Though it seemed the idea of themes and melody might be going the way of the Dodo Bird in soundtracks this year, it turned out that plenty of composers were keeping the old-school idea of scoring alive, whether their approaches were state-of-the-art or old-school symphonic.
To purchase the year’s best soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover.
THE TOP TEN
1. CAPTAIN ABU RAED
(Label to be determined)
Denver-born composing newcomer Austin Wintory scores big by applying his considerable talents to a Jordanian film that can best be described as a kinder, gentler GRAN TORINO. Here an airport janitor makes things right for his young friends by conjuring the glory of world travel. Though Raed never leaves the ground, Wintory makes his character’s tales take flight with soaring, yet delicate melody, an intimate musical journey that’s also tinged with ironic, and moving fate.
2. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
After the striking fairy tale scores of BIRTH and THE GOLDEN COMPASS, Alexandre Desplat uses BUTTON’s backwards lifespan to weave his ultimate work of musical enchantment. Designed to make listeners ponder the wonders of existence instead of ripping out the emotional Kleenex, Desplat succeeds with restrained brilliance as poetic themes and gossamer instruments turn the limited years we must face into the ultimate magical mystery trip, all with a gift for melody that Claude Debussy would envy.
The sound of SCHINDLER’S LIST kicks Nazi ass in James Newtown Howard’s powerful, Golden Globe-nominated score. Though it’s only natural that a violin-driven orchestra stands in for the plight of Holocaust Jews, Howard adds muscle for the fact that these victims fought back as they stayed one step ahead of doom in a forest. It’s an innately moving score, whose main theme is the year’s best.
4. THE DUCHESS
From EMMA to NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, Rachel Portman scores costumes better than any other composer in the period drama business. And no melodic dress of hers impresses more than THE DUCHESS, as Portman’s gift for beautifully weaving rhythms embody the passion, loss and dreams of a young woman who finds herself straight-jacketed by her royal standing and an uncaring husband. It’s the Portman way of making the look, and societal morays of 1700’s England sound off with an immediately emotional musical feel.
5. I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND
Czech composer Ales Brezina charts a loveable naif’s rise up the hotel ladder during WWII, giving his pilgrim’s progress the kind of rollicking country dances and glistening waltzes that filled the classical work of Franz Liszt and Jacques Offenbach. Yet it’s all a musically deceptive approach for the hero’s moral bankruptcy, enchanting melody that turns the worst excesses of capitalism and Fascism into things of tainted beauty. Brezina’s jolly use of subtext makes ENGLAND a “surface” listen of the best kind.
6. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
(Move Score Media)
Undead love never means having to say you’re sorry, especially when it’s between a twelve year-old boy who will do anything for an ageless, if adolescent-appearing vampiress. Swedish composer Johan Soderqvist brilliantly brings out the haunted poignancy of this seemingly impossible relationship, his approach ranging from a lush, heart-wrenching orchestra to delicate guitar playing and eerie samples. It’s an approach that weds the youthful lyricism of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with the full-blooded horror of DRACULA, strange musical bedfellows that help make LET THE RIGHT ONE into one of the most unique vampire scores, and films in countless ages.
7. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Superstar Indian musician A.R. Rahman achieves his biggest Western soundtrack splash yet by updating his country’s centuries-old rhythms for director Danny Boyle’s up-to-the-second musical tastes. It’s a masala of upbeat rock, trance percussion and exotic instruments that make SLUMDOG pop off the screen with colorful brilliance, speaking vibrant volumes for blighted characters that never stop running with dreams of glory. It’s a pace that Rahman energetically keeps with his culturally innovative approach, right down to the big Bollywood dance number for the finale.
8. STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
Few people wanted to listen to, let alone watch Errol Morris’ film about the horrors that U.S. troops meted out to Iraqi P.O.W.’s in Abu Ghraib prison. But even if he’s playing to a forest of indifference, PROCEDURE’s unimaginable images inspire Danny Elfman to weave terrifically creative walls of musical storytelling here, “interview” music that ranges from carnival-like irony to densely thematic layers, strings, percussion and voices that would do Philip Glass proud. It’s just a shame that Elfman’s dazzling creativity springs from the worst that patriotic intent has to offer.
Not every score has to have “pleasing” themes or melody to work like gangbusters, especially when a soundtrack’s mission impossible is to assassinate Hitler. Though that effort was as doomed as it was noble, history doesn’t stop composer (and equally accomplished picture editor) John Ottman from unleashing VALKYRIE’s time bomb of musical suspense, a near-continuous run of conspiratorial pulse percussion and ominous symphonic passages that make this unexpectedly terrific film all the more gripping, and finally moving with a choral tribute to the “good” Germans who tried to rescue their country from the madman they grew horrified to serve.
(Walt Disney Records)
If Thomas Newman’s innovative approach to film scoring has always sounded a bit science fiction-y, the composer finally gets to go for the real CGI deal with his second winning Pixar score after FINDING NEMO. And Newman’s music has arguably never been more important in setting the toon tone, as his strikingly melodic blend of strings and samples serve for a long stretch as the only other “voice” for the titular robot, Once it leaves the trash bound earth, Newman unleashes rapturous music that conveys not only the wonder of the stars, but also the soul of a mechanoid in love with a souped-up mate and her atrophying human masters. It’s a way of jetting between the musically futuristic and emotionally earthbound, a composing feat, and film that are both interstellar.
Mark Adler effervescently embodies the joy and heartbreak of winemaking, traveling from the classical snootiness of France’s vineyards to the funky California rhythms that ultimately win the wine tasting day. It’s an inventive vintage throughout that leaves the listener giddy with delight.
BURN AFTER READING
Carter Burwell once again accompanies the Coen Brothers’ murderous antics with a hilariously over-the-top score, ragingly dramatic music that plays the grand CIA scheme the goofball characters think they’re caught in- when in fact the agency could care less.
Geoff Zanelli comes up with a true rarity- a sophisticated supernatural comedy score that scares away the usual pratfalls, focusing instead on gentle, emotion-based humor that tickles us with an utterly charming melodic touch.
It’s easy to achieve that “indie” sound by strumming a few guitar chords. But Jared Nelson Smith’s unplugged sound has a real, heartfelt intimacy to it, capturing the unstable, yearning for love groove of a troubled prince charming and an abused princess who wants anything but his hand in courtship.
Don’t expect SUPERMAN-type heroics from John Powell here, as Will Smith’s potty-mouthed and hard-drinking hero definitely wouldn’t be approved by the Comics Code Authority. Instead, Powell’s typically creative approach is to give Hancock bluesy funk, a demolition derby Bolero and slurred percussion in what might be the most unique “superhero” score yet written.
KUNG FU PANDA
Hans Zimmer and John Powell get a musical black belt for kicking cartoon scoring up several notches with lightning fast Chinese percussion and honorable melody, exhilarating music that turns funny CGI animals into warriors worthy of Bruce Lee.
Finnish composer Tuomas Kantelinen creates an intimate musical portrait of Genghis Khan, the warlord who would rule the known world. Building from the poetically spare ethnic instruments and throat singing of the Mongolian steppes to triumphant orchestral battles and a rocking guitar, Kantelinen pays the Khan a stirring tribute that he would undoubtedly approve of.
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL
Wild Colonials front man Paul Cantelon is just as interesting a film composer as he is an rocker, especially when putting his alternative talents to play on such unlikely subjects as Henry VIII and the Boleyn family. The result is a score that’s at once classically romantic and contemporarily suspenseful, as love and ambition relentlessly lead to the chopping block with memorably swooning grace.
THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES
James Horner returns to JUMANJI land with another tale of fantasy gone amuck. And it’s great to have his wonderfully lush style back as kids try to make things right, especially during a melodically glorious Griffin ride- scoring so magically rapturous that you can practically hear the beast’s wings flapping below you.
David Torn trips out with the mellow spirit of Pink Floyd for this beautifully ethereal guitar-synth score. It’s the perfect stuff to get a cool buzz on with, especially if you’re a circa 1994 stoner.
THE COMPOSERS TO WATCH
Roddy Bottum (Kabluey)
Sharon Farber (When Nietzsche Wept, Movie Score Media)
Johannes Kobilke and Robb Williamson (Midnight Meat Train, Lakeshore)
Andrew Lockington (City of Ember, Verve)
Ben Lovett (The Signal, Lakeshore)
Robert Miller (Teeth)
Attli Orvarsson (Babylon A.D., Varese Sarabande)
Max Richter (Waltz With Bashir, unreleased)
Laura Rossi (The Battle of the Somme, Virtuosa Records, U.K.)
Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich (Repo: The Genetic Opera, Lions Gate)
Spindrift (The Legend of God’s Gun, Spindrift, Amazon MP3)
Michael Wandmacher (Punisher: War Zone)
Craig Wedren (Role Models)