Best Film Scores of 2015

How did your past year in the cinema sound? Mine sounded bloody fantastic! To close my retrospective of the year’s best cinema and cinema-ephemera, I’ve turned my attention to the film scores that stood out from the crowd in 2015. By clicking into the box below you can listen to my 54-minute mix of the sonic landscape that resonated in British cinemas this year.

This mix of my favourite tracks from the original scores of 2015 certainly speaks to a few personal sensibilities on my part (very much accentuated by the desire to hide in a cosy, warm cocoon until spring 2016) but also highlights the star of the year in film music: the synthesiser. Whether it was being used for melodic callbacks to the scores of the 1980s or to create atmospheric drones and modulating electronic rhythms, the humble synth all but defines the scores of 2015 -- even to the extent that composers working with acoustic recordings frequently set out to achieve a synth-like sound by digitally manipulating the output of a full orchestra. To my mind, few orchestral scores stood out in 2015 as great works in and of themselves. Michael Giacchino delivered in ever-reliable fashion for Inside Out, while Joe Kraemer took over scoring the Mission: Impossible series with a playful score for Rogue Nation. Carter Burwell’s distinctly Burwellian take on the American pastoral style for Carol has received well-deserved accolades but simply didn’t float my boat on screen or on record, and Thomas Newman’s slavish facsimile of classic John Williams drew attention to Steven Spielberg’s more grating tendency for hero-worship in Bridge of Spies, often to the point of being intrusive in many otherwise captivating scenes.

But first up on my mix of the year in film music is one of three tracks from ‘Junun’, the album recorded by Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur in collaboration with PT Anderson’s regular composer and Radiohead co-founder Johnny Greenwood. The two multi-instrumentalists pitched their recording studio in the 15th Century Mehrangarh Fortress in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and recorded with an ensemble of local music veterans, known as the Rajasthan Express, with Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich capturing the sonic output, and Paul Thomas Anderson filming the whole wonderful milieu for his music doc, Junun. It’s a bit of a cheat to include these recordings in a list of the year’s best film scores, seeing as Anderson’s film is essentially a behind-the-scenes video of the making of the album but the power of this hugely eclectic record gave Anderson the ideal excuse to let his hair down and cobble together an unassuming film about the inspiring process of so many talented musicians as they tinker with the many musical genres native to India in a setting built from layers-upon-layers of local history. I found that I needed a little time for Anderson’s loose, playful music doc to grow on me, whereas the album itself needs no time at all to grab one’s imagination.

The crew behind the music and film of Junun.

Another immediately bewitching album is Cat’s Eyes’ score for The Duke of Burgundy. Canadian soprano singer Rachel Zeffira and Faris Badwan, co-founder of The Horrors, are a perfect fit for the somnambulant aesthetic of Peter Strickland’s kinky relationship drama. Their woodwind-heavy score drifts along on a hypnotic current of dreamy vocals, acoustic instrumentation and synth-like processing, inspired by New-Wave-era Czech score-writers and Italian composers like Claudio Gizzi and Ennio Morricone. The title track even contains audible hints of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’, just one of many influences that the director threw at Cat’s Eyes during the writing of the score. Though the instrumentation is drastically different, Cat's Eyes' score owes a great deal to the work of Juliee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti for the films of David Lynch. Certainly, fans of Cruise's dreamy vocals and Badalamenti's gorgeous modulations and thematic shifts will fall in love with Cat's Eye's score just as quickly. 

One composer to enjoy a particularly strong year in 2015 was Australian Jed Kurzel, whose scores for Beta Band alum John Maclean’s Slow West and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth both put a distinctive spin on the word elegiac. Kurzel makes heavy use of the slow drone of a harmonium to underscore both films' pervasive moods, as he accentuates their themes through the voices of single instruments, such as the pluck of a mandolin or the keening rise and fall of a violin.

Another talented, singular composer enjoying the limelight in 2015 is Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannsson, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work on The Theory of Everything and *UPDATE* has now received a second nomination for Sicario, possibly my favourite film score of the year. Jóhannsson’s bold orchestral score evokes the nightmare of war that grips the US/Mexico border and is particularly refreshing for its deliberate avoidance of any sounds particular to the music of the border region. Using a 55-piece orchestra, Jóhannsson drew from industrial music of the 1980s and used electronic post-processing to gain the aesthetic benefits of a synth score with minimal use of synthesisers. By his own admission, Jóhannsson’s work here is more textural than melodic, which works to the benefit of a film in which the hero finds herself tumbling further and further down the rabbit hole, into a world of shadows and fog. That Jóhannsson’s most outstanding track, ‘The Beast’ can communicate this feeling within the first thirty seconds of Sicario's trailer speaks to the effectiveness of this more textural approach that commands the film scores of 2015.

Here enters the significance of the synthesiser and the increasing overlap between the work of the composer and the work of the sound designer. Disasterpiece (a.k.a. Richard Vreeland), chiptune artist and composer for video games like ‘Fez’ and ‘Mini Metro’, was tapped to provide the hair-raising score for David Robert Mitchell’s atmospheric horror, It Follows. From a title theme that lays bare the 80s slasher movie foundations of the film to the actively enervating use of ear-splitting feedback during the film’s most brutal scenes, Vreeland gave his synthesiser and midi-deck a workout that tested the subjective boundary between diegetic and non-diegetic sound and music in storytelling.

As with Jóhannsson’s score for Sicario the explicit aim in It Follows is the creation of a textural mood, something that gets under the viewer’s skin to heighten a single (in this case, terrible) emotion and let a greater idea emerge from it. In so doing, the composer infringes on the territory of the sound designer. This is especially true of the ambient, percussion-free scores of Atticus Ross (for Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy) and Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (for Alex Garland’s directorial debut ex_machina).

Best known for his Oscar-winning work with Trent Reznor and David Fincher (from the Social Network up to Gone Girl) Atticus Ross is getting more and more gigs as a solo composer (such as the upcoming John Hillcoat thriller Triple 9) but he will have a hard time topping his work for Bill Pohlad on Love & Mercy, where his score is set within the fractured, prodigious creative headspace of living legend Brian Wilson. Working from Wilson’s backups of original recordings, which arrived to Ross in an epic stack of hard drives, the composer sampled, looped and processed years-worth of studio tracks to create a sonic collage, which brings the sounds of Wilson’s creative process to the screen in a way that is both poetic and evocative of Wilson’s focused creative energy and mental fugue. It’s a method particularly appropriate to the film, given how much of the screenplay was based on the snippets of Wilson’s real-life discussions that were captured on the talkback mic during session recordings for the Beach Boys’ albums. The culmination of the composer’s and the filmmakers’ efforts is undoubtedly ‘The Bed Montage’, in which Wilson’s personal and musical history melts through the nervous system and melds into a mosaic of dialog samples, ambient harmonies and tracks from original Beach Boys tunes, ‘In My Room,’ ‘Til I Die’, even a tune by the Four Freshmen.

Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson on the talkback mic in Love & Mercy.

The work of Ben Salisbury (Emmy-nominated for his work on David Attenborough docs for the BBC) and Portishead producer Geoff Barrow on ex_machina is as much a time capsule for the sensibilities of modern film composers as the film’s production design is for the aesthetics of digital-age architects and industrial designers. The duo worked with writer-director Alex Garland from the earliest stages of production to create a score of mounting ambient tension, one sure not to “blow it all” too soon in a hard sci-fi story driven by dialog and the exploration of huge ideas within a confined space. Their synth-based score takes a classical approach to finding emotional themes within the sonic narrative and is complimented by the inclusion of ‘Bunsen Burner,’ an outstanding bit of contemporary synth work by fellow British artist CUTS.

In keeping with the soundscape laid out by films like ex_machina, Love & Mercy, Sicario and It Follows, I’ve permitted myself another little cheat in my inclusion of a track from Scottish electro artist Blanck Mass’ re-score of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s 2013 art-nouveaux-themed Giallo homage, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Made for Death Waltz Records and a special screening at the 2015 East End Film Festival, Blanck Mass decided to curate his re-score of Cattet and Forzani’s eccentric horror via a game of Exquisite Corpse, in which various electronic music artists were given a particular scene from the film to score without knowing what their counterparts would produce. The result is a surprisingly coherent work for a less-than-perfect horror film that succeeds on the strength of the audiovisual sensory immersion imposed on the viewer. (Read my full review of the re-score’s EEFF screening here).

Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson recording the score for Sicario.

In direct contrast to the brooding use of synthesisers mentioned above, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ joyful evocation of Joy Division (and all the best parts of 80’s electropop) for Mistress America is sweetly effective and in-step with the trends of the New York hipster scene that Noah Baumbach lovingly teased in his both of his films this year (the first being While We’re Young).

I came across very few memorable original scores in the year’s foreign language films but Adan Jodorowsky’s modest, sentimental score for his father Alejandro’s Dance of Reality (La Danza de la Realidad) deserves praise for being so thoroughly of-a-piece with the film, a beautiful memoir of his father’s childhood. But no score this year has succeeded in bringing a tear to my eye like Laurant Petitgand’s profoundly evocative, ambiguous, exploratory compositions for Wim Wenders’ and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s documentary Salt of the Earth (La Sel de la Terre). Covering the career of photojournalist Seabstião Salgado, Salt of the Earth is built upon the photographer’s moving, brutal imagery of some of mankind’s greatest modern upheavals, from the famine of Ethiopia, to the Kuwait oil fires, to the mass industrialisation of our methods for stripping the Earth of its natural resources. To provide an appropriate score for the astonishing images Salgado has captured must have been a daunting prospect. Petitgand rises to challenge with layered compositions that balance grandiosity with the humble perspective of a single human being, which Wenders and Salgado Jr use to devastating emotional effect within their editing of each successive sequence.

So there we have it. 2015 is over and what a year it was at the cinema. Bring on 2016!