Published at: Jan. 5, 2009, 1:06 p.m. CST by merrick
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here brandishing my list of ten high-powered film scores deemed by yours truly to be the best of 2008. I’m fond of these end-of-the-year lists as it catalyzes hearty and heady discussions of film music, cinema, and everything else in between.
Looking back, I believe 2008 was an above-average year for film music. Individual masterpieces were down but the overall quality of great film music created a rather swollen bell-curve. As is typical with these sorts of things, I know there are scores that I have yet to discover that could and should be among my top ten. Regardless, from the orgy of film music I relished in 2008, these ten stand out most prominently to me.
Enough of the gab. I’ve got to get a head start on 2009!
T-minus ten and counting…
10. JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER (2008) by Ryan Shore – Every year I catch myself midstream while strains of Elfman-esque cynicism toward film music and pessimistic tirades race through my unconscious brain. Am I really turning into a world-weary old curmudgeon who can’t hear the music through the scores? Am I turning into that guy?
Then a score like JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER (2008) comes along and I think, “There! Was that so damn hard!?”
Ryan Shore’s rousing portrayal of classic monster movie music is the perfect prescription for any film music aficionado mired in the swamps of banality. With each meticulously scored measure, Shore proves that film scoring remains a craft built upon the fundamentals of music composition. Whether it’s through the color (and clarity) of his orchestrations, the complexity of the harmonic language, or the searing lusciousness of his melodic phrases, the music contains a profound richness spurred by conventional and aleatoric orchestral textures.
The film itself is a modestly-budgeted nod toward classic monster flicks of yore which delicately balances camp with nostalgia. In the spirit of great monster movie music composers like Herman Stein, Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, Bronislau Kaper, Akira Ifukube, and Hans J. Salter, Ryan Shore retains the essence of their musical language while injecting enough of his own voice to allow a unique originality to persevere.
The score was performed by The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and was released on CD (1000 edition) by MovieScore Media (MMS-08018) which is also available on iTunes.
[find it HERE]
09. BURN AFTER READING (2008) by Carter Burwell – There are many formulas found within the process of filmmaking. A slice of them are noble and justified while most slices are pathetic and fatigued. The recipe of adding one part Burwell to two parts Coen, however, will loyally produce cinematic perfection nearly every time.
The dazzling genius that bombards you from a multitude of facets in BURN AFTER READING is almost a liability. I found myself so enamored with the film that its brilliance teetered dangerously close to the precipice of distraction. Leading the charge toward this distinctive excellence is the score composed by Carter Burwell.
If one were to listen to the music away from its visual narrative I doubt an unbiased ear would realize that its true intention is comedy. Through a complex tapestry of drums and percussion, the music conveys tension and indirectly underscores action far more than is ever apparent in the narrative itself. There’s a juxtaposition of buffoonery and perilousness which is a quintessential Coen Brothers comedy characteristic. While the writing, direction, and performances all conjure the buffoonery, Burwell is left alone to inflict a seemingly unwarranted sense of danger.
The score which plays against its narrative is another endangered beast that needs nourishment. If it’s not the scores themselves perhaps modern filmmaking hasn’t warranted such approach. Either way, in the case of BURN AFTER READING, it’s a combination of pure delight further establishing the impressive careers of one of the best collaborative relationships in show business.
The score was released on CD by Lakeshore Records (LKS 340372) and is also available on iTunes.
[find it HERE]
08. THE SUBSTITUTE (2007) by Marco Beltrami – I first discovered this splendid film at Fantastic Fest 2008 in Austin, Texas, almost by accident. It was on my slate of desired films for the day; however, by the time I rolled around to fetch my ticket the film had sold out. Feeling dejected yet determined, I decided to hang outside the theater doors in hopes of snagging an unfilled seat at the last minute.
My persistence paid off as I managed a seat smack in the center of the front row. What followed was one of the more purely enjoyable cinematic experiences I had had all year.
Hailing from Denmark, THE SUBSTITUTE pits an other-worldly invader disguised as a substitute teacher against a class of rag-tag students hell-bent on revealing her true identity to their respective adult authority figures. Admittedly the plot sounds a bit trite and hokey but this audience favorite delivered a nostalgic punch of entertainment accentuated by a well-crafted score sporting the charm of a classic drive-in science fiction B-movie.
I had not noticed during the screening who was credited with scoring the film so when I got home I immediately looked it up on IMDB. I have to admit I was shocked to learn that THE SUBSTITUTE was scored by Marco Beltrami! First of all, it’s a small independent film from Denmark and secondly, it didn’t at all resemble a Beltrami score even though he’s established a fairly diverse sound throughout his career with a host of scores including MIMIC (1997), HELLBOY (2004), THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (2005), and 3:10 TO YUMA (2007).
As far as I know, the score has not been released nor is it slated for release which I hope is remedied soon. I haven’t had the chance to revisit the music since my theatrical experience that lone evening. Considering the deluge of scores that are made available these days I would hope that the score for THE SUBSTITUTE gets its opportunity. It’s by far my favorite Beltrami score to date.
07. CLOVERFIELD (2008) by Michael Giacchino – What? You don’t remember the music from CLOVERFIELD? That may be due to the fact that the entire film was practically devoid of music. What few strains existed appeared during the oft ignored end credit scroll. If you walked out of the theater at the start of the closing credits than you missed one of the truly great film music masterpieces written in 2008.
Sporting the endearing title “Roar!”, this single twelve-minute compositional salute to GODZILLA composer Akira Ifukube outshined thousands of hours of combined musical output from the majority of composers working in film in 2008.
The piece starts off extremely quiet as “footsteps” of the approaching beast are sounded by bass drums and low piano strings off in the distance. A field drum enters foreshadowing the entrance of strings and woodwinds into a full blown march reminiscent of Ifukube’s immortal theme from GODZILLA (1954). The addition of a soaring female vocalise compliments the rampage and adds another Toho touch to the fabric of the work.
Composer Michael Giacchino then carefully crafts the expositional material through the rigors of compositional development allowing the material to endure through its required mammoth length. The piece holds together so well it could easily transcend its visual counterpart to be enjoyed by eager audiences in concert halls around the world.
“Roar!” from CLOVERFIELD was not released on CD but is available for download on iTunes.
06. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008) by Alexandre Desplat – This year’s odds-on Oscar™ pick for Best Original Score is probably the score that puts Alexandre Desplat into a higher realm of consciousness for me. Although I’ve admired practically every score he’s done, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON exhibits a deeper and more profound understanding of narrative structure than I’ve encountered in his other works.
There’s a classic presentation to the music that conjures intoxicating melodies to evoke the various emotional requirements of the story. Desplat also chooses his orchestral colors carefully by assembling small trios and quartets of instruments to represent certain themes or characters in the film. He also utilizes melodies and harmonic progressions that provide contrast in retrograde.
The fact that I wept like a baby during the final twenty minutes of the film is the ultimate testament to the effectiveness of the score. That would not happen had I been relegated to mere observation of the moving image. There had to be something potent enough to connect me with those images at the level that I did.
That something was the music of Alexandre Desplat.
The score was released on CD by Concord Records (CRE-31231-02) and is also available on iTunes.
[find it HERE]
05. THE VISITOR (2007) by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek – Throughout the year as I traverse the field of new film scores in search of gems I harbor an instinctual longing to encounter music with unparalleled breadth of emotion realized through the humble expression of a small ensemble.
This year that score is THE VISITOR. I have mentioned before how much I adore chamber scores in film. It’s an endangered sound in cinema and one that allows a unique expression unrivaled by other, perhaps more conventional, means. There’s nothing more difficult to perform than a single note played softly billowing with expression. As music in film continues to grow fatter, louder, and brasher, the alluringly seductive sound of a single piano or string quartet accompanied by the mournful soliloquy of a solo cello is pure quintessence.
In THE VISITOR, composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek weaves simple tunes into a tapestry of piano and strings evoking an astonishingly harsh sense of loneliness. With an uplifting twitch of a single melodic phrase, Kaczmarek remedies these feelings of abandonment until its inevitable fall vanquishes it away. That kind of power executed with a menial flick is a trait which separates the truly gifted composers from imposters. While THE VISITOR doesn’t quite usurp Kaczmarek’s magnum opus, FINDING NEVERLAND (2004), it’s certainly a gem to be cherished.
The simple purity of this score is not to be missed.
The score was released on CD by Varèse Sarabande (302 066 890 2) and is also available on iTunes.
[find it HERE]
04. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) by Johan Söderqvist – This film is the unambiguous darling of 2008. Touted as a masterpiece in the horror genre it stretches the very definition of what constitutes a horror film. Is this a horror film? Is it a story of unrequited love? There are certainly elements of both but I contend that no matter what extraneous elements are woven into its narrative, it is still ultimately a story about predation.
A twelve-year old girl who is revealed to be a vampire frozen in time befriends a young neighbor boy. As the story ensues we feel a bond forming between them. Like all good stories with rich character development, we are confronted by questions of motivation. Is love her motivation or is it something far more sinister?
In order to fully understand the music, one must begin to have at least an introductory comprehension of the story. For it's the music that permeates the cracks and cements this entire complex together. With questions about motivation abounding, composer Johan Söderqvist, scrupulously weaves together strains of bone-chillingly cold horror with the encompassing warmth of newly acquired love.
While the two work harmoniously in concert, it’s fundamentally a struggle between the pair of conflicting compulsions until one ultimately succumbs to the other. Söderqvist does a masterful job balancing the opposing forces of the score which breathes a refreshing passion into the frosty narrative. Without the effectiveness of the score, the mountainous piles of layers within the narrative could not properly be digested. It’s far too robust to absorb on a purely intellectual level. One must also be granted an unabated emotional connection to the deep cavernous layers. No other filmmaking ingredient will grant the audience such access as music and I can’t imagine music granting such access more effectively than Söderqvist has achieved.
The score was performed by The Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and was released on CD (500 edition) by MovieScore Media (MMS-08022) which is also available on iTunes.
[find it HERE]
03. WALL-E (2008) by Thomas Newman – It’s almost unfair that other composers have to write film scores while this modern master of his craft continues to work. WALL-E is a priceless cinematic gem that critics and audiences alike will continue to marvel over and ponder for years to come.
What starts off as essentially a “silent” film, Newman had the unenviable task of breathing souls into a pair of metallic boxes with personalities. Wall-E himself is expressed with a delightful staccato theme first performed on the English Horn while the diminutive robot clatters about his daily tasks. To contrast Wall-E’s clunkiness, Newman composed a lusciously streamlined orchestral theme for Eve. Both of these two themes represent the two styles in which Thomas Newman is both known for: his rhythmic percussive music and his lavishly warm orchestral music.
Pixar is both very wise and lucky to have established a collaboration with Thomas Newman. His film music is timeless, ageless, and of the highest quality being produced anywhere in the world.
…just like Pixar.
The score was released on CD by Walt Disney Records (0000174302) and is also available on iTunes.
[find it HERE]
02. APPALOOSA (2008) by Jeff Beal – There was a fairly hefty period not too long ago when filmmakers relegated the western to the scrapheap. No longer viewed as a viable profit source and with wells of creativity drying up, producers seemingly abandoned this much beloved American original.
Without much ballyhoo, the western finally appears to be making a resurgence. With a litany of fresh scripts, gritty visionaries are resurrecting the past in order to reinvent the future.
The western has always been a veritable goldmine for interesting film music. Whether it was Ennio Morricone and his ground-breaking scores for Sergio Leone or composers from the Golden Age of film music like Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Alfred Newman, or even more recent additions to the western musical lexicon like Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, or John Williams, the western has always been an inspirational source for composers to craft compelling music.
I love it when a score appears unexpectedly out of nowhere and captures my attention. This was true for APPALOOSA, composed by Jeff Beal. Although I adore Beal’s scores for television productions like ROME (2005-2007), NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES (2006), CARNIVALE (2003-2005), and his score for the motion picture POLLOCK (2000), I can’t say I was honestly expecting to hear what would eventually become my second favorite film score of 2008.
Beal does such a marvelous job evoking classic western scores of the past while maintaining one of the most affluent characteristics of these scores: originality. When one looks back on Morricone’s score for THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966), you can’t help be awestruck by Morricone’s brazen bravery in composing music so spectacularly new to the big screen. It’s the originality of the music that I believe is the most important characteristic in crafting an evocative western film score.
It seems it is getting more difficult to find composers (and of course directors and producers) who are willing to take the creative chances others would have in the past. With APPALOOSA, I don’t feel like there was much trepidation in being so daring.
While APPALOOSA doesn’t sound like any score I’ve ever heard, it certainly shares a kinship with its western score brethren. The scope of the music remains relatively restrained. Our ears are not perpetually pounded by an onslaught of noise from a hundred piece orchestra. Each layered ingredient of the music is crystal clear and expressed humbly without sacrificing power.
Beal’s main theme is a statuary testament to classic western themes which captured the spirit of adventure in the old west. It is developed through a variety of guises from the energetic and spirited to the sullen and downtrodden. My favorite piece of the entire score, “Riding Off, APPALOOSA End Credits” features this theme passed around the ensemble with interjecting solo riffs from a variety of instruments like solo violin, piano, harmonica, trombone, and tuba much like a jazzy Glenn Miller jam session. Truly a master stroke of creativity.
The score was released on CD by Lakeshore Records (LKS 340432) and is also available on iTunes.
[find it HERE]
01. SPEED RACER (2008) by Michael Giacchino – I speak and write so often about my unmitigated passion for film scores that when I encounter film music as inspiring and remarkable as SPEED RACER I find myself painted into the proverbial corner with no vocabulary left to properly express my true feelings. Mere words seem passé when confronting the very core of what feeds your passion.
I wrote a full review of the score for SPEED RACER earlier in the year. [find it HERE] I revisited it hoping to mine some of the language in order to help more accurately encapsulate my current feelings but to no avail. There just isn’t any language left.
This is simply my favorite film score of 2008. It was an extremely easy decision. As much as I loved other scores this year, none will compare.
Every time I listen to the final climax of the film, as the Bruckner-ian low brass heralds the ascending “Here he comes…” motive, and the soaring voices of the choir celebrates Speed’s ultimate victory, I know I’ll be in a ceremonious state of unadulterated ecstasy. It’s a state only the very best film music is capable of taking me.
Don’t ever let anybody tell you there is no such thing as magic. Michael Giacchino’s score for SPEED RACER is just that…magic!
The score was released on CD by Varèse Sarabande (302 066 898 2) and is also available on iTunes.
[find it HERE]