I love lists. I love making theme, I love reading them, I love their pathetic attempts to keep me organized while I ignore the “to do” topics that are on them. But nothing is better than a Top 10 list.
The past year in film music was an interesting one for me. Because of this blog, I’ve probably heard more new scores than in the last 10 years combined. The challenges for today’s film composers seem to become more and more insurmountable with shrinking fees, shrinking budgets, and the dwindling willingness of directors and studio executives to allow an artist to ply his craft. But while there is still an awful lot of mediocrity masquerading as film music, the year offered some excellent scores nonetheless.
I can wholeheartedly recommend each and every score on this list. And each, in its own way, has surprised me and rejuvenated my love of film music. May the next decade continue that trend.
10. ANGELS & DEMONS – Hans Zimmer
Dan Brown knows how to spin a yarn and Ron Howard knows how to film slick, reasonably entertaining flicks based on those page-turners. While ANGELS & DEMONS is just as empty as its predecessor, THE DA VINCI CODE, its combination of science and religion, as well as some ridiculous set-pieces allowed Hans Zimmer the chance to ramp up the excitement a bit more. The pulsating, churning “160 Bpm” gets things off to a rousing start and sets the tone for the numerous chase scenes. Chorus and Joshua Bell’s beautiful violin solos also enhance one of Zimmer’s best scores in years.
9. DUPLICITY – James Newton Howard
Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, and the writer/director of the acclaimed MICHAEL CLAYTON should have added up to box office gold this past spring. Instead, audiences had no interest in this entertaining and intricate crime heist. Too bad. They missed some well-written dialogue, the undeniable chemistry of the two stars, and James Newton Howard’s lively Latin, jazz, funk score. There’s nothing deep or meaningful in the music, but it is consistently entertaining and a lot of fun to listen to, perfectly echoing the film’s many shifts in gears.
8. AMELIA – Gabriel Yared
The always fascinating tale of vanished aviatrix Amelia Earhart should have been a return to the grand old days of Hollywood filmmaking. Alas, that didn’t seem to happen. What it did do was inspire one of Gabriel Yared’s loveliest scores. The long, flowing melodies seem to glide and hang suspended in the air. In days gone by, AMELIA would have been instant Oscar bait, no matter the reviews. But those days are gone and the awful reception for the film may dim Yared’s chances at an Oscar nomination, which would be a shame.
7. PONYO – Joe Hisaishi
The partnership of director Hayao Miyazaki and Joe Hisaishi are every bit as important in the world of Japanese anime as the collaborations between Steven Spielberg/John Williams and Alfred Hitchcock/Bernard Herrmann are in the world of live-action films. Hisaishi’s lush, orchestral scores give depth to the 2D unique animation style. PONYO once again features Hisaishi’s seemingly bottomless well of gorgeous melodies. Even if you have no interest in anime, you’d be a fool to miss Hisaishi’s symphonic beauty.
6. THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON – Alexandre Desplat
Alexandre Desplat did what I thought no one could do. He gave the popular tween vampire franchise a dose of good old fashioned Gothic romance. Instead of brooding understatement, Desplat goes for the jugular with a full-bodied orchestral score that churns with lush melodies, unexpressed emotion, and teenage angst. Desplat doesn’t totally abandon his delicate French sensibilities, but he sets the musical stakes higher and succeeds. Out of his 7 (count ’em, 7!) scores for 2009, NEW MOON seems Desplat’s best chance at an Oscar nomination, if the voters can let go of the stigma surrounding the franchise.
5. THE INFORMANT! – Marvin Hamlisch
No score brought me more unadulterated joy this year than Marvin Hamlisch’s buoyant THE INFORMANT. Director Steven Soderbergh hired the composer after hearing his score for Woody Allen’s BANANAS. Sure, the two scores bear some similarities, but to dismiss the latter as a rehash, as some critics and film score fans have done, is foolish. Because of the main character’s bipolar nature, the score travels through numerous moods, each one a delight. It’s heartening to see that Hamlisch has lost none of his polish, his gift for melody, nor his sense of humor. Welcome back, Marvin!
If you don’t know who James Peterson is, with his score for the boxing film, THE RED CANVAS, that will all change. Critics and others in the industry have been quick to point out the Miklos Rozsa influences on the score, but this is no hack throwback to the Golden Age. The large orchestra with its massive brass and string (60 pieces) sections convey a world of emotions in this adrenaline-pumping score. The closing 11-minute “Ballet for Brawlers” is the single most impressive cue I’ve heard all year. The CD also includes Peterson’s 8-movement concert work, “Moving Images Suite,” which further shows Peterson’s incredible range. This is the breakout score of the year. Now get this young man a major Hollywood contract!
3. STAR TREK – Michael Giacchino
Once the initial comparisons to Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score for STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE died down, film score fans and critics were able to take a more objective look at Michael Giacchino’s score for the new Trek franchise. And I think more people are finding what I’ve been trumpeting ever since the score was released in May. This is a score rich in excitement, emotion, and one particularly memorable new theme. While the Varese Sarabande CD skimps on the running time (45 minutes), Giacchino’s fantastic score still makes its mark. I look forward to hopefully hearing what he does with later installments of the franchise.
2. UP – Michael Giacchino
The month of May belonged to Michael Giacchino with his one-two punch of STAR TREK and UP. In Pixar’s latest hit, Giacchino finds himself with the rare opportunity to have his music take over the visuals and serve as a character until itself. In the 4-minute “Married Life,” the film plays like a silent film and Giacchino’s music spans a variety of changing styles and carries the emotion of the montage as we experience an entire life without a single line of dialogue. If you feel anything for Carl, Russell and the dearly departed Ellie, a lot of the credit goes to Giacchino’s marvelous music. If Giacchino doesn’t win the Oscar for this, I’m going to be mighty upset.
1. UN HOMME ET SON CHIEN – Philippe Rombi
Have you ever heard a piece of music that immediately hits you in the gut? One that so strongly releases pent up emotions that you have no idea where they came from? Such is Philippe Rombi’s theme from UN HOMME ET SON CHIEN. In this tale of an old man (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his dog, Rombi’s score, with its Ravel and Rachmaninoff influences, has enough beautiful melodies for ten films. The music (with Rombi’s lovely piano playing) goes for the tear ducts (at least with me) and doesn’t let go. Even with 16 years of film scoring under his belt, this is the first Rombi score I’ve heard. I guarantee you it won’t be the last.