2016 was a year of peaks and valleys at the movie house. A lot of wonderful films were released early in the year. And the end of the year brought even more. But we’d all do well to forget the abysmal months in-between. Either way, those ups and downs can’t dampen what’s been a magical year for music in film. A year where genre fiction took center stage, synth-wave made big waves and composers shined as bright as movie stars. These are the ones that shined brightest.
10. Midnight Special – Original Music by David Wingo
David Wingo has had a very good year. He’s currently getting raves for his soulful work on Jeff Nichols’ racial drama Loving. But it’s his work on Nichols’ other 2016 release that’s kept my ear for most of the year. Midnight Special marked the third collaboration between director and composer. It may be the most fruitful of their efforts. Steeped in Amblin style nostalgia and hard sci-fi tropes, Midnight Special is a mystery, a road movie, a family drama and a religious parable all in one. Wingo’s music washes through the esoteric environments of Nichols’ real world fantasy with uncommon agility. It brings magic, mystery, danger, even reverence to that world. Like Nichols’ film, Wingo’s music is something altogether original. Something sprung from a time and place that’s familiar, but not of our own. Just like the gifted child at the heart of their story.
9. High Rise – Original Music by Clint Mansell
Nobody does doom and gloom like Clint Mansell. The gifted composer has made a living by bringing menacing electronics, pounding percussion and wailing strings to dozens of films. But you won’t hear much of those Mansell staples in his beauteous score for Ben Wheatley’s High Rise. Instead Mansell contributes a collection of songs that feel like Debussy by way of Herrmann … and he got a full orchestra to play them. There’s a majesty in Mansell’s orchestra we’ve never heard before. That majesty lends a palpable sense of unease to Wheatley’s tale of high society run amok. It lends a degree of folly as well. After all, High Rise is a satire … a scathing dissection of class society vs. basic human nature. When human nature inevitably takes over, life in High Rise devolves from dignified opulence to subhuman debasement. Through every perversion, Mansell’s music remains dignified. It bends. It weaves. It frights and it inspires. Behind the film’s stately photography, those compositions elevate High Rise from mere satire to opera of the absurd. Even J.G. Ballard would agree that anarchy has never looked so alluring or sounded so elegant.
8. The Childhood Of A Leader – Original Music by Scott Walker
Most filmmakers will tell you that they worry about music taking over their film. Brady Corbett would not agree. After listening to the wild, aggressive arrangements that Scott Walker composed for The Childhood Of A Leader, Corbett actually had his editor raise the music a full 5% above standard levels for a theatrical release. As a result, Walker’s compositions often take over the film. Critics called that music ‘overblown’. They called it ‘invasive’. They just didn’t understand … that’s a good thing. All that pomp amplifies Corbett’s tale of a burgeoning dictator’s formative years to nerve-wracking heights. So much so that even simple, mundane moments spin into frenzied hysteria. With Walker’s music in tow, a brief history lesson via montage becomes a harbinger of imminent doom and a quiet walk down stairs feels like a sinister descent into darkness. Through every second of The Childhood Of A Leader, Walker’s fevered compositions breed fear and paranoia like wildfire. They ultimately transform Corbett’s film from ethereal costume drama to an apocalyptic political horror movie. One that hits a little too close to home these days.
7. The Invitation – Original Music by Theodore Shapiro
Every year there’s one movie that I really want to like more than I do. Last year it was Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak. This year it’s Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. It pains me to say that. But the performances in the film were so flat across the board that I couldn’t connect to the story the way I wanted to. And I did want to. ‘Cause pretty much everything else about Kusama’s anxiety inducing drama is perfect. That includes Theodore Shapiro’s dread-soaked original score. Dread is the order of the day throughout The Invitation. You can feel it building through every second of Kusama’s nervy slow-burner. Impending doom stalks through the film like a wounded beast searching for prey. Shapiro’s ominous compositions hunt slow and silent with it … and then they pounce. From The Invitation’s foreboding opening to its calamitous finale, you can feel Shapiro’s music pulsing through like poison in your veins. You sense it deep inside. You feel it taking hold. It’s up to you whether or not you give in.
6. Hunt For The Wilderpeople – Original Music by Moniker
Not many movies catch me off guard anymore. Taika Waititi’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople didn’t just catch me off guard, it blindsided me. Waititi’s coming-of-age comedy was one of the funniest films of the year … and one of the sweetest too. It’s a film steeped in the whimsy of youth, the harsh truths of the world and the overblown action of a 90s buddy comedy. It seems impossible that all of those themes could be captured in music. But that’s just what Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott and Conrad Wedde (AKA Moniker) have done. Like the film, their score is a damn impressive balancing act. One that sees the group delve into dreamy lo-fi pop, expansive synth-wave pageantry and austere atmospheric noodling with equal ease. Throughout Waititi’s grand adventure, that music traverses the expanse of New Zealand’s Bush-lands as nimbly as it does the rambunctious inner life of its teenage protagonist. It’s fun without being silly. It’s sweet without being schmalzy. It’s dangerous without being scary. It’s big, but it’s never overpowering. In a word it’s majestical.
5. The First Monday In May – Original Music by Ian and Sofia Hultquist
The worlds of music and fashion are so uniquely tied together that it’s impossible to imagine a runway show without music driving the action. Fashion doc The First Monday In May offers offers a compelling look at the machinations behind The Met’s 2015 fashion exhibit ‘China: Through The Looking Glass’ and the star-studded Met Gala that funded it. I watched the film once. I didn’t need to watch it again. Ian and Sofia Hultquist’s lustrous The First Monday In May score is another story. The duo’s airy compositions are endlessly listenable. And yes, it’s impossible to imagine The First Monday In May without their guitars and strings and loops and synths playing under every pastoral image. Their lavish chamber pop washes over the film with the grace of a runway model. It builds intrigue. It brings pomp and attitude to the story. Most importantly, it gives The First Monday In May texture. You can feel the music in the film like silk between your fingers. Simply put, fashions will fade. But Ian & Sofia Hultquist’s music will not.
4. The Neon Demon – Original Music by Cliff Martinez
On the topic of fashion, that world has never been more thrilling or frightening as viewed through the eyes of Nicholas Winding Refn. That’s not to say The Neon Demon is a horror film. It isn’t. And it’s not an allegorical cautionary tale. Nor is it a satirical sendup of the carnivorous LA fashion scene. But all of those elements bleed into the bombastic tapestry of evil that is The Neon Demon. Cliff Martinez’s grandiose, synth-driven compositions match that bombast every step of the way. In fact, Martinez’s music often takes the lead. The Neon Demon is a film that’s steeped in visual language. Much of the narrative unfolds with almost no dialogue. Martinez’s music is forced to the foreground. And it becomes a character in and of itself. You can feel it lurking just off-screen like a vampire ready to dig it’s fangs in deep. It’s bold. It’s bleak. It’s sinister and celestial … playful and destructive. It’s a model soundtrack for Refn’s glitzy, gruesome world. A world soaked in blood and beauty and sex and doom. And synthesizers. Lots of synthesizers.
3. Jackie – Original Music by Mica Levi
I haven’t seen Jackie yet. So I have no context for the practical effect of Mica Levi’s music on the film. I can vouch with all sincerity that Levi’s music has had a profound effect on me. Those of you familiar with Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin know that the composer’s music can be as provocative as it is transfixing. Her work on Jackie takes a slightly less in your face approach, but evokes a similar visceral response. Of course, that response is largely influenced by the penetrating sadness of the story at hand. Few stories resonate with sadness like the assassination of JFK. Viewed through the conflicted eyes of the enigmatic First Lady, the aftermath of that event takes on sobering new overtones. Levi’s music lives inside that sadness. Strings swoon and swirl through her music heralding unflinching sorrow. Solitary woodwinds fade in and out with the fluidity of fractured memories. Rolling snares allude to the official nature of such loss. Through every haunting moment, Levi captures the subtle nuances of mourning and reflection with the same grace as the woman who lived it. In the process, she ties her music forever to the legacy of that grief.
2. Moonlight – Original Music by Nicholas Britell
With his second feature film, Writer/Director Barry Jenkins set out to “bring the arthouse to the hood”. That’s just what he did. Jenkins’ soulful tale of a wounded young black man trying to find his place in the world has found open minds, open hearts and open arms in art-houses and cineplexes alike since its release. It’s impossible to overstate the power that Nicholas Britell’s music has on that tale. It’s just as surprising that Brittell was involved at all. His work has always leaned toward a more classical bent. That style hardly seemed like a natural fit for Jenkins’ ghetto-life fable. But that’s also why it works. Britell’s classical approach casts an idyllic light over Jenkins’ gritty, emotional narrative. He matches the fractured nature of that narrative by ‘chopping and screwing’ his own compositions throughout. With that technique, Britell exposes the tortured soul of a young man who’s never known peace … but who never stops searching for it. And Britell’s music becomes the beating heart that ties every anguished moment of Moonlight together.
1. Swiss Army Man – Original Music by Andy Hull & Robert McDowell
The words “farting corpse movie” probably sealed Swiss Army Man’s fate before most people had a chance to experience it for themselves. DANIELS’ heartfelt and hilarious tale of modern isolation is nothing if not an experience. Though ‘experience’ might be an understatement for an offbeat, deserted island adventure tale that features a corpse being used as a machine gun and generating lifesaving flatulence. Swiss Army Man was one of the more divisive movies of the summer. Even the film’s harshest critics could agree that the original score from Andy Hull and Robert McDowell was worth celebrating. And the duo took a decidedly offbeat approach to the music by composing their score with one simple stipulation – they couldn’t use any instrumentation that the film’s central characters didn’t have access to themselves. Their goal became to make music as it exists in the heads of those characters.
The result is a collection of songs built around dense layers of vocal tracks (provided by stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe) and thumping, primal percussion. With those meager tools, Hull and McDowell giddily take their a cappella orchestra to every corner of the human psyche. Their songs are wildly original, utterly absurd and achingly personal … often in the same moment. They bring a humanity to Swiss Army Man that makes all the “farting corpse” madness worthwhile. There wasn’t a score this year that even came close to Swiss Army Man in terms of ambition or execution. It’s hard to compose for comedy. It’s hard to compose for drama. Its hard to compose for adventure. To do it all in the same movie is impressive. To do it with virtually no instrumentation is akin to genuine magic. The music of Swiss Army Man is just that. This isn’t just the best score of the year, it’s actually the best album of the year. And it will demand your attention for years to come.
I don’t usually do honorable mentions with my Best Of lists. But 2016 has been a special year for film music. This list could easily have swelled to over 20 scores. And there were some amazing titles that made their way into and out of this Top 10. With that in mind, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the scorching synthed-out soundscapes that Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein brought to Stranger Things or the haunted humanity behind Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music from Arrival. I’d feel like an ass if I didn’t acknowledge the tender emotional landscapes in Alex Somers’ work on Captian Fantastic or the complex minimalism of Dustin O’Halloran’s and Hauschka’s Lion score. And that’s not to mention the propulsive psychotic energy behind Brian McOmber’s work on Krisha or the gothic menace of Mark Korven’s music for The Witch. Seriously, I could keep going (Wojciech Golczewski – 400 Days. That’s all I’m saying). But you get the picture. Film music is great. And you should listen to all of it. So go do that.
To go along with the list above, we’ve compiled this handy playlist. Enjoy!