January 27, 2010

Best of 2009: Part 3

(overlooked performances, disappointments, favorite settings)

(best scenes, worst movies)

The 12 Best Original Scores of 2009

The last two years I've created a "missing soundtrack" as a list of the best music from each year: singles released during the year that would have lent themselves well to particular scenes in particular movies from that year. It was a lot of fun, but a lot of work, especially last year when I was trying to embed video and audio and get timing down and link here and there and everywhere.

It's a little sad for me, but I'm going to abandon that model this year and instead focus on the best music from movies during 2009, not the best music from 2009 that belonged in movies, if that makes sense. More specifically I'm focusing on original scores here, not movie soundtracks (though I list 10 at the end). Here then are the twelve musical scores, in no particular order, that won me over in 2009 by enriching specific scenes or adding the perfect atmosphere to the overall story and images.

Moon, Clint Mansell. I wasn't even through the opening credits of Moon when I realized I was listening to the best musical score of the year. Mansell, who has made a name for himself scoring Darren Aronofsky films (notably Requiem for a Dream), achieved the perfect balance of tension, loneliness and an unsettling fatalism in the main theme, "Welcome to Lunar Industries":

Avatar, James Horner. It wasn't until my second viewing of Avatar that I realized how excellent the score was, and how important it was to keeping the pace of a 160-minute film. The percussion and triumphant, soaring choral stanzas in it brought to mind classics like Jurassic Park and The Mission, and I think I'll be remembering this music for many years to come as well. Here is a clip of the score when Jake and the other Na'vi climb up Iknimaya, incidentally the exact scene I described in Part 2:


A Serious Man, Carter Burwell. Having scored nearly all of the Coen Brothers' films, Burwell obviously has a real knack for setting the right mood around their typically tortured characters. In A Serious Man, Burwell created an ominous tone for the endless tribulations of Larry Stuhlberg, while never moving into overly dramatic or frighteningly dark territory:

Where the Wild Things Are, Carter Burwell. Here on "Sailing", Burwell (with the help of Karen O) creates the perfect environemnt for Max's melancholic, meditative journey (to be fair it sounds a little similar to A Serious Man, though it's no less effective). The original songs on the soundtrack got the majority of attention when this movie came out, but Burwell's score lingered with me longer than anything else:

(500) Days of Summer, Rob Stevenson. As a whole this movie didn't entirely work for me, but there was plenty to enjoy about it, not the least of which was the soundtrack featuring hipster rock and light interludes by Rob Simonsen. Romantic comedies rarely have scores like this; listening to it you'd never guess what film it's from:

District 9, Clinton Shorter. Big, bold, with just a hint of South African influence (also a disappointing description of the film itself...), Clinton Shorter's score featured lots of brass and percussion to create a harrowing, haunting aura around the alien shantytown. It sounds fairly generic at times, but still certainly fit well in the context of the story:

Up,  Michael Giacchino. Pixar veteran Giacchino predictably struck a perfect balance of whimsical adventure and old-fashioned sensibility in scoring Up. The combination of muted trumpets and light strings made for a jazzy, folksy ride up to the clouds:

Terminator Salvation, Danny Elfman. About the only thing this movie got right was the theme. Those who know the first films well no doubt hold Brad Fiedel's original scores in high regard, and while Elfman's wasn't exactly on the level of those two, he did appropriately get the legendary "DUN-DUN DUN DUN DUN" bit in at the end, in the process respecting James Cameron's vision more than McG did at any time during this dreadful movie:

Coraline, Bruno Coulais. The only thing trippier than the hallucination-inducing visuals in Coraline was the dream-haunting music by Bruno Coulais. Just try to listen to this track (ironically titled "End Credits", it played during the opening credits) and not get freaked out. I don't even understand what they're saying, which probably makes it even spookier:

The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Alexandre Desplat. For the first time in any of Wes Anderson's films, I think I enjoyed the original score more than the songs on the soundtrack. Coincidentally, Fox marked (I believe) the first time Mark Mothersbaugh has not scored an Anderson film. I don't know what that means since I've loved Mothersbaugh's scores, but in any case Desplat's work here was terrific in all the right places:

Julie & Julia, Alexandre Desplat. Another score by Desplat in 2009, this one was nothing revolutionary but still perfectly appropriate for a light-hearted story about French cooking. It made the food look better and the story feel more like the fairy tale that it almost was:

Sherlock Holmes, Hans Zimmer. No surprise to see Zimmer still knocking original scores out of the park. I loved the old-world feel of the music in this movie, particularly during the incredible opening credits (or maybe it was the ending credits, I can't remember). Really astounding work by the art department on this film, and they're lucky they had Zimmer to round out the atmosphere:

The 10 Best Soundtracks of 2009

Crazy Heart
I Love You, Man 
The Princess and the Frog 
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
(500) Days of Summer 
Inglourious Basterds 
New York, I Love You
The Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Best Album of 2009

My decision not to do a missing soundtrack for this year was not because there wasn't enough good music - there was plenty (here is a song that should have found its way onto a soundtrack, for example). But again, I chose to stick mainly within the music of the movies with this post, with the exception right now of what I thought was arguably the best but almost certainly the most important album of 2009, K'naan's "Troubador". His story is a remarkable one, and if you haven't heard this track (a good one in between some great ones on the album), prepare to get driven crazy by it this June: it's been chosen by FIFA as the official anthem of the 2010 World Cup.

Tomorrow - The Best of 2009: Part 4


  1. Daniel,

    We represent many film composers including Clinton Shorter and Bruno Coulais. If interested in having us mail you product to review, please email me your contact info.


  2. Thanks for the info, Melissa. This was my first crack at reviewing scores (two sentence "reviews" at that), but it was fun to think about how large a part they play in each movie. I'll be in touch.

  3. Great list of scores -- Clint Mansell is an absolute genius. All of the scores he's done for Aronofsky have been brilliant, and I can't wait to see what he does with Black Swan.

    Did you see A Single Man? One of the year's best original scores in my opinion.

  4. You know I did not see A Single Man and I'm beginning to think I should have made more of an effort. I thought Colin Firth's performance was the only thing I would miss, but I've seen the score mentioned in a number of places as well (same with The Informant, another movie from 2009 that I missed).

    Yes, Clint Mansell has a real talent for those Aronofsky-ish moody thrillers and dramas. I didn't even think about the score for Black Swan but that's just one more reason to get excited for it.

  5. Danny King is right. I was just going to dive in with Abel Korzeniowski's deeply-affecting score to A SINGLE MAN, which for me ranks up there with Giacchino's and afew others. (including Horner's as you note) Bruno Coulais composed the stunning scores of the documentaries WINGED MIGRATION and HIMALAYA, as you may recall. His melodically soulful gifts are immediately evident.
    I wasn't a big fan of MOON, but I agree Mansell is a genius. His shattering score for THE FOUNTAIN is a masterpiece.
    Great post here Dan!

  6. Well considering you just posted the best scores of all time, Sam, I have to defer to you where some of these will rank in history. A lot of the names were familiar to me (Horner, Giacchino, Coulais, Mansell, Burwell, Elfman, Desplat, Zimmer), but I didn't understand how many films each could work on in a single year. I think Desplat had five this year, for example. Anyway I think I'm going to be paying attention even more than I casually was going forward here.

    One question remains, however - where are all the female composers in this picture?

  7. Agree on A SINGLE MAN. Best score of the year.

  8. I'm tempted to listen to it but I know it won't be as good out of context.

  9. I would definitely go see the film. Your initial reason of seeing Firth's performance is worthy enough, but it really is so much more than that. I would hold off on listening to the score.

  10. Yeah that's probably the way to do it. I have a few Oscar nominees that I should catch up with over the next month anyway.


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