Either I’ve been staying on top of my homework or 2015 has been an exceptionally strong year for film scores already. From blockbuster disappointments to indie oddities and mindless action sequels, film music has once again shown it can transcend its respective dreck just as much as it can enhance the cinematic experience. With film festival season on the horizon, let’s check in with the best movie music of the year:
8. Chappie — Hans Zimmer, Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski
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Neil Blomkamp’s movies seem to be getting worse, but Hans Zimmer’s sensibilities are getting more exotic and daring. Course-correcting from the massive publicity stunt that was The Amazing Spider-man 2, the master of bombast continues to experiment with digital textures, recruiting pupils Kawczyksnki and Mazzaro for a score that humanizes and contextualizes the childish perspective of its Robocop with a heart of gold.
“It’s a Dangerous City” introduces Johannesburg with moody walls of sound that may as well be an all-digital version of Batman’s “The Fire Rises.” Chappie switches from cold and warm timbres with ease (“The Outside is Temporary,” “We Own This Sky”). Skipping water glass sounds and X-Files-like whistling sound like the local dance club decided to have an Ennio Morricone Night. “You Lied to Me” lashes out with Chappie’s frustrations in throaty, guttural growls, refining the sloppiness of Zimmer’s Electro’s theme. And let’s not forget the chip music. Oh, the chip music. With “Never Break a Promise!” and “Illest Gangsta on the Block,” Chappie is at its best when it’s crip walking to 8-bit soundtracks. If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is and unlike the movie, that’s not a bad thing.
7. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter — The Octopus Project
To describe David and Nathan Zellner’s inspired odyssey as “Coen-esque” is a little obvious, but its influences run deeper than the title character’s trek from Japan to North Dakota. After finding and watching a VHS copy of Fargo, Kumiko sets out to dig up the briefcase of money Steve Buscemi buries in the blackly comedic 1994 thriller. What follows is an absurd, off-the-cuff journey guided by the Zellners’ dreamy direction and The Octopus Project’s clever, varied music that draws on ambient sounds, chaotic jams, and even other Coen films.
Appropriate to its surreal conceit, Kumiko begins like a dream (“Into the Cave”) with a fog of cool ambience before sliding into the harp’s “Main Titles,” a possible nod to Carter Burwell’s work on A Serious Man. “Michi” paces with wandering figures like an organist in the throes of creative frustration, and the translucence of “Wrong Idea” is disrupted by stuttering production. The Texas indietronica band beefs up livelier cues (“Diner Walk,” “Hotel Cloak”) with more instrumentation, introducing jammy sliding guitars and a pair of searching riffs, yet they never sweep away those cobwebs. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is charmingly absurd, but its score doesn’t want us to stop second-guessing that this is all in its character’s head, if only on the off chance that she might snap out of this daydream.
6. Furious Seven — Brian Tyler
I don’t have friends. I’ve got family, and if they were here right now, they’d tell me I was wrong about Furious Seven. When discernable from the trap songs “inspired by” the motion picture, Brian Tyler’s score is aces, snorting and huffing its way through something about Jason Statham’s revenge and a super surveillance device powerful enough to make the NSA nervous. Propulsive, percussion-driven ostinatos are written like they’re for chases and giant things falling from the sky (“Mountain Hijack”) — it helps that there are actual things falling from the sky — with heisty funk digressions (“Party Crashers”) balancing parallel action and divergent tone in ways Age of Ultron only wishes it could pull off.
The strangely regressive impulse to give Letty a Spanish guitar is a half step away from banging a gong at Hahn’s funeral (Spoilers for four movies ago) but Tyler rebounds with an earnest, affecting send-off for Paul Walker. Amazingly, Furious Seven‘s variety works. Tyler’s fused monster movie music with dropped bass for soundscapes that are as bumbling, big, and dumb as the hybrid blockbuster he’s writing for. The Fast franchise moved away from racing years ago and now even the music is more interesting than the rides.
5. Duke of Burgundy — Cat’s Eyes
Indie pop duo Cat’s Eyes had never scored a film before, although you’d never know it after listening to what English indie-rocker Faris Badwan and Italo-Canadian soprano Rachel Zeffira come up with. Peter Strickland’s lush all-woman drama about two entomologists/lovers has transformation on its mind, and the music’s opening notes (“Forest Intro”) provide an autumnal breeze to signify the season of change. Leaning heavily on female choral voices, Cat’s Eyes bring a devilish, nymph-like sound, extending it all the way to the final cue, Coat of Arms,” which sounds like Enya on a heroin binge. If Renaissance-era chamber pop wasn’t a sub-genre before, it is now.
As Duke of Burgundy glides along, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna’s relationship, one founded on the mutual trust of S&M play, changes and hardens, a transformation perfectly encapsulated in the difference between “Door No. 1” and “Door No. 3,” where what begins as ponderous and playful becomes chilled and frantic. It’s little surprise then that their birthday song feels like it’s leading us to a slow, suffocating demise. With an exquisitely pagan sensibility, Cat’s Eyes have matched Strickland’s gaudy, ornate production design with Victorian impulses, revealing the anguish underneath the doilies and lace curtains.
4. Slow West — Jed Kurzel
John Maclean’s sparse western is all about the line between civilization and savagery, a line not so easily traversed, and Jed Kurzel’s here to trip over it over and over again. The brains behind cinema rock group The Mess Hall, Kurzel stumbles across plains (“Let’s Drift”) and through bloodied storefronts (“The Trading Post”). He’s even bumping into Kodi Smit-McPhee (“Jay’s Theme”), Slow West’s starry-eyed young man who sets out to find the woman he loves with the help of Michael Fassbender’s bounty hunter.
A cache of indigenous tunes stay grounded against the machinations of headhunters, namely Ben Mendelsohn’s shifty, absinthe-swilling outlaw, and the reliance on chamber strings and pizzicato is consistent to a disorienting degree, producing a work that’s charmingly anonymous and hopeful in its naivete of the savagery that awaits. The west may look slick and polished with pristine cinematography and Maclean’s symmetrical staging, but the music is a reminder that manifest destiny can be an awkward enterprise.
3. Inside Out — Michael Giacchino
In just six months, Michael Giacchino’s name has been attached to four big releases and make no mistake, the best was saved for last. Pixar’s inspired return to form, which makes literal the four abstract emotions at work inside a young girl’s head, also inspired one of Hollywood’s busiest working composers. Vibrant and graceful, Inside Out’s score spins and twirls, leaps and lands with grace, using shining, glassy textures and a spirited melody that’s as excited and anxious and budding as the headspace it fills.
Bursting with exuberance, Giacchino bottles the spirit of Amy Poehler’s Joy, a peppy sprite of emotion and Inside Out’s cipher for happiness, from the get-go. Frolicking from the flutes in “Bundle of Joy” to the can-do enthusiasm of “Team Building,” the first signs of Riley’s inner turmoil appear in the form of a buzzkill tuba, one of many wet rag signifiers for the downtrodden Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Envisioning the mind as a kid-friendly version of Inception’s neuro-architecture, Pixar tears down the facade that Joy’s built up over years of whitewashing unhappy feelings. Accordingly, the music’s a delightful wrecking ball of avant-garde jazz and dreary reed instruments culminating in an embrace of temper tantrums and crummy moods with “Joy Turns to Sadness.” Inside Out takes the hyper-enthusiasm of Millennial media and embraces everything, catching a wave on its sea of tears.
2. Ex Machina — Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
The siren song to Alex Garland’s wonderfully human tract on artificial intelligence, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score for Ex Machina is as fascinating as the eternal question at hand. Domhnall Gleeson’s programmer is selected to participate in a mountainside Turing Test courtesy of his company’s reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac), and confusion sets in when it becomes unclear who’s really testing whom. The English composing duo begin with tinny atmospherics (“Turing Test”) before adding to the film’s identity crisis with spiraling, concentric rings of sound (“Falling,” “Skin”). “Hacking/Cutting” feels like an arranged melody that’s become scrambled, encrypted by the duplicity in Garland’s script.
For all its synthetic messiness though, Ex Machina retains a emotional center that Salisbury and trip-hopper Barrow polish over time, assigning Alicia Vikander’s android Ava with curious bell percussion. “The Test Worked” is positively massive compared to the smaller sounds that have come before it and the guitar-laden passages in “Out” lend a poppier completeness to the film’s final moments. “Bunsen Burner,” which Salisbury and Barrow “reverse-engineered” into the film, comes from UK audio/visual artist CUTS and rises out of the darkness in waves like John Murphy’s “In the House, In a Heartbeat,” a perfect soundtrack for the liberating chaos that ensues. Ex Machina refuses to arrive at any clean answers. It’s a messy blur between the genuine and the artificial, like watching a plant flower from a bed of microchips.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road — Tom Holkenborg
Junkie XL. Tom Holkenborg. Hell, I’ll call him Imperator Gloriousa if the Dutch DJ keeps writing like this. A 200-instrument orchestra. Influences from Trent Reznor, Christopher Nolan films and Samuel Barber. Freakin’ sludge metal. The patchwork technology in George Miller’s post-apocalypse gets a worthy freak of a film score in Tom Holkenborg’s bloodthirsty battle cry. I’ve thrown enough praise at what has (thus far) been the best score of 2015, so I’ll just say that the Doof Warrior ain’t got nothing on this guy.