If you browsed the internet at any point during December of 2016 you might have noticed that not every person was a fan of Earth's most recent lap around the Sun. It's true, on the outside there were lots of tragedies that occurred last year (as they do every year), but it seemed more amplified this time. Both America and the UK experienced devastating political outcomes, turmoil continues to claim innocent lives in the Middle East, there were lots of tragedies around the world in the form of warfare and deliberate attacks, and a good number of notable celebrities that people looked up to passed away. That's when we turn to the arts, right? That's what movies, TV, books, games and music are here for. We have an escape, even for just a moment. We can escape into something exciting, scary, sad, funny, tense, beautiful or just pure dumb joy. And even though it's all fictionalized (minus docs), every story is a reflection of the human condition. That's the beauty of it all. So as we look back at another year of film music, another year of music that brought stories to life across all mediums, it was important to note that we saw some great films that celebrated humanity. Whether it was coincidence or not, it seemed that storytellers around the world were looking at ways to explore the upswing of things. Sure we had our usual dose of the dark and dreary, but lots of the stories of 2016 felt intimate and small. Studio tentpoles were pretty much all forgettable in 2016, with an exception here and there. It was really the smaller and more under the radar releases that seemed to strike a chord, be it independent or in-house studio produced. And that's a cool thing to see. Like previous years we are doing a top 15. So let the countdown begin!
As with every year with our "Best" list and all our reviews, scores are ultimately judged by their effectiveness within the film's narrative and not by their standalone album experience.
15. Money Monster by Dominic Lewis
Precision and subtlety are at work in Dominic Lewis’ score to this Jodie Foster directed thriller. Dominic found a way to make the score both invisible yet present. And while there’s a lack of anything too attention-getting, the score creates tension while still giving the characters a relatable humanity.
14. The Ivory Game by H. Scott Salinas
H. Scott Salinas’ impressive streak continues with this emotionally resonating documentary about the dark world of ivory trade. In the same vein as Cartel Land, Salinas approaches the documentary head-on and doesn’t treat the music as a background device. There is a deep emotional heart that echoes the pain and sadness of the situation. The whole tone is bittersweet and unfortunately at this point there isn't a fairytale ending for this ongoing problem, but hope is instilled within the music. Here music is seen shining a light on an issue and making it instantly relatable to the audience.
13. Captain Fantastic by Alex Somers
Captain Fantastic is a special score. It’s beautiful and very human. You will go on more of an emotional journey instead of a fixed narrative one, but that approach is perfect for this film. If you’re looking for something truly fresh and original in a film score, then this is something worth getting lost in. It’s a near-perfect examination of emotional growth that may have benefited with some more tangible recurring motifs, but overall it will awaken or reawaken something inside of you for sure.
12. ABZU by Austin Wintory
Austin Wintory’s ABZU is a purely engaging and emotional journey through a game that makes you resonate deeply with the images you are seeing as you play. The score pulls you in and paints a loose narrative for you to follow, but in reality, it leaves room for the player to impose their own emotions into the narrative. While ABZU might not attain the power of Journey, it’s still some of the finest game scoring you’ll encounter.
11. Game Of Thrones: Season 6 by Ramin Djawadi
Ramin Djawadi’s work on Game Of Thrones has consistently been getting more robust and intricate as the show powers along. Season 6 was a most impressive season musically with lots of thematic variation and moments where score was allowed to shine, but never shine to much. Game Of Thrones’ music has always found a great balance of being strong or subtle depending on the needs of the scene. The score has truly hit an amazing stride here in season 6.
10. Pete's Dragon by Daniel Hart
Daniel Hart keeps his collaboration with director David Lowery going for this beautiful score to the live-action reimagining of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. The score feels unfiltered and purely organic as it taps into folk roots and translates that into big wonderful orchestral melodies. The score examines heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure and finds a way to tell the story in a manner that never feels forced.
9. Hell Or High Water by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ emotional range as storytellers is unmatched. The duo continue to explore their signature sound with this acclaimed modern western. The score cracks open the characters almost on a spiritual level by painting richly textured musical backdrops. The score lacks melodic strength, but it works within the fabric of the film with expert precision.
8. Hacksaw Ridge by Rupert Gregson-Williams
Hacksaw Ridge’s musical duties were passed from James Horner to John Debney and finally landing with Rupert Gregson-Williams. Rupert didn’t have much time to score Mel Gibson’s return to the directing chair, but the final result is nothing short of poignant and emotionally engaging. The score never becomes too big, allowing the protagonist to actually feel organic and human. We as an audience identify with whats onscreen much easier, and it leaves room for big emotions with a subtle approach that still injects heroism into this war story.
7. 10 Cloverfield Lane by Bear McCreary
Bear McCreary’s plunge into darkness for 10 Cloverfield Lane was nothing short of pure thrilling entertainment. The nods to Goldsmith, Herrmann, Debussy and Revl projected through McCreary’s signature voice made this score a shining gem. Nothing about it felt old or reused, and the entire film’s effect on the audience relied on the musical narrative. This was Bear working his magic for a tense and focused score that made the film small and personal yet big and exciting at the same time. It's a score that reinforces why we love to go to the movies.
6. The Vessel by Hanan Townshend
Hanan Townshend has gotten some well-deserved attention for his work with Terrence Malick, and here Malick helped put Hanan in touch with first time director Julio Quintana for the amazingly arresting work of The Vessel. Hanan’s score permeates the emotions and characters of the film to truly bring this story together on a spiritual level. The music is about re-kindling hope after tragedy, and the score’s structure is near perfection. The deepness of the emotional arcs are so profound and it all culminates beautifully in such a striking way that leaves a lasting fingerprint long after you finish experiencing it.
5. The Neon Demon by Cliff Martinez
When Nicolas Winding Refn and Cliff Martinez team up together, it’s worth taking notice. The auteur duo’s films will divide and even repel certain audiences. Refn’s style is unapologetic and it is not afraid of making you feel uncomfortable. Cliff’s score here somehow finds a strange and seductive way to truly bring the sexually consuming world of fashion to life. If music could sound “neon” then this would be it. The seductive yet dangerous imagery of the world Refn paints is accompanied perfectly by Cliff’s sonic palette. While this film as a whole may leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth (in a devious good way), it's Refn's imagery working with Martinez's sound that makes this an effective piece of auteur cinema.
4. Moana by Mark Mancina [Songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i & Mark Mancina]
The Disney formula comes to life with the rich and vivid musical world of Moana. Composer Mark Mancina goes the route of scoring the film and co-writing/producing the songs with Lin-Manuel Miranda & Opetaia Foa’i. That results in a lush quilt of song and score that gives each character a unique voice within the fabric of the film’s music. The score on its own may not connect due to shorter track times, but in the film it works wonders. You feel the wind in your hair and the deep emotional journey of Moana as she sets out to discover her true calling in life. The whole journey culminates in a very gorgeous and emotional climax that is fueled by the human spirit to break-free and pave your own path.
3. The Man In The High Castle: Season 2 by Dominic Lewis
Hello darkness my old friend. Dominic Lewis makes a well-earned second appearance on this list with his absolutely perfect approach for Season 2 of The Man In The High Castle. The show’s rich and detailed production value is reflected in the wonderfully structured approach Lewis took with the score. The melodic arcs and themes build towards a grand finale. Deep emotions echo melodies that feel born of the characters. While it’s not a cheery world to be lost in, there is beauty in it. The organic emotions shine through making this a late in the year shining example of some of the best TV scoring all year. The score is a wonderful example of character exploration and how to approach tension with forward momentum. The score is a progressive step upwards from last season and raises the bar extremely high for season 3.
2. Eddie The Eagle by Matthew Margeson
Early in the year we were surprised by one of the most full of life scores of recent memory. Matthew Margeson not only wrote a score that took us back to amazing underdog stories of the past, but was full of themes and melodies that sent chills and brought tears of hopeful joy. Eddie The Eagle’s synth approach may give some people a nostalgia trip, but it feels so right alongside with the picture. Margeson found something truly special about the human spirit to overcome here, and it speaks volumes by carrying the entire movie on its back. Sure the score and film are formulaic, but in the best way possible. If life is ever getting you down for whatever reason, a score and film like this can shine some much needed light to let you know that overcoming odds is part of life. If a piece of art can make you feel happy to be alive by the end of it, that's something really special. And that's the case here with Eddie The Eagle.
1. La La Land by Justin Hurwitz [Songs by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Hasek & Justin Paul]
La La Land is one of those special experiences that comes along and makes you feel happy to be alive. It’s an experience of song and score that are stitched together to form a musical quilt of melodies wonderfully structured to form the narrative. With Justin Hurwitz writing every melody in the film, including all the music for the songs and then having Benj Hasek and Justin Paul write lyrics to those melodies, the film comes to vivid life. You’re taken on an emotional journey in classic musical fashion that is an ode to the genre but also its own unique modern interpretation of the genre as well. If you are ever at a low point in your life or having a hard time, La La Land along with its music is a reaffirmation that life’s journey is worth living. And that includes every high point of joy and every low point of sorrow.