Cinema is the rare art form that allows an almost entirely separate art form to exist within it — which is why sometimes you get terrible films with awesome scores (and, rarely, vice versa). But, of course, movie music isn’t really a separate art form — at its best, the score works in tandem with what’s happening onscreen to enhance the effect of the film. This year provided a bounty of such efforts, and there are plenty of additional scores that could have easily made this list; I am listening to a couple of them as I write these words. Here are the ten best film scores of 2018.
How do you score a movie that already has an octopus playing drums? Rupert Gregson-Williams’s music for James Wan’s immense, insane superhero epic is an unbelievable hodgepodge of booming, Zimmerian brass and warlike percussion shot through with straight-up old-school disco loops and buzzing, sci-fi synthesizers. The effect is a sound that feels even more all-encompassing than what we usually hear in superhero flicks. It’s big and bold and charging but also supremely playful, as if to nod at the sheer nuttiness of what we’re seeing onscreen.
Jonny Greenwood has made an admirable second career for himself with his daring soundtracks for directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Lynne Ramsay. And his score for the latter’s masterful alt-vigilante-thriller represents him at his atonal, experimental best — with idiosyncratic use of jarring strings, unsettling rhythms, and what I can only assume is a baby piano being murdered by a washing machine. The nerve-racking sounds that Greenwood conjures up become a key ingredient in Ramsay’s efforts to put us into the fragmented psyche of her troubled, violent protagonist. But just like the movie itself, the music occasionally reaches moments of harmony as well, rallying to create bits of elusive beauty.
Thanks to his credits on any number of sci-fi, superhero, and action movies, Hans Zimmer is often thought of as the “BRAAAAAHHHM” guy nowadays. (See also: my write-up for Rupert Gregson-Williams’s Aquaman score, above.) But he’s actually one of the most versatile composers of our time, and his work can be delicate and sad just as often as it can be big, brassy, and thunderous. The moods he conjures for Steve McQueen’s emotional heist drama are gorgeous and complex — luxuriating in jazzy fields of melancholy with undercurrents of unease, as if to hint at the characters’ unresolved grief and anger.
This under-seen remake of the 1974 prison-escape classic set on a French penal colony was a well-acted, atmospheric, and admirably gruesome look at man’s eternal quest for freedom. Quite fittingly, David Buckley’s full-bodied score was a fine, stirring blast of old-school soundtrack music, filled with soaring choirs, funereal laments, and dreamy, drifting melodies that seemed to tease at liberation on far-off shores.
6. The Green Fog
Can we even call this a score? Commissioned for the San Francisco Film Festival, The Green Fog is a collaboration between composer Jacob Garchik, the Kronos Quartet, and the filmmakers Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson to re-create Hitchcock’s Vertigo using clips from San Francisco–shot movies and TV shows that are not Vertigo. It premiered as a live performance in 2017, but has since become an actual film. Maddin and his collaborators’ savvy editing choices reveal both the influence of Vertigo as well as the elemental nature of its obsessions. The music does much the same — with arrangements that at times evoke Bernard Herrmann’s indelible melodies, or that utilize preexisting classical pieces, while also going off in their own wild, unpredictable directions. It’s the rare movie where the music is just as important as the images, if not more so.
The tragic, sudden death of composer Jóhann Jóhannsson in February deprived us of one of our era’s most exciting and innovative composers, and his score for Panos Cosmatos’s Nicolas Cage–starring visionary revenge fantasia — which had premiered just days earlier — was one of his most powerful. Since the movie itself is such a mood piece, music plays a huge role in the way it works its dark magic. We luxuriate in the characters’ peace and intimacy in the film’s first half, and we watch (and listen) as pure chaos unfolds in the second half — as the very idea of love becomes a distant memory. So Jóhannsson’s tender, playful reveries transform into bare echoes, overwhelmed by thrumming, metallic dirges. It’s the scariest score of the year, but if you’ve seen Mandy, you’ll find yourself profoundly moved by the music as well.
Contemporary classical composer Max Richter’s work on Mary Queen of Scots is among his finest forays into film, presenting a distinctive mix of traditional and modern — with Renaissance arrangements and harmonies twisting into stirring ostinatos that would make Philip Glass and Michael Nyman proud, and excellent use of Gaelic harps and war drums to underline key character moments. It all makes for a beautiful accompaniment to this melodramatic tale of ambition, betrayal, and doom.
3. The Rider
Nathan Halpern’s ethereal score for Chloé Zhao’s neo-Western drama about a young rodeo star’s career-ending injury is understated yet evocative — you can hear the wind whistling beneath the notes. Our hero is surrounded by fields and horses and sky, but he can’t do the one thing he loves, and which defines him — he can’t ride. So music is deployed sparingly in the film; it often feels like a memory, as if trying to locate a lost joy that becomes more elusive with each passing minute.
From its softly riffing horns to its waves of quivering strings, Nicholas Britell’s minimalist score for Barry Jenkins’s heartbreaking ’70s-set love story makes for an exquisite counterpoint to the jazz and soul of the era. There’s quite a bit of music in this movie, but none of it ever overpowers what’s happening onscreen. At times lushly romantic, at times dark and brooding, Britell’s sounds gently underscore the fevered emotions at the heart of the film.
1. First Man
Damien Chazelle’s first nonmusical film is still kind of a musical if you pay close attention to his close collaborator Justin Hurwitz’s score, which provides key emotional connections between Neil Armstrong’s reserved inner life and his quest for the moon. The film’s central theme is a tender, lonely little waltz, which is played on the harp early on, when we see Armstrong taking care of his dying daughter and looking up at the moon; it eventually becomes a triumphant swell, with rolling drums and blasting horns, when he finally reaches the lunar surface. (Even a theremin gets involved somewhere along the way.) It’s almost as if he’s been listening to a faraway song all these years and has finally reached its source.