Movies use music, especially original arrangements, almost mathematically. The music is supplementary to the visuals on screen, but without the horrifying buildup of a creepy piano or the emotional anguish a violin can bring, the emotional connection to the movie just isn't as prominent.
Scores have the power to make an entire scene and sweep us up into a world of infinite possibilities. Think of when you saw E.T. for the first time and heard that grand music emanate from the screen as Elliot and his alien buddy rushed from one place to the next.
Or perhaps even more memorable, the first time you heard John Williams' Imperial March as Darth Vader took to the screen. It was an evil-sounding arrangement, and that in addition to Vader's large, empowering stature immediately alerted us to the fact that this was the villain. Don't lie, you can hear the March in your head as you're reading this, can't you?
2015 has been a great year for movie scores, both in major mainstream releases and in the indie darlings that don't always get the attention they deserve. There have been scores that have brought me to tears, scores that have made me crack up with laughter, and scores that have scared the heebie-jeebies out of me.
It's almost impossible to pick the ten best scores because they're all so different and all so great at setting the tone of the film, but alas, here we are. After scouring through as many soundtracks as I could and carefully narrowing the options down, here are my picks.
The first song off the album is a perfect example. "It's A Dangerous City" uses a buildup of orchestral instruments to maintain the classic anxiety-inducing palpitations of anticipation for what's about to occur on screen, while mixing it with electronic ambient sounds that brings a futuristic style to the entire composition. It feels fantastical and terrifyingly real all at the same time, and that's essentially what Blomkamp was going for when he directed the movie.
If there was ever a reason to get caught up in what was happening on screen during any moment of the film, it's very likely that Zimmer's accompanying score was a major reason for feeling that way.
Best Song: "You Lied To Me"
Michael Giacchino's score for Inside Out will turn almost anyone who listens to it into a puddle of tears and emotions which, considering the point of the movie, shows how successful Giacchino is as a composer.
For the most part, Inside Out's soundtrack is overwhelmingly sad, with a slowed down percussion used to match the soft continuation of the piano that plays throughout the entire movie. But there are times where the music is overwhelmingly positive and it's nearly impossible to keep the smile off of your face as the power of joy takes over the despair of sadness.
One of the best parts about the score, however, is how authentic it feels, even when just listening to it. Every arrangement is designed to pluck at the emotional heartstring, but it doesn't feel like it's manipulating you into feeling something you wouldn't otherwise. The composition supplements the visuals, but is strong enough to listen to even as background music when looking for a little bit of inspiration.
Best of all is that Giacchino manages to bring back a sense of whimsicality to Pixar and the vibrant worlds that inhabit the studio's universe. There's nothing that can't be done in Inside Out, and the score does a phenomenal job of reinforcing the idea. One of its best songs, "Chasing the Pink Elephant," is a great example. It captures the joy and innocence of childhood through a series of interesting instruments, including an accordion, that detaches you from reality as you listen and allows you to enter a whole new world.
When your job is to train the audience to feel a certain emotion, it's difficult to not cross the border into manipulative territory. Giacchino manages to push against that, however, and has delivered one of the most beautifully genuine scores this year.
Best Song: Tears of Joy
Quentin Tarantino has worked with the same composer for years, and there's no question why. Ennio Morricone is not only one of the best film composers of all time, but he also understands what Tarantino is looking for in a film.
Morricone did it before with Django Unchained and he's done it again with The Hateful Eight, creating an absurdly enriching storyline that exists as a completely separate beast from the film itself. But even though it manages to exist on its own accord, as powerful as it is as a score, it also doesn't undermine Tarantino's visuals. Instead, the two work to deliver the type of moviegoing experience Tarantino fans have come to expect.
The best part about The Hateful Eight's soundtrack is that Morricone doesn't take it too seriously. There are moments where it's outlandishly funny and comes off as a caricature of what a Western score would have sounded like during the heyday of John Wayne. It's very self-aware of what's happening on screen, and to match it, Morricone has created an arrangement that contradicts the violent nature of what audiences are seeing.
There's a lunacy to Tarantino's work that demands an equal amount of ridiculousness from the people he works with. Despite the silliness, his work also demands a level of respect for the medium and genre. Morricone understands this, and even though he breaks almost every rule in the book, he gets away with it because he respects the history and importance of his craft.
He's studied previous masters and he's drowned himself in past examples. The result is that he can toy with the formula enough that when he creates something new, relics of the past can be heard in his work, even while managing to maintain his specific voice.
The best way to put it is that The Hateful Eight's score is enormously fun, and is the type of score you'll want to listen to on the car, train, subway or walk home immediately after watching the movie.
Best Song: il Pinguino
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter flew under the radar of most moviegoers, and while that's a shame, it's not difficult to see why. It received a very limited release and, although it was widely acclaimed by critics coming off the Sundance Film Festival circuit, it never made the jump from indie darling to mainstream hit.
While the movie is worth checking out, the score is one of the best parts of the experience and is an aspect of the film that should be sought out immediately.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is about a Japanese woman who becomes obsessed with the Coen brothers' 1996 classic film, Fargo. Saving up as much as she can, she books a flight to the actual city to try and find treasure she believes the movie acts as a map to.
It's a strange movie, but full of heart, and the soundtrack perfectly reflects that. There's a sense of misplaced hope in each track and as the film draws closer to an end, the disappointment of wishful thinking that never turns into anything more becomes even more powerful by the matching tracks found within the score.
Composed by The Octopus Project, an American indie electronic band from Austin, Texas, one of the reasons this score stands out above so many others is because it wasn't created by one of the few go-to composers in the industry, like Hans Zimmer or Ennio Morricone. There's a real sense of uniqueness and intrigue that you often find in more independent films because of their budget restrictions.
The Octopus Project, while not necessarily trained film composers, understand the message and general theme of hopefulness that Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter thrives on. There's an underlying warmth to each track that spreads the sense of hope almost infectiously from Kumiko to the audience.
It's an organic score that comes from an authentic love for the film it was being created for, instead of just for commissions sake, and as rare as it sounds, that's something you don't hear too much of, unfortunately.
Best Song: Airport
But making the decision to pull someone from one world and drop them into an entirely new one seems to match the theme of the film perfectly. The result is a score that builds upon a sense of solitude and having something to prove. Goransson introduces us to the painful world Michael B. Jordan's living in with tracks like "Juvy" and "Adonis" that are so suffused with pain that listening to them without the film is a sock in the gut.
Much like the movie's protagonist, the score becomes more confident as it progresses. The percussion becomes louder and it moves from the background of the movie to the forefront, helping to guide the story along. Almost like Jordan's character, the score finds itself as it moves along and grows within the hour duration.
It's hauntingly beautiful at times, and despite having the opportunity to overdramatize the film's emotional buildup, manages to keep it as real as it possibly can and help guide the audience into a state of emotion instead of telling them what they should be feeling.
It understates itself wickedly and the result is a perfect background soundtrack that you don't even realize is playing until you're too caught up in it to ignore.
Best Song: Boxing Shorts
Mad Max: Fury Road may have been the film of the summer, if not the year, and its accompanying soundtrack definitely deserves some recognition, too.
Composed by Tom Holkenborg, more commonly known as Junkie XL, Holkenborg created the most punk-rock album of the year and he did so all for the sake of a movie.
Holkenborg is used to working with blockbuster features like Fury Road, having teamed up with Hans Zimmer to arrange the score for The Dark Knight Rises, but there's something anarchic about the way Holkenborg approaches a score that makes everything about it seem more edgy than what another composer would come up with.
For a movie like Fury Road, it's absolutely perfect, An anarchic, punk-rock score that doesn't play by the rules and uses heavy amounts of percussion to make itself known perfectly caters to the post-apocalyptic, deprived world that Mad Max, Furiosa and everyone else inhabit.
The great thing about Holkenborg's Fury Road soundtrack is that it knows when to be loud, but it also knows when to be quiet. It can slither around in the background, allowing the characters to tell their story without any auditory distraction, and then it can come booming out to remind audiences that it exists.
It's a hard balance to find that few movies do well, often times going for overexposure of a score to keep audiences engaged. Holkenborg navigates these difficult waters skillfully, though, and the result is a purposely subdued experience at times.
But when it wants to make itself known, it does, and that's when it really shines.
Best Song: Brothers in Arms
It's impossible to think of a Star Wars movie and not hear John Williams' revered score play in your head. Williams defined decades of films with his compositions for the Star Wars movies, and it looks like he will do it again with The Force Awakens.
Like his arrangements for previous films, the biggest takeaway from the new score is the sense of possibility that almost every single track gives off. Anything is possible in The Force Awakens, and there's a sense of determined hope that accompanies that feeling.
This is the soundtrack that is going to usher in a new trilogy for both lifetime fans of the franchise and those just coming to it now, so to say the score is important would be vastly understated.
But Williams manages to bring the magic back and even outdo himself, using new technology and new music trends to create an even larger arrangement than anything we've heard before.
It's also not as corny as the original score, but a little more mature. There's a sense of growing up with the series and understanding what the franchise needs.
The most important aspect of the score, however, is that feeling you get in your chest when you hear it echo from the theater speakers for the first time. In many ways, it feels like coming home to a familiar place and knowing that no matter what happens, there's some security to be found.
The score to a Star Wars film has helped define the experience of watching it, and Williams' newest composition for The Force Awakens takes that experience to new heights.
Best Song: Rey's Theme
Shorter than most scores, coming in at just under 50 minutes, the songs seem even more carefully strung together than most soundtracks. But it's that attention to creating the perfect musical experience for filmgoers that proves just how well Barrow and Salisbury are at what they do.
Instead of overcompensating with quick one-minute hits that would feel out of place in the minimalist style of the film, the music reflects the visual aesthetic and narrative stylings. Everything feels toned down on purpose and that helps create the anxiety-inducing experience Ex-Machina has become known for.
The score is downright beautiful, and subliminal in the way it affects the audience watching the movie.
Best Song: Out
Carter Burwell has had a pretty great year, composing the scores for two films with Oscar potential: Carol and Anomalisa. While the score for Carol is great in its own regard, it doesn't hold a candle to the whimsical stylings of what he managed to do for Charlie Kauffman's animated film, Anomalisa.
It should be noted that the score for Anomalisa is tragic, but then again, so is the movie. It's a hauntingly beautiful story that centers on the basic human desire to love. Burwell's score wraps you up like a blanket and refuses to let you go until you've been able to process all of the feelings Kauffman's movie will make you feel, but as tough as that sounds, it's the most cathartic experience that I've ever had with a film's score.
Burwell's composition doesn't just brush past you and remind you that it's there, it settles in for the emotional journey, silently promising that everything that's happening on screen is going to be okay.
It's not all tragic, though. There are moments of whimsical desire that comes out of the fantasy Kauffman creates for his characters; the vivid beauty of what could possibly happen when two people finally find each other and bring a light into each other's worlds.
Those moments are just as beautiful, and will leave you with the same tingling sensation that the rest of the score does, from the moment it begins until the moment it ends. I've said before that Anomalisa is one of the best movies to be released this year, and the accompanying score is no exception.
Best Song: Lisa in Room
Moreover, Vreeland's plays with an array of noises instead of relying on traditional instruments to get the sound he needed. In many ways, it's reminiscent of the Looper soundtrack, which used different parts of a gun to create the soundtrack, rearranging the weapon's sound to get the perfect track.
It's that commitment to finding new ways to create a unique experience that makes It Follows the best score of the year. Vreeland could have played it safe, but instead he took a chance and the result was one of the eeriest, most enthralling scores to ever accompany a movie.
The tone changes from track to track and it's impossible to predict what the next song is going to sound like, but it's that uneasiness that keeps you on the edge of your seat, even ignoring what's happening on screen. Together, however, the score and the visuals work sublimely to deliver one of the most terrifying horror experiences in years.
It's original, fun, spooky and overall engaging. All of which are very rare to find in one single score.
Best Song: Detroit