Just because 2020 saw a bevy of movies delayed and ultimately shifted to 2021 doesn’t mean the year was devoid of great filmmaking. There’s plenty to praise this year, and a refreshingly diverse crop of contenders for everyone’s year-end lists. That extends to the craft of film scores, of which there were many worthy of note. In celebration of a great year for film music, Collider’s won Adam Chitwood, Greg Smith, and Drew Taylor have whittled down a list of the best of the best – the top 10 film scores of 2020.
This is a celebration of great film music – from electronic to orchestral to quietly devastating – and is not meant as a comprehensive be-all, end-all. There was a lot of great film music this year, but these original scores moved us the most.
10. ‘Da 5 Bloods’ – Terence Blanchard
If one word best summed up Spike Lee’s Netflix movie Da 5 Bloods it’d probably be “confrontational.” Right from the beginning, this film refuses to let the audience off the hook, forcing them to witness the horrors of the Vietnam War before experiencing a story of regret, trauma, and grief as told through the eyes of Vietnam vets in present day. Composer Terence Blanchard brilliantly toes the line between echoing the trauma these men are suffering and serving as kind of an elegy for an innocence that was lost during the war. His use of horn and drums amply gives off a “war movie” vibe, but there’s a tragedy underlying the whole film that Blanchard elegantly unpacks as the story progresses. — Adam Chitwood
9. ‘Sylvie’s Love’ – Fabrice Lecomte
A warm, immersive, sweeping work of classic Hollywood film composition, Fabrice Lecomte’s wondrous score to Sylvie’s Love reminds us of the sheer power evident in simple but grand orchestral arrangements. Sylvie’s Love, in its aesthetic constructions and narrative explorations, is a stirring tribute to classically romantic cinema (not just in reference to “people in love”; the score gives me strong Ennio Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso vibes in its wielding of piano-forward arrangements, major seventh resolutions, and countermelody), and its score both follows suit and heightens it past mere genre pastiche into its own identity. It’s so easy to care about Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha’s love story when Lecomte’s cues are so clearly, even melodramatically invested. His score aches, yearns, loves deeply, without a care in the world of how it might be perceived. You might be streaming it on a small screen, but the score to Sylvie’s Love will make you feel it on the widest Cinemascope screen possible. – Gregory Lawrence
8. ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ – Hans Zimmer
I’m not sure there’s a cooler piece of contemporary film scoring than the 7/8 main theme of Wonder Woman. And when Hans Zimmer finally gives us this guitar-forward theme we’ve been aching for in Wonder Woman 1984, it makes that moment pop with ferocity. But Zimmer’s score ain’t just a waiting game for this recognizable theme — partially because he cleverly foreshadows it throughout the rest of the score, giving us different flavors on a 7/8 time signature, often in a brighter major key; easing us into a familiar-enough-feeling pool while splashing us with different water. And the rest of the score is a classical triumph for the often experimental composer, giving me the strong Amblin blockbuster vibes I desire from a film so eager to traffic in 1980s aesthetics, soaring high with unchecked optimism, joy, and choirs galore! It’s clean, it’s wholesome, it’s accessible, it’s wondrous. – Gregory Lawrence
7. ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ – Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis, he of that phenomenally, prolifically talented Marsalis jazz family, gives Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a powerful, authentic, and surprising score steeped in the traditions of blues, jazz, and popular music of the era while also wanting to push the surprisingly fast-moving film forward. Marsalis’ understanding of arrangement, of tone, of the idiosyncratic instrumentation choice of this era (although when he opens up the orchestra to a blend of jazz and more traditional classical aesthetics, look the heck out) is second-to-none, and it results in the kind of score you’ll be subconsciously tapping your toe to while you lock in to the dramatics on screen. It’s a remarkable piece of composition, perfectly underscoring what’s going on while also making its identity very loudly and performatively known. Hey, kinda like Ma and Levee in the film! – Gregory Lawrence
6. ‘The Invisible Man’ – Benjamin Wallfisch
I’ve talked at length about how masterful the camerawork of The Invisible Man is. Now, if you’ll indulge me, a bit of praise for its score. Benjamin Wallfisch’s work is terrifying. It’s uneasy, queasy, both unrelentingly experimental and in constant dialogue with classic suspense scores of cinema past; playing something like Aphex Twin remixing Bernard Herrmann. Wallfisch loves classical orchestration, loves utilizing the unending power of a string arrangement to put us in a familiar, even throwback frame of genre cinema mind. But he doesn’t love them as much as he loves blasting this space with unfamiliar, invasive, and downright terrifying synth noises, crackling with distortion and cutting out abruptly without any need for aesthetic clarity. It’s the perfect way to illustrate Elisabeth Moss’ paranoia and eventual reclaiming of agency, to personify the lingering terror that something might be there, to clobber you once you realize there absolutely is. – Gregory Lawrence
5. ‘Mank’ – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have become David Fincher’s go-to film composers, but never have they written anything remotely like their score for Mank. The film – which chronicles the writing process of Citizen Kane – is crafted to look like it was made in the 1930s, and to suit Fincher’s aesthetic the score also had to sound like something written back in the 30s. The result? Kind of a masterpiece. Reznor and Ross’ score is at once ominous, playful, and sorrowful – echoing the headspace of Gary Oldman’s lead character. With shades of film noir, it sounds nothing like their work on The Social Network or Gone Girl and yet is somehow also unmistakably Reznor and Ross. Miraculous. — Adam Chitwood
4. ‘News of the World’ – James Newton Howard
James Newton Howard has been working in Hollywood churning out great and dynamic film scores for nearly four decades now, but he may have just written one of his best scores ever with News of the World. For Paul Greengrass’ epic, John Ford-inspired Western, Howard crafts a straight Western score – and it’s phenomenal. Tom Hanks plays a Civil War veteran who travels the country reading the news, only to happen across an orphaned young girl who he decides to cart back to her extended family. It’s a film about lonely souls finding kinship, and there’s a haunting beauty to Howard’s elegant, violin-driven score that underlines the friendship that blossoms between these two unlikely characters. It’s a gorgeous and ultimately hopeful piece of music that stands tall as one of Howard’s best ever.
3. ‘Minari’ – Emile Mosseri
Composer Emile Mosseri made waves with his score for The Last Man in San Francisco, and he’s back with something even before for Lee Isaac Chung’s A24 drama Minari. The autobiographical film tells the story of a Korean-American family that leaves California for Arkansas in search of fulfilling the American Dream, only to encounter hardship after hardship. The film is playful, sweet, and sad, and Mosseri’s score somehow encapsulates the depth of humanity that makes Minari so special. Despite everything – the hardships, the struggles, the neverending curveballs life seems to throw at you – this score reflects the hope and perseverance of the family at the center of the film. The beauty and skill with which Mosseri pulls this off makes it one of the year’s best.
2. ‘Tenet’ – Ludwig Goransson
There was much handwringing when it was announced that regular Christopher Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer wouldn’t be returning for the filmmaker’s typically twisty time travel thriller Tenet. (Zimmer was busy working on next year’s Dune.) Instead of Zimmer, Nolan would be working with Ludwig Göransson, a young composer who has been killing it with his music for The Mandalorian. As, as is the case with most of these things, nobody should have worried. Even if you feel meh about Tenet, you probably still love the score. And it definitely shares some similarities with the work Zimmer and Nolan did together; Nolan mixes the score in a really upfront way that occasionally overwhelms everything else going on in the scene (including the stereo instruction-style expository dialogue) and adds to the intensity of each and every scene, whether it’s a backwards car chase of a couple of handsome gentlemen walking into a storage unit. And Göransson, who has a background in pop music production (most famously working with Donald Glover on his Childish Gambino projects) isn’t afraid to layer on the synthetic flourishes and do things like, it seems, playing certain notes and sections of the score backwards. (This has flashes of Zimmer recording antique clock noises and incorporating them into the Dunkirk score.) There were few films released in 2020 as viscerally exciting as Tenet and a large part of that excitement had to do with Göransson’s pulse-pounding, nonstop score. – Drew Taylor
1. ‘Soul’ – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Original Jazz Compositions by John Batiste
There’s nothing ordinary about Pixar’s latest masterpiece Soul. And why should the music be any different? The tale of a middle school band teacher named Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) who dreams of becoming a jazz musician finds himself in the Great Beyond after he takes a fall on the night of his big break, Soul combines the cosmic journey of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the emotional specificity of an indie drama. And the music reflects this. Director Pete Docter, who has already elicited all-time scores from Michael Giacchino for Up and Inside Out, turned to Nine Inch Nails principals Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to compose the music for the ethereal “Soul world.” (It was at the suggestion of sound designer Ren Klyce, who frequently worked with the duo on David Fincher films.) For musicians whose signature sound for movie scores has become an increasingly jittery, hard-edged electronic, their score here is positively dreamy. Glittery and delicate, it feels like the kind of music that exists just beyond our realm of comprehension, otherworldly but never dull.
It, like their score for Mank, challenges our assumptions on what kind of score they can provide. It doesn’t always have to be glitchy. In fact, it can be quite moving. (And honestly, it’s very retro-futuristic Disney; we could see this being played in Tomorrowland or EPCOT Center with no objections.) When Joe inhabits the earthly world, Docter and his co-director Kemp Powers looked to Jon Batiste, a jazz musician and bandleader for Stephen Colbert. Batiste’s compositions give the earth sections their pulse and grounds the narrative in an identifiable time and place. The jazz music is very literally the sound of Joe’s heart. When the two threads of music intertwine towards the end of the film, well, it’s nothing short of heavenly. – Drew Taylor
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