Of all the many parts that are put together to make a movie, one of the most fascinating and enjoyable for me is when, how, and why a film uses music. As many a comedian, critic, and commentator have pointed out, simply changing or removing the music of a given scene (all else being the same) can change its meaning, effect, or tone entirely. So, being as deep a lover of music as I am a lover of film, I find myself especially attuned to the music of a given film more than I am to almost anything else aside from the writing, acting, and cinematography.
I had wanted to do a list like this last year, but really, with a handful of notable exceptions (Gravity, Frozen, and maybe one or two others), there were simply no decent original scores of note to talk about. 2014, however, was much different, providing us with a wide variety of styles and sounds to enjoy along with our films. Therefore, as a final, pre-awards look-back at 2014, I am counting down my 10 favorite original scores of the year.
Just so that we are clear, I am only considering films that had all original music written for them. Meaning that soundtracks like the classic rock remix of Guardians of the Galaxy, regardless of how excellently put together, do not count.
Let us begin.
10. Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Antonio Sanchez)
Yes, technically, two hours of unceasing drumming counts as an original score (allegedly it was discounted from Oscar consideration due to a handful of scenes that use classical music). Nonetheless, this deserves a spot on top score consideration because of how it fulfills the primary duty of film music- to blend with the visual style and acting so fully as to be inseparable from the whole.
9. The Theory of Everything (Johann Johannsson)
I was actually surprised by how much I liked the score for this film. I was expected unrelenting Oscar-bait cheese, but both the music and the film itself (mostly) did not go the routes I was expecting. The highlight was the scene where this track plays, one of the few real emotional high notes the somewhat-restrictive screenplay gives Jane.
8. Gone Girl (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross)
David Fincher, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross are practically an institution now, with the eerily similar visuals and sound of their last three collaborations forming a sort of unofficial trilogy. It is a match made in heaven mostly because of how profoundly unsettling the scores of Raznor and Ross are, putting them perfectly in line with the types of dark, twisted stories and worlds Fincher likes to create.
7. Unforgiven (Taro Iwashiro)
The soundtrack for this Japanese remake is pure, classic, Western pathos, in many ways mirroring the tortured anguish of the main character. Old school all the way home, and I loved every wailing strain of it.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Alexandre Desplat)
I was actually surprised when I first learned that the soundtrack for this one was all original, since I just assumed Anderson delved into the works of an obscure Baroque composer. But nope- apparently it’s Alexandre Desplat, doing a pitch-perfect imitation of the Baroque style. Which makes his work here all the more impressive.
5. The Wind Rises (Joe Hisaishi)
Although it is far more downplayed than his more popular work (and isn’t even the best work of his on this list), Joe Hisaishi nonetheless provides a perfect, background ambience to Miyazaki’s quiet tale of a man striving to reach his dreams. Give the compilation suite here a listen when you can.
4. Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
I know Hans Zimmer is divisive, but I have never ceased to be a fan of his work, and I think his score for Interstellar is genuinely excellent. Does it have his usual bombasticity? Of course! Who did you think you were getting, Jason Mraz? And I counter anyone who says there is no artistry in it with this particular track- listen to the clashing time signatures in the middle between the two melodies, subtly playing off the fact that, in this scene, the characters are racing against two different speeds of time. Brilliant.
3. How To Train Your Dragon 2 (John Powell)
The soundtrack for the first movie in this series still ranks as one of the greatest I have ever heard, and John Powell returns in style for the sequel, mixing in the main themes of the original, but with new variations on the melody in many instances, making it every bit as passionately energetic as the film’s lush and beautiful visual design.
2. Under The Skin (Mica Levi)
One of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, part of what makes Under The Skin so brutally effective in creating a thematically heavy atmosphere that will creep you the hell out no matter mentally settled you are is Mica Levi’s haunting score. It is the most ruthlessly effective use of dissonance I’ve heard in a film since There Will Be Blood. And it is a crime that it received almost no major awards recognition. DO NOT listen to this music with the lights out. Or without a security blanket close at hand.
1. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Joe Hisaishi)
No surprise that my favorite film of 2014 also featured my favorite original soundtrack of the year. This is the best work Joe Hisaishi has done since Ponyo back in 2008, a gorgeous creation that provides more of his famous mixing of traditional Japanese instruments and Western-style orchestral arrangements, switching between the two at just the perfect moments. Like the movie is accompanies, it is a work of profound depth and heart-rending beauty. The suite featured here provides a wonderful run-through of the main themes, but it is a work that deserves to be heard in its proper context- as an integral part of a cinematic masterpiece.
And those are my favorite soundtracks of the year! Check out my previous post to see my favorite trailers of the year, and to view my Top 10 Films list, click here. Tune in to the Oscars this Sunday, February 22nd, and check here afterwards to read my bitching.