2014 was an exceptional year for film music as we saw composers have their shot at original ideas from some amazing auteur directors. The result is a grand selection of scores that put strong emotional storytelling on full display. 2013 saw the fall of the studios in terms of quality, and indie films rose to show how things should be done. In 2013, Ain't Them Bodies Saints topped this list, which is a film that barely got any distribution. 2014 saw the studio pictures take the spotlight a bit more, but not without some impressive scores from the indie world. All in all, these scores represent the best film scoring had to offer in 2014. When selecting, all scores for film and television were considered. This year, video games got their own separate list because it was deemed that the musical needs of a video game are vastly different than structured narratives. While this is a numbered list, all these scores demonstrate excellence and effectiveness.
15. Rocks In My Pockets by Kristian Sensini
Rocks In My Pockets squeezes into the list to start the countdown. Signe Baumane’s very personal film is indeed very autobiographical. It took a unique and personal way to explore mental illness, and did it in a way that resonated. Kristian Sensini’s score compliments and supports the stories in the film perfectly. It has the right amount of quirk and style. At times sounding like a circus, but never disregarding the emotions the story is conveying, it’s a wonderful window into one woman’s mind.
14. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes by Michael Giacchino
Giacchino steps in with director Matt Reeves to take over Caesar’s story. Giacchino decided to ignore what Patrick Doyle did before, which actually was the most respectful way of going about it. The music is at times primal, at times exotic, and all the time very Giacchino. The music manages to make this tale of man vs. ape emotional, tense and downright thrilling. Also you won’t be able to get that chilling and tumbling ape motif out of your head.
13. Captain America: The Winter Solider by Henry Jackman
Leave it to Henry Jackman to finally do the most original scoring approach for Marvel since Ramin Djawadi’s rock-based Iron Man score. Turning to European electronica music for influence, Jackman crafted a score that racked up the intensity and action to an unexpected level. The score was a propulsive action soundscape that shrieked and pierced your brain to make your hairs stand on end. The Winter Solider got a ghastly and disturbing vocal cry that announced his presence. This added intensity and dramatic weight that we’ve never seen in any Marvel film prior. It’s also one of the most original action scores in recent memory. Many people criticized the score’s approach, and it’s safe to say those people don’t understand the real function of score.
12. The Monuments Men by Alexandre Desplat
Alexandre Desplat had quite a year, and early on he wowed us with this gem of a score. It called back to that classic 60’s and 70’s style scoring with a light Elmer Bernstein flavoring. What made this score resonate was its fantastic theme and variation; the ability to alter the mood or tone of the story through the score’s unique personality.
11. Calvary by Patrick Cassidy
You don’t have to be religious to fall in love with one of the most deeply moving and existential scores of the year. Cassidy creates a somber reflection that is widely accessible and relatable to all. Above it all, this is a deeply human narrative that will stick with you through its thematic structures.
10. Big Hero 6 by Henry Jackman
Jackman brings tons of heart and excitement to his now substantial Disney resume. Big Hero 6 is probably some of his most matured writing, crafting a great theme that works both as a traditional heroic anthem and as well as a poignant reflection of dealing with loss. Part orchestral and part electronic; the score has a unique identity of its own while staying true to Jackman’s voice.
9. The Theory Of Everything by Jóhann Jóhannsson
Jóhannsson’s impressive score of the early life of Jane and Stephen Hawking is very impressive. If you dig past its traditional biopic shell, you’ll find at its core that it’s a great examination of love, passion and the complexities of people going through hardship. The score is as much about falling in love as it is about falling out of love, and brings two people’s early-life joys and struggles to a resonating light.
8. The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies by Howard Shore
Shore once again concludes another fantasy epic. The third entry in the Hobbit trilogy is the strongest, both film-wise and score-wise. Shore’s thematic writing hits the ground running and sweeps us away on this climactic act in the story. The score is bold, weighty and emotional. The whole experience carries a slight regality to it all, making it a truly fantastical conclusion as well as a thematic bridge to Frodo’s journey that follows chronologically.
7. Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) by Antonio Sanchez
Who knew that a completely improvised drum score would work on such an emotional and psychological level? Sanchez somehow manages to take us inside the minds of the characters. A lot of the film and narration is internal reflection, and the drums are a perfect way for the audience to access that. Also, it allowed for the film to be built around the score, from editing to shot duration, the drums dictate the pace of the film. A very unique score for possibly the best film of the year.
6. Whiplash by Justin Hurwitz
Whiplash works on two levels. You have the diagetic big band music that exists in the world of the film, and you have the non-diagetic score that works to take us into the mind of our protagonist. The score functions in a similar way to Birdman, it is the externalization of the character’s internal emotions and thoughts. The score is brilliant in its approach and its way to bring the audience in, and it’s all done in that big band style.
5. The Imitation Game by Alexandre Desplat
While The Imitation Game bay have been a 2-3 week rush job as a replacement score, it proves that some composers shine under pressure. Desplat delivers a brilliant accompaniment to Alan Turing’s amazing story. Instead of being a biopic, the film focuses on a very specific event in Turing’s life, and through the score we experience all who this man is. The score strives in its simplicity, never being bigger than it needs to. It acts as the side dish, not the main course and with that becomes one of the year’s best.
4. How To Train Your Dragon 2 by John Powell
While Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are on this list and are sequels, they really aren’t sequel scores. Here we have the only score on the list that sees a composer returning to score a sequel, and boy is it grand. Powell follows up his Oscar-nominated score with this robustly brilliant second entry. New themes and old ones find a way to co-exist to take the story into a grander scope. We may have lost the intimacy of the first score, but it doesn’t make the score resonate any less. Any timid intimacy is replaced by the warmth and love of Hiccup’s mother who is introduced with some fantastically nurturing music. Powerful passages that bring intensity and reflect painful loss make this journey just as emotional as it was the last time.
3. The Homesman by Marco Beltrami
Beltrami’s innovation and incredible sense of humanity ended up making one of the most power scores of the year. His third collaboration with director Tommy Lee Jones has shown just how much he really is capable. From creating unique sounds by building custom instruments and recording the score outdoors, Beltrami has crafted a bleak and somber score that penetrates deep. The main theme feels like a hymn or a ballad, and it’s used powerfully throughout the body of the score. You connect with the characters more so because of the music. This unique film carries an equally unique score, that also may possibly Beltrami’s best score to date. It’s also a remarkable entry in the western genre.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel by Alexandre Desplat
Desplat seems to outdo himself with each new Wes Anderson film, and his score for Moonrise Kingdom topped this list in the past. He manages to bring Anderson’s images to vivid life in the most unique way possible. The music here is Russian-inspired as the film takes place in a fictional European place, but the film is also inspired by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. Desplat blankets it with an eastern European flavor that still manages to craft a unique soundscape. Everything comes alive with fantastic melodies, emotional reverence for the story and unique instrumentation. You won’t find a more uniquely special score like this, and it works hand in hand with the source music Anderson has chosen. It misses the top spot by just a hair.
1. Interstellar by Hans Zimmer
This may be Hans Zimmer’s most personal score to date. This isn’t a score about space travel, it’s about the relationship between father and child. One can spend all day speculating about what kind of challenges Hans has faced as a father, be it balancing work with family or trying to create the perfect home for his children to grow up in. Just listen to the score and it will speak to you. Hans’ writing here is very vulnerable and accessible, it echoes the relationship of Coop and Murph perfectly. In the end he does add stunning awe and gravitas to the picture doing what he does best, but at the core it’s something special and uniquely personal. I wrestled whether or not this or The Grand Budapest Hotel would be #1, but ultimately the fact that the film and score rely on each other so heavily really does make it the best example of narrative music working with picture. There’s also so many layers and textures to analyze, from the choice of the organ to the minimalist builds. Even if you disliked the film, one can’t deny the brilliant relationship Nolan and Zimmer have, the score is evidence of complete creative freedom from a composer who was gently guided by a director who loves his craft.