This year there was movie music I expected to love — such as Hans Zimmer's score for Interstellar; Trent Reznor's and Atticus Ross's work for Gone Girl; Antoni Sanchez's Birdman; and everything by Alexandre Desplat (especially Godzilla, which managed to mix the quality of classical arrangement we recognize in Desplat's work with a mix of b-cinema generics that actually worked and made everything the better for it).
Then, there was what I remember most; the work that came out of left field and took me by surprise. Often I had little to no expectation for the success of these pieces, which made the experience of hearing this music that much more enjoyable. Some of these have been well covered in other year-end lists, but most are strikingly absent from consideration and really shouldn't be.
1. The Rover by Antony Partos
I took notice of Partos with his impressive work on Animal Kingdom, but this year's score for The Rover really took me by surprise. It's not only an impressive cinematic achievement, but the score is built on an impressive palette of often unrecognizable instrumentation. It's brutally terrifying yet also desperately beautiful. Encompassing the dramatic shifts of emotion contained in the film's narrative, it's a shame this hasn't gotten more recognition as one of the year's best achievements.
2. Hector and the Search for Happiness by Dan Mangan and Jesse Zubot
While the film came and went without much attention, the music it featured is essential. It's a shame that more notice has not come its way for its quality, uniting classical orchestrations together with pop sensibility and a little bit of sound collage. It may be that the future will recognize this music as great work for a quickly-forgotten film.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier by Henry Jackman
Critics dismiss Jackman at times as one of Zimmer's lesser students, but time and again he's proven talent at utilizing his background as a DJ to introduce new dimensions to film scoring. I kept returning to this work throughout the year and I believe some of the film's success truly rests on Jackman's score and the ideas it brought to a film attempting to meet everybody's expectations but also explore new dimensions.
4. What If by A.C. Newman
It's hard to be a fan of well-written pop songs and not love A.C. Newman. This year his skills were tested with the romantic comedy What If. It was a film that worked hard to position itself as an antidote for those tired of the romantic comedy, and with Newman's score as the backbone it makes a good case. Everything you expect from Newman is here, but when positioned as a film score — without the benefit of singers at all times — you start to see abilities in Newman as an arranger and musical mastermind that may have never been fully appreciated.
5. Dear White People by Kathryn Bostic
This score took me completely by surprise and blew me away. Its only real comparison would be to someone like Terence Blanchard, who has strived to bring his worlds of music together. Heavily indebted to Barry Lyndon, the music changes how you should think about the movie.
6. Only Lovers Left Alive by Jozef Van Wissem/SQURL
This incredible film by Jim Jarmusch owes much of its success to the music. Rich orchestrations grounded in the basics of rock and roll (in the classic sense), it's a stupendous work of human beings making music with their hands and with their voices. The blend of film and music is all the more impressive given that the music was produced prior to filming.
7. Under the Skin by Mica Levi
This film got a lot of press when it was coming out, especially for its score which is such a part of its language. As a record without the film the score doesn't hold up as well, but that's not a point against the work. Rather it reinforces how intertwined Levi's work is with the film and why her considerations are key to understanding the narrative.
8. Belle by Rachel Portman
It's surprising how overlooked Rachel Portman is, given her output and consistent quality. More of a classical score than many of the others on this list, it's a stunning piece of work that reinforces what a force she is in a very male-driven playing field.
9. Night Moves by Jeff Grace
Cold in July is getting a bit more recognition for Jeff Grace this year, with the use of electronica drawing connections to John Carpenter, but I actually really appreciated what he did with the film Night Moves — which also utilizes his skill sets in electronica orchestration and abstract soundscapes, but it took the film's locations into account and integrated a rich palette of organic instrumentation that connected to the land, while also de-centering it a bit. The film is most memorable for how his work interacts with the unfolding narrative, making it a better film all the while.
10. A Most Violent Year by Alex Ebert
Time and again Ebert has proven himself to be an impressive composer who understands the value and place of music to do more for a film than just support scenes. From the first track on the record he blends electronica with classic blues, gospel reverberations, and orchestral arrangements; allowing for seductive evolutions into the essence of music and what it has done to our understanding of the world. It's seductively experimental and holds its own amongst some of the greatest scores of our time.
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