It’s been a great year for film music. I say that as someone who had to endure the laughably dated qualities of Alberto Iglesias’ Exodus: Gods and Kings and had to swallow the pill that is Howard Shore‘s latter days Middle-earth music.
But it has been a great year. Clint Mansell gave us haunting, complex soundscapes in Noah, the Alexandre Desplat Hive Mind unleashed another five feature-length scores on the planet, and we even got a peak at John Williams‘ forthcoming music in that Star Wars trailer.
So what was the best of the bunch? For simplicity’s sake, I’ve limited this list to movies with U.S. theatrical runs in 2014. When possible, I’ve also linked to our reviews and select cues on Spotify, although you’ll note the occasional YouTube or SoundCloud embed as well. Let’s do this:
20. Horns — Robin Coudert
Every few years, Alexandre Aja comes to the realization that his friend’s crazy movie was actually his crazy movie the entire time. Horns doesn’t play with the audience’s patience or intelligence like the face-palming twist in High Tension but it’s also far from a grounded effort, stuck somewhere between heaven and hell thanks to Robin Coudert. The French pop musician and producer (who’s collaborated with the likes of Daft Punk and Phoenix) etches out an ethereal plane for Daniel Radcliffe’s Iggy, out to clear his name after his girlfriend (Juno Temple) is found raped and murdered. Celestial choirs and early Romantic style piano make for a chilly, moonlit-atmosphere perfect for giant, esophagus-invading snakes or the pair of horns that mysteriously sprout from Iggy’s head (“Lift” and “Red”). Other times, Coudert gets positively Old Testament. A recurring motif in cues like “Rape” call back to the “March to the Scaffold” in Symphonie fantastique, with hellfire in the rising string figures and brimstone in the brass. Horns isn’t subtle by any stretch of the imagination or forehead, and Coudert knows this, holding down the fort in ways poorly-rendered CGI pythons could only dream of.
19. Whiplash — Justin Hurwitz
Birdman may be getting all the attention this awards season, but Justin Hurwitz’s Whiplash is the stronger of the two percussion-savvy efforts. Beginning with a seed of inspiration, Hurwitz births the creative drive and frustration of jazz drumming prodigy Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) with a single drum roll (“Snare Liftoff”), and a simple exercise to impress J.K. Simmons’ hothead instructor becomes a destructive compulsion. “Accident” rattles cymbals like nervous twitches and “Drum & Drone” builds to a furious martial beat from its cold, calloused tones. Artistry doesn’t have to be as sadistic and homicidal as Whiplash’s back-and-forth. Even as one of the Shaffer Conservatory’s top drummers, Andrew’s fundamental job is to fall in line with that double-time swing, yet Hurwitz rings Andrew’s ears with a post-traumatic intensity, the result of hours of practicing, verbal abuse, calloused palms and bloody knuckles.
18. Eastern Boys — Arnaud Rebotini
Black Strobe frontman Arnaud Rebotini morphed his talent for electronic rock earworms into throbbing club tunes in Eastern Boys. It’s dance music and it’s part of the trap a gang of Eastern-European immigrants uses to invade the home of Olivier Rabourdin’s businessman after he approaches one of the young men for sex. “Who’s Gonna Play This Old Machine?” uses dissonant clutters to scatter and disorient, a contemporary play on Rebotini’s jumble of prickly bells, deep string strokes and high register ostinatos. It’s a messy state of affairs in Robin Campillo’s immigration allegory. “Cette Fete Dont Je Suis L’otage” and “Un Peu De Verre Casse” burst over pulsating beats as ghostly synthesizers float in and out, not unlike Eastern Boys’ displaced young transplants. Because as catchy as Rebotini gets, he also haunts personal spaces, violated by the same immigrants who are simultaneously scorned and desired. To certain eyes, these aren’t real people.
17. Belle — Rachel Portman
2014 features a great score in a British drama about a messed up marriage. No, it isn’t The Theory of Everything. Amma Asante’s period drama about Dido Elizabeth Belle’s adopted life as a mixed-race aristocrat is stuck in the gender and racial prejudices of its time. Portman’s music however, is breathtakingly dynamic, earning mileage out of a winding melody. Her “Main Titles” soar with strings and a hopeful doubling in the oboe as it surges to some undefined destination. Portman uses this single theme to buttress rejection, elation, melancholy, frivolity, and eventually justice, in however small a form. In other words, it’s a tender, heartfelt work that’s also dynamic in all the ways the era wasn’t.
16. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — Michael Giacchino
Now that comic book properties have strangled the ingenuity out of John Ottman (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Tyler Bates (Guardians of the Galaxy), Michael Giacchino remains as one of the few composers who can escape the military-blockbuster complex unscathed. Maybe it’s because he’s such a smartass with his track names. Beyond adding some tertiary levity to Matt Reeves’ grim second chapter in this newest apes go-around, punny cues like “Look Who’s Stalking” offer a primal, martial heartbeat to the chief ape Cesar and his standoff with those of us who weren’t killed off by the flu in Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ end credits. Giacchino plants one foot firmly in the primordial (“Close Encounters of the Furred Kind”) and another in civilization as “The Great Ape Processional” marches forward. Ostensibly Dawn’s resounding theme, its measured optimism crystallizes into unity between ape and ape, man and man, and ape and man. And unity between composers. With nods to Lalo Schifrin (“How Bonobo Can You Go”) and Jerry Goldsmith’s original score (“Enough Monkeying Around”), Giacchino’s muscular work can be too cute for its own good, but in a movie where Gary Oldman’s trying to wipe out every chimpanzee he can find, we’ll take what we can get.
(h/t to the fine folks at Films on Wax for their massive dissection and for all the great work they do)
15. Listen Up, Philip — Keegan DeWitt
Assembled from over 90 minutes of jazz quintet jam sessions, Keegan DeWitt’s autumnal score for Listen Up, Philip both looks and sounds daunting — until you realize how dispassionately he and director Alex Ross Perry apply their music. Buying into the same devil-may-care misanthropy of Jason Schwartzman’s part-time novelist and full-time asshole, DeWitt and Perry have assembled a collage of 33 meandering recordings that try so hard to sound like they’re not trying at all. They succeed with devastating malaise. “Philip #3 (Version #1)” is gloomy as hell with trumpet and sax vomiting over a lurching old timey piano. “Version #2” is diametrically upbeat, with a cocksure groove bolstering the egos of the film’s pigheaded creative types. “Yvette (Version #2)” takes the organ synthesizer in “Version #1” and strips it down to its skeletal remains, while any version of “Interlude” seems tailor-made for kicking a bottle of Tullamore Dew down some Brooklyn side street. DeWitt’s slipped his quintet’s lean ideas into empty beds and lonely hangouts, a bruised nihilism for Perry’s directionless characters as they flail about, secretly hope to bump into one another again.
14. The Double — Andrew Hewitt
At the close of a most awkward first date, Mia Wasikowska’s Hannah tosses a coin to pity case Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg): “Here, play a song for me.” Simon’s choice, Japanese pop hit “Sukiyaki,” couldn’t be more appropriate as Kyu Sakamoto croons about a man who must whistle to keep the world from seeing his tears. Richard Ayoade’s The Double makes no effort to distinguish its precise location in the world, but like Sakamoto’s song, its sadness is universal. English pianist and Howard Shore protégé Andrew Hewitt accents loneliness and a permanent darkness with longing piano (“Watching Hannah,” “Simon and James”) and drowns Simon’s anonymity in the rhythms of office sounds in a cue that unlike Steven Price’s Fury, contains its gimmick (“Mr. Papadopoulos”). The compounding makes for the bleakest of bleak environments, so much so that Ayoade played portions of the score on set — because his European ghetto-styled setting wasn’t already depressing enough. Where Hewitt truly shines is in his chamber compositions, a series of expansions and variations on “The Double Theme.” Mischievous with a vaguely Hungarian flourish, Hewitt’s downer beats down on Simon James as soon as his doppelganger, James Simon, arrives to take over every facet of his life, including his love interest. Strings on piano on strings plummet in a macabre waltz that’s almost lively enough to dance to. This is more like sprinting through a downpour with no umbrella. Suddenly, whistling doesn’t sound so bad.
13. The Guest — Steve Moore
Jeff Grace has earned a baffling amount of praise for his score in the mansplanation thriller Cold in July, but Steve Moore’s The Guest makes for a far more ingenious use of electronic music — and one that doesn’t boost its male leads’ egos at the expense of rape fodder. Half-upbeat, half-ominous, Moore’s tinny synth clusters match the uncertainty of David (Dan Stevens), a returning soldier who arrives at a family’s doorstep claiming to have served with their deceased son in combat. When things go wrong, and they do, Moore increases David’s digital presence, loading on more music that strangles unsuspecting family members and infiltrates a high school gymnasium. Eventually, bass drops and bleeding tones overtake The Guest’s own soundtrack of euro rock and German house music, as if the mix CD Maika Monroe makes for her mysterious house guest has been taken hostage, too. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have PTSD on their mind here, and nowhere in The Guest are those concerns more immediate than in its sonic perimeter.
12. The Boxtrolls — Dario Marianelli
Laika Studios’ first great film is a melting pot of gender, class and prejudice that comes to a frothy boil in a drag show serenade about exterminating its titular creatures. Sung with piercing falsetto conviction by Sean Patrick Doyle over tuba, “The Boxtrolls Song” is defined by how wrong it sounds and yet how wonderfully right Dario Marianelli’s music feels. A janky, jack-in-the-box prematurely springing to life, The Boxtrolls indulges in carnivale crashes (“The Unspeakable Has Happened”), lumbering brass (“To the Rescue”), macabre tangos (“Slap Waltz”) and theremin around every dark alley and street corner. Source tunes in “Cheesebridge Funfair” and “Say Cheese” are ineffably wheezy, swaying back and forth with drunken audacity. Part Shostakovich, part Alan Menken, and part street music, Marianelli’s uses The Boxtrolls’ high- and low-brow clashes between relegated ranks and aristocracy as a promenade for the orchestra’s most overlooked and unwanted. For who could ever learn to love a solo bassoon?
11. You and the Night — M83
Long has M83’s Anthony Gonzalez nurtured a passion for music tailor-made for the cinema which is why his lackluster mainstream debut in last year’s Oblivion felt like such a headscratcher. Gonzalez rebounded in 2014 and in a big way, helping brother Yann Gonzalez on his trippy, Canterbury Tale of a sex comedy. Wondrous and crystalline, You and the Night’s cool synth breezes breathe soul and wonder into a story that begins with an orgy and ends with a sunrise. Heavenly female voices in “Vision” and “Mon Enfant” pad guests’ memories with revelatory, church-like grandeur. “Un Nouveau Soleil” feels closest to M83’s movie trailer-friendly “Outro” with its bubbly ascent, bending ears upward in a final moment of catharsis. Whether underscoring puns from Nicolas Maury’s wisecracking, crossdressing maid or propping up a final embrace, Gonzalez provides the vital linkages between the weird and the transcendent.