Looking Back: Courtney's Top 10 Favorite Original Film Scores of 2018
by Courtney Howard
December 26, 2018
Great films need an equally great score to back them up. And 2018 has been an incredible year for both! The marriage between sound and image is a special craft that too frequently goes unrecognized or under-appreciated. Depending on your school of thought (what you were taught), original scores should either fold in seamlessly into the fabric of a film or they should stand out as a way to enhance the storytelling. A perfect film, however, knows how to balance both where we can marvel when necessary. The few I've chosen to highlight as my favorites have a shared through-line. Not only are there superficial commonalities (like former members of rock groups making the list), collectively they form a musical time capsule for the year's universally-shared emotions. I've excluded musical creations that are primarily soundtracks (sorry, A Star in Born), but it was still a challenge to narrow down the 10 that deserve to be highlighted (and purchased).
#10. If Beale Street Could Talk by Nicholas Britell
Nicholas Britell's compositions in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk find a balance between burning romantic desire and a scalding sense of injustice. In short, this is a study in contrasts. He takes us on a sonic journey from hopeful optimism with the blissful string symphony of "Eden (Harlem)," all the way to resigned melancholy in the minor keys & horns of the heartbreaking track "Philia." The way he utilizes jazz undertones to tell the story is an unforgettable experience, even for audiences who aren't necessarily fans of that genre. That said, it's "Requiem" that imprints itself on listeners hearts. Britell's work is so potent on its own that when it's mixed with Barry Jenkins' masterful vision of 1970s romance, it's absolutely flooring.
#9. The Old Man & the Gun by Daniel Hart
There's a lovely ease and charm to composer Daniel Hart's music for this film that's far different (and far less annoying) than what he's done before with director David Lowery. The pair have captured a 70's swing rarely heard in modern films. Lowery builds escalating drama through Hart's jazz-influenced compositions, complementing and augmenting the narrative. The sexy flirtation between Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek portrayed in "The Diner" sequence goes down smoothly – and it only gets better from there. "You're Doing A Great Job" is another highlight from the album. The film itself is a different iteration of the cat-and-mouse games we've seen before, and Hart's wonderful score is reflective of its laid-back vibe.
#8. Black Panther by Ludwig Göransson
Director Ryan Coogler's MCU superhero movie was a ground-breaker on so many levels. More specifically, it carved out new territory for what a Marvel movie could sound (and look) like if allowed to have its own voice. Composer Ludwig Göransson's score is unlike any we've ever heard before. Its tribal and trap music influences blend perfectly with epic symphony to create an immersive, Afro-futuristic sonic palette, forming an identity sorely lacking in other movie scores from the Marvel canon. Not only does it bring a balanced connection to the character arcs of T'Challa and Killmonger, it augments the driving force of their actions.
#7. First Man by Justin Hurwitz
Composer Justin Hurwitz's First Man score is charged with just as much power & pathos as screenwriter Josh Singer's dialogue and star Ryan Gosling's introspective performance. Director Damien Chazelle relies upon his long-time collaborator's work to drive the scenes, filling in the spaces where dialogue simply could not. Hurwitz brilliantly channels resonant themes and character traits, funneling them into an elegant soundscape evocative of tenderness, vulnerability and resilience. While there's nuance in every composition, two standout compositions continue to render me speechless – both positioned right after each other. "The Landing" hits audiences in their gut with the full orchestra's percussive, symphonic blend, emphasizing the grand scale of the mission – a culmination of our protagonist's unwavering dedication. "Moon Walk," with its sentimental strings and ballad-like demeanor, represents the grief release he hasn't allowed himself to have before. It's also the only piece of music featuring a Theremin to ever get me choked up.
#6. Suspiria by Thom Yorke
Though nothing compares to Goblin's score for the original Suspiria, what composer Thom Yorke achieves here in director Luca Guadagnino's re-imagining is a pretty magnificent feat. His compositions are a whole different entity. Much like Guadagnino, he knew to not make a cover song, but rather make art with its own personality. A haunting anxiety and dread permeate this film's soundscape, with a track listing filled with alt-radio hits and melodic, ethereal symphonics. "Suspirium" may have gotten the most airplay from this album, but the druggy, trip-hop beat of the album's deeper cut, "Has Ended," stole my heart. Put it on repeat and zone out. In addition, there's some creepy choral work included – specifically on the tracks "Sabbath Incantation" and "The Conjuring Of Anke." Perhaps the song that's most seared into the brains of viewers is "Volk," the composition that plays during the first of the two big climaxes. When married to the imagery, choreography, and visceral editing, it transforms into the most effed up Step Up movie ever. On its own, it's delirious, perhaps even inspirational for those in the audience who've given their souls to the dance.
#5. Mission: Impossible - Fallout by Lorne Balfe
Be careful playing Lorne Balfe's score while driving your car, as it's more than likely you will end up with a speeding ticket. His compositions for this final (for now) chapter of the saga play like an amalgamation of all the movies before it, delivering a fully realized sonic portrait of our hero's paranoia, oppressive guilt and militaristic sense of duty through instrumentation. All of it feels pressing given the nature of the mounting stakes for the characters: a symphony of strings emphasize the urgency; percussive drums echo a ticking clock or a beating heart; the occasionally domineering horns reflect the villainous threats. The narrative's thematic ties reverberate throughout, as evident during both the action sequences ("Stairs and Rooftops") and more introspective moments ("We Are Never Free"). This is a masterclass in musical construction.
#4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse by Daniel Pemberton
Composer Daniel Pemberton is unafraid of experimenting with daring, bold instrumentations when finding a story's musical identity. Not only is this film, Into the Spider-Verse, radically different than every other Spidey flick before it, his original score is just as creatively fearless. He mirrors the electro-cool sound of the city streets as something the freshest DJ spins, as heard through protagonist Miles Morales' headphones. "Catch the S Train" is a highlight with its turntable scratches and jazzy drum beat. He also weaves in a traditional symphony, so that we know this is, at its core, a superhero movie. It's so darn catchy too. So much so, you'll probably find yourself whistling "Visions Brooklyn 1, 2, 3." "Destiny" is the composition that carries a lot of emotion with it, speaking to the hero's journey and the lurking danger that awaits him. The theme for villainous henchman "The Prowler" also has an ominous heft with its distorted sounds trumpeting danger. "Quantum Physics" is an anachronistic mix that you'd think wouldn't make for a palatable blend. But here we are. Pemberton's compositions for this film are heroically genius.
#3. Eighth Grade by Anna Meredith
Even though this film takes place in the technology-riddled present, Anna Meredith's score transported me back to the 80s when John Hughes movies felt like my anthem. Her warm synth-driven compositions are throwbacks to the universally shared magnitude of junior high angst and neurosis. They are a time machine to when we were perhaps less self-confident, feeling incredibly awkward, walking the hallways, flirting with cute boys, or attending cool kids' pool parties. There's a sweet innocence, wit and charm reflected in the score – one that's part and parcel to Kayla's (Elsie Fisher) self-actualizations and self-reflection. Director Bo Burnham makes Meredith's work sing in concert with his imagery – whether it's in the background of scenes (like Kayla's YouTube videos), or right in the foreground (like whenever she spots her crush). It's all "Gucci."
#2. You Were Never Really Here by Jonny Greenwood
Jonny Greenwood's score for director Lynne Ramsay's unconventional, bruising take on a hitman picture didn't really hit me until months later. It's almost innocuous the way it seamlessly blends with the auteur's vision and star Joaquin Phoenix's incredibly precise performance. This is assured work from the masterful composer, tinged with unease, unhappiness, and a pulsating drive – all tonally reflecting the protagonist's introspective journey into darkness and depression. There is a complexity to each of these compositions, evocative of the character's moral and ethical conundrums, and the PTSD that afflicts him. From the dance beats of "Nausea" and "Dark Streets," to the synth and strings of "Tree Synthesizers," "Hammer and Tape," and "YWNRH," there are enough disquieting arrangements to make this the unofficial score of 2018.
#1. Annihilation by Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury
Elevating writer/director Alex Garland's striking vision, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury's ethereal sci-fi swampland score is unsettling and terrifying – yet is also comforting and engaging. The finger-picking on the steel guitar lulls listeners into a sense of ease before it goes in for the kill. It's not only there to scare the bejeezus out of us, but also to impart a haunting feeling that latches onto our souls. With their soundscape, the two composers magnificently channel the awe-inducing, surreal world of the story. Though the pièce de résistance is the twelve minute long track "The Alien", which is just as creepy when heard by itself as when married to the visuals, it's the title track that leaves the listener speechless – and maybe even deflated.
Follow Courtney on Twitter - @Lulamaybelle
Do you agree with Courtney's picks? What were your favorite soundtracks or scores of 2018?