2012 has come to an end and so I take a look back at the cinematic year.
With every passing year, film composers continue to solidify their reputation as some of the finest symphonic practitioners around. The art of composing film music is becoming ever trickier in this era of mass-manufactured product, in which franchise expectations lead to greater pressures on composers themselves and noisy sound effects compete for attention. Below are my 10 favourite film scores of the year, ones that don’t sit in the background as an amorphous blob of sound but instead seek to enhance our emotional response to the drama through nuanced orchestration, textural devices and melody.
1. War Horse (John Williams)
Even in his rapidly advancing years, no-one can touch John Williams for his ability to convey the musical heart of a movie with outstanding clarity and grace. War Horse is a case in point. The score came under fire for its brazenly manipulative approach but it’s entirely in-keeping with the throwback style of Steven Spielberg’s movie, one which casts its mind back to an era of movies in which music was foregrounded. Moving from Louise Di Tullio’s pastoral flute solos to brutal timpani led battle scenes to warm trumpet tones that masterfully evoke the World War I setting, it’s a magnificent score. It may be more reliant on a tapestry of interlinked ideas than obvious themes (a trait that’s become increasingly apparent in Williams’ recent works) – but War Horse sees the composer at the top of his game. Thank you John for majestically capturing the windswept beauty of Dartmoor.
2. Rise of the Guardians (Alexandre Desplat)
A composer of incredible versatility, Alexandre Desplat has proven he can master any genre. In 2012 alone, he scored Moonrise Kingdom, Argo and Rust and Bone – but his best score of the year was Rise of the Guardians. The film was narratively confused but Desplat cuts to the adventurous heart of the story with exuberant panache, weaving together two enormously enjoyable themes. The first, for the Guardians themselves, is a terrific, brassy, adventurous theme of the kind you don’t really hear anymore (with overtones of John Williams’ Hook); the second is a beautiful, intimate piece for the power of dreams, sung by soprano Renee Fleming over the end credits. Add in Desplat’s typically intricate orchestration which subtly hints at the magic of Christmas (listen out for the bells and trumpet triplets) and you have a terrific adventure score.
3. Life of Pi (Mychael Danna)
The decision to hire Mychael Danna for Life of Pi was the best piece of composer casting this year. Ang Lee’s brilliant adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel ripples with ethnic and spiritual undercurrents, which plays right into Danna’s hands. Famed for his culturally sensitive touch in his scores for such directors as Deepa Mehta and Atom Egoyan, the composer underscores Lee’s drama with genuine subtlety. In the early stages, Danna blends Indian and French textures together to reflect Pi’s origins, including a beautiful lullaby sung in Tamil by Bombay Jayashri, before deploying haunting choral forces later on to capture the character’s spiritual odyssey. It’s a fabulous example of a score that enhances our emotional response to the drama without ever aggressively imposing on it, capturing the manifest complexities of the story in tasteful fashion.
4. W.E. (Abel Korzeniowski)
Madonna’s misguided historical biopic, based on the life of Wallace Simpson, was made for an audience of precisely no-one, blending past and present together to no avail. However, one area in which she did display judgment, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the music. Her decision to hire Abel Korzeniowski was an astute one, the classically educated Polish composer conveying a sense of melancholy beauty without ever resorting to maudlin sentimentality (a move which would have proven truly disastrous). Korzeniowski demonstrates a sense of disciplined control in his music, conjuring a score that is tasteful and poignant in the manner of his score for A Single Man. In fact, it’s more tasteful and poignant than the film it accompanies. Evgeni’s Waltz is one of the year’s outstandingly haunting music pieces.
5. The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner)
The best superhero score of the year came from a composer who rarely dabbles in the genre. Oscar-winner James Horner is nowadays more frequently found in the arena of classy drama, although he did make a huge splash with Avatar. However, he made a triumphant return to Rocketeer style bombast with the superb score for The Amazing Spider-Man. Steering clear of Danny Elfman’s Gothic majesty in favour of more streamlined heroism and heartbreaking moments of intimacy, it’s an emotional and stirring work that brilliantly captures the human dimensions of Marc Webb’s spin on the iconic superhero. It’s a joy to welcome Horner back to the action arena and it’s wonderful to have a full-on robust score composed of actual distinct themes – fingers crossed more blockbuster scores will follow suit.
6. The Master (Jonny Greenwood)
What is The Master all about? Is it a dissection of cult mentality? Or an examination of post-traumatic stress? This level of ambivalence is brilliantly reflected in Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling score, his second collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson following There Will Be Blood. At once pastoral and disturbed, Greenwood’s music does an excellent job of operating on two levels, suggesting both the outwardly ‘normal’ facade of the central characters and also the darkness that churns away beneath. As a musical depiction of duality, Greenwood’s score is brilliantly perceptive and intelligent, both listenable and unnerving, the composer benefiting from Anderson’s bold decision to foreground the music in operatic fashion. That the music is elusive yet compelling speaks greatly of Greenwood’s compositional abilities.
7. Skyfall (Thomas Newman)
David Arnold stood down from 007 duties for Skyfall, allowing Oscar-nominee Thomas Newman to step up to the plate for his fifth collaboration with director Sam Mendes. It was a controversial decision, Arnold’s crowd-pleasing energy giving way to Newman’s thoughtful introspection – but in the context of this particular Bond movie, it works brilliantly. Mendes takes an unexpectedly thoughtful look at the world’s most famous super spy, and the composer’s moody score wonderfully complements the emotional depth that Mendes brings to the table, whilst also heightening the brilliant action scenes. As is usual with Newman, the thematic content takes time to discover – but the sparse emotional subtlety works wonders in underlining Bond’s journey, a score that’s fraught with equal parts action, emotion and tension.
8. Ted (Walter Murphy)
Family Guy stalwart Walter Murphy reunites with Seth MacFarlane for the latter’s directorial debut Ted, the hysterically funny story of a teddy bear who’s brought to life by a magical wish – and in the process comes up with 2012’s most charming comedy score. Comedies are the hardest films to score as the composer must underline the humour without ever getting in the way of it but Murphy walks the tightrope brilliantly. Anchored by a lovely, dainty piece for the film’s bizarre central bromance (with overtones of Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Joe Dante), the score traverses magical wonder, action and lounge jazz in the manner of Murphy’s work on Family Guy, all with a huge amount of charm. There’s even time to throw in a reference to the Raiders March, another delightful touch that demonstrates MacFarlane’s acute understanding of film music.
9. The Innkeepers (Jeff Grace)
Ti West’s creepy ghost story benefits greatly from a quietly chilling score from rising composer Jeff Grace. Never succumbing to the tired cliché of silence followed by a loud musical stinger, Grace’s score is content to loom in the background, working away on the nerves and carefully building a sense of dread. That said, there is a barnstorming opening theme resplendent in a brooding sense of Gothic terror, one which sets the tone perfectly. Grace’s loyalty to this central theme, plus a sprinkling of eerie instrumental textures (a fluttering flute here; a tinkling piano there) helps keep his score fresh, transcending the familiarity of the genre through good old-fashioned orchestral magic. The steady application of mood ensures the payoff is all the more scary – an excellent example of how holding back yields greater rewards.
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin)
I had mixed feelings about Beasts of the Southern Wild as a film. But what was indisputably compelling, outside of the fantastic central performances from Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, was the unusual, striking score. Composed by Dan Romer along with the film’s director Benh Zeitlin, the score comprises an intimate ensemble of strings, trumpets, celeste and struck percussion (including a table!), authentically capturing the film’s Louisiana Bathtub locale. Influenced as much by folk and pop as it is by more conventionally symphonic scores, Romer and Zeitlin’s music never cheapens the experience or reduces it to rank sentimentality. Instead, it’s grounded in the point of view of central character Hushpuppy, alive with a magical sense of wonderment.