With every awards season comes a flood of “best of” compilations and top ten lists, but film scores can be tricky in that department. After all, different composers are operating on different levels, each one working toward a separate goal in his or her respective picture. Brian Tyler aims for something propulsive and heroic in Iron Man 3, while Saving Mr. Banks’ score apparently features Thomas Newman doing his best Thomas Newman impersonation. Lists can be tough when scores operate so independently of one another
So without further ado, I present my favorite film scores from 2013. Unranked:
Philomena — Alexandre Desplat
Saying Alexandre Desplat likes himself a mean waltz is like saying Johnny Depp likes himself a little eye makeup: they’re both gross understatements. Scoring Stephen Frears’ loose adaptation of Philomena Lee’s search for the son she was forced to give up at birth, Desplat makes his affinity abundantly clear with the title track, a sleek jaunt in a 3/4 time whose winking flutes and midnight chiming bells are offset by a gliding electric guitar. Can a waltz be sexy? The delightfully familiar “Landing in USA” swirls like an old cut from Alan Silvestri, while the strange, haunting “Farewell” drifts as if steering its course through raw emotion rather than a predetermined direction. “Fairground Carousel” finds Desplat getting too cute with Philomena’s opening moments, but its on-the-nose joviality is buried by subtler repeated motives in tracks like “Airport,” where the dense flurry of organ in “Fairground Carousel” becomes a cyclical cross to bear for Philomena’s suffering and regret.
Gravity — Steven Price
Steven Price’s work here is so effective and rigorous that were it part of a film without as explicit a modus operandi as Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, I might have broken my list abstention and crowned it outright. Price’s synth wraps around a gorgeous cello in “Atlantis” while he ingeniously molds the same instrumentation to harrowing degrees in “Don’t Let Go.” “Debris” elicits a visceral, pulmonary response in its throbbing, with the string section escalating and plateauing as percussion flits in and out of space sounds. And those space sounds are the only problem here. Price isn’t coy about punching up his compositions with the teapot hiss of an engine or overused “whooshes” (a technical term), but nearly half of the tracks end abruptly in the same way. The expectation becomes so strong that the resulting claustrophobia, while affecting, undoes Cuarón’s immersive goals in dragging the audience along for Ryan Stone’s interstellar tumble. There may be no sound in space, but there’s plenty of room for non-diegesis.
Prince Avalanche — David Wingo and Explosions in the Sky
Featuring piano, clarinets, and humble guitar, the composing team’s off kilter and simple instrumentation might seem twee and contrived in less capable hands, but the group succeeds in imbuing David Gordon Green’s bottle dramedy with pure earnestness. The excellent “Alone Time” shimmies with casual beatboxing, its echoing “wahs” both goofy and organic. “Hello is This Your House?” features a stellar denouement and triplet chunks from an improvising piano, and”An Old Peasant Like Me” is amazingly big with its tiny instrumentation. “Send-Off” works a shoe-kicking groove around swelling clarinets and a sparkling dive bar piano. In Prince Avalanche, David Wingo and Texas post-rockers Explosions in the Sky have done the impossible: they’ve made a clunky middle school quintet sound adorable.
Prisoners — Johan Johansson
Ostensibly a story of extreme guilt and desperation, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (mistakenly) believes it’s being clever with the degree of religious imagery packed into its Law & Order premise. The real depth in this story, that of one man’s search to find two missing girls, comes from Icelandic composer Johansson’s muscular, autumnal minimalism. “The Lord’s Prayer” weeps its way into existence with string figures rising and falling in the classical requiem mode, and “Candlelight Vigil” shimmers through the same figures with itswavering church organ, a pointed choice that draws immediate pangs of rotten conscience. ‘The Keeper” shudders and “The Priest’s Basement” has a slow build to it, but no track is more apocalyptic than “Through Falling Snow.” Continuing with familiar chromatic organs, Johansson uses his churchy atmosphere as a springboard for extra flutes and a meaty pendulum swing of lower strings that propel the track to bigger heights. At its peak, it feels like more than just snow falling.
All is Lost — Alex Ebert
Those unfamiliar with the music of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes might know the band’s frontman better as that hairy guy who rambled on at the Golden Globes. Say what you will about the man’s clumsy acceptance speech (or Diddy’s stage presence, for that matter), but Ebert’s up there for a reason. Ethereal to its core, his score in All is Lost finds refuge and solemnity in unexpected places, toying with whistles and jazz-infused piano figures in equal measure. “Dance of the Lillies” features Ebert conjuring a one-two swaying figure in a cello-flute pairing that’s cut with flayed guitar chords, hand percussion and chippy piano figures. Rich layers appear in “The Infinite Bleed” as well, where whale song tones bend over a sparse soundscape, the occasional drum beat marking the inevitable passage of time. Most successful however are the score’s overtly “human” pieces. “The Invisible Man” finds warmth in a (ridiculously) low-register men’s vocal choir, and in “Amen,” Ebert’s own voice keeps what might otherwise be a soulful throwback off balance. At its best, J.C. Chandor’s film feels less like an exercise in Robert Redford’s silence and more like a lost-at-sea tone poem, but regardless of one’s opinion on that voicelessness, Ebert’s music is what’s doing the real talking.
Only God Forgives — Cliff Martinez
“Wanna Fight” isn’t just the bravura cut from Cliff Martinez’s score; it’s also a literal challenge, one in which its emotional distance seems to forget that punctuation in its own question. Nicolas Winding Refn’s divisive follow-up to the pulpy moodiness of Drive managed to be both pulpier and moodier while distancing fans who expected another ultraviolent slow burn. Martinez thrives in Only God Forgives’s wordless scenes and hallucinatory character motives, primarily sticking to authentic percussion and synth straight out of 1985. Confrontational but disarming in its bouncy strings, “Chang and Sword” invites the listener to meet his maker. “Do As You Will” shudders before drums kick in with a punching echo, an amazing production choice given the smallness that comes before it. “Bride of Chang” rolls from that familiar bounce to organ chords and eventually an industrial groove that compiles everything before it into a one rolling, anxious funk. Indeed, “Wanna Fight” sounds like a provocation with its fat synth, but its ranges between high treble and low bass suggest it isn’t expecting a yes/no answer. It’s a kind of hellish house mix for a party where only the host seems to be having fun.
The Place Beyond the Pines — Mike Patton
Lead singer for Faith No More, Mike Patton seemed like an unexpected choice to score Derek Cianfrance’s sweeping drama. However, decidedly metal subversiveness shows up in Cianfrance’s epic– and I don’t just mean Ryan Gosling’s Ride the Lightning sleeveless. “Schenectady” surprises with a prominent tremolo effect in its guitar while “Misremembering” uses similar distortion and some serious reverb in pairing a thick, slapping bass line and renaissance-styled guitar figures, floral and cold. “Family Trees” crests upward before dropping again, often with more grimy guitar beginning in a major key and then working downward chromatically. It’s a piece indicative of Patton’s larger approach: universal to the point of feeling operatic. There’s more than a touch of György Ligeti’s immortally disturbing “Lux Aeterna” in the rapturous “Handsome Luke.” Eternally disintegrating and resolving keys are buoyed by screams and strings before they’re subsequently drowned in more sludgy guitar. Patton taps into a distanced omniscience of pain and suffering, unlike Cianfrance’s film itself, which doesn’t get far beyond realizing “what goes around, comes around.”
Stoker — Clint Mansell
Given the director’s precise eccentricities, Park Chan-wook’s musical selections in Stoker are appropiately eclectic, from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” to a Nancy Sinatra duet. Composer Clint Mansell sticks to a comparatively tight toolkit, brewing seedy alchemy through piano figures alone. “Becoming…” features genuine transformation from a singular melody that’s stumbled over and muddied until a chorus raises the tune to new elevation. Philip Glass’ “Duet” sounds like the featured composer to a tee but the flighty, fluctuating piece written for two has more in common with a Chopin nocturne when removed from the sexual context of Park’s film. Even tracks that get too generous with voiceover like “We Are Not Responsible For What We Have Come to Be” aren’t comfortable with clear resolution. There’s a definite unease in Mia Wasikowska’s sociopathic degeneration (or regeneration if that floats your boat). Mansell just finds growth out of the darkness without ever losing it.
Her — Owen Pallett and William Butler
Pallett and Arcade Fire’s Butler are both accomplished piano players in their own right, although listening to the showy “Photograph” would make that abundantly clear. “Divorce Papers” features a sparse ellipsis in the piano’s right hand, with pockets of sour lingering under the upward movements. “Song on the Beach” finds Pallett and Butler conjuring a clock’s chimes out of deliberate piano, reflective and relaxed. Other instruments don’t get their due until later, with “Owl’s” piano-cello combination pairing for a defined “Danny Boy” motive. Other tracks like “Morning Talk/Supersymmetry” are far more foreign. A rupturing Animal Collective-styled figure bubbles up, the simultaneity of drums and multiple keyboards creating a wall of sound somewhere in between recognizable and near-futurist. Like the film’s stellar production design, certain instrumentation choices by Pallett and Butler are alluring in the exact mystery of their design, however the production of the highest caliber, with combinations ringing like some Silicon Valley whiz kid engineered a way to plug an electric guitar into an accordion over his lunch break. Both familiar and foreign, it’s a lot like Her actually.
The Spectacular Now — Rob Simonsen
Immensely charming with Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller’s lead performances, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is also hamstrung by its director’s inability to the escape the delusional, tipsy headspace of class joke Sutter Keely. Rob Simsonsen’s work however applies that sloppy direction to a score that’s flexible enough to bend but never break when moving from sloppily warm to downright chilly. “I Had the Best Fucking Girlfriend” sounds like the start of a Ben Folds Five song until a swarmy brass figure adds some wonk. Low brass is usually a plus in film music, but Simonsen’s deliberate ill-tuned section (including a plodding tuba) and unraveling strings make for a piece that’s upbeat while never quite in control. “You’re Absolutely Beautiful” features a great picked resolution in the guitar, and “You Came Along” has an upward trickle in the synth and a duet-like exchange between voices. Were The Spectacular Now all cranky marching bands and boozy piano men, Simonsen’s work would get old fast, but it doesn’t. “I Live in the Now” is cool and misty-eyed with distant tones, and “I’m a King” smirks at its own cocksure cheese pop title, its beginning languishing in darkness. Lest these two sides sound too disparate, “I Was Never Not Afraid” reconciles both sounds, blending spaced-out drones with goofy brass and percussion and adding further evidence that Simonsen understands this story better than his director. Just how good is this score? I’m reconsidering the film all over again.
— David Klein