’t go from A to B anymore. It’s pulsating, digital, discordant, and poses more questions than it answers, and at this point in time, the only current films that require some of the old sturm-und-drang of traditional Hollywood scoring are genre epics and comic-book movies.
The preceding two paragraphs may seem counterintuitive since “Gravity” is by all counts a space-opera, the most tried-and-true of all genre gambits. But it’s a space-opera subjected to the minimalist art-film aesthetics of director Alfonso Cuaron, a true visionary, whom a big space score was never going to satisfy, and who, with Steven Price’s work, got a score so good that it made me wish I enjoyed the film even more.
HANS ZIMMER – 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Hans Zimmer has changed the sound of film scoring more than any composer since John Williams. Whether you like where he’s taken it or not is an entirely different matter. On four separate occasions he’s reset the template for modern action scores.
Black Rain in 1989 was the first action film to seamlessly employ both synth and traditional orchestral accompaniment. (Jerry Goldsmith tried this combination with considerably lesser results through the 80s.) With Crimson Tide in 1995, Zimmer finished what he started in Black Rain and, since then, literally nothing has changed in action scoring except for when Zimmer decides it should…
Which he did in 2000 with Gladiator, where he started the now ubiquitous trend of ethereal female vocals over action scenes (Lisa Gerrard in this case)—that reached its zenith or nadir, whichever you prefer with Horner’s score for Troy. Ten years after Gladiator, Zimmer added to the synth, orchestra, and female voice template with the now infamous “Inception trombone” (which in all fairness actually originated in Zack Hemsey’s trailer music), but was strewn throughout Zimmer’s film score as well.
All of that preamble was to remind people that although Zimmer is known for bringing the bombast, he first gained recognition for his smaller more character driven scores—Rain Man, Thelma and Louse, True Romance—and actually excels at finding the heart of a movie. And sadly he’s been doing less and less of that lately, which is why his work on 12 Years A Slave comes as such a pleasant surprise. It was a simultaneous reminder that Zimmer can do this type of material, and that when he wants to, he’s one of the best.
Sure, he recycles some of his greatest hits moments—parts of 12 Years sound a little The Thin Red Line-by-Inception at times—but when it sounds this good who cares. Zimmer does what Zimmer does best – he finds the sonic heart of Solomon Northrop just as acutely as he did Thelma and Louise. Try not to be moved by it.
TINDERSTICKS – BASTARDS
Claire Denis can be hit-or-miss for me. I’ll go to the mat for Beau Travail and I Can’t Sleep, but I genuinely have no idea what the hell she was going for in Bastards, which plays like a Gallic Get Carter without any of the suspense or humor. Denis is such a deliberate director that on some level I have to believe that the utter absence of tension, character, and efficient plotting must be intentional.
Thank God, then, that her frequent composers Tindersticks seem to have kept their eyes closed and gave the movie the score it deserves. In fact, the score is so good, you can almost picture in your head the movie it was supposed to accompany—and what a movie that is:
A smoky, mournful Parisian noir with synths that sound close to organs, something heavenly but blasphemous, because an angel was dragged to Earth and abused. A revenge thriller with a twist—the avenger may be just as unstable and dangerous as the people he seeks. Even the music doesn’t know what to make of him, evidenced by long, ponderous silences between the notes and question marks in the form of endless reverb. An investigation into the seamy underbelly of high-finance and cheap, underage sex set to a dance-beat. And then the kicker: the cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me” when you realize just how sick the movie really is. The vibrating bass line matched by the tremor in Stuart Staples’ voice. Even the music seems shocked by the depravity.
And once again, like Steven Price’s Gravity, this is a masterful score in search of a better movie.
PINO DONAGGIO – PASSION
Not to sound like Christopher Walken in The Comfort of Strangers, with his oft-repeated monologue (“To talk about me, I have to talk about my father”), but to talk about Pino Donaggio, one has to talk about Bernard Herrmann.
Bernard Herrmann provided Hitchcock with his most memorable set of scores until they parted company after a particularly acrimonious dispute over the score to Torn Curtain. Herrmann wanted to sound like Herrmann, and Hitchcock wanted him to sound “jazzy” to capitalize on new trends in film scoring. Enter a long fallow period for Herrmann, until Brian De Palma burst onto the scene with 1973’s Hitchcock/Polanski pastiche Sisters, to which Herrmann lent a Moog-infused symphony of sexual dread. De Palma and Herrmann collaborated until Herrmann’s untimely death in 1976, at which point De Palma enlisted Pino Donaggio to score Carrie, and—except for a brief flirtation with Ryuichi Sakamoto—Donaggio has been De Palma’s go-to guy for scoring his now-infamous brand of erotic thrillers. And truth be told, he might even be a better fit for De Palma’s work than Herrmann.
What makes a De Palma thriller a “De Palma” thriller is also what makes a Donaggio score a “Donaggio” score—they tinker with the audience, providing light-on-their-feet, neo-classical sexual languor before the horror starts. They don’t just actively flirt with self-parody; they step up to the line and obliterate it. And Passion, which is their seventh collaboration, lives up to their previous triumphs.
The centerpiece of Passion is a full-on set piece at a performance of Debussy’s ballet “Afternoon of a Faun,” complete with the now-infamous De Palma split-screen. But Debussy has been with the score even before we go to the ballet. He was there subtlety imprinting the gleaming high-rises, the deco apartments, the constant flirtation, and sexual ambiguity. Donaggio’s score, like Debussy’s ballet, can be up-tempo, erotic, confrontational, misleading, but most importantly, like most symbolist-influenced impressionists, it’s beautiful.
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT – VENUS IN FUR
Alexandre Desplat has been omnipresent on the American film scoring scene since 2004, when he broke out with his work on Jonathan Glazer’s Birth—incidentally, one of the best scores of last decade. Post-Birth he has literally been scoring between 6 to 8 films a year, ranging from blockbusters like Harry Potter and Twilight: New Moon to intimate films like Tree of Life and Philomena.
Roman Polanski has always been one of the most musically astute directors. Try to imagine Chinatown without the way he used Goldsmith’s score, or Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby without Komeda’s eerie jazz fusions. Plus Polanski has also directed opera for the stage. Hell, he even starred in Amadeus in Paris. The guy has an ear.
So when Polanski and Desplat joined forces in 2010’s The Ghost Writer, I had high expectations, and their work together leapt over even my highest hopes. And Desplat’s work on Venus In Fur, although not quite The Ghost Writer, still makes a powerful minimalist mark with 36 minutes worth of music.
To explain why what Desplat has done is remarkable, allow me a brief anecdote. Famed screenwriter William Goldman once said—and I’m paraphrasing—that for a director, shooting a desert vista is the easiest thing in the world, but shooting two people talking in a room is fucking hard. Polanski’s Venus In Fur is an adaptation of David Ives’s two-character play about a sexual dance between an auditioning actress and a director who keep turning the tables on each other. And I’m going to imagine that scoring a film about two people talking in a room isn’t much easier than directing it.
The score begins with a powerfully baroque organ that feels like the sonic equivalent to a carnival barker inviting you in. The carnivalesque feel remains throughout the score, fading in and out, and supplemented by tinkling chimes and bells—reminiscent of Wojciech Kilar’s motif for Lucy in Coppola’s Dracula—and playful piano and strings. But make no mistake—and this is where both Polanski’s film and Desplat’s score truly impress—just when you think you have the mood nailed down, it turns on a dime.
PHILIP GLASS – VISITORS
If there’s one underlying thread linking many of these disparate film score choices, it’s the fruits of a long-term director/composer collaboration. We’ve already had Donnagio/DePalma, Newman/Soderbergh, Tindersticks/Claire Denis, and here’s another one that stretches back to the mid-80s: Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio. Their first film together was Koyaanisqatsi, a silent juxtaposed tone poem about the effects of modern civilization told through still shots of nature photography and sped-up images of worldwide urban life. Their latest effort, Visitors, is told through the eyes of a lowland gorilla, and is an effort to make humans see themselves through the POV of an animal, and to appreciate all our strangeness and contradictory behavior.
I sadly can’t comment on how the music works alongside with the images—the film hasn’t been commercially released yet—but I can tell you that the score is among the high-water marks of Glass’s career in composing for film (his day job is writing symphonies and biographical opera).
Glass has made a few inroads into traditional film scoring with Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, Cassandra’s Dream for Woody Allen, and the Angelina Jolie thriller, Taking Lives, but his best work has always been for non-narrative work and documentary for filmmakers like Reggio and Errol Morris. Not for nothing did Morris say Glass “can create a feeling of existential dread better than anyone I know.” And let’s be honest, there’s not much of a need for that in current Hollywood film, and in some cases (Notes on A Scandal) Glass’s music can seem downright oppressive against conventional narrative.
Those who listen to Glass regularly will notice certain hallmarks present in Visitors: the minimalist maelstrom on tracks like “The Day Room” and “Off Planet 2.” The flutes of dread popping up on “Off Planet 1.” But there’s something new in this score that’s been steadily creeping into Glass’s work of late: a transcendental longing, a spiritual questioning. His work on Visitors is magical, simultaneously one of his lightest and most dexterous scores and also one of his most thematically heavy.
ALEXANDER EBERT – ALL IS LOST
No director this year enacted a larger pendulum swing than J.C. Chandor, who debuted in 2011 with the ensemble financial thriller talk-fest, Margin Call, and two years later created an almost wordless sea-faring adventure staring solely Robert Redford and the regrets etched in every crevice on his mesmerizing face. On the surface it may sound like Gravity for the AARP set, but Alexander Ebert’s score keeps the film from drowning in the manufactured sentiment that ultimately sunk Cuaron’s lone survivor tale.
Ebert’s score does the seemingly impossible: it functions both as “environmental music”—using water as one of its prime elements—and the soundtrack of Redford’s mind, literally becoming the film’s second character. The score can be deceptively simple, using alto flutes, whistling, male voices, and silence—at times it feels like Britten’s Billy Budd adapted by John Cage—but it’s doing the nigh impossible: it’s providing the aural counterpoint to Chandor’s images, exactly what film scoring should always strive for, but rarely achieves.
I feel like the previous two paragraphs have made Ebert’s work sound dangerously academic or impenetrable, and the truth couldn’t be further from that. Like many composers on this list, Ebert has a day job: he’s the lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and although he’s shorn himself of every trick in the pop musician’s arsenal, his entertainer’s instincts haven’t left. This is just full-on beautiful music. Try and listen to the main theme, “Excelsior,” or the closer, “Amen,” without a lump in your throat.
CLIFF MARTINEZ AND SKRILLEX – SPRING BREAKERS
Cliff Martinez is back.
It was a hard call for the final space between this soundtrack and Hans Zimmer’s superlative score for Rush, but Martinez won it because he had the harder job. Harmony Korine’s whacked-out masterpiece runs the gamut from beach party kitsch to soft-core exploitation to beach-noir to European neon-lit dread, and back again. And the soundtrack runs the same schizo sprint from Skrillex to Birdy Nam Nam to Gucci Mane to Britney Spears, and holding it all together is Cliff Martinez’s patented and endlessly adaptive ambience.
In several interviews, Korine said he wanted the film to evoke the feel of a “pop song” more than a film. I think he succeeded. And a huge part of every great pop song is a chorus with a hook that brings everything back to the center to recharge before exploding again, and this is exactly what Martinez’s score allows co-composer’s Skrillex’s contribution to do.
Skrillex is all glitches and beeps and distortion. Martinez is all synth wash. They allow each other to be their best. Martinez brings the shimmering neon. Skrillex brings the shotgun blasts against the sky. It’s one of the best soundtracks of the year to one of the best films of the year.