Top 10 Film Scores of 2012

One of the joys of compiling a year-end list is revisiting film scores that I may have forgotten. With so many scores released over the last 12 months, it’s easy for one or more to slip through the cracks.

As usual, some scores that I was sure would make my list didn’t. By all rights, Nick Urata’s sweet and charming RUBY SPARKS would be included, as would Dan Romer and Behn Zeitlin’s Cajun-flavored BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Danny Elfman had a busy year and his scores for FRANKENWEENIE and HITCHCOCK are particularly effective. That certainly is no indication of their quality; it only reminds me of what a subjective (and ultimately futile) exercise this is.

I saw close to 100 movies this past year, yet I still missed a few that I will have to catch on Blu-ray or Netflix. And since one of my rules for inclusion on this list is having seen the film, to accurately judge the music’s effectiveness within the format for which it was composed, the list might change once I have a chance to hear how Jonny Greenwood’s brooding music for THE MASTER and Henry Jackman’s retro score for WRECK-IT RALPH work within the context of their respective films.

Since the calendar dictates that I compile a list anyway, I humbly submit my selections for this past year. As with any list, the contents and placement could change at any time depending on my mood. But as of the moment I hit the “publish” button, these are my top 10 film scores for 2012.

10. THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

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I was wildly disappointed by Peter Jackson’s latest trip into Middle-earth. Howard Shore’s score, however, was one of the stronger elements of the film. While it too is perhaps missing some of the magic of his LOTR music, every bit of the majesty of Tolkien’s world is still intact. Unfortunately, the most recognizable theme, the Dwarves’ song, wasn’t written by Shore but that shouldn’t discount the typically high level of craftsmanship on display throughout the rest of the score, including his majestic arrangements of that particular tune. Even with my tepid response to the film, I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing how Shore builds upon this musical foundation in the next two installments.

9. RISE OF THE GUARDIANS

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Alexandre Desplat gets a rare chance to shine in full fantasy adventure mode with this score. Rousing themes, exciting action cues, sparkling orchestrations and a tender sweetness combine in this full-bodied, traditional orchestral score. Desplat’s moving score perfectly complements the beautiful animation, capturing the innocence and trust of childhood, and that sense of imbalance when we come face to face with their loss.

8. ANNA KARENINA

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Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard’s theatrical adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic whirls around the tragic, adulterous tale and so does Dario Marianelli’s sweeping score. The music meshes together European elegance with the raw vitality of Russian folk tunes. From lush orchestral grandeur to smaller chamber-like orchestrations more in tune with the pit, Marianelli’s score is an essential element in the film. The CD, while nice to have, can’t do it justice. This is a score that must be heard in context of the film to fully appreciate it.

7. SKYFALL

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The latest entry in the Bond franchise is also one of the best. Nail-biting suspense and a surprising emotional undercurrent gives the franchise new life, as does the entrance of director Sam Mendes. His resident composer, Thomas Newman, also infuses the film with a fresh vitality, ably adapting his trademark sound into the Bond musical firmament. Thrilling action cues, the interweaving of essential Bond musical signposts, and Newman’s distinctive orchestrational flair combine for a welcome entry in this historic franchise. The film’s global popularity hopefully signals a return of Mendes and Newman for future installments.

6. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

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Christopher Nolan’s dark take on Gotham’s caped crusader comes to a violent, emotional and satisfying end. Much as Nolan changed the face of superhero films, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard changed their musical landscape. To end the trilogy, Zimmer went (primarily) solo and his contribution is even more raw and primal than the earlier entries. From the distinctive chanting, the slinky piano theme for Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, and the typically thrilling action set pieces, the score delivers on all fronts. Rightly or wrongly, Zimmer’s musical take on Batman, much like his take on pirates, has changed the face of film music. This musical Dark Knight rose to the challenge and then some.

5. ZERO DARK THIRTY

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Alexandre Desplat’s most understated score of 2012 is arguably his most effective. Though it has an expected Middle Eastern flavor, the score is primarily a brooding complement to Jessica Chastain’s intense FBI hunt for Osama bin Laden. Composed almost entirely of dark minor chords and short bursts of rhythmic patterns and fragmentary melodic cells, the music pulsates and churns underneath director Kathryn Bigelow’s tense slow burn of a film. Quiet and subtle, Desplat’s music effectively ratchets up the tension to the nth degree.

4. LINCOLN

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John Williams and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra combine for a subtle slice of American pie. With its open harmonies and four-part chorales, Williams’s score provides an effective elegy for the final months in the life of the 16th President. Except for a couple of lively hoedowns for Lincoln’s merry band of vote bribers, Williams’s music is surprisingly subtle. Though Williams takes a backseat (a rarity in a Steven Spielberg film), the music is haunting and moving, capturing the world-weary weight of Daniel Day-Lewis’s brilliant portrayal, all the while ably supporting Tony Kushner’s eloquent (and talky) script. After the over-manipulation (though beautiful compositional technique) of WAR HORSE, it’s nice to see Williams pull it back a bit. While the score is exactly as I and many film music fans expected it to be, there is no denying the sheer craft behind Williams’s writing.

3. THE IMPOSSIBLE

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Based on a true story of one family’s ordeal during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the film is a brutal and emotionally draining viewing experience. Without, ahem, drowning you in platitudes and Hallmark moments, this story of survival against all odds is told simply and subtly. One of the key elements to balancing the horror and emotion is Fernando Velázquez’s exquisite score. While Velázquez wisely never tips his hand in either direction, I spent the majority of the film (and subsequent listenings of the score) in tears simply due to the music. Based around a few core themes and plaintive cello and piano solos, Velázquez delivers an emotional powerhouse of a score that continues to yield musical treasures lying beneath the churning waters of Nature’s awesome power.

2. JOHN CARTER

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Unjustly maligned films by critics and ignored by audiences, this thoroughly enjoyable take on the Edgar Rice Burroughs tale deserved a better fate. Ignored in the apathy was yet another crackerjack genre score by Michael Giacchino. Utilizing a Middle Eastern palette, Giacchino captures the “humanity” underlying the strange creatures of Mars while painting Carter’s exploits in grand, heroic musical brushstrokes.

1. CLOUD ATLAS

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My favorite movie of 2012 was a polarizing film among critics and audiences. This audacious filming of David Mitchell’s “unfilmable” novel is by no means perfect. Intriguing, exasperating and utterly fascinating, the six interwoven storylines crash and collide, mix and match across the generations in a superb example of film editing, resulting in a surprisingly emotional impact. The score by co-director/scripter Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek weaves an equally fascinating musical tapestry. Stringing together a number of memorable themes that are then dissected and interpolated, the music is the glue that pulls the numerous characters together over a span of thousands of years. The music only grows more memorable in context of the film and bears repeated listening to gain a greater understanding of the subtle skill behind the score.

What are your favorite scores of 2012?

8 comments

  1. My list of 9 favorite scores of 2012 is not as elaborate as yours, Jim, since I haven’t gotten the chance of watching few of the movies mentioned in your list. However, here is my list.

    1. THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (Howard Shore)
    2. LINCOLN (John Williams)
    3. JOHN CARTER (Michael Giacchino)
    4. SKYFALL (Thomas Newman)
    5. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Hans Zimmer)
    6. CLOUD ATLAS (Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil & Johnny Klimek)
    7. RISE OF THE GUARDIANS (Alexandre Desplat)
    8. ANNA KARENINA (Dario Marianelli)
    9. THE AVENGERS (Alan Silvestri)

  2. It is hard to argue with Jim Lochner’s list of his top ten scores, and I can NOT even think of any additions or changes that I would make. However, using these scores, I would most likely put them in a different order, based on my personal tastes and preferences. Well done Jim, and Happy New Year to you and all on this forum.

  3. I’m glad you selected Fernando Velázquez’s “exquisite score” for THE IMPOSSIBLE amongst your worthy contenders. I don’t possess the musical language to qualify his work but I have been noting his rise since his work on EL ORFANATO and his Herrmannesque treatment for DEVIL.

    Like Desplat a few years ago, I believe he is a composer to watch. I feel the same way about Nathan Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper) who seems to have established an enduring partnership with director/screenwriter Rian Johnson.

  4. Have to say that compared to 2011, 2012 was very light on, made up for by some of the best rereleases and expansions of scores that I can recall. From films I saw this year (that I can think of at the moment):
    1. Hugo – Howard Shore (only released in Australia in Feb, so I’m allowed to count it)
    2. John Carter – Michael Giacchino
    3. The Hobbit an UEJ – Shore
    4. Frankenweenie – Elfman (Just saw it on the plane and loved the theremin usage)

    I wanted to like the score to the Avengers as much as I liked the film, but couldn’t. The Dark Knight also Rises is music that is difficult and, frankly, as unenjoyable as much (but not all) of the film was (maybe it was supposed to be).

  5. Zero Dark Thirty, Desplat’s most understated score of the year? Clearly you haven’t heard Rust and Bone.

  6. 1. World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria (Various) – Of course I’m playing the game and I wouldn’t put it on #1 if it wasn’t the case, but for my very own subjective reasons this is one of my favorite scores ever. From the beginning to the end a wonderful mix of beautiful themes and Eastern Asian instruments that bring a fresh, new sound to the franchise. It was also nominated for an IFMCA Award as Best Video Game Score.

    2. Life of Pi (Mychael Danna)
    3. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Howard Shore)
    4. Brave (Patrick Doyle)
    5. Journey (Austin Wintory)
    6. Lincoln (John Williams)
    7. Anna Karenina (Dario Marinelli)
    8. John Carter (Michael Giacchino)
    9. The Dark Knight Rises (Hans Zimmer)
    10. The Woman in Black (Marco Beltrami)

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