Let’s be honest … 2015 was a bit underwhelming in cinemas. Blockbusters almost universally underwhelmed while indies towed the line between new classic and unwatchable. Luckily, it’s been a brilliant year for music. 2015 films featured original scores from indie rock stalwarts, neuvo composers and moonlighting DJs. Their compositions brought dread to the dark, hope to the light and wonder to their worlds. This year the music mattered. These are the original scores that mattered most.
10. It Follows – Original Music by Disasterpeace
Blood, guts and monsters are not what make horror movies scary. What matters most is tone and nothing sets the tone of a scary movie better than music. It’s clear from It Follows‘ chilling opening moments that Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell has seen Halloween … many times. So has the film’s composer Richard Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace). They both understood how essential music is to that film. Halloween is still creepy as hell without Carpenter’s iconic score, but that pulse-pounding sense of dread falls the way of so many promiscuous best friends in its absence. It Follows trudges similar terrain. Blending ominous, synth-driven compositions into the film’s dreamy visuals, Vreeland’s music builds moody overtones into every frame of It Follows. Like the film’s relentless villain, you feel the music even when it isn’t present. Few original scores can boast that feat.
9. Sicario – Original Music by Jóhan Jóhannsson
Jóhan Jóhannsson won an Oscar last year for his endlessly hopeful score to The Theory Of Everything. He returned this year with an altogether different sort of beast. America’s seemingly futile war on drugs is a complicated topic. Sicario is a challenging film that moonlights as a thriller but feels like a horror movie. Credit Jóhannsson’s brutish, mournful original score for propelling Sicario‘s pitch-black story into even darker corners of futility. As Sicario‘s twisty narrative unfolds, Jóhannsson’s brooding compositions compliment the film’s burned-out visuals without overpowering them. The combination of elements begs viewers to sit back, relax and wander through a hell that feels all too real.
8. Room – Original Music by Stephen Rennicks
My friends can tell you that I’m a total pushover for sparse, piano driven music. They must have told Stephen Rennicks as well. Room was the only movie I cried at this year. That’s due in large to Rennicks’ passionate arrangements delivering a resonant layer of feeling just below the film’s surface. That surface is positively bursting with emotions. Shifting from fear to sorrow to pure wonder, Rennicks’ music matches the ebbs and flows of Rooms’ narrative with surprising ease. The composer achieves this by constructing his compositions around a simple, twinkling piano full of sorrow and compassion. As the world of Room grows, Rennicks’ arrangements expand too. Building around that sparse piano with strings and chiming percussion, Rennicks uncovers new emotional spaces as ably as the film does. In the end, his music achieves the same sense of loving awe.
7. Queen Of Earth – Original Music by Keegan DeWitt
Keegan Dewitt must write music in his sleep. That’s the only way to explain the prolific composer’s (and Wild Cub frontman’s) output in the past five years. Of the twenty films to his credit over that period, none have stood out more than Queen Of Earth. Featuring a daring performance from Elisabeth Moss, Queen Of Earth tracks a devastating descent into madness. Intermingling strings and horns and bells that sparkle and fade from consciousness at agonizing leisure, DeWitt finds the soul of mental disarray in a precisely orchestrated score. He does so without being showy. As Moss’ character descends further into the paranoid corners of her mind, DeWitt simplifies his compositions. Bells and strings fade into an unnameable darkness and DeWitt allows Queen Of Earth‘s devastating close-ups to do the heavy emotional lifting. Madness is never simple, but in DeWitt’s hands it sounds as lovely as it is terrifying.
6. Mistress America – Original Music by Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips
You had me at Dean & Britta. Indie-rock’s golden couple have made beautiful music together for nearly two decades. They’ve lent songs to numerous movies during that time and even dabbled in composition on Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. With Baumbach’s latest film, Mistress America, the pair finally go all in. This is no easy task. Baumbach’s films resonate because they manage to be funny, sweet and tragic all at once. If the director’s work has lacked anything over the years, it’s been original music that matches his film’s brutal, often hilarious honesty. With waves of synthesizers, Wareham’s jangly guitars and Phillips’ driving bass, the couple handily blend their pop sensibilities with the film’s tricky emotional layers. The result is a collection of songs that elicit all the glee and unease of Baumbach’s film without feeling sappy or silly.
5. Slow West – Original Music by Jed Kurzel
Yes, I’m aware that Ennio Morricconne is alive and that his The Hateful 8 score will be his first western in 40 years. I’m also pretty sure he would love Jed Kurzel’s work on Slow West. Between The Snowtown Murders, The Babadook and Macbeth, Kurzel has scored some of the more compelling films of the past few years. Slow West is a colorful, confounding little western that fits that label. Kurzel’s music is the one consistently intriguing element in Jon Maclean’s frustratingly uneven film. As Slow West‘s narrative traverses the fine line between the savage and the civilized, Kurzel’s original score takes its pleasures in exploring both. Folky, whimsical, surly and waltzy, Kurzel’s Slow West themes intrigue because they don’t sound westerny at all. But then, Slow West isn’t quite like any western I’ve seen before.
4. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter – Original Music by The Octopus Project
Based on a bizarre true story, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter was one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences – and it is an experience – that I had at the movies this year. The Octopus Project’s transcendent original score had a lot to do with that. The Coen Bros. 1996 masterpiece Fargo plays a big role in Kumiko‘s narrative. So does Carter Burwell’s enigmatic score for that film. Director David Zellner wisely embraces Fargo‘s influence throughout his film. The Octopus Project follows suit by deconstructing much of Burwell’s main theme before building it into their own compositions. But they take their compositions further than Burwell’s influence and craft a delicate, echoey architecture all their own for this tragic tale. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a film that lives in the grey matter of passion and madness. As the titular character’s mental state deteriorates, The Octopus Project’s music becomes increasingly formless. Echoes dissolve into noise and noise transforms into a feeling somewhere between fanciful delusion and waking nightmare. And that’s just where Kumiko dwells.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road – Original Music by Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL)
You’ve got to be completely bonkers to stand out in the George Miller’s world. Thankfully, Tom Holkenborg has a colossal freak flag to fly. The proof is written in the boisterous orchestra of insanity he’s concocted for Fury Road. Borrowing the best elements of Hans Zimmer, techno-pop and sludge-metal, Holkenborg runs them through a blender … and then blows the blender to smithereens by running over it with a big ass truck. The musical notes pulled from the fire dot the pages played by the 200 person orchestra Holkenborg employed to bring the songs to life. Big strings. Big percussion. Big emotions. Big guitars … that shoot fire. This is the sound of The Wasteland. This is the sound of lunacy. This is the sound of Mad Max: Fury Road. Now, who wants to go blow up a car?
2. Carol – Original Music by Carter Burwell
A little heart will get you a long way. Maybe not to the top of my Best Of list, but pretty damn close. Slotting Carter Burwell’s lush, unapologetically gushy score to Carol into the number two spot was no easy decision. It came down to the simple fact that I haven’t seen the film yet. I have no concept for how Burwell’s compositions interact with Todd Hayne’s tale of lesbian love in the 1950s. Still, from the first notes of ‘Opening’, I could tell that this is one of those original scores that will be obsessed over for years to come. As the first harp strings were plucked – aprox 16 seconds in – I was madly in love with this one. It only gets better from there. I’d intended to listen to just a song or two of this score when I sat down. 52 minutes later, I sat transfixed with the knowledge that I understood things about Carol that nobody else could. And that’s what love is all about.
1. Ex Machina – Original Music by Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
The best film of the year happens to feature the best original score as well. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a legit piece of sci-fi art. No movie reveled more in atmosphere this year. Atmosphere is just what Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow create with their tinny, airy electronic compositions. There are obvious influences at work here. Salisbury and Barrow clearly have an affinity for Vangelis’ Blade Runner score and the pair lavishly pay homage to John Williams’ famous five notes from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind – this is a “first contact” story after all – in Ava’s theme. But Salisbury and Barrow keep those influences on the back burner and craft a densely textured, synthetic soundscape all their own. Notes swell and fade like audio signals from a distant planet, later erupting in bouts of washy, twinkly static and throbbing robotic heartbeats. It’s terrifying, awe-inspiring and surprisingly sweet. And it all works in glorious harmony with Garland’s crisp visual aesthetic and uncanny sense for pacing. That’s what lands Ex Machina‘s music in the number one slot. The music is absolutely gorgeous, but of all the original scores on this list, Salisbury’s and Barrow’s is the one that best understands its place within the film that spawned it. That’s the primary function of any score.
Great film scores inspire visceral emotions that linger long after the credits roll. I knew Ex Machina’s score was something special even as the film was in progress. As I left the theater, I found myself humming Ava’s theme and a potent sense of peace washed over me. It was an utterly illogical moment spawned from my interaction with something both organic and artificial. Ex Machina incarnate. In that moment all I could do was smile. That is, after all, why I go to the movies.
Note: Every original score on this list is available to stream in its entirety on Spotify (who really needs to do something about their awful, awful embed design). Go and listen and thank me later.