Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

The 15 Best Film Scores Of 2013

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 5, 2013 1:24 PM
49 Comments
  • |
Prisoners

5. Jóhann Jóhannsson - "Prisoners"
Perhaps one of the most underrated scores of the year, and even one you might not remember so much, is Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s chilling score for Denis Villeneuve’s crime drama “Prisoners.” The film centers on a father (Hugh Jackman) whose children are suddenly abducted during the cold, late-fall suburbs of Pennsylvania and the vigilante-like lengths he goes to in attempts to return them to safety. Chasing down the suspects is a young, brooding detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is just as determined to find the missing children. “Prisoners” is gray, dark and brooding. A man begins to lose his soul, his family and all hope as the hours his children have gone missing begin to add up insurmountably. Jóhannsson’s score is thus akin to a unforgiving chill that burrows into your bones, a haunting hymnal of death, a dread that creeps into your soul that will never let go once it consumes you. It is perhaps then one of the year’s scariest scores and yet it acts nothing like a horror score; it is ghostly church organs, throbbing cello drones, chimes that glisten like you can feel their breath in the frigid air. The “Prisoners” score is the sound of your tomb being closed as snowflakes gently fall from the sky, melting into the ground never to be seen again; eerie psalms acting as preludes to the forever darkness.

Rooney Mara, Ain't Them Bodies Saints

4. Daniel Hart - "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"
The moody and mystical “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” features a trifecta of lived-in performances, sun-dappled cinematography, and a lilting, lovely score by Daniel Hart. Layers of strings, from violins and cellos to the higher ranges of bluegrass-inspired mandolin is buttressed by rhythmic hand-clapping, creating a totally unique and hypnotic sound. The score colors in all the elements of time and place, at once authentic and at other times magical and fairy-like, sounding of winged creatures taking flight. And yet, it feels organic, real, and worn, much like the aesthetic of the picture. Hart, another of our On The Rise composers this year, is a violinist and composer who also worked on David Lowery’s feature “St. Nick,” and short “Pioneer,” and it’s clear that the two artists’ work informs each other, fitting together seamlessly. Intimate, organic, grounded, and yet airy, the score of “Aint Them Bodies Saints” is what makes that film such a specific and unique piece.  

Upstream Color

3. Shane Carruth - "Upstream Color"
Frustratingly so to soundtrack connoisseurs who well-realize he could likely create the greatest film score the world has ever heard, seminal techno/ambient artist Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) has refused the planet this gift (OK, he’s contributed music here and there, but never a full-blown original score to a feature). Perhaps we’re best to understand this will just never happen. And so maybe the closest we’ll get is the score to the enigmatic and abstract “romance thriller” (if one can even call it that), “Upstream Color.” Written by the film’s polymath director Shane Carruth (who also wrote, co-edited, produced, shot, casting directed and starred in the movie), the score for “Upstream Color” is almost as beguiling and hypnotic as the film itself. A movie about … thieves, complex parasites, ungulates, the unspoken interconnectedness of life-cycles, and love, “Upstream Color” is one of the most heady, layered, dense and beautifully mysterious films of the year. And Carruth’s gauzy, pillowy music is something right out of Selected Ambient Works Volume II, Aphex Twin’s album of synesthesia, lucid dreams and surreal half-awake states of consciousness. As the characters are torn from their realities and their identities, “Upstream Color” bathes them in an ambient wash of twinkling breaths, blurry memories, and out of focus, underwater experiences (and occasionally sounds like a call to arms—see the track below). Its inscrutable sustain is celestial; as if, much like the characters in the movie, we are finally divining some inexpressible truths about the universe and its holistic nature that courses through our very being. Beautiful and soaring.

Prince Avalanche

2. Explosions In The Sky & David Wingo - “Prince Avalanche”
Here’s a great super group of sorts. On one hand you have the terrific and sonorous post-rockers Explosions In The Sky (many will remember them for writing the score to the “Friday Night Lights” movie, which also used some of their most anthemic and devastating pieces of music). On the other you have David Wingo, a friend and composer of filmmaker David Gordon Green since his debut film, “George Washington.” Wingo’s work has evolved leaps and bounds since that embryonic work and he’s become one of our favorite indie film composers (spin the creepy, haunting, beautiful score to “Take Shelter” for some unimpeachable proof). “Prince Avalanche” centers on two at-odd road crew workers laboring away from the rest of the world in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, alongside haunted forests that have been ravaged by wildfire. If that’s not enough thematic texture for you, I dunno what is, but Green’s film is far from gloomy. In fact, it’s a curiously rich and textured comedy about unlikely friendships, solitude, men, relationships, life and more. And it’s also introspective, melancholy and life-affirming. All of these moods and emotions are perfectly captured by Wingo and Explosions who shape a lovely and complementary score to emphasize the desolated and cracked beauty around them. The “Prince Avalanche” score glides along meditatively and sadly in its first half, and it's swell stuff, but as the movie crescendos to its climax of tumult, blood, sweat and tears between these two frenemies and the tenuous, fragile understanding they come to, shit, it’s like the heart-swelling embrace of a well-fought war. Anthemic, resonant and stirring, there’s so much beauty in this score at times, one could cry.

All Is Lost, Robert Redford

1. Alex Ebert - "All Is Lost"
Arguably no composer had a more difficult task at hand this year than singer/songwriter Alex Ebert, formerly of electro-rock outfit Ima Robot, and now best known as Edward Sharpe of Edward Sharpe of the Magnetic Zeros. J.C. Chandor’s survival film pits one lonely man (Robert Redford in one of the year’s best performances) in a slowly sinking boat in the middle of the Indian ocean. It’s the man against the elements, violent storms, crushing waves, a capsizing boat, and he barely utters a word throughout the entire film, which is part high seas adventure calamity, part existential and introspective look at ourselves and our mortality (a little bit like “Gravity” for the open seas). And so Ebert has to create 100% of the interior life of the character, at least beyond the wordless, looks, glances and expressions of Robert Redford. There’s a deep ocean of things going on inside the inner world of this character; regrets, melancholy, pain, suffering, desperation, hopelessness and more. And much of it is expressed and communicated through the music; a beautiful, mournful dirge that often sounds like a slow-motion funeral hymn and one many coming to terms with his death. It's aching, extremely moving and heartrending stuff. Especially as the character’s situation becomes more dire and he essentially deflates to a point where all hope is lost. Angelic and haunting (especially the breathtaking theme “Excelsior”), one can argue Ebert’s “All Is Lost” doleful score is the empty cry one makes as they look back on life before they meet their maker. Bloody beautiful.

The Spectacular Now

Honorable Mentions:
Obviously Hans Zimmer’s “Rush” score is very good, pulse pounding stuff, and he does fine work on "The Lone Ranger" too, but we’ve already lauded him twice in the two arenas he excels in: dramas and tentpoles, so we felt that was enough.  While it’s perhaps not the most original work and clearly follows the blueprint of John Powell’s work in most of Paul Greengrass’ notable films to date (the “Bourne” series, “United 93,” etc.), Henry Jackman’s tension-building score (which is a bit stand in for Powell, to be honest), is quite good and effective for what it is and helps “Captain Phillips” achieve rather alarming levels of anxiety, fear and desperation. We’ll undoubtedly catch some heat for leaving out the Craig Armstrong-written, often Lana Del Ray-sung "The Great Gatsby" score (also featuring The xx and Bryan Ferry Orchestra), but it loses points for being in an obnoxious movie and two, for interpolating that “Young and Beautiful” Lana Del Ray song over and over to the point of ad nauseum in the film (we love you Baz, but bad choice).

Cliff Martinez's moody ambient work in "Only God Forgives" is quite good too, but we preferred the Skrillex collaboration more. Ex-Faith No More singer Mike Patton's career has been moving towards the avant garde for more than a decade and he started dabbling with score work in the late aughts, most prominently with "Crank: High Voltage." His main theme in "The Place Beyond The Pines" is quite good, moving even, but on reflection (and on listens after the fact), he probably needs a few more years in the trenches before he starts delivering A-game work. Indie composer Rob Simonsen is becoming quite ubiquitous. In 2013, he wrote music for “Girl Most Likely,” “The Way Way Back” and “The English Teacher” among others, but it's his dreamy and emotional work in “The Spectacular Now” that really caught our ear. A few of the softer, quieter themes in the movie are quite underrated and gave us serious pause for consideration on this list. No doubt, you’ll be hearing from him again soon. Brian Tyler, a fairly solid if under-appreciated composer who often puts in strong work that goes unnoticed, did his best at making a splash with "Iron Man 3." Tyler did a little with a lot, turning it into a jazzy, John Barry-esque spy score and even managed to give the robotically suited superhero a genuine, hummable theme—three movies in (four if you count "The Avengers"). It should also be noted that Danny Elfman put in some of his strongest work in recent memory for Errol Morris' political documentary "The Unknown Known." Propulsive and chilling, Elfman used the choral flourishes that defined his most widely appreciated work with Tim Burton, but to new, shockingly mature effect. It's Elfman all grown up. Mark Orton's charming and whimsical score to "Nebraska" is the heart and soul of Alexander Payne's movie, to the point that for some of us, it's better than the movie itself. We should also mention the always-great Gustavo Santaolalla's pretty work in "August: Osage County" and Alexandre Desplat's "Philomena."  How could we forget  Yasuaki Shimizu's Fennesz-like score to "Cutie & The Boxer" which just gorgeous.

We saw it in 2013 at Sundance, but Drake Doremus’ “Breathe In” technically doesn’t come out until 2014. However, Dustin O'Halloran has become one of the best on-the-rise composers and his beautiful work in “Breathe In” is right up there with his terrific work in “Like Crazy.” Had it been a 2013 film it would have landed on this list with a fierceness. The same thing can be said for scores to Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” and Jim Jarmusch’s exquisite “Only Lovers Left Alive,” so keep an ear out for all three (and the movies too) next year.

- Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Cory Everett, Katie Walsh, Oliver Lyttelton

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

49 Comments

  • Daniel | February 20, 2014 6:38 AMReply

    Completely agree with your number 1 selection, brilliant movie and score. Also loved gravity score, although the movie was appalling.

  • andrew | January 6, 2014 8:12 AMReply

    To me after these are all garbage to mediocre scores. On par with Gangnam Style, you chew and spit, no need to rate. Hope the movies are better. To overlook monsters like Brian Tyler, for these tunes that could play great as ringtones at best, is an affront to film music industry.

  • Lyndsay | January 3, 2014 9:26 AMReply

    You know, you never really truly appreciate movies until you hear their scores. That's what makes most films so great.

  • Gabriela | December 28, 2013 1:30 PMReply

    The writers/ reviewers on this site make no freaking sense. How are you going to call a movie overrated then turn around and call it one of 2013s best film scores?! Wtf the same thing happened in 2013s 20 worst movies you list a movie that you said was underrated?! Also listing on the 20 worst list some of (by my opinion) the best movies of the year as the worst. Do ya read what ya write or just blindly put up reviews? I definitely think spring breakers was overrated and bland at most I fell asleep watching it, the host was a grand love story and now you see me was a great movie also.

  • Matthew Starr | December 11, 2013 11:08 PMReply

    I can't understand how Zimmer is on here twice yet his best work this year did not make the list (Rush).

  • G | December 11, 2013 7:35 PMReply

    This is a nice list.

    But my biggest issue is with Hans Zimmer. To be honest, I've never thought he was anything special and I still don't. His scores are great for temp tracks because they can fit to ANY film of the given genre.

    superman score = any heroic comic book film
    12 years a slave score = any sad, historical dramatic film

    I'm sorry, I don't think he is as major a talent as hollywood composers Danny Elfman, Alexandre Desplat, or James Horner. (The snide "Danny Elfman grown up" comment shows the writer doesn't think a lot of him, which is sad. Especially seeing how his music for Tim Burton was recently given a retrospective concert on the largest scale next to John Williams.

    I agree with another poster that Keegan DeWitt's score for "This is Martin Bonner" should hold a place on the list. His decision to disintegrate the music was spot on and created a beautiful, melancholy score.

    I see Mark Orton got a mention for "Nebraska" but I think you could easily loose (at least) 1 Hans Zimmer score and bump this fantastic music up to the main list! It feels tailor-made and captures the heart of the story. (I disagree that it overrides it.)

    "Prince Avalanche" "Mud" and "Upstream Color" are definitely great. Not sure if anything this year has been as good as Jonny Greenwood's score for "The Master" but definitely some great stuff.

  • Lyndsay | January 3, 2014 9:21 AM

    Personally, I like Hans Zimmer. I just like film scores, in general. One of the best scores I've heard from Hans Zimmer is "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End". Yes, I realize that's not from 2013, but I felt it was worth mentioning.

  • NewYorker | December 11, 2013 11:33 AMReply

    my 15 favorite movie scores of 2013 are defently
    1-Man Of Steel
    2-Spring Breakers
    3-Captain Phillips
    4-Violet & Daisy
    5-Charlie Countryman
    6-Filly Brown
    7-Out Of The Furance
    8-Texas Chainsaw 3d
    9-The Great Gatsby
    10-Evil Dead
    11-Gangster Squad
    12-Tyler Perry's Temptation
    13-42
    14-Mud
    15-The Iceman

  • JORDAN BELL FORT | January 15, 2014 5:45 PM

    when franco says please god please
    and shannon is just standing there looking at him
    .
    the score was spine tingling

  • Elitist Movie Snob | December 10, 2013 8:33 PMReply

    Two Hans Zimmer scores and not even a mention of Nebraska's fantastically simple score?

  • You Asshat | December 10, 2013 8:41 PM

    So then you didn't read to the end to find the "mention" of the Nebraska score then?

  • aquarius1271 | December 8, 2013 6:19 PMReply

    As wonderful as the Man of Steel score was, I think Zimmer's score for Rush deserved to be on the main list instead. The most exciting movie music I have listened for ages.

  • Debbie | December 25, 2013 6:45 AM

    Agreed. The pulsating rush (oops pun) of the score has thrilled me since my first watch!

  • david | December 7, 2013 4:23 PMReply

    Jon Brion - The Blue Umbrella

  • Sam's Myth | December 7, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    Great list as usual, and as a soundtrack freak myself I share most of your picks. A few you missed that I'd love to hear what you think of:

    Steven Hufstetter - Kiss of the Damned
    Broadcast - Berberian Sound Studio
    Rob - Maniac
    Hanan Townshend - To The Wonder
    Joe Hisaishi - The Wind Rises
    and Thomas Newman's opening theme to Side Effects.

    And an important note on All Is Lost -- and I'll post this on Ebert's soundcloud too -- but it's been driving me crazy that, seemingly, there was a version of the Excelsior theme that played over the end credits that was even more repetitive and stripped down, which does not exist on the soundtrack release. In fact, maybe I was lost in the movie but I don't remember much music being used in the actual film other than this main theme at the end, which hit me really hard. Tell me I'm not crazy and that the version of the theme used in the end credits is very different than the Excelsior track on the CD...

  • Tully | December 6, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    This is a pretty good list, folks, but no reasonable discussion about motion picture scores in the year 2013 should leave out Keegan DeWitt's contribution to Chad Hartigan's THIS IS MARTIN BONNER: http://thisismartinbonner.bandcamp.com/album/this-is-martin-bonner-soundtrack

  • G | December 11, 2013 6:36 PM

    Agreed! This was a terrific score that really boosted the overall quality of the film. It was original and well-tailored.
    Definitely deserves a spot on the list.

  • hobbittt | December 6, 2013 3:37 PMReply

    Hobbit???

  • VITHAYA PANSRINGARM | December 6, 2013 10:39 AMReply

    Cliff Martinez's work in "Only God Forgives" is quite good ? ? ?


    If you’re prepared to settle into the film’s unorthodox rhythms,
    you’ll be rewarded by Cliff Martinez’s superb score,
    which perfectly complements the film’s wild mélange of elements,
    acknowledging its Thai setting with eerie Eastern sounds
    that, by the end, feel like the spirits of Bangkok are getting ready to rise up
    and cleanse the world of Crystal and her immoral brood.

    http://www.empireonline dot com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?FID=137633


    scored by Drive composer Cliff Martinez, it sounds magnificent,
    perfectly conjuring the feel of backstreet Bangkok

    http://www.totalfilm dot com/reviews/cinema/only-god-forgives


    . And the synth score, by Drive's Cliff Martinez, is some kind of new classic

    http://www.rollingstone dot com/movies/reviews/only-god-forgives-20130719


    If there is one small titbit of innovation and originality in the film,
    it is Cliff Martinez's ambient, mesmerizing, gorgeous score.
    One of the year's best,
    it belongs in a much more accomplished work

    http://www.rogerebert dot com/reviews/only-god-forgives-2013

  • Marv | December 5, 2013 9:38 PMReply

    Place beyond the lines should've made this list, I also really enjoyed the score for the bling ring.

  • TOMMY DEVITO | December 6, 2013 10:42 AM

    the score in TPBTP when gosling rings from the strangers house and when dane dehaan is shot from above like his father on a bike too

  • cirkusfolk | December 5, 2013 9:53 PM

    I agree with Pines. Much better than they gave it credit for in the honorable mentions.

  • bohmer | December 5, 2013 7:00 PMReply

    Great list! My top 3 would be:
    - Upstream Color
    - Tie for Only God Forgive and the Martinez track of Spring Breakers
    - Man of Steel (The 29 minutes of Hans' Sketchbook & General Zod theme put it in #3)

  • James | December 5, 2013 6:16 PMReply

    The score for CAPTAIN PHILLIPS didn't merely have nods to Powell's UNITED 93 score. They actually tracked in the cue "The End" from the UNITED 93 score over the entire finale of PHILLIPS - it's listed in the music credits at the end. And the main theme is the same one Powell wrote for UNITED 93.

  • charlie wilson | December 6, 2013 10:43 AM

    the music when barkhad abdi and hanks first saw each other through binoculars was amazing

  • cirkusfolk | December 5, 2013 9:52 PM

    I thought the last musical cue in Captain Phillips sounded just like the last one in Inception. I figured that was why Hans Zimmer was thanked in the credits.

  • serena | December 5, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who saw BREATH IN early (in London this summer) and swooned for Dustin O'Halloran's score.

    I would've included THE GREAT GATSBY, if only for its originality. Yeah, "Young and Beautiful" was used about 4 times, but only because it's the most Gatsby-esque song in the whole movie, and Lana Del Rey (aka Lizzie Grant) is more Gatsby than Jay Gatsby.

  • Zach | December 5, 2013 5:01 PMReply

    Nebraska has one of the more charming scores of the year. It's a different breed than most of these picks (it's bluegrass, not orchestral or electronic), but Mark Orton's work made the movie the instant classic it is, for me at least.

  • The Playlist | December 5, 2013 6:24 PM

    Ah yeah, Nebraska was on the short list for final 15 and then got bumped (problem is some of it isn't an original score and some of it is pre-existing). We should have added it to the honorable mention section. I'll amend, thanks for noting.

  • Jone | December 5, 2013 6:12 PM

    Completely agree. I've been listening non-stop. The only score this year that I've made a point to find after seeing the movie.

  • Grace | December 5, 2013 4:02 PMReply

    I feel like these lists really shouldn't be published until 2013 is actually over...because The Hobbit doesn't come out until the 13th and that would definitely be on this list because Howard Shore is a masterful composer and always delivers.

  • JC | December 5, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    I am probably biased...but Only God Forgives should be on that list.

  • ethan hunt | December 6, 2013 10:45 AM

    BEST SUPP ACTOR 2014 nominees (my predictions)

    woody harrelson OOTF
    vithaya pansringarm OGF
    barkhad abdi CP
    joel edgerton TGG
    ryan gosling TPBTP

  • BEF | December 5, 2013 3:05 PMReply

    Zimmer's everywhere, but I liked his score for "12 Years" more than anything else from his releases this year ... I was actually surprised it WAS Zimmer when his name came up.

  • Oogle monster | December 5, 2013 2:26 PMReply

    NO GATSBY?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WALTER MITTY?!!! WHATTT!!!

  • benutty | December 5, 2013 2:26 PMReply

    "Playlist, where we try to make Upstream Color happen until we absolutely just cannot anymore."

    Kind of mad that you just didn't call Beasts of the Southern Wild best score this year. Nothing from this film season has even come close to matching the cohesion and depth it provided the film.

  • bohmer | December 5, 2013 6:54 PM

    Upstream Color happened.

    BotSW was last year.

  • Eric | December 5, 2013 2:23 PMReply

    Nice list, Playlist.

    My Top 3 would be:

    Prince Avalanche
    Upstream Color
    Her

  • Matt N. | December 5, 2013 2:20 PMReply

    The score/soundtrack for "Her" was outstanding. They had better release that. I can't find any info on it right now.

  • gert | December 5, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    Enjoyed all scores listed. What Maise Knew had a lovely score as well.

  • Charles | December 5, 2013 2:09 PMReply

    I was very pleasantly surprised by how good Randy Newman's score was for Monsters University. His use of marching band music within the score was especially great. I think it was one of the best of the year.

  • Andy H | January 17, 2014 6:53 PM

    Why are you surprised?People don't notice the score in comedies
    or animated pictures .They're hard to do ,I think,and often can really help
    a picture.The Pixar scores are all pretty good.

  • harry | December 5, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    One of the best blog posts of the year. Great selection of scores. I
    Haven't seen or heard the Redford one. Will catch up on that.

  • JD | December 5, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    'Only God Forgives' is missing from that list.

  • DANNY OCEAN | December 6, 2013 10:49 AM

    @ JD

    if you're prepared to settle into the films unorthodox rhythms,
    you'll be rewarded by Cliff Martinezs superb score,
    which perfectly complements the films wild malange of elements,
    acknowledging its Thai setting with eerie Eastern sounds
    that, by the end, feel like the spirits of Bangkok are getting ready to rise up
    and cleanse the world of Crystal and her immoral brood.

    http://www.empireonline dot com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?FID=137633

    scored by Drive composer Cliff Martinez, it sounds magnificent,
    perfectly conjuring the feel of backstreet Bangkok

    http://www.totalfilm dot com/reviews/cinema/only-god-forgives

    . And the synth score, by Drive's Cliff Martinez, is some kind of new classic

    http://www.rollingstone dot com/movies/reviews/only-god-forgives-20130719

    If there is one small titbit of innovation and originality in the film,
    it is Cliff Martinez's ambient, mesmerizing, gorgeous score.
    One of the year's best,
    it belongs in a much more accomplished work

    http://www.rogerebert dot com/reviews/only-god-forgives-2013

  • silver linings playhook | December 6, 2013 10:48 AM

    @ JD

    if you're prepared to settle into the films unorthodox rhythms,
    you'€™ll be rewarded by Cliff Martinezs superb score,
    which perfectly complements the films wild malange of elements,
    acknowledging its Thai setting with eerie Eastern sounds
    that, by the end, feel like the spirits of Bangkok are getting ready to rise up
    and cleanse the world of Crystal and her immoral brood.

    http://www.empireonline dot com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?FID=137633

    scored by Drive composer Cliff Martinez, it sounds magnificent,
    perfectly conjuring the feel of backstreet Bangkok

    http://www.totalfilm dot com/reviews/cinema/only-god-forgives

    . And the synth score, by Drive's Cliff Martinez, is some kind of new classic

    http://www.rollingstone dot com/movies/reviews/only-god-forgives-20130719

    If there is one small titbit of innovation and originality in the film,
    it is Cliff Martinez's ambient, mesmerizing, gorgeous score.
    One of the year's best,
    it belongs in a much more accomplished work

    http://www.rogerebert dot com/reviews/only-god-forgives-2013

  • ABR | December 5, 2013 1:39 PM

    I was just about to post that.

  • Chris | December 5, 2013 1:32 PMReply

    No, "Gravity" did not LITERALLY hurl audience members into space. Jesus Christ, you're a professional writer.

  • moo | December 5, 2013 2:31 PM

    This is the best comment I've ever seen on this site.

Email Updates