2018 felt like it was jam-packed with great film music. Carter Burwell lent tenderness and grace to the Coens’ bleak Ballad of Buster Scruggs. David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel marked John Carpenter’s “triumphant” return to the franchise. Most notably, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who passed away in February of this year, gave Van Halen and Queen-inspired soundscapes to the feverish Mandy.
There was plenty of exciting work from fresher faces, too. Nathan Halpern’s somber compositions added to the lyricism of Minding the Gap and The Rider. Experimental cellist Erik Friedlander added yips and yelps to Thoroughbreds‘ misanthropy, and score or not, the original songwriting on A Star is Born still hasn’t gotten out of my head.
With all that in mind, I’ve narrowed down an excellent year in scores to the selections below. (Honorable mentions go to Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse, The Old Man and the Gun and If Beale Street Could Talk, three scores which I love to pieces despite not having seen their respective films.)
Annihilation — Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury
Alex Garland’s follow-up to 2014’s excellent Ex Machina is never sure what it wants to say. While that uncertainty benefits little beyond a mind-warping ending, the same can’t be said for Annihilation‘s music. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury set a sonic stage for “The Shimmer,” the alien ecosystem that slowly encroaches on all of Earth’s established life. Acoustic guitar pays homage to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping,” the film’s musical love-line between Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. Of course, the composer duo’s third-act gift comes in the form of big synths, heralding the creation of the strange and new. For a score that’s conventional in all the ways it needs to be, it’s a brilliant (and terrifying) change.
Incredibles 2 — Michael Giacchino
Hollywood’s punniest composer has made a name for himself with cheeky soundtrack listings, but his flexibility extends beyond names like “Consider Yourselves Undermined!” and “Incredits 2.” 14 years after the original Incredibles, Michael Giacchino’s 60s retro cool is back with the returning composer doubles down on his John Barry-inspired instrumentation. Elastigirl’s tussle with the mind-controlling Screenslaver features a tug of war between snarling brass that strikes a perfect balance between tension and fun.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout — Lorne Balfe
I wrote about the striking similarities between Fallout and The Dark Knight, but Hans Zimmer protege Lorne Balfe does plenty on his own for this mission. His piano figures are complex and mysterious, and beefy brass sections beef up already beefy ostinatos. For the purest sign of success, look no further than the cataclysmic main titles. From that earlier post:
Like everything else in Fallout, the music is in service of one goal: Letting us see Tom Cruise do crazy shit. In this way, the latest and greatest Mission: Impossible is pure cinema, distilled from millions of dollars spent toward satisfying one man’s death wish. There’s a macabre satisfaction that comes with its soundtrack, in getting lost in this L’appel du vide. Listening to these main titles over (and over) again feels like giving into something larger and scarier than yourself.
Eighth Grade — Anna Meredith
Bo Burnham’s feature-length debut tosses us into the deep-end of middle school anxiety. Propelled along via Anna Meredith’s jagged compositions, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) grits her teeth through classroom crushes and petrifying pool parties, experiences that seem benign and playful but hide a coming-of-age savagery that’s borderline violent. From an earlier post:
There were moments watching Eighth Grade where I felt like I was suffocating, trapped with Kayla in awkward conversation and cringing embarrassment. Other times, middle school didn’t seem like such a bad place. Whatever the emotions, the music was right there, often overwhelmingly so, and I was never quite sure if I was meant to bolt in the opposite direction or stick around and dance.
Solo: A Star Wars Story — John Powell/John Williams
The film itself won’t scratch my list of favorites, but Solo‘s music is another story. John Powell’s contributions range from the deliciously weird (goofy space duet “Chicken and the Pot”) to the downright refreshing (a reedy theme for Rebellion precursors Enfyss Nest). Most remarkable is how Powell weaves in and out of John Williams’ excellent new theme for Han Solo. “The Adventures of Han” is a rousing intro to the galaxy’s greatest smuggler as well as a premature sendoff before the franchise’s longtime composer says farewell for good with Episode IX. With its music, Solo‘s circle is now complete, and that’s no small miracle for a property that remains unsure of what it wants to be and where it wants to go.
Hereditary — Colin Stetson
Director Ari Aster gave me several sequences I’m not sure I’ll ever get out of my head, and yet for all of its shocks, Hereditary‘s greatest feat is capturing what grief feels like. It picks at you. Other times, it comes in waves. Hereditary‘s final sequence delivers insanity better than anything else at the multiplex this year, and Colin Stetson’s full-throated saxophonics are there waiting for us with a grin. It’s a depressingly perfect illustration of our divided states and the toll they ultimately take.
Paddington 2 — Dario Marianelli
On a much lighter note, “The New Wave of Nicecore” is here, and Dario Marianelli is a founding member. The music of Paddington 2 greets the world with a warm curiosity. It’s propulsive and infectious, sealed with Marianelli’s tender touches of piano with an ending that’s impossible not to feel good about. Just listen to how the music guides Paddington and Aunt Lucy on an imaginary “tour” via pop-up book. In all the ways Hereditary reflects what’s wrong about 2018, Paddington 2 is here for what’s right. A double-feature between the two would sum up quite about this past year, but maybe finish with this one?
Black Panther — Ludwig Goransson
I already went long on 2018’s very best film score, so I’ll just leave this here: