The finest film scores of 2011

Odd List Glen Chapman 3 Jan 2012 - 13:11

Glen salutes what, in his view, were the finest movie scores of 2011. Is your favourite on here?

2011 was a great year for film, and the scores that accompanied them have been of a similarly high standard, featuring efforts from some of the best musicians in the business, as well as some great pieces of work from first time composers.

While compiling my list of favourites, I’ve limited entrants to one per composer, and I’ve yet to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, so there may be one or two high profile omissions, but I feel that what’s included below represents some of the finest scores of the year...

Attack The Block: Basement Jaxx & Steven Price

Joe Cornish’s debut was something that I had anticipated since first hearing about it, and while it didn’t disappoint, it didn’t blow me away either. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Cornish is a talented director, and I loved that he attempted to capture the spirit of the type of films that were commonplace in the 80s and early 90s.

The score by Basement Jaxx and Price also goes some way to capture that feel by using the minimalist synth lead approach favoured by John Carpenter in his heyday. The score it shared most similarities to for me was Assault On Precinct 13, with a slow build of tension achieved through the use of a strong and ominous bassline. Here, less is indeed more.

Still, it’s not a score without its faults, and there are times where it doesn’t quite work. But for a debut, it’s very solid indeed, and is, in fact, a stronger effort than much of the latter-day Carpenter material, and some of the scores that have accompanied alien invasion fare, from notable composers like Brian Tyler.

A promising effort, then, even though it is a little inconsistent - and there’s certainly enough here to keep me interested to see if Basement Jaxx choose to compose for film again.

Faster: Clint Mansell

Clint Mansell is one of my favourite composers working today, having produced a number of my favourite scores of all time. Like his score for Black Swan, this is another of his works that seems to take inspiration from post-rock's big hitters. But, whereas the score for Black Swan recalled Explosions In the Sky's introspective and emotional sensibilities, Faster’s a different beast entirely, and plays out as though Mogwai are covering Drum's Not Dead by Liars, which is most definitely a good thing. Pounding schizophrenic rhythms with heavy rock guitars create a damn exciting, pulse pounding score.

There are milder moments, too, with a nice use of strings and piano passages, but it's the all-out action pieces that I've returned to the most. Perhaps not up there with his work on the likes of The Fountain, Moon and Requiem For A Dream, it still offers a nice change of pace and direction.

Faster was nowhere near as high profile as Black Swan, which will earn him most of the plaudits, but his work here is impressive in its own right and deserves to be celebrated.

Captain America: The First Avenger: Alan Silvestri

Alan Silvestri may not enjoy the level of success he once did, but he’s still had an impressive output over the past few years, with his work often being overlooked due to the type of films it accompanies. Here, Silvestri comes up with a score that both recalls the film’s 40s era, and his best work, notably his 80s output. Like nearly every aspect of the film itself, Silvestri’s score perfectly captures the WWII setting.

Detractors may point out that it’s not the most original score, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a damn fine superhero action movie score, which uses a full orchestra brilliantly, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s another great score for a Marvel property this year, following Patrick Doyle’s excellent effort for Thor.

Super 8: Michael Giacchino

Giacchino’s relationship with JJ Abrams has produced wonderful results in the past, so this, plus the fact that the film itself appeared to be a throwback to the 80s films that in many ways defined my childhood, meant I was very excited indeed about Super 8.

Abrams has stated that Super 8 is an homage to the works of Spielberg, so it makes sense that Giacchino crafts his score in a similar style to Spielberg’s composer of choice, and arguably the most influential composer of recent times, John Williams. Williams effortlessly creates iconic and memorable soundtracks, and specialises in blockbusters, so trying to pay homage or reference him so overtly was always going to be a difficult task. With that in mind, it’s pleasing that Giacchino has produced such a tasteful and effective score that captures the requisite mood without seeming derivative.

Some recent blockbusters have been criticised for lacking an identifiable theme, but Giacchino has composed a number of memorable pieces here, including leitmotifs tying everything together, and adding an emotional through line.

Neither the film nor the score are a match for the best of Spielberg and Williams, but Abrams and Giacchino are getting stronger with each collaboration, which bodes well for their future projects.

Source Code: Chris Bacon

Duncan Jones’ follow up to the fantastic Moon saw him work with a larger budget, but also with a property that other people were attached to prior to his involvement. Despite this, many of the themes evident in his debut feature can be seen in Source Code. I really enjoyed the film, and I know a lot is being said about the ending, but I didn’t feel that it derailed the film by any means. It leaves a certain amount to be left to the viewer’s imagination, which is always a good thing.

Of course, Moon featured one of the best scores of recent years by Clint Mansell, and Mansell was, for a time, also attached to Source Code, but was unable to fit it in given the amount of projects he’s been working on of late.

With that being the case, there’s always going to be a sense of what could have been, but Chris Bacon’s score here really delivers, and the composer doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout.

Bacon doesn’t have the most extensive of back catalogues in terms of solo work, but has worked on a number of big-budget pictures under the tutelage of James Newton Howard. Elements of Howard’s influence can be heard, although this is very much a score in the vein of Bernard Herrmann, which is appropriate given the Hitchcockian nature of the film itself.

I was on board with this score from the opening moments through to its finale. It’s great that, so far this year, we’ve seen some emerging talent in the world of composing who will, no doubt, achieve great things in the future – and Chris Bacon is very much one of them.

Thor: Patrick Doyle

Patrick Doyle has been a collaborator of Kenneth Branagh’s for some time, so was the logical choice to score his foray onto the superhero action genre. The film itself is an absolute triumph, and for me, on a par with the first Iron Man, setting the bar incredibly high for not only the comic book movies set for release in coming months, but for all other blockbusters due out this summer.

His work here marks some of the best of his career, enabling him to indulge in the wide range of emotions and approaches he took in scoring Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations. This is ideal, given the Shakespearian tones of the film.

Doyle provides another epic score that elevates the material, and it really comes into its own during the action sequences, with thunderous percussion helping to immerse you in the chaos. At the same time, there are tender moments that put across the conflict of the characters.

Played by the London Symphony Orchestra, It’s up there with the composer’s finest work, and easily one of the best scores to accompany a Marvel picture, and it’s clear that a lot of attention has been given to this element of the film. In many ways, the score acts as another character, which is often something that can be said of works by great composers.

Rango: Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer provides the score to the rather fantastic Gore Verbinski-directed animated film, Rango. The film is up there with my highlights of the year, and I’m pleased to say that the same can be said about the score too.

Zimmer’s score here incorporates elements of his previous work, most notably Sherlock Holmes and Pirates Of The Caribbean, as well as containing the odd homage to Ennio Morricone. There’s also a Mariachi-tinged version of Ride Of The Valkyries that segues into Der Shonen Blauen Donau, which features in one of the film’s standout scenes.

He’s helped out by Los Lobos, who deal with the vocal-led songs, while Zimmer focuses on the score.

It’s great stuff from Zimmer, and is among his best work to date. It’s nice to see him move away from overblown orchestrations and pick up a banjo, and with a number of big projects on his slate over the next year or so, this bodes well for his future output.

Contagion: Cliff Martinez

Sure, Martinez also did great work on Drive, but with me limiting myself to one entry per composer, I chose the score that played the greatest part in the film. Whereas Drive was carried by a mixture of a great score and sourced songs, all complementing one another and the tone of the film, Contagion’s effectiveness was really helped by Martinez’s score.

Martinez is no stranger to working with Soderbergh, so it was always going to be the case that he understood the material and the tone required, but I think this is one of the rare cases where a composer has understood the tone of the film better than the director. His score here is pure B-Movie stuff; electronic, eerie and atmospheric, this score is an absolute gem.

War Horse: John Williams

Limiting myself to one entry per composer left me with some difficult choices, but the decision between Williams’ scores for War Horse and The Adventures Of Tintin was the one I agonised over the most. Both are excellent pieces of work for very different reasons, and hold up incredibly well against the composer’s earlier work for Spielberg. In the end, however, I opted for War Horse.

Based purely as a standalone listen, it’s absolutely fantastic: a stunning and emotive piece of work that is incredibly well judged and has a very clear narrative. Light in its early moments, and recalling classical folk tunes, it makes the shift to darker themes incredibly effective, and lends an air of tension to the piece. The build up to the oppressive No Man’s Land is one of the finest musical journeys I’ve heard in a score this year, so I can’t wait to see how it works in the film. It’s great to have Williams back and on such good form.

Hanna: The Chemical Brothers

The Chemical Brothers’ debut score is my favourite of the year, and provides the perfect accompaniment to the action, giving it a sense of urgency as well as adding an air of tension throughout much of it.

How the score is gradually introduced is also very effective; from the film’s isolated beginnings, where our protagonist has lived a life without music, we experience her evolution through the course of the film, and as she experiences more of the world around her, new layers are introduced to the score.

Scores from artists not necessarily associated with composing for film seem to be all the rage of late (I appreciate this has happened many times in the past, but it’s certainly a current trend), and examples like this and Reznor’s score for The Social Network show how great they can be. I for one certainly hope to hear more film scores from The Chemical Brothers in the not too distant future.

Since watching Hanna, I’ve been unable to get The Devil Is in The Details out of my head. It’s the infectiously catchy number that’s whistled by Tom Hollander’s creepy hit man throughout the film, and it’s absolutely superb, if slightly obnoxious. What I think is most effective about it is that it’s familiar while being an original piece.

The hook really works in two parts; you have the whistled set-up, which tails off into an homage to Heigh-Ho from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, which then ties in nicely with the fairy tale aspects at the heart of Hanna. A sublime piece of work.

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