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A Healthy Dose of Darkness: The Best Film Scores of 2014

The year 2014 saw classic composer/director teams hit new highs, as well as a considerable dark streak take over the world of film scoring.

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Artist: Rachel Portman

Album: Belle OST

Label: Varèse Sarabande

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Rachel Portman

Rachel Portman has long been film music's under appreciated treasure. Even when she's given mediocre-to-bad cinema to work with, she always gives it her best, which usually leads to highly memorable film scoring. Earlier this year, her work for the otherwise forgettable rom-com The Right Kind of Wrong proved to be an early-year gem, a bouncy and vivacious collection of songs that could turn even the greyest day into a sunny and peppy affair.

Portman's truest feat in 2014, however, is the graceful score to Belle, Amma Asante's period piece about the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle. Undoubtedly the most traditional score on this list, Belle nonetheless represents Portman's ability to write undeniably beautiful music in well-worn compositional modes. It's impossible to mistake Belle for anything but a period piece score, but when the music is this pretty, it's hard to find reasons to complain.

Portman also emphasizes the interplay between sweeping strings and delicate piano figures, a formula she nailed with her One Day OST in 2011. Belle OST is yet another reminder that Portman is one of the best in the biz, as evident in each new album.

Artist: Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec

Album: Whiplash OST

Label: Varèse Sarabande

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Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec

Given that Whiplash is a film about music, it'd have been pretty awkward if its score didn't match the highly-acclaimed film's level of finesse and intensity. Fortunately, those responsible for Whiplash OST did not disappoint, as the score is an absolute thrill and joy to listen to.

The influence of the suave scores to Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy by David Holmes can be heard in the original big band compositions by Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec, to say nothing of the long tradition of big band composition itself. However, in contrast to Holmes' often loosey-goosey compositional style (see the très chic score to Ocean's Twelve), Hurwitz and Simonec's compositions focus on tight and complex rhythms.

Since Whiplash tells the tale of an aspiring drummer, it's no surprise to hear the rhythm section sound as panache as it does on tracks like Hurwitz's "Overture" and Simonec's "Too Hip to Retire". There's even a blistering rendition of the Duke Ellington standard "Caravan", capped off by a drum solo that'll leave you breathless.

Well placed excerpts of the movie's dialogue and moments of whimsy break up these flashy technical displays. A memorable example of the latter is Hurwitz's charming "When I Wake", which sounds as if it is being played through a scratchy victrola. Whiplash OST is both a flawless complement to its film and the perfect thing to put on the speakers at your next swanky dinner party.

Artist: Mica Levi

Album: Under the Skin OST

Label: Milan

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Mica Levi
Under the Skin

In many ways, it's difficult to think of Mica Levi's harrowing score to Under the Skin as "music". These songs are often sonorous, yes. They have identifiable key signatures in some cases. But more than anything else, Under the Skin OST is the pure aural manifestation of terror. The strings creak and whip like an Arctic cold front. On tracks like "Andrew Void", the strings wail as were they a scream emitting from deep space. The one conventionally pretty moment here, "Love", is followed up by the menacing brood of "Bothy" and the spine-tingling "Death".

Under the Skin's jaw-dropping visuals require a sonic companion equally as singular, and Levi more than rose to the challenge in writing this score. Most stunning of all is the fact that this marks only her first foray into the world of film music, as it would be a major achievement for any composer to create something this distinctive. It's rare that a director's strikingly original vision is enhanced and equally met by a composer, which is why Levi ought to remain on the radar of any director seeking out a musician working at the edge of the form, perhaps even beyond it.

Artist: Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns

Album: Enemy OST

Label: Milan

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Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns

It's rare that a score is able to encapsulate the entire mood and ethos of a movie within itself; but, then again, Enemy OST is no ordinary score. This soundtrack, from the rising talent that is the duo of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns, draws on vintage thriller soundtrack tropes, all the while creating a pervasively foreboding mood all its own. The at times darkly comic landscapes that unfold on this album are not unlike that of Scott Walker's recent LPs, although there is none of Walker's signature campiness to cut through the frequently bleak mood. Instead, somewhat whimsical clarinets drag out long notes that are then cut off by pizzicato plucks and earth-rumbling bass notes. When moments of rhapsodic beauty peer through the glum, as the violins do at the end of "I Think You Know", they only serve to bring listeners back into Bensi and Jurrianns' morose vision.

Following Prisoners (2013) and now Enemy, director Denis Villenueve is looking like a mighty fine candiate to pick up where Hitchcock left off. Should he stick with Bensi and Jurrianns, that feat would be even more likely.

Artist: Victor Reyes

Album: Grand Piano OST

Label: Moviescore Media

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Victor Reyes
Grand Piano

Grand Piano is a preposterous but ultimately trifling film. The premise is simple: after coming out of a self-imposed exile to play the piano concerto of his recently departed mentor, Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), in the middle of playing the piece, discovers a notation on his sheet music. The notation, written in bright red, tells Tom that if he does not play the piece perfectly, a sniper will shoot him immediately.

At a brisk 90 minutes, Grand Piano doesn't let this unbelievable plot outstay its welcome, and in the end the movie amounts to nothing more than Hitchcock-lite. However, the one benefit of the film's premise is that it centers the action on the titular instrument. This is where Spanish composer Victor Reyes, in tandem with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, comes in.

Grand Piano OST is a film music revelation, yet it also hearkens back to the time when renowned composers like Dmitri Shostakovich and Dmitri Prokofiev would write scores that matched their symphonic work. Apropos of the plot, Reyes wrote a dizzying three-movement piano concerto, along with a tense opening teaser track and a virtuosic piece for solo piano that would give even Franz Liszt reason to pause ("La Cinquette"). In strict terms, the "Grand Piano Concerto" doesn't feel like a traditional concerto, but rather an amalgam of concerto structures with the ethos of a movie score. However, it is precisely this union that makes Reyes' vision so stunning.

On its own, the soundtrack has the feel of a standalone classical composition, but it also fits like a glove within the context of the film. Albums like Enemy OST and Under the Skin OST are forward-thinking in their own right, and sonically each one presented the most unique moods and textures in the genre this year. The achievement of Grand Piano's music, however, is that it both expands what is possible in scoring a film all the while calling back to the genre's legendary roots. Whereas Enemy and Under the Skin OSTs equally match the excellence of their films, Grand Piano OST entirely outstrips the celluloid it was written for. Reyes here reminds us that far from nicely arranged background music, film scores are as high an art form as any other.

Splash image: Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy (2014, dir. Denis Villenueve)

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