Monday, January 2, 2012

Top 5 Favorite Scores and Soundtracks

Last year I wrote an article about my favorite scores and soundtracks from 2010. I had a great experience doing that as my writing almost felt more natural and honest. It was fun to try and balance the piece of music on its own against its use and purpose in the film. Ultimately though, I find myself feeling like I'm writing these articles blindly. Here is my knowledge of music on a yearly basis- aside from songs I hear in movies/TV/commercials and recommendations from friends or critics, I have a bunch of random bands and artists that I'm an admirer of, they release new stuff, I listen to it on Youtube on a playlist, and then it sort of just all blends together. I'm moved, but my problem with attempting to analyze or critique a piece of music is I don't know where to start. If I can be moved by it (whether emotionally or literally tapping my foot) and not be annoyed or bothered by it- I liked it. So keeping my tendencies and shortcomings in mind, here are my five favorite scores and soundtracks from the year 2011.


5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II by Alexandre Desplat
This is a somewhat difficult score to evaluate. Desplat is using many of the themes established by John Williams in the first three films. "Hedwig's Theme" in particular is used quite effectively during the film's final 'set-in-the-future' scene. Still, if you go through and actually listen to what is Desplat's versus what is Williams' and Nicholas Hooper's, you can see where he went off and made sure that this series ended on the kind of note it should end on. The film's epic scale is matched by its score whether it is in the action sequences or the character moments.
Sample track- "Lily's Theme"

4. Hanna by Tom Rowlands & Ed Simons a.k.a. The Chemical Bros.
This is a score that goes against the grain similar in a sense to asking Daft Punk to score Tron: Legacy. Then again, this is a movie that goes against the grain. Frankly, only a director with the stylings of Joe Wright can take such a script and embue his auteuristic tendencies on it from start to finish. It makes sense that using an electronic score for such a film would actually manage to play with expectations while only furthering the atmosphere of the film. Whether it is in a scene where a character is running or walking, the constant thumping and synethic noises only help with the films already oft-beat aurora.
Sample track- "Container Park"

3. Shame by Harry Escott
A lot of the music in Shame was previously released. Escott, similar as say Desplat with The Tree of Life, mostly chooses to create a few shorter pieces of music to connect the classical or jazzy music that is completely diagetic (see my #5 Soundtracks pick for more on that). That being said, there are few noticable sequences where Escott's own score is playing while Brandon's neverending life of anguish is being displayed in either long shots or montages. Specifically towards the end of the film, when Brandon slips completely into sex-fueled madness, Escott delivers a piece of music that sounds like it was a classic composition chosen for instead of written for the film.
Sample track- "Unravelling"

2. Super 8 by Michael Giacchino
Giacchino has been a favorite of mine since his work with J.J. Abrams (Lost, Mission Impossible III, Star Trek) and with Pixar Studios (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up). Re-teaming with Abrams, Giacchino does something that another favorite composer on my list also accomplished- a homage to the music John Williams has composed with Steven Spielberg (the other being Desplat working with Williams' score for Harry Potter). I say homage and not impersonation because Giacchino's work is still wholly original as he captures the loss of innocence and wonder that is held in the character of Joe Lamb. Giacchino is an expert at echoing the feelings of a story and its characters just in the music alone with the absence of any sort of image. Working with Abrams only deepens the already established impact.
Sample track- "Letting Go"

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross/War Horse by John Williams- TIE
Perhaps this is me trying to make a comparision where there is none, but these two scores are masterful for the same reason while almost being used in a completely different manner. As to be careful as to not sound nonsensical or hypocritical, I feel that Reznor and Ross' score is more atmospheric (for lack of a better word) in nature. It plays quitely under the action to add a little eeriness. On the other hand, Williams' score is loud and bolstering during sequences of emense cinematographic and emotional beauty. They are both furthering the tone, mood, and themes of their respective films and yet one is sublte and the other is noticable. The important part of what I'm struggling to say is that they both work. The sense of Fincher's grittiness and Spielberg's wonder are only compounded with the scores and that is why I can't seem to pick between the two.
Sample tracks- "What If We Could" (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and "Plowing" (War Horse)


5. Original songs, covers, and that one from Melancholia
It was becoming tough to rank the soundtracks because some movies only had a single original song (for which many organizations give awards for) or a cover while others included a several. Not to say that the movies I'm about to list did not include other music, but the songs I'm going to mention are the 'main attractions'.
"About Today" by The National (Warrior)- A movie that only becomes more affecting as you start to ruminate on its themes of family, loyalty, and betrayal. This song, which plays in the final moments of the film, adds to the moving nature of rediscovering the love and admiration you may have once held for a friend or in this case, a brother.
"Immigrant Song" by Karen O. and Trent Reznor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)- A cover of the hit Led Zeppelin song, now with a woman wailing. A song that is about a stranger coming (or 'immigrating') to a new world is reflective of the characters of Mikael and Lisbeth as they leave their lives of liberal journalism and illegal hacking behind to solve a murder mystery. This song plays over the disturbing opening credits sequence that feels like it could've been for a James Bond movie.
"Love Love" by Take That (X-Men: First Class)- Speaking of James Bond movies, X-Men: First Class was very much almost inspired by those retro-Bond films from both the perspective of its music and story. Instead of gadgets, you just have mutant superpowers belonging to a group of teenagers and their two wards who are caught up in a game of espionage. The song which plays during the end credits references that 'British-pop' sound while still managing to reflect the struggles in the film's narrative.
"New York, New York" by Carey Mulligan (Shame)- The song is performed in a single shot as Sissy sings it at an upscale NYC bar and Brandon sits in the crowd and gives in to tears. The scene is almost being discussed more than the film's open approach to sex and nudity. Is the song saying that there is hope for one like Brandon or is the song saying that he is hopeless? The film has taken a ballad that is celebatory in nature and placed it smack in the middle of one of the most haunting movie-going experiences of the year.
"Tristan and Isolde Prelude" by Richard Wagner (Melancholia)- I'm kind of cheating here. This is not an original song nor is it a cover. Von Trier normally does not like to use music in his film, but this piece of classical music is the only composition that plays in Melancholia and it is used repeatedly. There is something about this that makes it perfect for a film about the end of the world. It both encapsulates the film's beautiful imagery as well as the impending tension and sense of doom that these characters experience.

4. The Muppets
The latest Muppets film, for all its intents and purposes, is what I'd consider a musical. Musical sequences have always been an important part of Muppets-lore, but Bret McKenzie and his collaborators have created about forty minutes of music that celebrates the joyous satire that these characters have become known for. After all, this movie's screenplay by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller is building to the main event of the Muppets putting on an extravagent performance, so the soundtrack plays a very important part in the narrative. Plus, Chris Cooper raps. That can only be a good thing.
Sample track- "Life's a Happy Song" by Amy Adams, Jason Segel, and others.

3. The Descendants
One of the film's most important elements is its use of Hawaiian music. Yes, the film obviously takes place in Hawaii and using a type of music that most can identify as Hawaiian will help establish the films setting, but there is still something about how the music is used. For example, there is a yodeling tune that sounds pretty ridiculous by itself and yet if comments perfectly on Matt's revelation about how he should handle his professional and personal lives colliding. What could be easy-listening music by itself is instead worked into the film's narrative and serves to work alongside the script as a means to give the audience the desired experience.
Sample track- "Hawaiian Skies" by Jeff Peterson

2. The Tree of Life
Like much of Terrence Malick's previous films, the narrative is edited together to almost feel like a never-ending montage. You walk away from his films like you've just been through a dream or a spiritual epiphany. Alexandre Desplat and Malick have chosen a collection of pieces of classical music to accompany a film that is as ambitious as it is heartfelt. Whether it is the wonder of the cosmos, a young boy growing up under a harsh father in 1950s Texas, or a man who is trying to be at peace too late in his life- the soundtrack of The Tree of Life is sure to encompass all that it is intended for a storyline that begs to ask what the purpose of life must be.
Sample track- "The Moldau River" by Stanislav Gorkovenko

1. Drive
The less said about Drive's soundtrack, the better. This is a film that has an incredible screenplay, a fantastic cast, and beautiful cinematography all under the guiding hand of one of the most exciting directors around. Yet, the tone and mood is the film's greatest strength so what better way to present the equivalent of a European art film that takes place in Los Angeles than by making an abstractly artful choice at what songs should play during the film. The film feels like some sort of fairy tale romance with bloody head-bashing. With that vision in mind, director Nicolas Winding Refn, composer Cliff Martinez and sound mixer Johnny Jewel (with suggestions from editor Matt Newman) have gone about crafting a 80s-flavored electronic pop-influencd soundtrack that is as memorable as just about everything else in this masterful drama.
Sample track- "Nightcall" by Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx

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