10. The Tale of the Princess of Kaguya — Joe Hisaishi
When discussing the greatness of Studio Ghibli, Joe Hisaishi’s name never seems to get credit for the wondrous compositions that have fueled Hayao Miyazaki’s windswept fields and flights of fancy for three decades. Unsurprisingly, Hisaishi’s score for Isao Takahata’s fluid masterwork continues that tradition of greatness. Soothing woodwind passages conjure a perpetual spring awakening underneath Kaguya’s little bamboo princess, foregrounding Ghibli’s always mature meditations of the cycle of life and death. “Soaring” plays as the princess and her childhood love float skyward on a cloud of lush trumpets and yearning strings, harmonizing Takahata’s themes about the marks we leave on both the world and on one another. And yet like the best Ghibli films, Kaguya is strongest in its simplest moments. The princess’s solos on her stringed koto ring out with elemental certainty with each note dissolving into thin air, a reminder that her time, as well as ours, is not long for this world.
9. Palo Alto — Devonté Hynes & Robert Schwartzman
Adults acting like children and teenagers acting like adults. Like the characters in Gia Coppola’s stunning debut, Palo Alto’s score teeters on the cusp of change, on the brink of falling into complete immaturity or tipping toward adulthood. Less a collaboration between Hynes and Schwartzman than it is a patchwork of their efforts, the Blood Orange genius and Rooney’s lead singer turn in cues that hover between the ethereal space of adolescence. Original tracks are often inextricable from the pre-recorded material, including guest appearances from Schwartzman’s brother Jason and his Coconut Records solo projects. Whether fast or slow, Hynes’ dreamy vocals and Schwartzman’s poppy sassness arrive at a free-wheeling and indulgent center, like when the wavy guitars in Hynes’ title track gurgle into a relaxed funk. His whimpering chorus “Wait until I know who you are/Waiting for a shot in the dark” turns the uncertainty of Palo Alto’s youths into reluctance and hesitation as they lag behind for a moment that may never come.
8. Interstellar — Hans Zimmer
Christopher Nolan has always held a fascination with time and ever since Inception, he’s found a companion for his chronological pursuits in Hans Zimmer. The German composer’s recent legacy in film has been reduced to a series of hackneyed “braam” jokes, enough of a stereotype, it seems, for the pair to see Matthew McConaughey’s search for new worlds as an opportunity to explore new sounds as well. They found them. Sighing strings make for an easy drift into the outer reaches of space (“Dust”) in a score that’s at a remove from the elemental work in the Dark Knight films but no less singular. Zimmer unites piano and organ for shimmering passages that refract the coldness of his mordant rumbles and strums back into space. One recurring organ motive (“Day One”) finds a processional, religious zeal in NASA’s endeavors while another doomsaying melody (“Stay”) practically scrawls the fate of the astronauts against the galaxy’s black canvas. But to single out cues in Zimmer’s fluid achievement is beside the point. Interstellar has unseated Zimmer’s own worst impulses while revealing Nolan to be anything but a cold filmmaker. There’s a religion in the exactitude of science and the limitless possibilities of human enterprise where, for Nolan, science and faith blend together into one, grandiose platonic ideal.
7. The Homesman — Marco Beltrami
Apathy has dried the veins of America in Tommy Lee Jones’ anti-western, but Marco Beltrami’s riverboat lullaby of score is there to breathe new life into it. On top of recording tracks in arid climates, Beltrami and assistant Buck Sanders modified instruments for their dusted-out soundscapes. Extending a lap steel guitar’s bridge makes for a bending, psychedelic striking of the clock (“On the Plains”) and drawing a bow across long stretches of wire milks the dry air of any effervescent melodies. The Homesman feels at one with its midwestern plains, but Beltrami finds notes of optimism in the enduring spirit of Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy, who helps Jones’ claim jumper escort three mentally-disturbed women to Iowa. The delicate piano melody of the main titles drift to and fro like a riverboat lullaby, finding solo versions (“It’s Abandoned”) and hopeful variations (“Entering Town”) even in The Homesman’s darkest moments. Beltrami divided his blocky score in Snowpiercer according to each train car. Here, he’s taken one woman’s endurance and stretched it into an elegy for manifest destiny.
6. Under the Skin — Mica Levi
Mica Levi stared into the abyss but instead of staring back, the abyss gave the Micachu & Shapes’ bandleader a score that’s ingeniously complex in its opaque simplicity. Levi summons desiccated strings into an unnerving swarm of insect drones (“Creation”) with cues that sound so foreign they often mimic speech, uttering out incomprehensible moans and coughs in “Lips to Void.” Other times, Scarlett Johansson’s alien exploits on unsuspecting young men are accompanied by the musical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard (“Meat to Maths,” “Drift”). A nebula of textures over an irregular heartbeat that evades classification and easy listening scenarios with ease, Under the Skin invites the imagination to be swallowed into its blackness, even as its bottomless void screams against it.
5. The One I Love — Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans
Bensi and Jurriaans turn in haunting work for the excellent Enemy and yet Denis Villeneuve‘s thriller isn’t even their best score of the year which says a lot about the kind of year they’ve had. In Charlie McDowell’s conceptual romantic comedy, the musical duo have taken their pecking insomnia and disguised it in a fluffy Trojan horse of feel-good illusion. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass’s troubled couple visit a vacation home for the weekend to patch up a rocky relationship, and Bensi and Jurriaans lure them in with a pastoral toy box of sentimental cues (“The Arrival”). Prickly pizzicato (“Packing,” “Impostor”) and flattened whimsy (“Bacon”) pry this experiment of perspective and relationships wide open. Enemy is haunted by Bensi and Jurriaans’s bumps in the night. Here, they’ve snuck into McDowell’s dollhouse fantasy with crowbars, propping up windowsills and prying up the floorboards.
4. Grand Piano — Victor Reyes
Grand Piano‘s preposterous conceit puts Elijah Wood’s virtuoso inside a marksman’s crosshairs and asks the question that’s been on everyone’s mind since 1996: What if Shine had a few more death threats? Eugenio Mira’s goofy little thriller puts its audience through the ringer and all for a flawless performance of a piece Victor Reyes composed expressly for the film. It flourishes feel grandiose, never facsimiles of their Tchaikovsky inspirations, and Reyes incorporates modern sounds and Bernard Herrmann references that blend beautifully with the empty piano strokes of the “Main Titles.” Reyes’ music doesn’t just double with Wood’s tightrope act just as its centerpiece Concerto isn’t a simple reflection of character. It’s the winding, treacherous architecture of Grand Piano itself, the hulking achievement in front of an anxiety-stricken concert pianist. John Cusack’s sniper isn’t the evil mastermind here. It’s been Reyes all along. Encore.
3. Maleficent — James Newton Howard
To borrow from HitFix‘s Matt Patches and his own well-pedigreed list, “a composer’s job is a balancing act.” That is, unless you’re James Newton Howard. Howard pulled a groin muscle in accommodating the sloppy tonal shifts of Nightcrawler, because he was still exhausted from putting Disney’s latest pixel-laden snoozefest on his back. With the best traditional film score of the year, Howard breathes life into this live-action pillaging of Sleeping Beauty with blooming woodwinds (“Go Away”) and lush choirs (“Welcome to the Moors”) where human voices mark the only shred of humanity in this Chronicles of Narnia derivative. Hellish male vocals stuff the breastplate and codpiece of Sharlto Copley’s absurd King Stefan (“The Christening,” “Path of Destruction”), and a children’s chorus flits in and out of most cues with the laissez-faire sprightliness of the Moors’ woodland creatures. Voices also lift the towering horns in “Malificent Flies,” a cue so vivid and rich, if one closes their eyes while listening, they’re likely to imagine a far more wondrous sequence than its onscreen execution. Sometimes classical Hollywood scoring manages to surprise within a studio system that lets diamonds fall through the cracks every once in a while. Now how’s that for fantasy?
2. Gone Girl — Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
David Fincher has been behind some of this quarter-century’s greatest detective stories in Se7en and Zodiac, but his recent collaborations with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have found the director at a distant remove from Gillian Flynn’s pulpy page-turner. Reznor has described his and Ross’s work on Gone Girl as “artificially insincere,” with jumbled textures (“The Way He Looks At Me”) and a playful violence (“The Way He Looks At Me”) unearthing the ball of shit wedged underneath Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne’s (Rosamund Pike) throw pillow. When Amy goes missing, the nationwide search and subsequent media frenzy becomes a cynical, fruitless enterprise, numbed by Nick’s seeming indifference and Reznor and Ross’s eery, Midwestern claustrophobia. “Technically, Missing” underscores a big reveal that shocks before it anesthetizes the listener into acceptance. Even with casual misogyny on their minds, Reznor and Ross’s third collaboration with Fincher has a whooziness that masks Gone Girl’s hits and shoves, and there’s something especially sick about that.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel — Alexandre Desplat
The world’s most easily-parodied filmmaker and its most ubiquitous film composer have teamed up for the first post-Wes Anderson Wes Anderson film and the best score of the year. At once grim and ornate, Desplat’s eclectic melancholy fills the halls of The Grand Budapest Hotel and the hearts of its concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his new lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). A yodeling barbershop quartet in “s’Rothe-Zauerli” turns back pages of unwritten history and the many layers of The Grand Budapest’s matryoshka doll of a story structure to a time when the fictional country of Zabrowka sits on the edge of war. Desplat invades faux-native folk music in accordion and balalaika (“Mr. Moustafa,”) with slinking ominousness (“The Family Desgoffe und Taxis”) and locomotive grandeur (“Daylight Express to Lutz”). But the real fun comes when Desplat combines elements, overlaying a piano’s momentum in “The Society Of The Crossed Keys” or the exquisite “Canto at Gabelmeister’s Peak,” which plays like a remix of the vinyl collection Anderson relied on in his younger days. Desplat’s richness has freed him of those quirks, reflecting the depth to which Anderson pokes fun at his quirky simplicity as well as those who criticize him for it, all tucked behind a story inside a memory inside a memoir. With The Imitation Game finally making the rounds, expect to see Desplat earn plenty of nominations this award season. And expect those to be for the wrong movie.