I honestly didn’t know if I’d have enough material for this list at one point, only to later be agonizing over whether or not the right films made the list out of the multitude of options that I had by December 31st. Film music is one of my favorite things, both the diversity of it and the way it is used to create its own story while supporting another. I adored a lot of films this year, but some of the music felt by-the-numbers until I was able to catch up right at the finish line. I put this list off longer than I meant to, but it’s finally time to go through my top ten film scores of the year! This is a weird year, one where we got a Clint Mansell score that bored me and there’s not a Giacchino in sight.
The Capitol Building is literally being destroyed by pro-evil protestors that desperately want the law ignored so they can continue to not learn to read. Let’s just do this, I’m distracting myself and I think you need it as well.
10. The Invisible Man: I first became aware of Benjamin Walfisch in 2017 when he scored Andi Muschietti’s IT: Chapter One. That was a rockin’ little score, mean as hell and it played like a great Justin Timberlake album. This year he hooked up with Leigh Whannell to participate in the brilliant reimagining of The Invisible Man. He’s trimmed some fat this time around, delivering a scary and slick score that delivers more of the emotional weight than the script (equal to Elizabeth Moss’s performance). It’s terrifying, suspenseful, and contains such an element of audible anxiety that it’s hard to listen to as anything but the active thing you focus on. Do yourself a favor and sit down with a cup of tea, maybe just close your eyes, and then live in an active panic attack for entirety of the score as you blast it directly into your eardrums.
09. Underwater: Shut up, it’s fun! But seriously, Marco Beltrami’s score for this sci-fi/horror/thriller is a great time. It’s uplifting, heartbreaking, and contains enough of its own themes to feel like an audible journey all its own. I very much enjoy the idea of a score that sounds as though filtered through deep water at points. It matches the imagery in the film perfectly and can still stand on its own as a piece of horrifying audio that creates a world of terror. It feels classic, modern, and otherworldly all at the same time. This is one of the most fun films of 2020 (and we needed fun films), but also one of the most interesting scores of the year. We must dig it, we do dig it, and I want you all to dig it with me.
08. Possessor: This one is just odd. It’s uncomfortable to listen to, but the film is unsettling to behold and that matches. Possessor is an odd film, one that sounds like a demonic film and instead asks people to consider the tech of our day as a more literal invasion of privacy. The score is deeply cruel, mechanically focused, and contains a certain sadness that I can’t quite describe. Jim Williams (the lesser, but still notable Williams) has created a score that matches the Nolan-esque cityscapes and Cronenberg-influenced body horror in a way that is…soothing? Seriously, the film is upsetting but the score is oddly calming. It’s difficult to describe and I just want everyone else to go down this rabbit hole with me.
07. Soul: Yeah, you’re gonna get a lot of Reznor and Ross in this list. Deal with it. It’s so jarring to switch between Jon Batiste’s jazzy reality and the Reznor/Ross existentialism that it just…it’s so great. Pete Doctor’s Soul is a beautiful bit of storytelling, but the score elevates it to a level they just wouldn’t have it otherwise. I think the world might have needed to discuss more than our awful day-to-day this year, and these three artists of different styles came together to create a loving and extraterrestrial vision of both the before and after. I think everyone should touch on the film, but I also think everyone needs the music right now. Pure creativity doesn’t come around often, particularly in such a targeted style. This is a year for Reznor and Ross to experiment (we’ll get to that), but this was beyond what I’d ever hoped.
06. The Painter and the Thief: Look, it was my favorite film of 2020. It’s beautiful, but the score is this lovingly cultured bit of bacteria that both sickens and delights me all at once. This documentary (the first that I’ve included on a top ten scores list) contains a romance between the flawed visionary and the flawed reality of humanity, coming together in a way that is only platonic on the surface. The score feels the same, somehow sexy and tempting while it’s also uncomfortable and scared. Nervous, twitchy, and sad, the entire score feels like a nervous breakdown and I’m having all of it. Uno Helmersson has created a familiar but freaky soundscape, one that I hope you all indulge in for the foreseeable future.
05. The Midnight Sky: I got a Desplat score, you knew this was going to happen. The Midnight Sky feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s not one of the better homage films we got this year, but it’s a pretty solid film and I hope everyone watches it. If you have to ignore it I definitely want you to listen to the score. Desplat has developed a nihilistic-yet-loving series of tracks that feel like a true journey. When you bring in father/child stuff I get misty, but The Midnight Sky challenged me through just how unlikeable the guy is and how cute the kid is. There’s anxiety, sweetness, and even a bit of classical bombast to the music that I feel wasn’t destined for a streaming service. The score was designed for a big screen and one day, hopefully, we’ll get to experience that again.
04. Mank: Told you we had a lot of Reznor and Ross this time around. Look, the score feels reminiscent of old world Hollywood in ways that are hard to put into words. It sounds all at once like Citizen Kane, The Searchers, and even Bringing Up Baby. The electronica artists have reached out and tried a new format and it’s stunning. Each track feels targeted at the idea of the scene, with the faux films being shot in the background, and with the emotions created by the performers. I dig it and I hope that everyone gives the score a shot after viewing the film. One of the most frustrating things is that this wasn’t viewed the same way as other Fincher films. He tried a new thing and brought his musicians with him, a wild move that I hope you all respect.
03. Emma: Look, some stuff is just charming. Emma is an update on a classic story that asks everyone to be civil, to be nice, and to just…freaking be polite! The score involves a lot of vocal performances, composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge to evoke the era with religious choral music combined with orchestral music for just…such a delight. This might not be the most brilliant score of the year, but it’s one that I feel very profoundly connected to. It’s sweet, but that doesn’t hold a candle to the fact that it sticks in the brain like a virus and won’t let go. See…this is the most catchy score of the year. I mean it, bar none. Emma is an attempt to keep an ear-worm in your brain all year round, one that doesn’t let up and is as infectious as a pop song. I’m delighted with it and I can’t wait for you all to give it a shot.
02. Tenet: C’mon, you know it’s the most rousing score of the year. Sure, it’s not as fun, but Tenet is Nolan branching out to a new composer in order to create a strange electronic anxiety attack that I love so much. Each piece is something wonderful that involves the director and the composer on equal levels (that gasping sound in the score is Nolan contributing). I just…look, I dig it. There aren’t many scores this year that tag in and make me feel what I feel for this film. It’s a mess, but simultaneously makes sense. It’s fun, but also uncomfortable in how it makes the listener consider the reality of the music. It’s human, but also insane at the same time. Take the time to think about just how wild this film is and just how much effort went into the score.
01. Wonder Woman 1984: Look, it’s great. The film has its issues and I need to consider them before I make allowances for it but…the score. Hans Zimmer comes in and takes over duties to create a soulful, sweet soundscape that is so far from the first one in terms of earnest stories that I just…I need it. It’s so delightful and even the random drop from John Murphy’s Adiago in D Minor doesn’t derail it. Screw you, it enhances it! I think we’ve found one of the best bits of musical manipulation of the year and you know what? We live in an era that indulges hatred and beast-like behavior with wanton abandon. Who cares if I think Zimmer created a sweet score for Patty Jenkins’s flawed-but-wonderful film. I dig it and I can’t help feeling happy when I listen to the rousing horns. It’s my top of the year and I make no excuses.
That is my top ten scores list! Does anyone have any changes I should make? Any entries they’d like to contest? Let me know!