Justin Tipping‘s Kicks was a startling debut, vibrant, assured and bold, and the filmmaker easily made our Best Breakthrough Directors Of 2016 list. Among his various and obvious merits, he also clearly knows how to deploy music in a cinematic way. Hip hop inflected, and set in Oakland’s Bay Area, naturally, the soundtrack featured a truckload of rap beats, rhymes and rhythms (most memorably from the Wu Tang Clan). “Kicks,” about a young man on an odyssey quest to retrieve his stolen and beloved Nike sneakers, is full of swagger and energy. But it’s also a tale of identity, machismo, and the dark side of proving masculinity. There’s an introspective side to the young lead who is a daydreamer who wants to be a man, but isn’t quite there. Enter Sofia Coppola‘s longtime musical co-conspirator Brian Reitzell, who adds an atmospheric and sun-kissed mood to the narrative. His musical appearance is unexpected, inspired and makes for a great juxtaposition to the hip hop sensibilities of the film. “Kicks” is a terrific movie on its own, but its soundtrack is hard to forget and spends a lot of time on repeat.
22. “Kubo & The Two Strings”
With Pixar under-delivering again this year with the will-this-do of “Finding Dory,” its animation domination is less shaky than it used to be, especially with strong work coming in from Disney and even Dreamworks. But our favorite animation of the year, and certainly our favorite animation score, came from Laika, who delivered their best movie to date with Travis Knight’s “Kubo & The Two Strings.” The stop-motion fable has music baked into its story, with the titular hero carrying a magical shamisen (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument) around with him, and Dario Marianelli’s delightful score takes full advantage of that. There’s a strong Eastern influence to the music without it feeling like pastiche, and few scores for big movies managed to be mysterious, wonder-inducing, fleet-footed and genuinely evocative of another place and time in the way that Marianelli (who’s been rather underutilized in some respects since winning the Oscar for “Atonement” a decade ago) manages here. All that and it might have one of the best closing-credit numbers of the year, in the shape of an extremely pretty, and very apt, Regina Spektor cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
21. “In A Valley Of Violence”
One of the more underseen and underrated movies of the last year is probably “In A Valley Of Violence,” Ti West’s oater starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. It’s a pleasingly unpretentious, stripped-down, old-school sort of shoot-em-up Western with its tongue resting lightly in its cheek that showed that West’s talents can go beyond the horror movie, and deserved a lot more than its brief and tiny theatrical release. And one of its best elements was a killer score by Jeff Grace. The composer’s done some great work of late both on West’s earlier films, in his collaborations with Kelly Reichardt, and most memorably of late with “Cold In July,” but has palpable fun going Western here. Plenty of Morricone-ish tropes are here — bells, electric guitar, lightly Mexican influences, but Grace brings a more modern feel to it too, homaging without copying. It gives proceedings real drama and scope, but also captures the lightness that makes the film so much fun. We hope the composer gets another chance to go west before too long with a movie that more people see.
As divisive and misunderstood a film as has been released this year, Ben Wheatley’s J.G. Ballard adaptation “High-Rise” still tears the Playlist office apart on a regular basis. But we can all at least agree that the score, which sees Wheatley collaborate with the great composer Clint Mansell (“Moon”) for the first time, is tremendous. The story of the collapse of society within a British tower block, starring Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss and Jeremy Irons is set in a sort of brutalist 1970s retro-future, but Mansell resists any temptation to bring in a 70s sound, thankfully. Instead, it’s arguably his most classical work to date, ominous almost Bernard Hermann-ish strings bringing out the film’s suspenseful qualities in a way that evokes Polanski, while the occasional prick of synths lend an appropriately sparse modernism that you suspect Ballard would approve of to the movie. And it builds to one of the most inspired cover versions in a film in recent memory, with a haunting take on ABBA’s “SOS” by Portishead, the band’s first new recording together in eight years.
Composing team Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans have become staples on this list for their minimalist, evocative, resolutely independent-minded scoring. In 2014 their work in “Enemy” earned them a slot and they’ve been kept mighty busy since: they have no fewer than 15 2015 credits listed. Some of those, like Venice/Sundance hit “The Fits” really only made landfall in 2016, meaning they’ve felt omnipresent this year too, and have become the go-to guys for low-key aural eeriness, having also done impressive work on the Rachel Weisz film “Complete Unknown” and upcoming TIFF horror “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” among many others. But we’re opting to feature them for Antonio Campos‘ “Christine” which reteams them with a Borderline Films director (their breakout score was for Sean Durkin‘s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” from the same collective) and tells the story of Christine Chubbuck, the local news reporter who committed suicide live on air in 1974. Aware that the story itself is tragic enough, Bensi & Jurriaans dial back their usual atonal disquiet and turn in a score that’s at once melancholic but gently propulsive, and that at times wittily evokes the ticking-clock faux urgency of a 1970s TV news theme. The soundtrack, which is also available as a separate album, is just as well-judged, with period-accurate radio-friendly hits like John Denver‘s ineffably twee “Annie’s Song” and cuts from Spooner Oldham, Sonny & Cher and Olivia Newton-John providing a kind of bubblegum counterpoint to the encroaching dread embodied in Rebecca Hall‘s riveting central performance.
Oscar-winning composer Anne Dudley (the ex-Art of Noise band member won the Academy Award for Best Original Music for “The Full Monty“) has had an eclectic film scoring career, working on titles as diverse as Cameron Crowe‘s “Say Anything,” Neil Jordan‘s “The Crying Game,” Tony Kaye‘s “American History X” and um, Henry Selick‘s “Monkeybone.” And her music for Paul Verhoeven‘s witty and daring “Elle,” starring an Isabelle Huppert who is at the moment rampaging her way to the Oscars in February for her performance, perhaps suggests why: it’s somewhat less of a personal authorial statement from the composer, and more of a clever, original and very authentic collage of pre-existing influences, verging at times on pastiche. It’s her second score for Verhoeven — she also worked on “Black Book,” his last full-length feature — and you can see how her chameleonic abilities might appeal to the puckish, irreverent Dutch director. Certainly, on “Elle” her work feels exactly like the film overall, a distinctly early-90s-flavored concoction of Hitchockian intrigue strings and restless, oddly voyeuristic violins, underpinned by swelling orchestral themes that seem of all things, romantic. The combination of classiness and schlock is part of what makes the film such a singular piece of work, and Dudley’s deceptively ironic work is integral to it.