Judging the score of a film can be a funny thing, given their inherent subtlety. If a score is demanding to be noticed, it might very well be detracting from the film; as such many of the more effective scores go largely unnoticed. A truly great score is the one that both complements the film and can stand on its own, and those tend to be more inventive, standing out from the usual orchestral pieces that are quickly forgotten.
I'm not sure if it's that there weren't as many memorable soundtracks comprised of popular music this year, or that there were just so many great scores, but since I've been compiling this annual list, there's never been this many score-heavy soundtracks. Seven of the 13 soundtracks mentioned below are here (mostly) because of their score. Even music-heavy Scott Pilgrim reaches the top slot here because of the labor of Nigel Godrich on the inventive score. Sure, having Beck, Broken Social Scene, and Metric writing music for the fictional bands helped a bunch, but Godrich's score puts it over-the-top.
(As an added bonus, several of the entries below have "reassembled" playlists incorporating all the songs used in the film -- enjoy!)
10. Winter's Bone
Not since Deliverance has a banjo and a ride down a river been so frightening. Southern Missouri native Marideth Sisco was hired as a music consultant but ended up singing nearly all the authentic Ozark mountain folk in the film. She even appears in the film at one of the most pivotal scenes -- where actress Jennifer Lawrence (as Ree) comes upon Sisco and the Blackberry Winter band she assembled singing "High on a Mountain." Lawrence really comes alive in that moment and there's no turning back for either Ree or the film.
9. 127 Hours
Director Danny Boyle re-teams with Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman for this uplifting survival drama. The long stretches without dialogue serve as a challenge for Rahman to walk that fine line between emotionally informing the audience and outright manipulation. The score helps keep this realistic horror from falling into the traps of that genre.
Xavier Dolan's film of heartbreak and lust has a soundtrack to match it, leaning heavily on the ethereal voice of Sweden's Karin Elisabeth Dreijer Andersson of Fever Ray and The Knife. And damn it if French new wave band Indochine doesn't make a perfect backdrop to scouting out a new lover in the city of Quebec.
7. TRON: Legacy
The French electronic duo Daft Punk worked for two years in secrecy on the score, opting to go it alone even after producers brought in the more seasoned composer Hans Zimmer to collaborate. In the final product, the robotic duo seem surprisingly at home working in the classical realm, but the highlights are still where you recognize that Daft Punk sound. Their appearance in the film coincides with the album's single "Derezzed," making it both a highlight of the soundtrack and the film.
The moment in the film when the micromanager of the two moms Nic (Annette Bening) sings Joni Mitchell's "All I Want" and sperm dad Paul (Mark Ruffalo) joins is when this soundtrack was cemented in the top 10. It moves up several notches thanks to the thematic use of David Bowie for Paul and Deerhoof for Joni (Mia Wasikowska).
Hans Zimmer has come a long way since his work with the Buggles, but he's not afraid to pull from his '80s alternative past. Old friend and Smiths' guitar great Johnny Marr lends a hand for this memorable score, which initially is based upon the Edith Piaf-performed "Non Je Ne Regrette Rien." Zimmer slows down the opening and creates something wholly new and menacing. That Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf makes it like a reference within a reference. Or does it?
There a few key songs in the Noah Baumbach-directed film that LCD's James Murphy weaves his score around, toning down his DFA slack sound to work side-by-side with the '70s classic "It Never Rains In Southern California" by Albert Hammond and with the coke-fueled Duran Duran track "Chauffer." The most memorable use of music in the film, though, occurs to Serge Gainsbourg's "Histoire de Melody Nelson," as party goers all stare into the pool in amazement.
Is it a movie or a miniseries? I don't know, but since it made the rounds during film festivals, I'm including it here because it deserves some serious recognition. Director Olivier Assayas wanted to use New Jersey post-punk band the Feelies for much of the soundtrack, but ran into issues when the band didn't want to be associated with on-screen terrorism. Assayas instead employed similarly rhythmic songs from UK's post-punkers Wire ("Ahead," "The 15th," "Drill") for a chilling effect. Assayas still managed to work the Feelies "Loveless Love" into an early non-violent scene, but the best moment has to be when Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" blasts from the radio during a tense moment at the Swiss border. Throw in some early New Order and some Lightning Seeds and you have an exquisite mix. At 332 minutes in length, there's lots of room for music, but Assayas doesn't overdo it, instead targeting them wisely, making every bullet count.
Here's the selection on this list that I'm most likely to regret. As I'm watching it again here in the background while I write, is it possible that it's already feeling dated? I'm leaving it here at No. 2 anyway, because of the initial feeling after first viewing. Trent Reznor and repeat collaborator Atticus Ross do a lot to make the re-enactment of a court hearing seem more exciting than it really should. Points tallied for the re-working of Greig's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" to back the much ballyhooed Henley Sequence.
One of the most overlooked films of 2010 tops the list here, thanks to its inventive mix of stylized score and original and popular music. The story goes that director Edward Wright pointed longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich in the direction of Dario Argento's prog-rock band Goblin, which he both played in and also used extensively for scores in his horror films. Godrich mixed this with video game inspiration and comes up with some truly wondrous moments to back the craziness on the screen. Because music is an important part of the plot, other musicians/writers were brought in to write the music for the bands being portrayed. Beck famously knocked out 18 songs in an afternoon for our heroes, Sex Bob-Omb, while Broken Social Scene obviously had some fun recording their short bits for Crash and the Boys. But it's Metric's "Black Sheep," written for the Clash at Demonhead that nearly steals the whole show, as Brie Larson's Envy Adams stops us all dead in our tracks (video). The actors all played the instruments and sang the songs, so they could achieve Spinal Tap authenticity, so the final product on-screen is like Scott Pilgrim himself: endearing, scruffy, and perhaps a bit too behind the beat.
Also worth mentioning:
curator of the music/soundtrack blog thus spake drake