Scores of Scores

Ramblin’ Preamble

I want to go off on this for a minute. Original scores are one of my favorite things about film, reading the notes as a signifier for emotion and terror and character-building. It’s as important to the structure of a film as performance, editing, or cinematography (I’d argue it’s borderline as important as direction). From as far back as Franz Waxman’s score for Rebecca, to Clint Mansell’s score for The Fountain, all the way up to Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin, some of the more intricate and impressive pieces have gone unnoticed by the Academy. The awards show is scrambling for legitimacy and they’ve decided to fight for popular hosts, jokes, sketches, and montages (though this year definitely cut back on most of that) and their attempts at new categories, populist nominations, and pandering have instead only pissed off the viewership. I’ve ranted a bit about some of the nominations but one of the most frustrating ones for me this year was the Best Original Score category. I fully believe that 3 out of 5 of them did not deserve to be on the list, being included over others that were far more interesting but less so to the Academy of Men Afraid of Genre. In light of this I’ve decided to highlight the two that I thought deserved to be there and acknowledge 8 that should have been included instead of the others. I’ll also include my favorite song from each track. Just know, I’m talking about scores and not soundtracks. Y’all know A Star is Born would be on here otherwise.

Earlier I promised a top 10 scores of 2018 list, and you may consider this that. They are in no particular order, instead just me wanting to bring awareness to some very beautiful pieces of music.

Inclusions I Was Psyched About

Isle of Dogs – Wes Anderson has latched onto Alexandre Desplat, and with good reason. There’s been a wonderful run of scores coming out of him in the last decade, from his work in the Harry Potter franchise to his two Oscar wins for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shape of Water. His work can range from bold and bombastic to subtle and moving, his ringing notes for Wes Anderson and his beautifully terrifying work for Del Toro finally garnering him the recognition I believe he rightfully deserves. For Isle of Dogs he went a different direction, incorporating music that was indicative of old samurai epics akin to the work of Fumio Hayasaka in Seven Samurai or Rashomon. Each piece contains a mixture of this style coupled with Wes Anderson’s fondness for 60’s-esque rock and folk music to create something that would cause too much of a clash in the hands of a lesser composer. With this he created a triumph. I think this is one of Anderson’s lesser films (still loved it, but it’s hard to hold it up to some of his other work) but this is a huge display of what Desplat has got knocking around his head.

If Beale Street Could Talk – Cards on the table, I’m only familiar with composer Nicholas Britell from his films with Barry Jenkins, but damn he’s good when coupled with the right material. I found him through Moonlight in 2016 and I adored that score, a beautiful and heavy set of pieces revolving around classical instrumentation to create an atmosphere of nervousness, dread, and love all at the same time. I didn’t get the chance to see that film until after I’d written my top 10 list, but it would have been placed high. Now we’ve gotten another Britell/Jenkins collaboration – If Beale Street Could Talk. The work done this time around holds to some of the same sort of heavy thematic tones, but adds the childlike sense of wonder that couples wonderfully with the sort of eye-opening meaning behind the film, the coupling between a wrongful accusation and a pregnancy. It’s a powerful score and honestly of the nominees this was my pick. I stand by that statement, in the face of the Black Panther win, and say that this was the deserving piece of music.

Exclusions I Was Pissed About

Hereditary – Something I love in my film scores is when the music can tell a story on its own, with or without the film. Tension is key, especially in horror scores, and Colin Stetson’s work here is laden with discomfort and horrific stings that draw out an inner dread in a listener. Images, feelings, and tones from the film are drawn into the music and are inserted back into one’s head without restraint. When you listen to certain tracks you can see the appalled fear on Toni Collette’s face or the ants swarming, feel Alex Wolff’s mounting dread. At the end of the film I exhaled in horrified elation, and the music swelled into a nightmarish choral glory. The stranger sitting next to me and I were on the verge of grasping each others’ hands, pressed into our seats and trying to figure out what had just happened to us. The power of film music is that it moves us and breaks us, builds us up and forces us to feel things. Hereditary is a film that does that already, and when coupled with this incredible score it takes away any ability to deny the pure emotion embedded in the film. It’s borderline a masterpiece.

Annihilation – Such a weird and wonderful film deserves to be coupled with such a weird and wonderful score, and there was Ben Salisbury to take that challenge and run with it. The coupling of bayou guitar and weird-core electronic music to represent the meshing of setting with unusual aesthetic creates audible color, a weird fresco painting that you can hear. Contrasting the music from the post-crocodile attack scene with that of the eel-intestines, the deer, or the alien itself and you can see how much range the film has through its music. Salisbury can dine out on this score for years to come, it’s one of the most incredible of the year and one of the best in modern sci-fi.

Suspiria – Thom Yorke got screwed this year. Rarely can a film be pulled off with music like this, orchestral music mixed in with the sound design and actual vocal performances to create a feeling of discomfort instead of the whiplash of the classic Goblin score in the original. Yorke, like Guadagnino, decided to take the original and do something completely different. Look, I love Argento’s Suspiria, but I think this one accomplishes a better story and character arc for Suzy and this is coupled with a less aggressive score, but a far more beautiful one. There are classic themes mixed with wrenching flesh and broken bones, hooks and soft vocals. Most will remember this for the song “Unmade” but for me the two greats are “The Hooks” and “Volk,” two of the more interesting and uncomfortable pieces that Yorke has ever released. This is a masterpiece of film music and it’s my favorite score of the year.

Eighth Grade – Shockers like this come around very rarely, but Anna Meredith’s debut film score for Bo Burnham’s debut film Eighth Grade is a marvelously tense and mounting thing that is hard to sit through on its own. An effort was made to give the sounds a female-tinged vibe to it, as Meredith and burnham consider most electronic music to be “male.” I’m not sure if they nailed that, but what they’ve created is a score that feels like a blossoming panic attack ready to burst. This score, unlike that of Hereditary, does not conjure up things from the film for me. Instead, Meredith’s music leaves my heart pounding and my tension high. I’m high-strung enough as-is, but listening to this on its own is a wild experience. If you don’t believe me check out the track “Nautilus,” that one’s where I really began to understand what this beast of a score was.

Crazy Rich Asians – Who doesn’t love some swing music? Even more exciting, how often do you see it used to score a film? Crazy Rich Asians is one of the most fun times I had at the theatre this year (saw it on a date, that probably helped a good amount), and I’m not really a rom-com guy. Charming performances and gorgeous locations weren’t the only thing, though. Brian Tyler has really been let off the leash here, with a wild dance score that would not sound out of place in a 40’s lounge club. It matches the bombastic and ridiculously lavish lifestyles of the characters inhabiting the world of the film, and likewise matches the ridiculous scenarios formed around their interactions. One of the earliest songs in the film, “Text Tone Swing,” exemplifies the best of what Tyler has to offer and it’s an absolute blast to listen to.

First Man – Justin Hurwitz literally only scores Damien Chazelle films. He’s been with him since the beginning, all the way back to the charming Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. The music he’s created for each has been jazzy and perfect at matching what the stories are about (three of them focus heavily on jazz so it wasn’t much of a stretch). This time, however, he’s put together a score that is stripped down and lonely, separate from his other scores and it matches the way Armstrong had separated himself from humanity in the film.There’s everything from quiet string pieces to aggressively tense pieces, even the triumph of the track “Houston” is a massive change of pace for Hurwitz. Following someone’s career and seeing them get stuck in a rut is hard. I was worried it would have happened here, but instead we got a rather beautiful set of pieces that are a vastly different change of pace for a talented composer with a bright future.

Mandy – Jóhann Jóhannsson was a treasure and will be missed. His final score, for Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, is a subtle and beautiful thing in its ugly shadow. Known for his work on the films Arrival, Prisoners, and his Oscar-winning The Theory of Everything, he was set up to become a cinephile’s dream composer alongside the likes of Clint Mansell and Mica Levi. Instead we lost him to a accidental overdose and it’s heartbreaking to have seen such talent go so soon. He left us this, his final work, and it’s at times like scraping bone against metal and at times painfully sentimental, but it’s never anything less that moving. The film is divisive, with most horror freaks/Cosmatos fans/Cage fans rallying behind it and others glancing at us sideways for loving such a weird and messed-up little movie. The music, though, is nothing to dismiss out of hand and if you’ve denied the movie it’s rightful place in your heart I urge you to check out the score. Let Jóhannsson love you one last time.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – This was one I didn’t have time to see until 2019 hit, but it’s a damn gem. We’re nearly 20 years into the modern superhero phenomenon, kicked off in 2000 by X-Men, and we’ve had some really wonderful films and some duds, but a lot of them range from “eh” to “that was pretty good.” This blew me out of the water. I keep calling some films the most comic-booky things I’ve ever seen, but this is leagues ahead of the rest. The animation is stunning, the voice acting is wonderful, and each and every part of it just tickled me in all the right places. One of the most wonderful aspects wound up being Daniel Pemberton’s score. I was familiar with him from his work on Steve Jobs a few years back, with that being one of my favorite bits of weirdness from the last ten years. He’s good at incorporating electronica and hip-hop styles into his orchestral music, and it shows here more than anywhere else I’ve seen. I won’t say this is on the level of some of the best scores in history, but for this year it’s a damn good album and one of the most interesting I’ve seen in that it can feel street-level (like the hero) while also feeling bombastic and on-par with many other wonderful superhero scores. I came close to including Avengers: Infinity War on this list and it might have happened if not for this but…here we are.

Post-Game Cuddling

This was a great year for film music. There are gems each year and I struggle with them here and there, unsure as to just which ones to pick. This wasn’t my hardest year, but it was a damn close one on a few fronts. Even music from films I don’t like wound up being good (say what you will about Giacchino and Jurassic World, because I’ll say plenty, but it was a solid score). Hearts were broken, swelled, rebuilt, and shattered all over again while listening through these. I had to leave off some things that I just loved to pieces, but sadly there were so many contenders this year. I said none of these were in order, but I’ll state that Suspiria took not only my favorite film slot, but my favorite score slot because it was just so weird. It’s a damaging bit of music, gorgeous and uncomfortable, and I can’t wax poetic about it enough.

What a year. I’ve put together the two lists that mean the most to me. I’ll see you folks December of 2019 and we’ll go through the wringer again but until then I urge you to check out each of these films, particularly Suspiria and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. They’re both magical films in different ways and I adore them.

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