Film scores are the great unsung heroes of motion pictures. They can strengthen emotions, alert us to something we haven’t noticed, or completely change our interpretation of a scene. They become as essential to the film as the images on screen — there’s no shower scene in Psycho without Bernard Herrman’s stabbing strings, and the demolition of Freddie Quell’s soul in The Master wouldn’t be quite as shattering without Jonny Greenwood’s plaintive cues. Even when filmmakers choose not to use a score, its absence is noteworthy.
This year offered an unusual bounty of stunning film scores. There weren’t as many stand-outs in 2019 (Greenwood, the most iconoclastic of major film composers, sat this year out), but the year boasted a particularly strong crop of scores that worked both in conjunction with the film and on their own. Some of the works that I most admired eschewed the traditional orchestration in favor of dark analog synthesizers, while others experimented with smaller jazz combos. In order to focus on new creations rather than repackaged music, I’m only ranking original scores. There were many great movies to see this year, and almost as many great scores to listen to.
10. The Two Popes (Bryce Dessner)
He’s best known as the guitarist for The National, along with his identical twin brother Aaron, but Bryce Dessner has been stealthily making a name for himself in the world of contemporary classical music. His scores don’t fit into any identifiable sub-genre, melding elements of post-minimalist pulses with occasional bursts of atonality and soothing consonance. His score for Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes fuses cues that draw from his omnivorous classical career, as well as lovely short cues of delicate solo classical guitar. The orchestral cues portray the importance of the meeting between the current and future popes, while the guitar music underscores both men’s lonely stature.
9. Monos (Mica Levi)
Mica Levi burst into the world of film scoring with her now-iconic music for Jonathan Glazer’s modern classic Under the Skin, and each of her subsequent scores has showcased a new aspect of her compositional language. For Monos, Levi dials her music back, building everything from a base of bottle whistles she performed herself. She represents the films underequipped rebels with martial timpani rolls, along with bursts of synthesized noise and additional instruments. The score is alternately grand and absurd, highlighting the disconnect between the children and their guns.
8. Motherless Brooklyn (Daniel Pemberton)
Daniel Pemberton has had the unfortunate distinction of being someone who often writes good scores for otherwise terrible films (Molly’s Game, Ocean’s 8, Yesterday, etc.). With Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, he finally got back to scoring a good film, though many critics unfairly maligned it and audiences largely ignored it. Norton made the surprising choice of setting Jonathan Lethem’s contemporary-set neo-noir in the 1950s, but Pemberton responds appropriately by scoring much of the music for a jazz combo and a jazzier large ensemble. His music has an infectious beat that helps viewers stay attuned to the twisting story even as it gets increasingly convoluted. But the score’s strongest moments are in the soul-baring piano-led ballads. He’s tuned in to the film’s most sorrowful moments, to great effect. Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke also deserves a special mention for his original song “Daily Battles,” which ranks among his best solo work. His dark lullaby is presented both in the original piano-led vocal version and in an arrangement led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and it blends in perfectly with the sadder moments of Pemberton’s score.
7. Midsommar (Bobby Krlic)
After turning to saxophonist Colin Stetson for the chillingly relentless score to Hereditary, director Ari Aster chose The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic to score his epic follow-up, Midsommar. It has become a tradition in contemporary horror films to feature endlessly gloomy scores; the results are so dour that viewers never get a moment of respite, which pushes them away from the immediacy of the movie. Krlic wisely alternates his darker cues with sunnier music elevated by strings and chiming harps that perfectly match with the nearly endless summer sun of a remote Swedish commune. Less adventurous composers have trained us to expect nothing but doom and gloom, but his final cue, which soundtracks a fiery human sacrifice, is oddly uplifting. The film is as much about a bad breakup as it is about a homicidal cult, and Krlic’s music helps us understand Florence Pugh’s newfound piece as she tries out living on her own for a bit.
6. Under the Silver Lake (Disasterpiece)
Under the Silver Lake was one of the best films of the year, but it was mostly abandoned by its distributor A24. That’s why Disasterpiece’s score was released last year, during one of the film’s multiple pushbacks before it was dumped in April, though I’m counting it as a 2019 score since it works best in conjunction with the shaggy neo-noir. Disasterpiece, the stage name of Richard Vreeland, is best known for his solo music, which is largely composed using the limited sound palette of classic arcade games. He expanded his arsenal for the score of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, and for their follow-up, he expanded to writing for a sizable orchestra. Disasterpiece eschews the electronic music he cut his teeth on, instead favoring the kind of mysterious cues that might have scored Philip Marlowe’s trek down mean streets. The film is also a mentally ill man’s attempt to come to terms with the death of someone he became too invested in, and Vreeland adds a growing element of tragedy as the twisting story progresses. Without the Disasterpiece score, Mitchell’s film would have gotten bogged down in plot twists and misogyny. With it, it becomes a cult classic.
5. A Hidden Life (James Newton Howard)
Along with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, Terrence Malick is a master of creating soundtracks from preexisting music. Unlike the rock or jazz pieces they tend to favor, Malick is a devotee of classical music. Romantic-period masterworks comingle with early-20th Century classics and soothing New Age works in his spiritual dramas. He has previously integrated scores in his films, most successfully with Alexandre Desplat’s music in The Tree of Life, though the minimal use of original music has frustrated some of his composers who wrote considerably more than was used (most famously Desplat). Malick still uses plenty of existing music in A Hidden Life, including pieces that have cropped up before, but Howard’s score is his most prominent use of original music to date. It helps that the title cue is among his best and most memorable music to date.
4. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Nate Heller)
Nate Heller, the brother of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood director Marielle Heller, tastefully allows the music for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to dictate the path his score takes. Rogers was often accompanied on set by a live jazz combo, and Heller mostly sticks to that intimate grouping, which gives his music a wonderfully buoyant feel. It’s especially welcome during the film’s many tear-jerking moments; a more sentimental score would have been overkill. The faithful music also features arrangements of songs written by Rogers for the show, as well as an essential Nick Drake cut that would be indistinguishable from the score to anyone unfamiliar with his music.
3. Marriage Story (Randy Newman)
He doesn’t just do the Toy Story music, even though that’s what latter-day Randy Newman is best known for. In a recent appearance on IndieWire’s Toolkit podcast, director Noah Baumbach revealed that he had pushed Newman to model his score for Marriage Story after French composer Georges Delerue, best known for scoring Godard’s Contempt, multiple Truffaut masterpieces, and countless French and (later) American films. The genius of Delerue’s scores, as Baumbach explains it, is that the same melodies can be played over happy or sad moments with minor adjustments to key and tempo. Newman works with a similarly simple toolkit — tender melodies that burrow their way into your skull and appear again and again but always in subtly different ways. He steers clear of sentimentality, but the tears wouldn’t flow quite as easily without his gorgeous music.
2. Waves (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross)
This score went unremarked upon in many reviews, most likely because the director, Trey Edward Shults, packed the film with wall-to-wall bangers. Unlike some critics, I found his song selections to be appropriate at worst and essential at best. But Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails fame provided a chilling score in the quieter moments of the film that often works on a subliminal level, challenging us and augmenting our emotions without rising to the surface. The mental degradation of the film’s first half is scored as if it’s a horror film. Listening to the score after seeing the film twice, I had no idea that this music had been playing underneath the action, though it’s probably partly to blame for my rising blood pressure during those tense sections. The film’s second half, where Shults’ turns down his style in order to focus on emotion, is scored with droning synths that create a powerful sense of loss. It’s one of the most low-key scores the two composers have created so far, and among their best.
1. Uncut Gems (Daniel Lopatin)
The best film score of 2019 Daniel Lopatin’s propulsive yet oddly soothing synthesized score for the frenetic crime thriller Uncut Gems. Lopatin, who makes sampled and synthesized electronic music under the name Oneohtrix Point Never, previously scored Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time (2017) under that moniker, but he uses his own name for Uncut Gems. It’s a meaningful distinction — as great as his previous score was, Lopatin has discovered a new well of feeling previously unknown to his music. The opening cue, “The Ballad of Howie Bling,” is the greatest single piece of music he has ever written. It’s clearly indebted to Shoji Yamashiro’s iconic Akira score, with its similarly propulsive rhythms and wordless chants. Lopatin’s music often actively works to prevent listeners from developing an emotional attachment, but here he helps us to identify with Adam Sandler’s character as he makes one poor choice after another. The film ends in a shocking manner just as everything seems too overwhelming, and the score soothes us with the final title cut. After that trip through hell, you’ll need something to calm your nerves.