We’ve arrived, the final list I’m doing this decade! I have a weird obsession with film scores and the last couple of years have enjoyed sharing favorites, hopefully leading people to check out some works they might not otherwise notice. I think we get a few each year that stand out above the rest, special pieces that are able to serve as art outside of the films they’re attached to. This often creates a very different list than my standard top ten list, focusing on the music instead of the complete package. It’s a blast and a half to work on these kinds of things, to have something atmospheric or terrifying or fun jangling around in my head while I decide on these. Hopefully you succumb to the urge to try these out for yourself. Some scores make for a hell of a workout mix (have you ever considered that the Mad Max: Fury Road score is like…the most motivating thing?)!
I’d like to mention a few that didn’t quite hit my top ten list, but nonetheless turned out to be wonderful to listen to. Nicholas Britell hit my top ten list last year with his score for If Beale Street Could Talk, but this year his work on The King got nudged out by some other really great things. Much as I dislike Michael Giacchino I have to hand it to him, the Jojo Rabbit score is pretty beautiful. Disasterpiece stood by David Robert Mitchell, providing a score for his new film Under the Silver Lake. And of course…Detective Pikachu had a score from Henry Jackman that made my childhood feel cinematic.
Now onward to my top ten scores of 2019!
10. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker by John Williams
Whatever your opinions on this film it remains necessary to remember that John Williams is potentially the greatest film composer in the industry thus far. He brings together forty years of musical storytelling in one last hurrah and it is absolutely thrilling to listen to. I’m a nostalgia sucker when it comes to this franchise, and having this feels like a culmination that the film itself just didn’t quite get to. There’s been a lot of fighting in the fandom over this trilogy, to the point where people are having the guts to justify thinking the prequels are better films (those people are wrong), but one thing everyone is in agreement on is that John Williams nailed it. This is, reportedly, his final work with the franchise and I think he put his heart into it. Sure, the movie isn’t that good, but he remains an absolute master of emotional heights.
09. The Lighthouse by Mark Korven
When I saw The Witch back in 2016 I was floored, the score becoming an instant love for me and becoming a regular listen. Director Robert Eggers and composer Mark Korven teamed back up this year, creating a surrealist horror-comedy with The Lighthouse and the music is just as weird as the movie. Clanging yet somber, unsettling and goofy, every track feels like a throwback to an older era of filmmaking that allowed for strange and wondrous noise to serve as the backdrop to strange and wondrous imagery. I never thought I’d be overjoyed to hear shrieking, piercing music while Willem Dafoe stood nude over Robert Pattinson and like shone out of his mouth and into the young man’s eyes. That’s some odd shit, yeah? The titular lighthouse is constantly present, the blaring horn serving as an undertone for so much of the runtime and existing as a constant reminder to us, like the two men, that we’re stuck in this hell.
08. Us by Michael Abels
Yup, I’m still deep in the weird ones. Whatever Peel and Abels were on when they put this all together must be some quality stuff. This spent a lot of time in my regular rotation on Spotify for quite a while after I left the theatre, the strangeness of it stuck in my brain. From the eerie choir to the use of “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz, it’s all so engrossing and intense. There are beautiful tracks as well, songs like “Outernet” utilizing a piano to settle you into a lovely location before everything goes to hell. Unlike many other scores, this one can tell a story alone (which is, in my humble opinion, something indicative of an excellent album). Peele told us about the duplicity of human nature and class systems while Abels makes sure we feel something crawling up our spines. It’s kind of like there’s a spider on your back, it’s legs inching up toward your neck. There’s definitely a bite to this one, and when it stings you feel it.
07. Parasite by Jung Jae-il
This is an oddly traditional score in many ways, with pianos and strings coming together to be so over-the-top and bombastic that it’s almost hilarious to listen to isolated from the film. Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece is pretty hilarious anyway, but there’s such a goofy quality to the music that it takes everything to another level. Jae-il makes for a strong match to the material, able to switch tones on a dime to match the script. There are haunting tracks, adorned with lonely strings that feel hurt, and lighthearted tracks that take a woman desperately making Jappaguri and turn it into a hilarious farce. I also dig when diegetic sound is worked into the music and Jae-il popped the rain into several tracks. It’s wonderful and perfect in a lot of ways, the kind of thing that I wouldn’t normally expect from this kind of story. And make no mistake, Jae-il is telling a story of his own. Bong Joon-ho may have been skewering the wealthy and late-stage capitalism, but Jung Jae-il is telling the emotional story of several families devastated by tragedy. It’s the heart of the film and one of the best scores I’ve heard this year.
06. Knives Out by Nathan Johnson
I love melodrama and throwback music. Like Jung Jae-il’s score for Parasite, Nathan Johnson is doing something old-school to match the tone of the film. It rotates between overdramatic and quietly haunting, both a lot of fun and horrifying all at the same time. I’m absolutely in love with the goofy stings and orchestral stuff like this and Johnson brought it (both Rian and Nathan). There’s not a ton to say about this other than that it feels like such a classic right out of the gate because it’s emulate that classic whodunnit formula. While the film exists in a modern era, with e-mails and cell phones, everything else from the location to the music leapt right out of the nursing home to breathe life back into this genre. There were a few better scores this year, but I’d be hard-pressed to find one that was more fun.
05. Glass by West Dylan Thordson
This one’s so intense! The ticking clock incorporated into the music is the thing that really grips you, setting every viewer on-edge and really carrying this movie (well, that and James McAvoy). Thordson pulls a lot from James Newton Howard’s Unbreakable pieces for this, which seems fitting. Not as much from Split survived into this one, but there’s traces of it peppered throughout. I think that’s for the better as this was the finale of a larger idea, something that had to be hidden in the middle installment but was fully out in the open here. The urge to make this feel like a superhero movie never seems in-play, ditching the bombastic over-the-top silliness of those films to instead try for something more dramatic and throbbing. The ticking is uncomfortable, but it’s purposeful and serves as a wonderful contrast to the orchestral music that holds more of the goofier moments to a higher level. Shyamalan went through a slump, but he’s back and he’s got a new music buddy. It’s a good partnership so far and I can’t wait to see what comes after this.
04. Godzilla: King of the Monsters by Bear McCreary
I love Godzilla. I love watching giant monsters beat the ever-loving shit out of each other in fist fights, so when these come out they’re very important to me. The movie is a fantastically fun train wreck, but the score is incredible. McCreary has been more of a TV composer up to this point, working on Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead amongst a ton of other projects. He’s gained a lot of prominence that way (those shows, whatever their flaws, are incredibly well-scored), but his film work has been a mixture of disappointing or just lost in the mix. Here, though, he’s paired with a franchise he has a great respect for and a director who feels the same. This album is an absolute BEAST to listen to! Ditching that weird Serj Tankien song at the beginning, the rest of it turns into this primal thudding to match the titular character’s tone (Godzilla is the main character because most of the rest of the cast can go straight to hell). We also got new versions of the themes for Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah, with all of them being a lot of fun. I had a blast with this score and it, coupled with some of the visuals, basically carried the movie.
03. Watchmen by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Okay, yeah, so this is a television score. I don’t care because it’s awesome. Reznor and Ross have been knocking it out of the park for a decade now, whether paired with David Fincher or Jonah Hill or doing the goddamn Bird Box score, so of course this was going to hit my list. The show itself is incredible, but the music is some of the best I’ve gotten from the duo yet. We hit this weird period where Nine Inch Nails decided they were going to do instrumental music for an album, leading to the dual careers they lead now as popular, touring musicians and film composers. This is delightfully dark and synthy, very indicative of the 80s timbre that has been so popular (and when the graphic novel is set), and it’s got enough of the flair I needed it to have to make it one of the best listens of the year. If you’re unfamiliar with the work these two are doing then you need to catch up. This feels like a culmination, not just another album, and I feel like they’ll only continue to get more interesting from here.
02. Little Women by Alexandre Desplat
You knew damn well this was going to score high with me. The film itself was a massive emotional experience for me but the whole time I was baffled by the music. Not because it wasn’t fitting or anything, but because I had been so enamored by the cast and director announcements that I hadn’t paid attention to who was scoring this thing. When the credits were rolling Desplat’s name came up and I muttered, “Oh, right, of course,” to myself. This is a pitch-perfect example of who he is, showing little touches of his work on the Wes Anderson films (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs), his award-winning score for Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and even what he did with John Williams’s themes in the final two Harry Potter movies. I’m hopeful that people will take a shot and listen to this one isolated from the rest of the film because it really is an incredible piece of compositional structure. Themes are layered and unique, tone is spread through the score in a variety of different ways, and I just can’t get enough of the song “Dance on the Porch.” Seriously, this one is fun.
01. Midsommar by Bobby Krlic
I promise I’ll stop going on and on about this movie after this. I know, it’s probably getting old, but this really was one of the most incredible films of the year. Bobby Krlic, also known as The Häxan Cloak, is known for making creepy and atmospheric instrumental music. Aster and his team utilized this to design the score for Midsommar, bringing a haunting and lyrical sound that is beautiful, fun, devastating, and creepy all at different points. The score is a journey all on its own, separate from the film. From the wailing breaking of Dani in “Gassed” to the breath of relief in “Fire Temple,” each moment is part of a larger world that, like the characters, we’re getting an unsettling glimpse at. It isn’t a frightening score, but something that instead grips you deep down in your bones and slams you back and forth while also quieting your mind with a near-hallucinogenic timbre. It’s beautiful and you should all be listening to it on a regular basis. Go now. Why aren’t you going?
And that’s the 2019 list! I’m now going to take a break, but while I’m relaxing I’d love to hear about your favorite musical moments from this year. Anyone mad that I missed anything? Where’s the one non-ironic fan of Cats that wants to stand up for that film?