A great film score is a snappy set of dialogue, a perfectly tailored costume, a color splashed on the wall, a feeling of dread in the atmosphere, a slow zoom towards a pair of eyes, or a tirade of kung fu punches. Music can be manipulated like any other element of film and possess infinite possibilities – on one end silence, on the other, cacophony. As Hollywood aims to homogenize, visionary filmmakers and the composers who echo, juxtapose, and challenge their work continue on to ensure that not every soundtrack is a variation of the “Inception” BRAAAM.
Here are 15 of the best film scores of 2013:
15. “Trance” by Rick Smith
2013's action scores amounted to one big drone, a result of one musical discipline — a devolved version of Hans Zimmer's assaultive, minimalist techniques — spreading throughout Hollywood. Luckily, there was some reprieve to be found in smaller-scale thrillers; Underworld frontman Rick Smith's score for “Trance” isn't the most innovative assemblage of beats, samples and static, but it does move like hell and twist itself in knots to reflect the action on screen. Building from a hypnotic foundation of literal trance music, Smith finds opportunities to layer on dreamlike melodies and ferocious panic attacks. It's being ported directly from the brain.
14. “The Counselor” by Daniel Pemberton
Despite Ridley Scott's straightforward approach, author Cormac McCarthy's first original screenplay polarized critics. Vicious, schizophrenic and wickedly funny, “The Counselor” was a tone poem kaleidoscope. Daniel Pemberton's equally colorful score backs it up. If Sergio Leone rocked a grunge guitar, aided by a fully-stocked ProTools studio, the result may be akin to Pemberton's wild child score. It works to the movie's advantage that it all feels a bit over-processed — the manufactured characters of McCarthy's script think they can get away with murder or masquerade as something they're not. Then they get the wire, which Pemberton is happy to add to his own score. The slicing metallics are like a musical blood-letting, and when the dirty work is finished, the mariachi kicks in one last time....
13. “Rush” by Hans Zimmer
Zimmer was in his twenties when the James Hunt and Niki Lauda rivalry was lighting up Formula One races across the globe. He was soaking up the rock scene, going on to work with The Buggles in 1977. So while movies like “Man of Steel” and “Lone Ranger” play to his epic scoring qualities, Ron Howard's '70s racing picture hits a sweet spot. In his score for “Rush,” Zimmer recalls familiar racing tropes — stopwatch-like repetition, the drifting fades of notes whizzing by — and couples with the groove of English glam rock. Even Zimmer's more common percussive entries, like “Lost But Won,” are invigorated by the inherent gear shifting of the story. For once, the film is pushing Zimmer's music, not the other way around.
12. “Ain't Them Body Saints” by Daniel Hart
Too often film scores reek of “after the fact” production (likely because that's when they arrive in the filmmaking process), designed to forcefully push thematic or emotional ideas past the line of comprehension. But like the tender pictures and performances captured by director David Lowery, Daniel Hart's score for “Ain't Them Body Saints” feels unearthed. Through a motif of hand claps and imperfect, Bluegrass melodies, Hart allows the music to condense around the methodical action. It's as much an inner-monologue as any of the film's spoken words.
11 . “Her” – Arcade Fire
There are no easy answers in the plotting of Spike Jonze's science fiction film, nor can any be found in the music. With subdued instrumentals, Arcade Fire unravels a morally ambiguous, sensual sonic experience. It's at once a dreamy utopian soundtrack and a farewell love letter to true romance, the kind played on acoustic guitars rather than swapped mp3s. The “Her” score is rare in how it stands out of the way of Jonze's filmmaking — more an energy than an accompaniment. A future yoga class staple.
10. “Escape from Tomorrow” by Abel Korzeniowski
Korzeniowski's soundtrack to the Randy Moore's phantasmagorical Disney vacation film would never fit a traditional Hollywood movie because it's too Hollywood. With a wink to camera, Korzeniowski heightens the run-and-gun, existential odyssey with lavish music of the golden age. Bright strings, bellowing horns, and the crash of cymbels add an unexpected dose of Technicolor to the black & white “Escape from Tomorrow.,” fitting for the archaic surroundings of Disney parks. Korzeniowski takes it to another level by seamlessly subverting the classic stylings — when a children's choir squeals their way into “Fireworks,” you can hear the cries of a thousand nations appropriated by “It's a Small World After All” firing back at humanity.
9. “Upstream Color” by Shane Carruth
Carruth does it all: writes, directs, acts, and scores his own films. And unlike most self-endowed Renaissance men, he can deliver on all fronts. Ambience can be deadly when strewn about as background music. In “Upstream Color,” Carruth uses it to comment on the connectivity of all things micro and macro. His pinging beats can fractalize outward into the thundering of gods. As chaos works itself out, so does the score's tonality, constructing dissonant and consonant phrasing like math equations on Albert Einstein's chalk board. The music of “Upstream Color” is like a Brian Enjo jazz record — ethereal, sporadic, but entirely composed.
8. “The Spectacular Now”
The soul of a mixtape lives on in Rob Simonsen's “Spectacular Now” score, bouncing from roll-down-the-windows-and-rock-out triumphant fanfare to whimsical notes that dance around a campfire to the static rock noise we've all used to scrub away reality. The way the final stretch of high school encompasses every emotion, so does Simonsen's score, appropriately instrumented with sounds heard straight out of the band room. With a joyful, misguided, and occasionally inebriated main character the composer fearlessly devolves his melodies into cacophony. It's not always a pleasant listen, but that's life.
7 “Pain & Gain” by Steve Jablonsky
Jablonsky is part of the Remote Control Productions team a.k.a. the Hans Zimmer factory. Climbing the ranks, he's lived mostly under Michael Bay's thumb, delivering the the good-but-not-great “Transformers” scores and a handful of horror remakes produced by the action whiz kid. But just like Bay found material capable of tapping into his hyper-masculinity while commenting on the very nature of the personality types, Jablonsky left his oeuvre in the dust with his work on “Pain & Gain”. For Mark Wahlberg's Daniel Lugo, pumping up and fighting one's way to the top is a religious experience. Jablonsky scores it as such, like if Explosions in the Sky penned a “Rocky” concept album.
6. "The Wind Rises" by Joe Hisashi
There's no question that Hayao Miyazaki is a master of his craft. But how lucky is he to have a composer like Joe Hisaishi, who has always echoed the animator's imagination and tangible craft with a mix of classical sounds, Eastern and Western. His score for “The Wind Rises” is full of grandeur, breezing through the air as Jiro dreams of Caproni's larger-than-life airships (and doing so with the sounds of Calabria). And then whittles down to just a piano, ever so soft, matching the frailty of Jiro's love, Naoko. There's nothing cartoonish about any of Miyazaki’s films and still “The Wind Rises” stands as one of his most human.
5. “Nebraska” - Mark Orton
As soon as the first screening of Alexander Payne's “Nebraska” let out at the Cannes Film Festival, attendees were humming Orton's violin melody as they shuffled through their day. It's a rambling earworm, forward-moving and timeless. Orton, a member of the folk chamber band Tin Hat, adapts his group's neoclassicist and bluegrass sensibilities for “Nebraska,” often sounding like a slow-motion version of an Aaron Copland tune. The music is weathered Americana, soulful and never caricatured. Orton found a theme can withstand the emotional wringer of “Nebraska.” By the end, it repeats with a new glow; Time may chug along in the same way for all eternity, but the vibrancy can glow brighter. The music makes that same discovery.
4. “All Is Lost” - Alex Ebert
In November, the music world lost Sir John Tavener, one of the titans of religiously themed choral and classical works (if you saw “Children of Men” or “The Great Beauty”, you've heard his work). This isn't to say that Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert is shaping up to take the Tavener mantle, but “All Is Lost” is a religious experience that evokes Tavener's ear, swinging like a pendulum between mortal intimacy and the swaying of the heavens. It’s like a musical Dante's Inferno on water, a track like “Excelsior” deserving of cathedrals, while “Dance of the Lilies” carries the weight of everyday life, spindly, crackling, and howling.
3. “Stoker” - Clint Mansell, Philip Glass
If musical accolades were being handed out to individual tracks, Mansell's “Happy Birthday (A Death in the Family”), the opening scavenger hunt cue from “Stoker” director Park Chan-wook would take the top prize. Throughout the genre-drenched thriller, Mansell delivers a series of forceful, hypnotic, high drama études, with a piano backbone similar to his re-orchestration of “Black Swan.” And he's not afraid to go off the rails — as momentum builds, the composer draws from those early days working with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, annihilating the music with piercing pulsation. The wonder of “Stoker” is that it's not a one-man effort; Mansell incorporates/envelops a brand new piece by Philip Glass and births a sultry tune with Emily Wells from the depths of his score.
2. “Spring Breakers” - Cliff Martinez & Skrillex
Harmony Korine's fable of beachside raving, tequila shots, and wet t-shirt contests may be the first and last movie to successfully tap the dubstep vein (sorry, “Wreck-It Ralph”). Martinez, whose “Only God Forgives” score nearly made this list, combines powers with Skrillex's “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” acts as a launching pad for the entire affair. The pure dubstep has its day in the sun: New tunes like “With You, Friends (Long Drive)” capture the life-changing debauchery and inhibition that seduces the co-ed quartet. It is a blast. But after meeting James Franco's Alien, after going too deep, Martinez's sounds start to drown out the Skrillex. The vocals are muffled, the beats echo, and the music shows us that nothing lasts forever.
1."Prince Avalanche" – David Wingo & Explosions in the Sky
There are three characters in David Gordon Green's “Prince Avalanche”: Paul Rudd's downward-spiraling Alvin, Emile Hirsch's Lance, an oafish wayward soul, and the charred remains of the Texan wilderness, which whispers through the powerful collaboration between David Wingo & Explosions in the Sky. In a time when so many indie films flounder about in post-rock knock-offs, a group of veterans deliver the genre a swift kick to the ass, mashing on pianos, plucking strings, and translating the invigoration of the human spirit into drum kit sampling. The score for “Prince Avalanche” stretches from the lowest thumping of existence – a haunting nothingness – up to a blossoming spectrum of instrumental colors (“Send Off”). A feel good #1 choice, but one that's authentic to the bone.