The 10 Best Original Scores of 2012

| December 27, 2012

I’m kicking off our end of the year coverage with a little music. Over the next few days we’ll be awarding the best film you didn’t see, the best car chases of the year, the movies we most want unexpected sequels to, best actress, plus we’ll record our filmsplosion and post our lists of favorite movies of the year. If you haven’t already, send your votes for favorite movies of 2012 to the show by emailing us, calling us, or on facebook and twitter by tomorrow, December 28, 2012 and we’ll award the Fan’s Pick of the Year as well.

I’ve always loved film scores. When I was a kid I would buy scores and soundtracks and listen to them on road trips, or while I played with legos, because they inspired my imagination. Score has always been an element of film that I’ve paid particular attention to, and while I don’t pretend to be an expert on music and what makes good, I do pretend to be an expert film score.

10: Amazing Spider-Man by James Horner

We got some criticism on the show when I said that I really liked James Horner’s Amazing Spider-Man score, and after re-watching the film the truth is that I still really like it. It’s not his best score (The Rocketeer) but it does its job well, both swelling with heroism during the heroic parts and romance during the romantic part. It’s not a bad score, and taking on a franchise that already has a memorable score isn’t an easy task. It’s at number ten, not one. So calm down.

9: Cloud Atlas by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tom Tykwer

I didn’t love Cloud Atlas and I usually have a problem with film scores that draw as much attention to themselves as this one does. But it is a truly beautiful piece of music to listen to and the way that it’s incorporated into the film is certainly effective, helping to tie the stories together even during the parts of the movie that bounce back and fourth more frequently. I’m sure that you’ll hear this one playing behind trailers for the next few years and while you’ll recognize it, you wont know where it’s from, just that it’s beautiful.

8: John Carter by Michael Giacchino

John Carter faced pretty heavy criticism when it was released, perhaps more than it even deserved, but it would be a real shame if the failure of this movie caused Michael Giacchino’s score to go unnoticed. While this score may not have shown us an entirely new side of Giacchino, whose become one of the most consistently great composers working today, it is still a beautiful score whose adventurous themes help draw us into the fantasy world of Barsoom.

7: The Grey by Marc Streitenfeld

The Grey is a Nihilistic film about our struggles in life. It pits humans alone against their world and revels in the deaths of men who die fighting. Its melancholy score reflects both the intense danger in and the quiet apathy of the wild. Composer Marc Streitenfeld, who before this year went relatively unnoticed by me, will show up on this list again.

6: The Dark Knight Rises by Hans Zimmer

My first instinct was not to put The Dark Knight Rises on this list. I hesitate to put sequels on here, especially when the score is as similar to its predecessors as The Dark Knight Rises is. This is the unfortunate reason why The Hobbit is not on this list, because Howard Shore so blatantly repeats the beautiful themes he created for Lord of the Rings that it becomes more distracting than engrossing. However, Brad encouraged me to listen through the DKR score again. It’s a more intricate version of the main theme and the control with which the new Bane and Catwoman themes are integrated reflect the single-mindedness with which it was created. The Dark Knight score is great, but it is a bit frantic, a result of too many composers having fingerprints all over it (so many that it was nearly disqualified from the Oscars). The Dark Knight Rises score is Hans Zimmer’s own and it reflects his recent shift back to a hard working and inventive composer. This isn’t a rehash of the Batman score, this is the best version of it. Hopefully we won’t soon see Zimmer slide backwards into the laziness that saw him reusing themes from one movie to the next ten years ago.

5: The Avengers by Alan Silvestri

The Avengers had plenty of challenges to overcome but the score was never really one of them. While the Marvel scores have been fine they have hardly been memorable—Iron Man features more AC/DC and Audioslave than it does score—which meant that the score could simply work on its own as service to the action without having to incorporate different themes for each character. Composer Alan Silvestri marries a militaristic style with his bombastic, superhero theme in order to invoke the feeling that an army of sorts is being… well… assembled. This style most likely works its way in because Silvestri also did the score for Captain America and because The Avengers was originally scripted to be more Cap centric than it turns out to be, once so many of his scenes were left on the cutting room floor. This is one where hearing the music behind the Bluray menu makes me even more excited to watch the movie again.

4: Wreck-It Ralph by Henry Jackman

I just want to loop this score all day long. It’s use of 8-bit music alongside a more classical score is so much fun to listen to. It blends back and forth between the two to reflect the world they are in and it gives the movie an extra boost of momentum. Plus the Asian influences for the Sugar Rush theme and the melodic, nostalgic tunes that remind of us the underwater parts of Mario are remarkably effective during the more dramatic parts of the film. This film also wins the award for “Best Use of Skrillex” which despite the name of the award is actually not something you want to win.

3: Lincoln by John Williams

It’s hard not to put a John Williams score on this list, which is honestly the most impressive thing about John Williams. The man has produced so many amazing scores in his life that he should be running out by now… right? The score to Lincoln is subtle but methodical and his deft application of his themes both allows the performances to take the spotlight while suggesting Lincoln’s underlying hunger and genius. This score is constructed of faint rumblings, like far off tectonic shifts, that remind us of the magnitude of the history being made.

2: Prometheus by Marc Streitenfeld

Prometheus was certainly a divisive film this year and we spent plenty of time talking about it on the show, but no matter where you fall on that film I don’t think anyone could convince me that the opening sequence and the score that accompanies it is not among the best, most artistic, gorgeous, and moving sequences of the year. Scoring a movie like Prometheus requires special attention paid to when the score should fall away and when it should ramp up to increase the tension of the scene. But much like John Williams’ score for Jurassic Park, Prometheus demands a score that brings to the surface the sense of wonder required by the subject at hand, and Marc Streitenfeld’s score rises to that challenge without drawing undue attention to itself. Streitenfeld has been scoring Ridley Scott’s films since A Good Year and while none of them have been bad—Kingdom of Heaven stands out as perhaps his best—this score brings him into view as a composer who demands more attention than he has drawn before.

1: Looper by Nathan Johnson

Non-traditional scores have become pretty popular lately, the most mainstream example of which being Trent Reznor’s entry into the field. I’ll be honest that this one might be at the top of my list simply because I think that once you know how it was made it becomes much more beautiful and damn impressive, too.

The score to Looper goes fairly unnoticed during the film—which is not a bad thing—but it is a strange choice for what is largely an action-adventure movie. Any other composer would have produced something more like Silvestri’s Avengers score or Steinenfeld’s Prometheus score, but Nathan Johnson, whose scores are usually more whimsical, chose a score that reminds us at times of a lullaby. What is most amazing and cool about this score is how Johnson cataloged and incorporated found audio. Strange or rhythmic sounds, scraping metal or vibrations, all things that he uses to create a futuristic atmosphere and bizarre tone that keeps us on edge while the melodies laid over them remind us of the humanity that is floating on top of this twisted situation.

I am tempted to make special consideration for This is 40 just because it features a surprising amount of Michael Giacchino’s score to LOST.

Did I miss one that you really loved? Yeah, probably. But don’t just let that go, leave a comment below or send us an email and we’ll talk about it on the show.

– James Hart

About the Author:

James grew up in a house where Friday night was Movie night, which meant that he’d watched more movies than anybody else his age before he was even old enough to watch the rated R ones. He’ll watch just about anything, though he tends to avoid the horror movies without a sense of humor. Among his favorite movies are: Alien, Fargo, True Romance, Ed Wood, and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s a die-hard LOST fan and a Brown Coat. As a writer, story usually comes first for James. Memorable characters and sharp dialogue are the things that separate the classics from the chaff. That said, he does his best to keep having fun at the movies. He’s seen plenty of critics who would once have accepted summer blockbusters as entertainment become jaded and nit-picky. Sure James loves the art of film and storytelling, but fun comes first, the fun that he had watching Raiders when he was little. Also, E.T. scares the pants off him.
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