The Best Film Scores of 2018

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:

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Christmas Songs: A Definitive Guide

I am of the opinion that there are only a handful of Christmas songs one needs every December the 25th. From what I’ve gathered from friends, this opinion is not a popular one, but hear me out. Every year, Sirius DJs crank out Clay Aiken’s latest or some shoddy rehash of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” It’s all for naught. There are a number of Christmas songs that have a definitive version. The mic’s been dropped and there’s scant chance that anyone comes around with a version to knock it out of the park.

Just for fun, I present the definitive versions of several Christmas songs. You can indulge in any version of any song not on here. Otherwise, it’s on the naughty list for you and your poor taste.

  • “A Holly Jolly Christmas” – Burl Ives
  • “Jingle Bell Rock” — Bobby Helms
  • “White Christmas” — The Drifters
  • “All I Want For Christmas Is You” — Mariah Carey
  • “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” — The Ronettes
  • “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” — Brenda Lee

Merry Christmas

we-watch-wrestling-podcast-tom-sibley

Cheering for the heel

Last week, We Watch Wrestling announced that one of its co-hosts, Tom Sibley, would be leaving the show.

Truthfully, the writing had been on the wall for a while now. My favorite aspect of WWW is their release of monthly “bonus issues,” extra-long episodes exclusive to Patreon subscribers that dive into hours of vintage content on the WWE Network’s streaming service. These have covered everything from one-time WWF’s Thanksgiving specials or a classic pay-per-view from Philadelphia indie darling Extreme Championship Wrestling. While these episodes are always packed with nuggets of trivia and hilarious jokes from co-hosts Vince Averill and Matt McCarthy, Sibley’s participation had begun to feel obligatory as of late. Tellingly, the podcast episode prior to his announcement found Sibley joking about how the gang’s reminders to actually fulfill the show’s namesake were becoming a bugaboo.

On a personal note, I understand Sibley’s decision. As someone who had to walk away from his own project last year, virtually anything seems like a chore when your heart’s no longer in it. To put it another way: There’s no value in associating your time and effort with a product you’re not proud of.

In any case, I am saddened. As the show’s “pro wrestling padawan,” Sibley’s perspective was invaluable, balancing out McCarthy’s inside knowledge — he once wrote as a member of WWE’s creative team — and Averill’s encyclopedic memory with a newness that often flirted with ignorance. Professional wrestling is a weird, convoluted universe whose continuity a) never ends and b) never makes sense. Having a voice on the program that could step back and ask “Wait, what’s going on?” was essential to the show’s success.

On a more meta level, I will miss Sibley’s role as the show’s villain. Wrestling archetypes fall into two main categories: the good wrestlers or “babyfaces,” and the bad “heels.” Through the years, Sibley established a personal canon of criticisms, chastising older matches for their slow pacing and poking fun at Ric Flair, a sure-fire face on the Mount Rushmore of Pro Wrestling. His humor was crude, and at various live shows, he would infamously play up his affinity for sporting bare feet in public. Sibley was the heel of the show, and he knew it.

We Watch Wrestling is self-aware because it has to be. It’s a program that has to accept that an undead “Undertaker” could set fire to his half-brother only to have said half-brother return to seek revenge on and then ultimately team up with him for the next decade. Not only is We Watch Wrestling responsible for reigniting my interest in sports entertainment, it’s become a weekly source of comfort and entertainment. Averill and McCarthy have yet to announce the fate of the podcast going forward. In whatever fashion, I hope the show continues, if only to give me a reason to root for another bad guy.

‘Black Panther’ gave us the best score of 2018

Marvel movie music sucks.

As a whole, the drab bombast exists as just another means of propping up the Iron Mans and Black Widows of the Cinematic Universe, dramatic enough to propel action sequences but anonymous enough to never distract from Tony Stark’s shiny “Hulkbuster” armor. (Look no further than Every Frame A Painting‘s viral takedown of MCU scores for some concrete analysis).

So color me surprised to say I haven’t stopped thinking about Black Panther‘s music since February. Composer Ludwig Göransson hasn’t just written the best score for any Marvel movie ever; he’s written the best film music of any movie this year.

As a film, Black Panther has a lot to say. The fictional kingdom of Wakanda and its new ruler, T’Challa, draw on questions of culture and legacy and conquest — all of which are complicated with the introduction of violent usurper Killmonger. And, mind you, this is one of those rare superhero joints where the baddie has a not-entirely-unreasonable perspective.

Ultimately, the biggest idea on director Ryan Coogler’s mind centers around how people can learn to honor the past while not repeating it. It’s why Coogler begins and ends with a Wakandan “bugatti” spaceship landing in the middle of the Oakland projects.

It’s also why Göransson’s music is genius. The longtime Coogler collaborator traveled to Senegal for a month to study its music, following, among other musicians, Baaba Maal and incorporating recorded selections into orchestral arrangements. In blending contemporary action scoring with traditional African music, Göransson textures Black Panther with culture and ingenuity; it’s about as symbolically “Wakandan” as you can get. Among the many standout examples:

Black Panther‘s opening sequence is tremendously efficient in introducing Wakanda’s tribal history and cutting-edge technology, and the narration hints at subsequent geopolitical stakes as a result. And all of it transpires under this babbling brook of talking drums:

One of the strongest elements in Göransson’s work is how his recurring themes rest somewhere in between triumph and tragedy. His introduction for T’Challa as the Black Panther announces the character’s importance while never championing his actions against a terroristic Nigerian caravan:

As for the introduction to Wakanda, Goransson recalls T’Challa’s triplet theme but not before using a ceremonial “outcall” that glides over the African countryside. The result is a majestic balance of the country’s fictional present and its traditional past:

My favorite theme serves as a familial one, first playing under T’Challa when he reunites with his father’s spirit in the Ancestral Place. The sequence features this figure prominently, with gorgeous strings playing in unison:

Goransson issues variations on this theme throughout the film, including a darker distillation for Killmonger, which serves as the exclamation point at the end of his raid on a British museum. Knowing the story behind his true identity, it’s as clever a bit of foreshadowing as it is an empathetic acknowledgement that this particular villain’s complex pain is neither nor foreign not unjustified:

The MCU’s primary objective is to make inoffensive content first and push ideas second (or even third). Because of that low bar, Marvel’s successes are graded on a curve. But Black Panther is a rare exception, a cinematic miracle for any number of reasons, from its positioning of actors of color to its massive box office take. Its music is essential in understanding its success, introducing a fictional world while paying respect to a real one.

The magic is gone

Amazon hasn’t had a very good November, which is weird to say, given that the world’s largest internet retailer is about to receive billions of dollars from American taxpayers.

Earlier this month, Amazon announced that the widely-speculated location for its second headquarters would actually be split between Queens, New York and Crystal City, Virginia. It’s a news story I’ve been following with great interest, in part because of how well its captured the zeitgeist. Look no further than Saturday Night Live’s lampooning of the announcement this past weekend:

The central joke is that the company’s HQ2 location was just a flex for Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, but the larger point might be Steve Carell’s introductory aside:

And everyone, except for the people who live [in New York and Virginia] and the people who live in all the places we didn’t choose, is thrilled.

Donal Trump notwithstanding, who is thrilled about this? Amazon is projected to receive several billion dollars in tax subsidies, so the question of ‘Cui bono?’ is a serious one here. At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson broke down why it’s bad economics for American cities to cut a check to domestic companies:

One recent study by Nathan Jensen, then an economist at George Washington University, found that these incentives “have no discernible impact on firm expansion, measured by job creation.” Companies often decide where they want to go and then find ways to get their dream city, or hometown, to pay them to do what they were going to do anyway. For example, Amazon is a multinational company with large media and advertising divisions. The drama of the past 13 months probably wasn’t crucial to its (probable) decision to expand to New York City, the unambiguous capital of media and advertising.

Leading up to this announcement, there was ample speculation that Amazon would actually build its second headquarters in a predominantly rural community, boosting an impoverished economy in Coal County or the Deep South. Over at The Guardian, Robert Reich argues that it was silly to ever expect that:

Yes, corporate rents and housing costs are soaring, as are the costs of sending kids to school (even many “public” schools are in effect private ones because nobody but the rich can afford to live in the school district). But the incomes and profits generated in these places more than make up for it. Which is largely why Amazon chose New York and metro Washington despite their high costs.

As money pours into these places, so do service jobs that cater to the new wealth – pricey lawyers, wealth managers and management consultants, as well as cooks, baristas and pilates instructors. Between 2010 and 2017, according to Brookings, nearly half of America’s employment growth centered in just 20 large metro areas that are now home to about a third of the US population.

Relative to these booming mega-cities, America’s heartland is becoming older, less educated and poorer. The so-called “tribal” divide in American politics, which Trump has exploited, is better understood in these economic and cultural terms: on one side, mega-urban clusters centered around technologies of the future; on the other, great expanses of relatively open space inhabited by people left behind.

For The New York Times, J. David Goodman reported on the politically fraught process New York’s politicians engaged in to seal the deal:

…according to the broad contours of the plan, the state and the city will bypass the City Council, which has the power to block rezoning and land-use measures. They will instead employ a state-level process previously used for large-scale development projects, such as Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Hudson Yards on the Far West Side of Manhattan.

The price tag in city and state tax breaks appeared to exceed those of other projects. “It has the potential to be a deeper subsidy for Amazon as a percentage of the total project cost than at either Hudson Yards or Atlantic Yards,” said George Sweeting, the deputy director of the city’s nonpartisan Independent Budget Office.

The benefits for here have the potential to go well beyond the company’s bottom line. State Scoop‘s Benjamin Freed reported on Twitter that Amazon could be getting a free pass from the government on public disclosures:

Regardless of the company’s announcement, Amazon’s been in the news for bad reasons for some time now. Back in September, The New York Times profiled jurist Lina Khan, who’s been arguing for an antitrust case against the trillion-dollar company for over a year:

Over 93 heavily footnoted pages, [Khan] presented the case that the company should not get a pass on anticompetitive behavior just because it makes customers happy. Once-robust monopoly laws have been marginalized, Ms. Khan wrote, and consequently Amazon is amassing structural power that lets it exert increasing control over many parts of the economy.

Amazon has so much data on so many customers, it is so willing to forgo profits, it is so aggressive and has so many advantages from its shipping and warehouse infrastructure that it exerts an influence much broader than its market share. It resembles the all-powerful railroads of the Progressive Era, Ms. Khan wrote: “The thousands of retailers and independent businesses that must ride Amazon’s rails to reach market are increasingly dependent on their biggest competitor.”

Amazon’s also eased up on its quality control as of late. The excellent podcast Reply All did a special report on how the “Magic Store’s” gotten “sketchier” with hawking its wares. Earlier this month, BuzzFeed‘s Leticia Miranda wrote about how the retailer was selling merchandise from a political extremist group.

It’s easy to think of Amazon’s announcement as nothing more than a corporate publicity stunt and that any ensuing coverage is both a waste of time for the media and its readership. I wholeheartedly disagree. It’s essential to scrutinize any organization with as much capital and influence as Amazon. Regardless of what the residents of New York and Virginia believe, I’m glad I’m not alone on that.

Streaming giveth, and streaming taketh away

I just finished watching The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix.

Again, I just finished watching The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix.

Only a week after WarnerMedia announced it would be shutting down its FilmStruck arthouse movie service, Netflix releasing Orson Welles’ final film feels like a sick joke. (And let’s not even consider what the late director would say about the streaming giant in general).

The movie itself is nothing short of thought-provoking, a mashed-together combination of a fictional movie and the birthday party of its fictional director. John Huston plays Jake Hannaford, a cigar-chomping, scotch-swilling Hollywood veteran in the middle of cutting together his latest picture: The Other Side of the Wind, a jazzy, wordless neo-noir that wants to be about everything and nothing all at once. Complicating matters is that the film’s male lead (Bob Random) has walked off the picture opposite his exotic femme fatale (Welles’ real-life partner, Oja Kodar). This might be because Hannaford’s a crude crank. Or it might be because he’s lost sight of what he’s doing; as we hear from the cutting room floor, Hannaford’s “just making it up as he goes along.”

Those familiar with Welles and his infamously inefficient productions already see the similarities. The Other Side of the Wind is a surprisingly damning self-portrait, mocking industry journalists’ obsessions over Hollywood palace intrigue while ultimately laying blame at the feet of the palace overlords’ themselves.

Yes, it’s messy, as only something posthumously approximated from hours of dailies could be, and your mileage rests on whether you consider this to even be an Orson Welles movie. On face value, this isn’t as enigmatic as F for Fake, Welles’ treatise on truthiness, and there’s little use in comparing it to Citizen Kane. That messiness is also there for good reason. Nobody talks with the machine-gun chatter of Hannaford’s birthday guests, and in the case of his picture-in-progress, nobody talks at all. They’re two sides of the impenetrable chaos we’re told about early on, a shield for the self-doubting man behind the most influential movie ever made. We’re offered up the canard that movies are nothing more than “great places and pretty people,” but we can see through the fakery. For as much bluster as Hannaford has, he’s only as compelling as we make him out to be, and as the evening wanes, so does his intrigue. The boozing and the grab-ass are just noise for a sad old man to hide behind.

That’s a dour note for one of the all-time greats to leave us on. Again, there are lots of fingerprints on this, many belonging to Netflix, whose involvement remains the biggest surprise in all of this. The company has made a number of high-profile series cancellations in the past few weeks. Luke Cage and Iron Fist, seemingly sure-fire comics-based successes, got the axe. Netflix also will not be renewing the excellent true crime mockumentary American Vandal. In case it wasn’t already clear, we are increasingly at the whims of a few services dictating what stays and what goes. There was little monetary incentive for Netflix to release a movie of limited recognition by a director of limited appeal, but they did it anyway. As to why they did it? That’s another head-scratcher all on its own.

Goliath v. Goliath

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Milwaukee Brewers 5-1, winning 4 games out of 7, taking home baseball’s National League pennant, and advancing to the World Series. Among other storylines, the series rejuvenated the postseason narrative of the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, this generation’s greatest pitcher hamstrung by inconsistent playoff performances.

Closer to home for me, the NLCS was also broad exposure for Milwaukee’s club. Outfielder Christian Yelich showed why he’s this year’s presumptive MVP, and Brewers manager Craig Counsell opened minds to a more dynamic approach to his bullpen, pulling starting pitchers earlier than the FOX broadcast booth expected; in the case of Game 5, Counsell brought in long reliever Brandon Woodruff to replace Wade Miley after he faced just a single batter.

Woodruff, by the way, was already famous for going yard against this Generation’s Greatest Pitcher back in Game 1:

While the Milwaukee Brewers have yet to win their first World Series title, the 2018 playoffs were a national platform for a small market franchise. And that’s really remarkable.

Right now, the modern baseball franchise is stuck in a bit of an identity crisis. While the sport’s television deals and the league’s revenue-sharing proposals have introduced the game to unprecedented wads of cash, not every baseball front office is choosing to use that money for baseball. Despite their market size, last year’s World Champion Houston Astros opted for years of losing and stockpiling draft picks, netting an absurd roster of MVP-caliber talent under cheap, rookie contracts. The Atlanta Braves just finished holding Cobb County for ransom over a needless, publicly-funded stadium. Baseball’s biggest offenders, the Miami Marlins, have merely shuffled from one soulless ownership group to another. This year,  the Oakland Athletics seemingly had a winning season in spite of a cynical owner. And again, all of this is happening at a time when the money in the sport has never been better.

The 2018 Milwaukee Brewers went the other way. This past offseason, they went out and traded for one of the best players in the game. They signed a premium free agent outfielder for five years and inked a revamped pitcher for another two. During the middle of a pennant race with the Chicago Cubs, they shored up their infield and added another bullpen arm. In this age of “tanking to win,” that’s rare. When it happens in a state where, if we’re counting college sports, the franchise is arguably the third most popular team, it’s a miracle.

It shouldn’t be. It’s easy to bemoan the big market teams in this year’s World Series. Undoubtedly, more money has given the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox more room for error. But sports ownership isn’t an excuse, it’s a privilege. When that privilege is abused, you get teams whose product is directly at odds with its profits. When that happens, you get the Miami Tax Havens.

The Milwaukee Brewers could have copied the Cubs. They could have torn everything down, restocked the farm system, and altogether embarrassed themselves with below-average rosters for a few years before getting lucky for a month in October. Instead, the Brewers leaned in. Sure, they tried and they failed.

But more importantly, they tried.