(To purchase the year’s best soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover)
AGORA (Dario Marianelli, Wea Spain)
After his blockbuster score to V FOR VENDETTA, Dario Marianelli has more than proven he knows how to play the epic anguish brought on by a totalitarian regime. But where the rightist takeover of VENDETTA seems like prophecy now, AGORA is based on the true story of the bourning Church’s destruction of Pagan science, as represented by their sacking of Egypt’s great Library of Alexandria. For what’s essentially a doomed love story, with knowledge as the victim, Marianelli’s surging score helps build some of the most beguiling sets since D.W. Griffith created Babylon for INTOLERANCE, then employs the melodic bliss of astronomical discovery, all before soaring strings and voices tragically point out the ironic futility of it all. Mix in Middle Eastern horns and percussion to give AGORA its historical resonance, and you’ve got exceptional costume drama music that’s as intelligent as a heroine who can’t see the earth’s intolerance from the stars she’d rather inhabit.
GHOST WRITER (Alexandre Desplat, Varese Sarabande)
Alexandre Desplat has scored no end of serious Euro-thrillers, which makes his, and director Roman Polanksi’s offbeat, if not completely insouciant take on political corruption so much delicious fun. In fact, you might think this is a sparkling romantic comedy at first with the glistening percussion and playful marimbas that play the easy money that will seemingly come from re-writing a politico’s manuscript. Even when the danger kicks in, there’s a knowing, hugely enjoyable satire to Desplat’s speedy rhythms that make GHOST WRITER into this composer’s version of THE NAKED GUN. But it’s exactly Desplat’s fun, seemingly glib approach that masks the real seriousness at hand, with his mysteriously lush passages, and twisty themes bringing to mind both Bernard Herrmann’s VERTIGO and Ennio Morricone’s INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION, which seems exactly the point. But while this GHOST WRITER might sometimes be playing in the key of the classics, there’s no mistaking the kind of original, melodic voice that’s brought Desplat’s real name to the Hollywood fore here.
INCEPTION (Hans Zimmer, Watertower)
Sure there’s waaayyy too much music in Chris Nolan’s overly cerebral epic, to the point where the score’s repetitiveness makes you think you’re awaiting a jolt in a twelfth-level dream. But INCEPTION is an exceptionally cool overdose nonetheless, as Hans Zimmer’s mesmerizing fusion of rock, orchestra and samples create one of the most striking future noir scores to grace a soundtrack since Vangelis’ BLADE RUNNER, not to mention Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” It’s music that you can practically touch, an ever-shifting dream world whose rhythms vibrate with tangible, smoky colors as themes are mapped out with the confounding, mesmerizing endlessness of a Max Escher maze. And once you get into the ever-escalating dream collapses of Zimmer’s orchestra and the guitar playing of The Smith’s Johnny Marr, you might feel like I did, drawn to playing their tracks again and again into happy oblivion. If anything, the often-booming INCEPTION is a glorious finger to those who say film music shouldn’t be heard. Here, the sub-woofer and endlessly cycled creativity are turned to eleven.
KICK-ASS (Henry Jackman, John Murphy, Ilan Eshkeri, Marius De Vries, unreleased)
A musical Justice League fronted by Henry Jackman and John Murphy have their way with the conventions of superhero scoring, from the soaring Williams flying stuff to the quirky Elfman-mobile. At once as orchestrally earnest as a gawky teen dreaming of saving the day, and as seditious as a twelve year-old skewering a horde of bad guys to Spaghetti western strains, KICK ASS succeeds at having it both ways- caping up as a brilliant musical goof that becomes a true hero worthy of its terrific themes. With Jackman putting in the symphonic push-ups and Murphy slamming out his trademarked, blood-splattering guitar shreds, KICK ASS’ incredibly still-unreleased score just might be the cult soundtrack answer to SUPERMAN, with powerhouse satire stylings that reflects a violence, and taste-immune generation of comic book geeks, bless ‘em.
LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS (David Hirschfelder, Watertower)
You’d have to think back to Jerry Goldsmith’s music for 1982’s THE SECRET OF NIMH to think of a grand, myth-making score that was done for cute cartoon animals who had no compunction about ripping each other to pieces. For this new 3-D CGI millennium, we’re lucky enough to get David Hirschfelder’s dazzlingly huge score, which delivers the kind of meaningful themes, choral voices, blaring brass and portentous strings that fill a wide-eyed owl with the wonder of the armored, god-like forbearers he will soon encounter. Like the best animated scores (and films) that work for young and old alike, the epic tones of GUARDIANS play this adventure for all of its life-and-death reality, turning the scrapes of good and bad owls into a music where the very cosmos is at stake. But then, Hirschfelder is no stranger to the vast storytelling of ELIZABETH and AUSTRALIA, giving these GUARDIANS the same melodic commitment that helps elevates Zack Snyder’s film to NIMH-like heights in every respect of the art.
MAO’S LAST DANCER (Christopher Gordon, Lakeshore)
The dilemma of a star dancer torn between his oath to a Communist motherland and the enticements of a new country’s freedoms make for the cross-cultural beauty of Aussie composer Christopher Gordon’s soaring score. At first using Chinese instruments and percussion as dexterously as any musical native (not to mention creating a propaganda strut that would bring the titular Chairman to his feet), Gordon gradually introduces these ethnic sounds to the lush, melodic orchestrations of the West, not to mention jazz dancing, piano recitals and robust performances of Mozart and Tchaikovsky. When the powerful strains of Gordon’s strings mix with the aching winds of the Erhu to finally make our hero defect, Gordon’s deeply emotional music makes us understand exactly why. It’s the rare kind of musical uplift that pricks up our ears, and brings tears to the eye without ever being manipulative, which might be this DANCER’s best step of all.
THE NEXT THREE DAYS (Danny Elfman, Lionsgate)
There have been far splashier Danny Elfman scores this year with ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THE WOLFMAN, not to mention pictures that did far better at the box office. Yet it’s Paul Haggis’ terrific, and unfortunately neglected film where Elfman delivered what’s arguably one of his most interesting and dramatically effective scores in many a beast-filled moon. Here the accent is on the family noir, as constantly propulsive rhythms move a suburban dad to break his beloved wife out of stir. And we know exactly the kind of anguish, and fatherly love that’s driving his actions in Elfman’s understated music, with remarkably flowing themes binding the score, with all roads leading to the big, relentlessly suspenseful nine-minute breakout that stands as one of the composer’s most remarkable action cues, or pieces of music for that matter. When tender pianos, a gospel voice and a near fairy-tale melody finally reunite a family torn asunder, the effect is one of supremely moving understatement, showing Elfman as much a master of the human condition as he is of the fantastical creatures that are more often put in his scoring crosshairs.
SALT (James Newton Howard, Madison Gate Records)
This seductive Soviet super-spy couldn’t ask for a more balls-to-the-wall score than in the furious action writing of James Newton Howard. Hitting the ground running, not to mention jumping down freeway overpasses and blowing apart The White House, SALT is a textbook example of the kind of muscular, symphony-heavy thriller scores we rarely get anymore (if not for the likes of composers like Howard and THE A-TEAM’s Alan Silvestri). Here, Howard combines that old school, Commie-orchestral danger with distorted Russian cimbaloms, furious synth-rock pads and slightly jazzy themes a la his Oscar-nominated FUGITIVE score- if that soundtrack happened to be on steroids. With the equally daring idea of having a chorus chant Evelyn’s name, the hammering, constantly cliff-hanging pows of SALT show a welcome disregard for today’s action conventions, achieving pure, thematic adrenalin that action scoring had before Hollywood decided to play it safe.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS.THE WORLD (Nigel Godrich, ABKCO)
When it comes to the most unconventional conventional soundtrack of the year, no score has the grunge generation / videogame fanboy street cred of SCOTT PILGRIM. Though it’s destined for cult bronzing due to its ingenious songs by the coolest anime-inspired fake bands since The Gorrilaz, what will strike any score fan who played Pac Man and went to see THE WARRIORS and HALLOWEEN III on opening day is how brilliantly Radiohead’s “sixth member” Nigel Godrich has combined the 80’s synth scoring aesthetic of composers like Barry DeVorzon and John Carpenter with the era’s 8-bit arcade music, then morphed that funky electronic vibe for our Dance Dance Revolution age of way better graphics and keyboards. Yet Godrich (not to mention director Edgar Wright) knows nothing really beats the old stuff, and jazzes up the sounds of one generation’s mis-spent youth with crazy-fresh energy. Ranging from ethereal romance to villainous boyfriend beats, then going for the big points with an epic techno-orchestral Boss Battle, SCOTT PILGRIM has its vibrant game on. Sure the new TRON features Daft Punk. But this is the real sound of being stuck inside of a rocking arcade game for my age group’s quarter.
SPLICE (Cyrille Aufort, Indie Europe / Zoom)
In an age when so much dissonance rules horror scoring, hearing the beautifully thematic elegance of SPLICE is almost as wondrous as witnessing the creation of a new life form. SPLICE does both in terrifically imaginative, and sophisticated style. From its subtly menacing, waltz-like opening to the tender pianos, strings, voices and bubbling weird science samples that spell out a genetically modified “girl” born into a world it never made, Aufort is thankfully more concerned with musically turning Dren into a creature we can sympathize with, rather than be afraid of- though his leaping and stabbing orchestrations certainly don’t shirk on his horror-score obligations. But for the most part, SPLICE’s eerily intoxicating music turns us into accomplices with its researchers, capturing the darkly sensual magic that’s always caused movie scientists to go against the laws of nature, and then some in SPLICE’s case.
TIE: ANIMAL KINGDOM and RED HILL(Antony Partos and Dmitri Golovko, Milan)
Leave it to two composers from Down Under to put new life into the crime and western score, one with a minimal revamp, and the other by going for Spaghetti gusto. First up is ANIMAL KINGDOM, where the murderous doings of an Aussie bank robbing clan are treated with the solemnity of a church requiem, complete with trilling voices and an organ. Exotic percussion, alt. rock guitar, a piano and eerie samples get across their wages of sin without saying much at all musically, which in KINGDOM’s case speaks tense volumes for making this score hit with a gutshot of reality. The trench-coated villain and noble sheriff of RED HILL’s big gundown are smartly amped up by Dmitri Golovko, who’s clopping drums, ominous strumming, fateful trumpet and overall sense of western mythic doings turn the Aussie outback into as musically atmospheric a place as any Spanish location a dubbed western archetype had a showdown on- climaxing of course with a pounding percussion build backed by a wailing female singer. It’s a fun, and suspenseful genre reboot that still makes you take HILL’s unlikely setting seriously, right down to the last fateful gong of a seeming bad guy biting the dust.
BLACK SWAN (Clint Mansell, Sony Classical)
Having used unhinged rhythms to play the frequent mental disintegrations in Darren Aronofsky’s films, the auteur’s favorite composer Clint Mansell now turns from the experimental pulsing of PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM to hitch a hushed piggyback ride on top of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” The result is a score that flutters its sinister wings at a steadily crazed ballerina, maelifically mocking her when no one else is looking. It’s a two-for-one listen offering a terrific performance of ballet’s most famous music with a particularly sinister, and a classically distorted portrait of a tender string, piano and sample psyche that literally breaks into glass.
THE BOOK OF ELI (Atticus Ross, Reprise)
Though Atticus Ross got more critical, and sales heat for working with Trent Reznor to play the technically spazzed minds of THE SOCIAL NETWORK, it’s his solo turn for this far less accomplished apocalyptic fable that’s actually the more impressive score. Conveying a bleak world of rusting metal and rotted morals with a sound that seems scavenged from whatever percussive detritus he could find (while not forgetting such pre-nuke niceties as a full orchestra), Ross’ intoxicating, psychedelic sound plays like the next cool evolution of his work with Reznor’s band Nine Inch Nails. It’s a BOOK that’s industrial music in the coolest sense of the word, delivering the grinding grit while also getting across a skewed, PASSION-like sense of spirituality that drives its holy hero across a MAD MAX-redux wasteland.
CHLOE (Mychael Danna, Silva Screen)
Such remarkable scores as THE SWEET HEREAFTER, FELICIA’S JOURNEY and ATONEMENT have shown that few composer-director relationships pack the cerebrally creative punch of Atom Egoyan and Mychael Danna- even when said music is caressing down towards the groin in CHLOE. Like its glossy call girl, Danna’s music is the height of hushed, erotic fashion, with beautifully languid themes that hide something more twisted and child-like beneath their miasma of guitar chords, noir jazz and string suspense. Yet like Egoyan’s best work that never delivers the expected, easy climax, Danna’s hypnotic score dances around the edge of a psychosexual thriller without becoming one, to its credit. But that far from means CHLOE’s music won’t serve to get you and yours hot and bothered.
DEVIL (Fernando Velazquez, Unreleased)
After his notably chilling Spanish scores to THE ORPHANAGE and SHIVER, Fernando Velazquez goes Hollywood with the biggest evil of them all. Yet the results find a new way of play Old Scratch beyond the Ave Satani’s. Instead of chanting Latin choruses, Velazquez’s brassily orchestral ambitions pay more of a blood oath to Bernard Herrmann and James Newton Howard, with the kind of churning, melodically rich symphonic sound that makes DEVIL’s mostly elevator-bound setting anything but claustrophobic, especially as it plays up the twisting emotional guilt that reveals this unexpectedly terrific little picture as a moral fable in the TWILIGHT ZONE tradition. And right from the start of his thematically prowling score, Valazquez’s talent at making an old spookhouse sound into something new and vibrant will make the hairs on any lover of full-blooded horror music stand on end. Here’s hoping Valazquez will be raining more musical hell over here.
THE EXTRA MAN (Klaus Badelt, Labelzero)
Though he might be better known for action scores like PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN and EQUILIBRIUM, Klaus Badelt shows off that he’s really a blue-blood poseur gigolo at heart to exceedingly witty affect in THE EXTRA MAN. But then, what else would the doddering NYC society grand dames he leeches off of hear if not Baroque stylings? But Badelt’s BEST MAN is far from a musical one trick pony, as his poignant violins, bell percussion and forlorn horns reveal a very sad heart beneath Kevin Kline’s likable braggart, not to mention the sexual confusion of his young protégé, who finds himself wading through old country instruments, perky violins and an accordion on his road to discovery. Yet there isn’t anything fogy-ish or precious about Badelt’s approach to this utterly charming film, and score, a sweetly sympathetic approach that makes this Baroque-like whimsicality into something very hip indeed.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (John Powell, Varese Sarabande)
Though he might have as many animated scores under his belt as this film has species of serpents, John Powell’s a composer whose A-list durability comes from his constant, energetic invention. And DRAGON just might take the cake with Powell’s decision to play burly Nordic Vikings with all the Scottish bagpipe panache of “Riverdance.” It’s an eccentric approach that’s perfectly in tune with the oddball young hero of this deserved smash. And as opposed to going for the oh-so-hip jokes that were sometimes the bane of the earlier pictures he tried to give musical conviction to, Powell plays DRAGON as a dramatic adventure with humor, filling his score with tremendous excitement that captures the awe-struck bond that comes from soaring on a black beast you once feared, a swooping feel of joy that still manages to have more than a knowing wink of musical absurdity with its grunting voices and fiddles. From its first flight to its final grand battle, DRAGON’s score captures the kind of enchanting spectacle that the best fairy tale adventures are made of.
I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS (Nick Urata, 101 Distribution)
It’s debatable if Nick Urata and his band DeVotchKa knew that they’d stumbled upon the sound of The New Eccentric when their Mariachi-Gypsy strumming and Theremin-like vocal quavering embodied the lovable losers of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE to smash hit effect. Now using his own composing voice with equal irony, Urata gets across the criminal cheerfulness of an uber-gay go-getter, who will stop at nothing to win the heart of comely cell mate. Like SUNSHINE, what makes Urata’s now-trademarked approach work is it’s winning empathy with the most unlikely of characters, using ethnic stylism to place them in their own wacky universe. But when he’s not going for south-of-the-border by way of Eastern Europe fun, Urata gets to show off his versatility with unexpectedly poetic cues that show the deeper meaning to MORRIS’ fool-in-love antics. Homosexual or straight, romantic scores rarely get as simultaneously fun and meaningful, complete, of course, with another catchy DeVotchKa song with “I Cried Like A Silly Boy.”
GANGSTER’S PARADISE: JERUSALEMA (Alan Lazar, Lakeshore)
A SCARFACE-like saga gets the most dangerous South African ghetto beat this side of DISTRICT 9. But there are no aliens amidst the menacing orchestra and tribal drums of this GANGSTER’S PARADISE, only the ferocious drive for success in fellow countryman Alan Lazar’s seething score. For this is the real dog-eat-dog circle of life among its oppressed blacks, whose culture Lazar evokes with an array of drums, ululating voices and songs, the sounds of a culture’s ancient spirituality becoming tainted by the ominous strings and chants that murderously propel its anti-hero up the capitalist ladder. At once completely authentic while revealing a whole new world of hurt that’s descended on South Africa’s urban areas, PARADISE’s throttling, powerhouse score paints the most musically vibrant portrait of an ethnic crime scene since Brazil’s CITY OF GOD.
MICMACS (Raphael Beau, Milan)
For the film-scoring equivalent to “Stomp,” Raphael Beau creates a tuneful garbage heap for the bunch of cast-offs who live under it, all of whom decide who help their addled new recruit avenge himself against the weapons dealers who put a bullet in his noggin. Inimitably French in tone, while sounding like it came clanging up from a heap of broken wind-up toys, MICMACS is a true “found” score. But then again, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a knack for digging out musically inventive scores with the likes of DELICATESSEN and AMELIE. But in terms of pure craziness, the goat bleats, typewriter percussion, dainty piano playing and slurping straws of MICMACS just might take the cake, especially as it all somehow coalesces into pure, melodic joy, allowing newcomer Beau’s abstract style to more than hold its own when ingeniously placed against golden age score selections by Max Steiner. His success with MICMACS is enough to make another composer twice about throwing out that broken piano, let alone that busted Cuisinart.
THE COMPOSERS TO WATCH
Carlos Jose Alvarez (DEADLINE, Movie Score Media)
Michl Britsch (CASE 39, unreleased)
David Buckley (FROM PARIS WITH LOVE, Columbia Europe)
Robert Carli (SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, unreleased)
Pascal Gaigne (GORDOS, Quartet Records)
Jonathan Goldsmith (CASINO JACK, unreleased)
Herbert Gronemeyer (THE AMERICAN, unreleased)
Jon Hopkins (MONSTERS, unreleased)
Matthew Margeson (SKYLINE, Varese Sarabande)
Alain Mayrand (SILKBOY, Movie Score Media)
Mj Mynarksy (HOLY ROLLERS, unreleased)
Martin Phipps / Ruth Barrett, Pete Tong / Paul Rogers (HARRY BROWN, Pale Blue Ltd.)
Daft Punk (TRON LEGACY, Walt Disney Records)
Anton Sanko (RABBIT HOLE, Lionsgate)
Juri and Miska Seppa (RARE EXPORTS, unreleased)
Kjartan Sveinsson (ONDINE, unreleased)
Marco Werba (GIALLO, unreleased)