Throughout history, music has been an essential component to the cinematic experience. Even back in the silent era, films had amazing scores that helped to fully tell the story. Nowadays, we see, or more accurately hear, powerful scores and catchy soundtracks that elevate movies to the highest levels. As part of our celebration of the best of 2019, we’re going to be counting down the ten best soundtracks as well as the ten best scores of the year!
Below are ten original scores and ten soundtracks that represent eighteen different cinematic achievements. The fact that only two titles crossed over to both shouldn’t be seen as a bad sign, but rather how diverse the sounds of 2019 were. The year was truly a strong one for music in the movies. Featuring submissions by multiple members of the staff, this shows the passion that good music can bring out in a cinephile. Whether it’s tender compositions or chart-topping tunes, everything we’ve got to share with you is a bit of movie music that touched our hearts. We hope you enjoy!
Honorable Mentions: “Avengers: Endgame” (Alan Silvestri), “Joker” (Hildur Guðnadóttir), and “Marriage Story” (Randy Newman)
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”
The score of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is languid, sorrowful, and desperately longing. Its grand classical style is infused with a more modern, soulful sensibility, rich and romantic. There are tracks that feel like hymns, mourning the loss of something indescribably dear. What better tone for a film about a man struggling to come to terms with the loss of a home, a way of life, perhaps forever?
Emile Mosseri builds a score that is as much a work of art as the gorgeous imagery featured in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” It’s supplemented by the highlight of the soundtrack, a soaring rendition of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by Michael Marshall, whose voice you may also recognize from “I Got 5 On It,” a song featured in Jordan Peele’s “Us” as well. (Audrey Fox)
The Haxan Cloak (Bobby Krlic)
The composer Bobby Krlic (aka The Haxan Cloak) is known for his eerie instrumental style, mixing traditional orchestral sounds with synthesized electronica. His vision makes him a perfect choice to do the score for “Midsommar” and sync in with the picture’s fluctuating tone. The luminous harps playing during “Prophesy,” the opening track, make the viewer feel serene before they become paralyzed by the jarring violins on “Gassed.”
It then possesses a morbid undertone that mirrors the duplicitous nature of the antagonistic pagan cult which the main characters encounter. The track “Attestupan” successfully mixes the jubilant and macabre together. It starts off as peaceful, but when a particular death is about to happen during the scene where it plays, an ominous cacophony becomes heard and gets louder as the moment progresses.
The composition on “Midsommar” is a fine example of a score acting as its own character. Brilliantly deceptive while inducing fear at each pivotal moment. In the eyes of Academy voters, the idea of the score being nominated is likely more terrifying than the film itself since it didn’t make the Original Score shortlist. However, it still remains effective. (Matthew St. Clair)
One of the year’s best and most unique films was Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit.” And a unique film requires a score that can match it. Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino said the director summed up his request with a question: “Do you remember how you made me feel during ‘Up?’” And with that, he set out to find the heart of the story of a ten-year-old Nazi’s emotional and educational journey.
Giacchino’s work takes the listener along with Jojo Betzler. We first meet a naive and enthusiastic child, eventually seeing him through the fears and anxieties and hope of a child on the precipice of growing up too soon. Incorporating a small orchestra, a children’s choir, and youthful sounds like a recorder ensemble, Giacchino brandishes the magic that has made him one of the most in-demand film composers working today.
The score for “Jojo Rabbit” is an emotional experience. On its own, it is beautiful music that invokes feelings of excitement and melancholy. But paired with Waititi’s candy colored satire, Michael Giacchino does, indeed, make us feel the way we did during “Up.” It is not only one of the best scores of the year, but also one of the best he has ever written. (Karen Peterson)
A good score can take you to faraway lands, tell dazzling stories and unearth powerful emotions all from the perfect orchestral blend. Alexandre Desplat knows better than many how a beautiful score can make or break a film. His work in “Little Women” elevates an already great film to the level of a true classic.
Desplat’s score helps us place where we are in the film’s timeline just as much as the hairstyling, cinematography and editing do. Scenes during the March girls’ childhood are filled with whimsy and promise. Early on, “The Beach” makes the audience feel they are prancing and frolicking with our quartet of heroines. All of this comes in sharp contrast to the minimal score during a later emotional beach scene set during Jo’s adulthood. Greta Gerwig structures the movie more like an emotional stream of consciousness, rather than a linear series of actions. It recalls how we remember our own childhood memories, often in fits and starts and usually as a means of escape from distress in the present. It’s easier to think back to problems that felt so small when faced with new challenges one doesn’t know how to navigate.
Sometimes Desplat ties the pains of adult responsibility to moments of childlike giddiness. Meg (Emma Watson) struggles to buy a dress for herself amidst her tight budget. In “Meg’s Dress,” the piece starts solemn before breaking into high piano notes that twinkle and inspire, if just for a moment. An act of kindness brings back a swell of emotional connection to the past.
More than anything, Desplat’s score for “Little Women” whisks the audience away. It transports us to a Concord of the past that feels both painfully real and wonderfully fantastical. If nothing else, “Little Women” presents itself as a melodramatic fable of what it’s like to grow up. The score manages to conjure feelings of nostalgia for Christmases warm by the fire, child-like squabbles and the invincibility and simplicity of youth. Just as the characters grow and mature, so does the score. “Laurie and Jo on the Hill” starts like many of the other pieces from the youth. However, now adults, Laurie and Jo must make serious decisions on what their relationship will be. It’s as sweeping and sad as any scene about professing love should be. It feels appropriate to profess my love for “Little Women” as it plays in the background. (Chris James)
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”
There were epic film scores long before John Williams composed the rousing fanfare that opened the very first “Star Wars” film. But his work through the nine films of the Skywalker Saga stand as a legacy that can never be matched.
It is fitting that Williams, now retired, chose to end his career with the final entry in the franchise that made him the best known and most awarded composer in film history. And though some may disagree, it is fitting that the Academy would honor his last composition with his 52nd Oscar nomination.
As part of a franchise eleven films deep, there are certain throughlines that connect the core sound that makes “Star Wars” what it is. But the score of “Rise of Skywalker” isn’t just more of the same. Building upon earlier tones and textures, Williams bridges a galaxy’s well-worn history with its unknown future.
The score of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is exciting, intense, lovely, and a perfect sendoff to the series that changed cinema. (KP)
In crafting “Western Stars” from an album to a documentary/concert film, Bruce Springsteen needed to give the music a distinct feel. The album already had a distinct feel, echoing the California pop from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as country. Springsteen had dabbled in the latter before, but the former was a new endeavor. So, he already had a selection of music unlike anything he’d experimented with to date. How would he make it even more distinctive?
The answer came through a mixture of the visuals he came up with (having co-directed the movie with Thom Zimny), as well as a longer orchestral lead up to some of the tracks. As The Boss muses about life, the sounds begin to build, not just lending extra credence to his words of wisdom, but leading you into the impending song. It’s incredibly subtle, but brilliant. Then, of course, the actual tunes are tremendous.
“Western Stars” weaves the sounds of a record seamlessly with the added sounds for the doc. It’s an nontraditional pick, but one that highlights just how diverse and interesting the year has been for cinematic music. (Joey Magidson)
Perhaps no genre of film relies on its score more than horror. When thrillers and horror films execute, there are few musical notes that feel as instantly iconic. John Williams’ score for “Jaws” suffers from that fate, with the iconic notes overshadowing the brilliant adventure score that permeates the rest of the film. Yet those notes are so iconic, it becomes engrained in every human being on the planet.
For Michael Abels, his “Us” score suffers from that very fate. The instantly iconic riff pulling from “I’ve Got 5 On It” became ever-present throughout the first half of the year. It was so expertly constructed, many jumped to conclusions the score would be disqualified from Oscar. Regardless of its awards chances, a wonder cauchopheny of tension created melodies lurks below the surface of Jordan Peele’s latest film.
Abels creates a stunning tribute to horror gone by, while forging new ground rooted in experimental tones. The scratching of strings harkens to the scores of Bernard Herrmann, while bass heavy chase sequences create plodding dread. The slow and methodical pace of a track like “Run” sells the mood and tone. Meanwhile, “Femme Fatale” feels like it was birthed from “Rebecca,” just before the chord progression comes back. Abels lets the influx of new instruments tell us as the characters gain more information. He then strips them away when their fear becomes primal. In “Us,” Abels lays a real claim to Horror Score of the decade and crafts a stunning musical journey as a result. (Alan French)
Seventeen Oscar nominations and no wins positions veteran composer Thomas Newman as the most overdue technical artist in Hollywood. Thankfully, Newman’s astonishing score in “1917” is a career best that deserves to end his tragic streak of losses. Where other composers tweak past themes for new dramatic projects, Newman adheres solely to the mood of war — its heroism, its brutality, and its thundering human heart beating at the core. An epic war film necessitates epic music to accompany, and Newman’s dynamic score is every bit the supportive journeyman as the two British soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) combating the harsh elements of nature and nihilism.
There is no better cue of emotion from the past cinematic decade than when the swelling of music rises to courageous crescendo during that unforgettable final run across open battlefield. Newman’s masterful orchestration provides soaring momentum that immerses while nourishing the soul. (Joseph Braverman)
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Male anger and rage were prevalent throughout film in 2019. Dozens of films became showcases for raw and emotionally fraught men, creating something of a troublesome theme for the year. Few composing duos seem to channel masculine anger like Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. Their ability to create hypnotic meditations allows their work to plant its fishhooks in your brain. If Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves” were only focused on that anger, Reznor & Ross would likely have found their way onto this list. With “Waves,” they face their toughest challenge yet. Blending together a non-stop barrage of pop and rap, while also guiding us through the emotional complexities of their characters, Reznor & Ross deliver a spellbinding score.
With its two act-structure, “Waves” takes drastically different tones to its unusual narrative. Reznor and Ross rise to meet the challenge head on, creating their own two act structure within the score. When you begin their compositions, the anger builds and builds from each section, culminating in the bizarre and minimalist “Feedback Loop” that holds for a full eleven minutes. The track consumes you like a ghost, infusing breathe, seemingly broken sirens, and electronically altered voices along the way.
In Act 2, the two immediately take a much softer tone. Yet this does not take away from our characters, but instead enhances the empathy towards their sorrow. This grief becomes all consuming, and the low tones melt into the background. They become ever-present but contain a twinge of hopefulness. What begins as a rage-infused meditation becomes something more freeing. Reznor & Ross guide us through the emotional wreckage of this family, helping us come out the other side. (AF)
Silence is all encompassing in space. And yet, Max Richter makes the music in the space tale “Ad Astra” one of its most engrossing elements. Just listen to a track like “To the Stars” and you’ll understand. Every year, a score just blows you away and stands out from the rest of the pack. This is that score.
A mix of abstract, experimental, and orchestral sounds, Richter brings multiple elements together in an elegant orgy of emotion. Removed from the movie, it’s a haunting series of pieces, nearly operatic in its power. When experienced within the film, mixed with the visuals contained throughout the Brad Pitt vehicle, it becomes something even more powerful. Whether it’s electronic beats, strings, or even vocal sounds, there isn’t an auditory choice that doesn’t work.
James Gray made a ton of bold and fruitful decisions in the making of “Ad Astra.” As it turns out, hiring Richter was among the best choices he made. 2019 had a ton of great scores, but this one is the best, hands down. Gray and Richter paired to create something truly special. (JM)