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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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