Perpetually conceived as a visual medium, film loses its resonance and potency without the presence of sound, whether in the form of a sound effect, soundtrack, original or pre-existing songs, dialogue, or film score. When done properly, film scores can especially increase our emotional investment in a character’s arc, support a film’s story, and represent the words unspoken by the visuals and dialogue.
Indelibly, 2018 was simply an exceptional year for film music, with many of the year’s best scores bestowing us with visceral, moving, and subversive soundscapes that deepen the film’s thematic ideas and sink us further into the onscreen world. Which were the best? Per IndieWire, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced the 15 scores in contention for the Oscar for Best Original Score. The shortlist cites some of the most effective scores of the year and illustrates how innovative film scores have extended across all film genres: big blockbusters, indie thrillers, Westerns, animation, mid-budget rom-coms, to name a few.
Unsurprisingly, all five 2019 Golden Globe nominees appear in the list: Marco Beltrami for A Quiet Place, the prolific Alexandre Desplat for Isle of Dogs, last year’s Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz for First Man, Marc Shaiman for Mary Poppins Returns, and Ludwig Goransson for Black Panther. Due to their recognition at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards and several other awards shows, Hurwitz and Goransson are almost guaranteed to secure Oscar nominations — as they should be.
Tasked with portraying both the exceptionalism and reticence of Neil Armstrong, Hurwitz created an uncompromising, evocative score that provides the film’s emotional backbone and elevates its occasionally slow, underwhelming story. Hurwitz’s foregrounding of theremins infuse First Man with an otherworldly, uncanny, and disconnected feel, yet the prominent and reflective use of harp and swelling strings infuses the enigmatic Armstrong with pathos. During the film’s renowned Moon landing scene, the crescendoed and lucid score becomes a stunning culmination of the films’ themes — wonder, grief, fear, and excitement — and one of the 2018’s most sublime film music moments, period.
Meanwhile, in his deviation from the typical bombast we heard in superhero flicks, Goransson produced Marvel’s most memorable and experimental movie score to date. Black Panther’s strident score borrows from disparate sounds and genres — traditional European orchestras, American hip-hop beats, and authentic African tribal chants — and coalesces into a one-of-a-kind sonic experience, one that captures the anxiety, triumph, and nuances of Wakanda.
Also included on the shortlist is Nicholas Britell’s stunning score for If Beale Street Could Talk, which also seems to be on its way to Oscar recognition. Even though it shamefully wasn’t nominated for the Golden Globe, Beale Street’s score has continuously been praised as one of the film’s strongest elements. Like Goransson and Hurwitz, Britell’s score operates between two distinct styles of music: jazz and classical. With slow, crooning violins and euphoric brass ebbing in and out of the film’s most emotionally charged and melancholic scenes, Britell enhances director Barry Jenkins’ languid, beautiful imagery, all the while delicately punctuating the sheer resilience and love defining Tish and Foni’s heartbreaking relationship.
While the shortlist does recognize some of the finest scores of the year — it surprisingly includes Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s discordant, wonderfully bonkers score for Annihilation — it also has some shortcomings and glaring omissions of scores hailing from independent movies. Included instead are generic scores from Avengers: Infinity War, Crazy Rich Asians, Ready Player One, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald while overlooked are some of the most novel scores from the likes of Jonny Greenwood, Anna Meredith, and Colin Stetson.
Greenwood, who gifted us with last year’s revelatory Phantom Thread score, made another home run with his pensive, Bernard Herrmann-esque vortex of a score for You Were Never Really Here. Meredith’s Eighth Grade score, however, remains one of the year’s most unique and hyperactive pieces of film music. An experimental synthy-heavy score bursting with hyperkinetic energy, it underscores Kayla’s anxious-ridden navigation through the perils and chaos of middle school.
Stetson’s Hereditary score perfectly complements the film’s twisted depravity. To avoid adopting tropes of horror movie scores, Stetson aimed to use instruments like synths and strings for different, uncanny means:
“When you listen to the score, something that sounds like strings most likely is not. It’s probably clarinets or my voice. Something that sounds like synths is probably a contrabass clarinet or some number of them. Something that sounds like a swarm of bats, that probably is strings.”
As a result, Stetson’s score sounds unnerving in its simultaneous familiarity and foreignness, its triumphant jubilant and sinister abjectness — it’s particularly spine-crawling during the film’s insane climax.
Greenwood, Meredith, and Stetson’s scores, while awe-inspiring, were not included on the shortlist, thus killing any chance of their deserved Oscar nominations. (For the record, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s black metal, ambient, and piercing Mandy score also stood among the year’s best, though it is ineligible for the 2019 Academy Awards.) The Academy’s omission of the innovative scores from smaller, independent movies speaks to its broader level of exclusion of non-mainstream films — but the shortlist’s sheer acknowledgment of the brilliant Black Panther, First Man, and If Beale Street Could Talk scores doesn’t render the list without any merit.
We will get to see which scores make the cut and receive Oscar nominations on January 22nd. Here is the list of the films included in the shortlist:
Annihilation (Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow)
Avengers: Infinity War (Alan Silvestri)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Carter Burwell)
Black Panther (Ludwig Göransson)
BlacKkKlansman (Terence Blanchard)
Crazy Rich Asians (Brian Tyler)
The Death of Stalin (Chris Willis)
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (James Newton Howard)
First Man (Justin Hurwitz)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell)
Isle of Dogs (Alexandre Desplat)
Mary Poppins Returns (Marc Shaiman)
A Quiet Place (Marco Beltrami)
Ready Player One (Alan Silvestri)
Vice (Nicholas Britell)