In spite of the general state of the world, 2020 ended up being a pretty great year for films – expectations for long-awaited auteur projects that were supposed to come out this year obviously being exempt from that conversation – and what’s more, it was a great year for film scores and soundtracks.
All of the films featured on this list are films that have drastically less of an impact without music, and there is a wide, rather dizzying array of talent here: seasoned professionals who’ve been doing this a long while, young up-and-comers who are interested in muddying the definition of what a traditional movie soundtrack is supposed to sound like, plus that dude from Phoenix writing new music for his wife’s movie (which is really just another way of saying if you haven’t checked out the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s “On The Rocks” yet, do so immediately).
At times, 2020 seemed like it had made time for every obscure musical subgenre under the sun: dancehall (“Lover’s Rock”), noise-metal (“Sound of Metal”), reggaeton (“Ema”), and Baltimore hip-hop (“Charm City Kings”). It was a year when Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross started playing old-timey instruments and Ethan Hawke performed a Tears For Fears karaoke number in the wildly unconventional biopic, “Tesla.” I mean, it was the year we got a documentary about the Beastie Boys. This is all another way of saying that 2020, in spite of everything else going on in the world, was ultimately another fine year for music at the movies.
Here are our choice picks for the best of the best in the year of soundtracks and original scores.
20. “The Queen’s Gambit”
There were few Netflix binges this year as delicious as the Anya Taylor-Joy-starring “The Queen’s Gambit,” a show about addiction that is itself addictive, and one that accomplishes that rare feat of making a game of chess a visually exciting spectacle. Among other things, “The Queen’s Gambit” was a lovingly fetishistic time-warp back to the 1960s, the era in which the story unfolds, and the show’s soundtrack, while never managing to tip the scale into winking, Tarantino-style self-reflexivity, is a major part of why the drama of the series works as beautifully as it does. If you fondly remember the music of ’60s pop outfit The Vogues, the show finds a nearly perfect use for their sunny ditty “You’re The One,” and ditto for the smashing Martha and the Vandellas cut. There’s also a propulsive and evocative deployment of the great Quincy Jones’ “Comin’ Home Baby,” and ditto for the drowsy boogie-woogie shuffle of “Fever” by Peggy Lee. The show’s original score, meanwhile, by “Godless” composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, is sturdy and classical, in keeping with the glossy patina of the series itself. The music for “The Queen’s Gambit” roots you firmly not only in a highly specific time and place, but also within the fraught mindscape of its heroine. – NL
“Possessor” is a film possessed, if you’ll forgive us for an obvious turn of phrase, of such sudden, jarring, demonic-feeling violence that it seems designed to rattle even the most desensitized of viewers. Brandon Cronenberg’s follow-up to the stunning “Antiviral” is a bloody meditation on literalizing the act of stepping into someone else’s shoes, and how that seismic shift affects both one’s capacity for empathy, and tolerance for cruelty. The sinister, sinuous original soundtrack by Jim Williams, who has composed many of Ben Wheatley’s scores and recently wrote music for Julia Ducournau’s “Raw,” helps establish the ghoulish tone of this very ghoulish film, all the better to revel in the relentless, gag-worthy carnage that the Cronenberg family name is all but synonymous with. “A Psychic Poison” is a dread-soaked dip in an ambient sound bath until it starts to come apart at the seams, and the synth-heavy “The Possessors Are Possessed” broods like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, seething with the malevolent energy of an unholy ritual. If you’re looking for music to make you feel on edge, look no further. – NL
18. “On The Rocks”
Among other things, Sofia Coppola is known for having a gift when it comes to curating a hip and memorable movie soundtrack. Her latest, the fun, frothy father-daughter screwball romp “On The Rocks,” is no exception. Coppola’s husband Thomas Mars, and his band Phoenix, provide the film with an ebullient original score that is designed to lift the viewer up on a kind of champagne high. The film’s employment of pop music is similarly deft: there’s a marvelous use of Chet Baker’s “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” which is exactly the kind of song you could imagine Bill Murray’s louche protagonist humming to himself as he knocks back Martinis and bites of expensive steak at a swank Manhattan haunt. There’s also a bubbly new Phoenix tune, “Identical,” that hearkens back to the glory days of the 2000s, when ’80s-inspired power pop still ruled the airwaves. Oh, and did we mention the moment where Murray croons “Mexicali Rose” to a restaurant full of strangers, a scene that comes across as a fictionalized riff on something he might do in real life? It may not reach the iconic stature of the “Lost In Translation” soundtrack, but the collection of tunes in “On The Rocks” still speaks to Coppola’s sharp ear and fine taste. – NL
Josephine Decker is a poet of discombobulation who thrives off of keeping her audience off-balance, and her latest, the nerve-frying “Shirley,” is an unconventional cautionary tale about one-sided mentorship, and the dangers of abusing someone else’s misfortune for one’s own creative benefit. It’s a searing work of expressionism, fearlessly ugly, and acted to the hilt in scene after skin-crawling scene. The film’s astonishing original score, by experimental musician Tamar-Kali, who also scored “Mudbound” and this year’s “The Assistant,” sounds like the audio equivalent of a heartless cackle. This is music as a forbidden whisper, something to be uttered like an incantation in the godless hours of the night – to quote the film’s subject, Shirley Jackson, it is a “thrillingly horrible” thing. Making expert use of jangling horror-movie strings and bellowing keys, the anxious soundscape of “Shirley” is designed to keep us just as off-balance as Elisabeth Moss’ increasingly frazzled protagonist. This is music that will confound you, exhaust you, delight you, and ultimately leave the listener delirious via the pleasure of its uncharted flights of fancy and unfettered, frightening audacity. Which is another way of saying that we hope Decker and Tamar-Kali work together again sometime in the future. – NL
16. “Perry Mason”
Any worthwhile noir has to either have a great original score or a great soundtrack; this is true whether we’re talking about Jerry Goldsmith’s velvety, sinister, inimitable horn-and-string compositions for “Chinatown,” or the zany collection of flower-child pop, stoned funk, and Jonny Greenwood-penned surf guitar licks that Paul Thomas Anderson used to bring “Inherent Vice” to life. There’s not much in Terence Blanchard’s score for this year’s prestige noir series “Perry Mason” that is designed to break the mold of what a show like this is supposed to sound like, but like Perry Mason himself, Blanchard’s rich, rousing original tunes highlight the value of doing something conventional, and doing it exceptionally well. As we said, a show like “Perry Mason” is supposed to sound a certain way – sultry, shadowy, redolent of danger and intrigue – and to its credit, that’s more or less what “Perry Mason” delivers. If anything, the characteristically emphatic work that Blanchard did for “Perry Mason” distracts from some of that handsome HBO drama’s narrative shortcomings: a show like “Perry Mason” is about building a mood above all else, and Blanchard’s sinuous arrangements acted as an exquisite complement for the intoxicating cigarette-smoke-and-fedoras ambiance that the show offered. – NL