Even for a confirmed pessimist like myself, I was surprised at how much the state of film music depressed me throughout most of 2013. Perhaps more than any year previous, I was struck at how bombast and rhythm were the key words in today’s film scores. Film music today wants to be loud, part of the sound design and in a state of perpetual motion. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of these qualities—either alone or in combination. What is wrong is the lack of individual musical voices. One score bleeds into the next, and good luck in telling one score apart from the other.
That being said, there were still some truly exciting film (and TV) music moments—in the theater and at home. And as much as I enjoy listening to film music on its own, I can’t discuss the music properly without the context for which it was written. So if I didn’t see the film, it won’t be on this list. Now, since this post should be a celebration rather than yet another rant from a tired crank, let me unveil my very personal selections for the Top 10 Scores of 2013.
10. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
After a disappointing first outing, CATCHING FIRE raised the bar on the HUNGER GAMES franchise. James Newton Howard also rose to the challenge, particularly in his action scoring. Though the score is uneven, there are numerous highlights, many of them themes from the first film that weren’t given the proper opportunity to shine, including a beautiful love theme for Katniss and Gale. I’m looking forward to seeing how Howard ties together the musical strings over the last two films in the franchise.
If you’re going to have film music function as sound design, few have done it as effectively as Steven Price. As everything turns to shit in outer space, the music slashes and tears apart with the chaotic collision of melodic and rhythmic fragments bouncing off each other. The score is a harsh listen on its own, though one that grows on you if you listen with open ears. But it’s most effective when heard in context of the film, where it adds to the nail-biting tension and even provides an emotional wallop when needed.
8. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
I ignore the longtime Trekkies who lambaste this film as the worst in the long-running franchise. INTO DARKNESS ably carries on the STAR TREK tradition, further establishing the young cast in the reboot, and Michael Giacchino continues his own reboot of the TREK musical universe. While this sophomore effort can’t have the same impact as the 2009 score did, Giacchino’s music once again contributes greatly to the adventures of Kirk & Co., even providing a surprisingly moving musical backstory for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan.
7. HOUSE OF CARDS
With HOUSE OF CARDS, Netflix became a game-changer and a force to be reckoned with in terms of original programming and even awards consideration. The moral and political dilemmas of Kevin Spacey’s corrupt Southern Congressman made for riveting binge-watching. Jeff Beal‘s score, with that memorable main title cue, serves up its own share of sly backdoor shenanigans. Showcasing the seedy underbelly of Washington politics, Beal’s music is tinged with sadness and stealth, haunting reminders of a purer political ideal.
6. THE GREAT GATSBY
While they were castigating Baz Luhrman once again on his excess and use of anachronistic pop songs on his soundtrack, most critics failed to notice the beauty of Craig Armstrong’s score. Armstrong’s music captures the rich grandeur of Fitzgerald’s wealthy characters and the doomed tragedy lying beneath the gaudy excess. Whether it’s borrowing the harmonies and melody of Lana Del Rey’s haunting “Young and Beautiful” or the violin harmonic that serves as the green light heartbeat calling Daisy and Gatsby across Long Island Sound, Armstrong’s music deserves to be feted.
5. DA VINCI’S DEMONS
One of the great things about music—or art in general—is when it promotes further discovery, whether it’s a particular artist, film, what have you. Such was the case with DA VINCI’S DEMONS. Bear McCreary’s Emmy-winning main theme was so infectious that I simply could not stop listening to the 2-CD Collector’s Edition promo that I received. McCreary certainly knows his way around a melody but what made this music stand out? Was it the theme’s palindrome symmetry or the interwoven Italian Renaissance instrumentation into the contemporary scoring techniques? Whatever the reasons, the score is equally effective in context of the enjoyable STARZ miniseries. And you gotta love a score outside of Middle-earth that incorporates a contrabassoon.
The true story behind Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) search for the son who was forcibly sold 50 years earlier by the Irish nuns of Rosecrea is a heartbreaking one. Rather than bathe the tale in syrupy pathos, Alexandre Desplat displays his typical economy of means in the music, delicately underscoring the tale with a deceptively innocent carnival waltz fraught with memory, sighing clarinet appoggiaturas, and a warm theme for the long lost son. In lesser hands, the score could have been treacle. But Desplat’s deftness of touch once again keeps the emotions firmly in check, yet real and honest.
3. THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
While the first HOBBIT score pushed Plan 9 to the fore, with SMAUG there’s no doubt who’s back in charge—Howard Shore. Exciting action cues like “The Forest River” easily stand alongside earlier LOTR cues. And as always, Shore expanded on his original HOBBIT themes while supplying a wealth of new one—the rustic quality of Lake-town, the brassy boldness of Smaug and the hallucinogenic Mirkwood. But it is the heartbreaking love theme for Tauriel and Kili, with its plaintive female vocal and deceptively simple step-wise motion, that transports this score into some heavenly musical netherworld beyond Middle-earth.
2. THE BOOK THIEF
For this rare foray outside of Spielberg territory, John Williams once again proves why he is the master. While the film couldn’t quite capture the emotional devastation of Markus Zusak’s excellent YA novel, Williams’ score was like a breath of fresh air. Contrary to popular belief, this is NOT the companion piece to SCHINDLER’S LIST. The score is decidedly Aryan, with delicate piano themes, and a sweetness and innocence that perfectly underscores a child’s view of life in wartime. The music rocks back and forth, churns in the lower strings, and cascades in the piano as Liesel learns to read. Williams doesn’t shirk from the dark elements in cues like “Book Burning” but only a musician with consummate command of his craft would dare to score children screaming “I Hate Hilter!” with such fragility. But it is the haunting high violin theme for the mysterious Max that makes this score memorable and, in the end, emotionally devastating.
1. SAVING MR. BANKS
My favorite film of 2013 contains one of Thomas Newman’s finest scores. Newman eschews the dueling time periods to create a score that works in a contemporary setting (without sounding dated in the 1960s) as well as through the amber haze of memory. From the galloping, gung-ho French horns of Walt Disney’s kingdom (both literally and figuratively) to the pulsating theme for Ginty’s dreaming alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), Newman crafts a score that combines all the tricks of his trade while still sounding fresh and decidedly Newmanesque (if there is such a word). Newman’s strings, as easily recognizable as those of his father, tug at the heartstrings without excess, while the simple piano theme for Travers’ love for her father creates a musical bond that floats throughout the film. If there was any justice, Newman would finally win his Oscar for this score. But the film hasn’t become the box office hit I thought it would. Still, I remain hopeful…for now.