The Best Film Scores of 2013

[11 December 2013]

By Brice Ezell and Robert Rubsam

The end of 2013 marks the first half year of the existence of “Notes on Celluloid”, and I’m happy to say that thus far, things have been going remarkably well. The column has been fortunate enough to showcase interviews with some of film music’s eminent composers, Clint Mansell and Cliff Martinez, in particular.

Then there’s the matter of the body of film scores and soundtracks released this year, which is, as is usually the case, voluminous. Film music is unlike any other genre when it comes to end-of-the-year reminiscing, for whereas in most cases an artist can escape the follies of the genre he plays in even if it’s become unmemorable as a movement (See Touché Amoré‘s Is Survived By, a gem nearly drowned out by the muddy waters of the so-called “emo revival”), with scoring, much of the probability of success for the music is contingent on the quality of the celluloid it is paired with.

Were 2013 to be dominated by more films like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 than those like Prince Avalanche, the world would have heard a very different set of tunes. Fortunately, what the year did bring was a rather impressive collection of scores and soundtracks, ten particularly great ones of which are documented below. Both film and television are considered, though one honorable mention from the world of video gaming—which, even more than film music, is criminally overlooked—is worth pointing out. Brice Ezell

 


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David Wingo

Mud

(Lakeshore)

10

David Wingo
Mud

If with Explosions in the Sky Ola Podrida’s David Wingo moved toward the intimate with Lucero, he pushes upward and out, transforming the Memphis band’s rootsy punk with violin stabs and percussion plunks. Much of Mud feels as if it possesses a greater thing inside of something small, the skin ripping to show you what lives underneath. Wingo pushes the rudiments of Americana through a meat grinder, resulting in accordion that menaces, guitars that creep, all festooned in pronounced horns and swelling strings.  In feel, at least, it approaches old Ennio Morricone scores, a comparison I’m sure Wingo wouldn’t mind one bit. Robert Rubsam

 


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Jon Hopkins

How I Live Now

(JustMusic)

9

Jon Hopkins
How I Live Now

In more ways than one, Jon Hopkins’ score to Kevin Macdonald’s film How I Live Now picks up where his ingenious Immunity left off earlier in the year, particularly with the sparse, piano-led cut “Abandon Window.” Like that sonic meditation, How I Live Now focuses on the space between ambience and individual notes; Hopkins creates wide-open sonic spaces and methodically interrupts the airy tension and tranquility with gorgeous piano chords and melodies, which both beautify the landscape and problematize it. Just as the post-nuclear fallout of How I Live Now frequently moves from serenity and chaos (“Distant Fire” even evokes the doomy two-note horn motif from Inception), Hopkins guides the natural movement of these tracks as they range a continuum spanning intimate beauty and tense anticipation. Brice Ezell

 


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Steven Price

Gravity

(WaterTower)

8

Steven Price
Gravity

Upon the release of Gravity, director Alfonso Cuaron, already revered for classics such as Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien, was showered with garlands of critical praise that seemed to flow from an endless fount. Cuaron’s achievement is considerable, but equally impressive is composer Steven Price’s skill in maintaining the intensity of the film’s narrative in the format of the soundtrack CD. There are long stretches of the Gravity OST when not much happens—until, of course, it happens. Price knows how to make a crescendo feel exciting without making it totally obvious that it’s on the horizon. If it’s true that in outer space no one can hear you scream, Price’s score to Gravity is an auditory manifestation of the realization of that terror. Brice Ezell

 


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Explosions in the Sky & David Wingo

Prince Avalanche

(Temporary Residence)

7

Explosions in the Sky & David Wingo
Prince Avalanche

Most impressive among Wingo’s skills as a composer is how he draws new and surprising sounds out of his collaborators, turning expectations on their head. Though many of us know Explosions in the Sky as an epic rock band, hitting emotional peaks through guitar strums, with Wingo it produces something at once subdued and tense, a flipside to their work in Friday Night Lights, dominated by acoustic guitar and clarinet, oscillating between tuneful movements and Tim Hecker-style collages. Avalanche is a small film, and so its score feels intimate, though always threatening to soar. Robert Rubsam

 


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A Hawk and a Hacksaw

You Have Already Gone to Another World

(LM Dupli-cation)

6

A Hawk and a Hacksaw
You Have Already Gone to Another World

Though Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, the Sergei Parajanov film A Hawk and a Hacksaw has scored, is from 1964, the band’s soundtrack feels fresh. Mixing traditional eastern European folk songs with its own numbers, A Hawk and a Hacksaw capture the wild joy, pandemonium, and sorrow of a film concerned with witchcraft and the connections between life and death. The soundtrack is most effective when channeling the rhythm and spirit of celebration, particularly through a prominent use of percussive beats, at times chaotic, as on “Witch’s Theme” and “Horses of Fire Rachenitsa”. A Hawk and a Hacksaw captures the soul of a world where magic is not yet lost, and then brings it to us, life still caught in its jaws. Robert Rubsam

5 - 1


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Cliff Martinez

Only God Forgives

(Milan)

5

Cliff Martinez
Only God Forgives

Cliff Martinez’s Drive, unlike any other film score in recent years, was a massive breakthrough, and with Only God Forgives—a film even bleaker than that Los Angeles noir—Martinez is back at it again with director Nicolas Winding Refn, with deliciously dark results. Whereas Drive‘s music is glossed with a subtle ‘80s sheen, Only God Forgives utilizes the stylistics and moods of dark ambient and electronic music, with punctuated stabs of Thai karaoke and Daft Punk-esque high voltage (the aptly named “Wanna Fight”). It’s the former that proves especially effective at elevating this soundtrack above simple noir-by-numbers; in juxtaposing sounds familiar to the hood-and-trenchcoat genre with murky, fog-evoking synths, Martinez, in tandem with Refn’s film, pushes noir into new realms. “I think I’m getting good at the dark thing,” Martinez told me in the September entry of “Notes on Celluloid”. Much like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, Martinez gets more and more thrilling as his style descends into bleaker, more murderous territory. Brice Ezell

 


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Shane Carruth

Upstream Color

(erbp)

4

Shane Carruth
Upstream Color

The score for Upstream Color feels most intimate and massive, like two lovers standing on an endless plateau. Carruth—who, it bears mentioning, also served as the film’s director, writer, producer, editor, cinematographer, etc., etc.—favors tonal clusters and long protracted notes, often in rhythms of two or three, and he uses synthesizers and programming to mimic the sounds of acoustic instruments like strings and horns under duress, barking at the audience from somewhere far away. Like the film it soundtracks, the score is decidedly smooth and languid, favoring rounded edges to points, more evocative than textual. It’s fantastic. Robert Rubsam

 


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Rick Smith

Trance

(UMe)

3

Rick Smith
Trance

Danny Boyle and Underworld are at a point in their collaborative career where they’re comfortable with each other. This is not to say, however, that they’ve stopped pushing themselves into exciting new territory. Following Underworld’s long history with Boyle, including a jaw-dropping score to Boyle’s underrated masterpiece Sunshine, founding member Rick Smith teamed up with Boyle for Trance, a kinetic, more Freudian take on the mind games of Inception. Smith matches Boyle’s Technicolor energies with appropriate aplomb, moving from hypnotic figures (“Bullet Cut”) to reflective pieces (“Raw Umber”) to club bumpers (“The Heist”). Trance is a difficult film; its mental trickery is as obfuscated for the audience as it is for the characters on the screen. In capturing the shifting realities of Boyle’s cinematic world, Smith proves yet again that Underworld and Boyle are at the forefront of film scoring in the present day. Brice Ezell

Trance

Soundtrack Featurette

 


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Mogwai

Les Revenants

(Rock Action)

2

Mogwai
Les Revenants

For the soundtrack to this French TV show, Mogwai work in miniature, eking power out of minor additions of percussion and synthesizer chimes. While the band’s music is no stranger to themes, as most of its best songs follow simple patterns to exciting ends, this soundtrack is a forcible constriction, requiring songs to get to the point quickly. It’s a slimming down of the band’s sound, but also a revitalizing. If a sound is present, it feels vital and necessary, and there is no repetition for repetition’s sake. “Whiskey Time” features bass playing melodic counterpoint to piano, and “Relative Hysteria”, with its dramatically rising guitar line and undergirding synths, may be the best song Mogwai has made in years. Les Revenants (The Returned) feels like a rapid racking of the focus, the band’s goals thrown sharply into view. Mogwai finds a way to be thrilling without telling us why. Robert Rubsam

 


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Mike Patton

The Place Beyond the Pines

(Milan)

1

Mike Patton
The Place Beyond the Pines

If there’s one thing everyone can count on Mike Patton to do this far into his lengthy career, it’s to never stop surprising. From a collection of Italian pop songs to a film noir soundtrack—to say nothing of his tenure in the zany Mr. Bungle—Patton continues to take on projects that expand his polymath tendencies into new realms. In particular, scoring for film has become one of the main ways he’s shown his talent; following the mathematically minded score to the film adaptation of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, his work for Derek Cianfrance’s bold epic The Place Beyond the Pines. Incorporating elements from Prime Numbers and his first soundtrack, A Perfect Place, Pines interweaves haunting choral passages (check the smart inclusion of “Miserere Mei”) and moody guitars, with a recapitulation of the wistful “Snow Angel” theme from Prime Numbers included for good measure. Now only four scores into his film career, Patton is showing off impressive talent, advancing his skills both as a film scorer and a musician as a whole. Brice Ezell

 

Honorable Mention


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Gustavo Santaolalla

The Last of Us

(Sony Masterworks)

Gustavo Santaolalla
The Last of Us

I have never finished a game and realized I needed to hear the score again. Even when a big-name composer is involved, the result is typically bland, the dynamics over exaggerated, the theme screaming “Isn’t this catchy?!?!?” at you. This is because, even more so than in movies, games relegate the score to pure white noise; beyond certain controlled moments, moving the game at the player’s pace prevents the kind of thematic evocation we get in a well-scored film. But Santaolalla, who has also composed for big-name movies like The Motorcycle Diaries, allows The Last of Us to be a brutal, coarse thing, beautiful without any sugary sweetness. Primarily written for nylon string guitar, the result is sparse, open, but utterly devastating when paired with the game. The use of “The Choice”, a distorted guitar figure, as the game harshly transitions from “Summer” to “Spring” is daring, unsettling, and as vicious as anything else we see, even though it is just a black title screen. Without the music, the scene would still produce an effect; with Santaolalla’s score, it becomes unforgettable. Robert Rubsam

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/176673-the-best-film-scores-of-2013/