The Top 10 Film Scores Of 2012

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As far as individual elements of filmmaking go, music has always been near the top of my personal list. Music has the power to enhance every element of cinema. A good score evokes a sense of atmosphere visuals alone cannot; themes, when properly utilized, help establish character better than a performer can on their own, and embellishes the viewer’s sense of place, time, and culture; ambient scoring often affects us powerfully in ways we can scarcely understand. Above all else, music has the capacity to translate, augment, and enrich our emotional connection to film, and that, more than any other quality, is why I believe film composition is a vibrant and important art worth celebrating.

With that in mind, I have put together a list of what I believe to be the Top 10 Film Scores of 2012. Judged independently from the quality of the films they are attached to – though, in a testament to how important music is in building a good movie, many of these titles can be found on my Top 10 Films of 2012 list as well – these scores each stand as memorable and impressive feats of composition, not only in how they work with the imagery, characters, and story, but in how well they play on their own. I have listened to, enjoyed, and been enriched by each of these scores several times, and recommend all of them as powerful musical experiences.

As always, clicking on the title of the film will take you to my original review, though the focus here is, of course, on the music itself.

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10. Wreck-It Ralph

Composed by Henry Jackman

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One of the key functions of any film score is to create the proper sense of energy, and Henry Jackman’s work on Wreck-It Ralph is as good an example of that quality as one could ask for. Expertly blending 8- and 16-bit musical textures from past eras of video games in with traditional symphonic composition, Jackman’s score propels both the visceral and emotional sides of one of 2012’s most satisfying films with delightful vitality. I do not yet think Jackman is a great composer, but Wreck-It Ralph is a pleasantly surprising sign that he may some day become one; if nothing else, this score makes him a talent worth watching out for.

9. Zero Dark Thirty

Composed by Alexandre Desplat

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Few composers working today operate with such little ego as Alexandre Desplat, who is always more than willing to make his work invisible, blending quietly gorgeous compositions into the very fabric of the film. In this way, Zero Dark Thirty is one of Desplat’s greatest works to date, so effective in establishing tone and pace that one is unlikely to actively recognize the score until it takes over during the end credits. But this is a great and powerful work of film composition nevertheless, soft and beautiful and perfectly in touch with the psyche of the film’s determined main character and grounded, journalistic presentation. Everybody who sees Zero Dark Thirty seems to agree it is an impossibly gripping, immersive experience, and so much of that has to do with Desplat’s sharp, stealthy, and unassuming work.

8. Lincoln

Composed by John Williams

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John Williams is hardly known for subtlety, but he can operate with a soft and delicate touch as well as anyone else when need be. His work on Steven Spielberg’s spectacular period drama Lincoln is proof of that. Like the film, Williams’ score inspires emotional reaction in small ways, building its individual components with meticulous thought and care to complement the complexities of the story and characters. And though much of Williams’ most famous work involves transporting the listener to fantastical fictional realms, he has always been equally talented at evoking specific times and places in real-world history, a skill he puts to exceptional use here to take us back to Civil War America. Yet it may be the score’s unexpected playful side that sets this one apart; with spirited fiddle work and an infectious degree of energy in certain moments, the Lincoln score proves just as unpredictable and multifaceted as the historical figure from which it takes its name.

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7. The Grey

Composed by Marc Streitenfeld

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Haunting, evocative, and quietly beautiful, Marc Streitenfeld’s work on Joe Carnahan’s harrowing elemental drama is as unsettling and challenging as the film itself. Given the film’s subject matter, there must surely have been temptation to compose a percussion-heavy, heart-pounding action score, but Streitenfield instead practices restraint, using melancholy strings and soft ambience to focus instead on the fear and doubt clouding the characters’ hearts. Above all else, The Grey is about death, about man’s connection to the unknown, and the ability of Streitenfeld’s score to musically embody the ethereal concept of mortality is a major component of why the film works so powerfully. This is not an easy score to listen to on its own, but it leaves such an immense impression in context that it must surely stand as one of the year’s greatest compositional efforts.

6. Skyfall

Composed by Thomas Newman

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At his best, Thomas Newman is one of the most interesting composers working in film today, but I feel he only intermittently gets to demonstrate the full extent of his considerable talent. Who would have thought a James Bond film – even one as spectacular as Skyfall – would provide the opportunity for Newman to really stretch his musical legs? This is a stupendous blockbuster score, and while Newman nails the emotional elements as well as he always has, it is the tense and action-packed moments that really impress.

Making wonderful use of low strings to hammer home intensity, experimenting with electronic sounds during quiet moments of espionage, and letting the horns blare in ways that would make original 007 composers Monty Norman and John Barry proud, Newman’s music perfectly complements – and enhances – Sam Mendes’ stylish direction and Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography. The film’s unique, compelling musical texture is a little unlike anything else the Bond series has ever had, even as it evokes the most iconic elements of the franchise’s musical DNA in key moments. This is a great score – just as enjoyable as a standalone album as it is in context – and whoever directs Bond 24 should seriously consider keeping Newman on board.

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5. The Dark Knight Rises

Composed by Hans Zimmer

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If Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight Rises is not quite as groundbreaking or awe-inspiring as his work (with James Newton Howard) on The Dark Knight, that is only because Rises, as a film, leaves the composer with a tad less room to experiment. But even as a slightly more conventional score, this is still Zimmer working at the top of his game, weaving an elaborate musical tapestry of mayhem, villainy, and small rays of hope on an intense, apocalyptic scale.

In context of the Dark Knight trilogy, Zimmer does beautiful work developing and resolving key themes from throughout the series; but as with the best sequel scores, I find the new material even more compelling. In particular, Bane’s theme – which prominently features a mysterious chant crowd-sourced from online participants – is terrifying, a relentless musical assault that serves as a perfect complement to Tom Hardy’s forceful performance. Zimmer develops the theme along the same lines that Nolan progresses the story: It gets increasingly frantic, splintered, powerful, and percussive as the film marches towards it bombastic conclusion. Zimmer absolutely outdoes himself on the grand action finale, combining nearly every musical trait he has ever displayed into one ruthless action score of hypnotic intensity. The Dark Knight Rises is not quite Zimmer’s finest hour, but it comes damn close, and that is something worth celebrating.

4. The Amazing Spider-Man

Composed by James Horner

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I have always and will continue to love and respect the work Danny Elfman did for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. To my mind, the rousing central theme Elfman composed will always stand as the definitive piece of Spider-Man music.

But viewed purely as musical composition, James Horner’s score for The Amazing Spider-Man is superior, not only to Elfman’s work, but to most film music composed this year. Horner perfectly tapped into the emotions of the characters and the story, composing a stunning array of deeply felt themes and motifs that affect the listener on instinctual levels. Horner paces his score meticulously, gradually introducing the building blocks of the music and expanding upon each element as the film moves along. By the end, Horner has a dizzying range of distinctive musical components working in harmony, and the effect is emotionally overwhelming. This is some of the very best work the composer has ever done, and I am very excited to see this music develop as the rebooted franchise continues.

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3. Cloud Atlas

Composed by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil

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Few films this year so tightly incorporated music into their very DNA as Cloud Atlas, especially considering that the key composition – the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” – serves as a key thematic and narrative device. If the score – composed in part by co-director Tom Tykwer – did not live up to diegetic assertions of the music’s power, the film itself could easily fall apart, or at least fail to fulfill its full potential.

But the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” is a truly beautiful and haunting piece, one that absolutely justifies character Robert Frobisher’s claims to brilliance. The rest of the score is just as good, a miraculous emotional powerhouse built on simple progressions and instrumentation. The music augments the era-spanning emotions of the film with modesty and grace, and is, I would argue, the key element in linking six different stories, styles, and genres together into one seamless experience. I named Cloud Atlas the second-best film of 2012, and I can say with full confidence that the score, which I listen to regularly, is among the foremost components of the film’s artistic success.

2. The Secret World of Arrietty

Composed by Cécile Corbel

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Hitting American shores early this year, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty is one of Studio Ghibli’s simplest and most profound works, a film bursting with beautiful visuals and heartfelt, emotional storytelling. Capturing the splendor of this creative animated landscape is no easy task, and yet French musician Cécile Corbel arguably outdoes the imagery in terms of sheer artistic impact.

With unique and earthy instrumentation comprised of guitars, harps, and winds, Corbel’s aural landscape is the perfect sonic equivalent of Arrietty’s wondrous world. There is such profound beauty ingrained in every second of this score, beauty that permeates even the film’s saddest and most introspective moments to remind us that there is grace in all things, whether we can see it or not – which is, of course, one of the core ideas in a film about seeing the world from a different perspective. Infused with evocative lyrics in Japanese and English as various points, Corbel’s score is never predictable, and only grows deeper, better, and more entrancing as the film moves along.

Even considering the legendary work composer Joe Hisaishi has done with Hayao Miyazaki, Corbel has still gifted Ghibli with one of the studio’s very best scores, and one of the most powerful sets of film music in years. The Arrietty score has not, sadly, been made available in America, but it can easily be imported on CD from England, Japan, and other countries, an expenditure I highly recommend.

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1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Composed by Howard Shore

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Howard Shore’s classic work on The Lord of the Rings is widely regarded as one of the greatest film scores of all time, and there is not an ounce of quality lost between the music of Rings and that of The Hobbit. Shore is in top form here, once again crafting a sweeping and complex symphony that perfectly captures the emotions of the film’s story, characters, and visuals.

Like The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit score is built around a vast series of themes and leitmotifs. Some, like the Shire, Rivendell, Lothlorien, and One Ring themes, return from the original trilogy, often reworked or refashioned to reflect new or broader contexts. For instance: One of the score’s most invigorating moments comes when Bilbo rushes out of his home in Bag End to join the dwarves, and the peaceful, laid-back Shire theme is rearranged as a lively ode to adventure, reflecting the start of Bilbo’s transformation from a peace-loving Hobbit to a brave, venturesome hero.

But the real attraction here is the vast amount of new material Shore has composed, the dozens of fresh leitmotifs and bold sonic concepts that extend the aural boundaries of Middle Earth by many glorious miles. Shore’s evocation of Dwarf culture, represented by an individual theme for Thorin and many other motifs and sonic identities for Oakenshield’s company and the lost kingdom of Erebor, is a particular highlight.

In parts, the score’s style shifts closer to the storybook aesthetic of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original Hobbit novel – there is an unrestrained glee to the Shire sections I find absolutely infections – but there are other portions that forebode an oncoming darkness, especially when characters discuss the growing threat of the Necromancer. Shore’s music presents a Middle Earth in flux, at once celebrating a golden age of adventure and prosperity while mysterious forces coalesce beneath the surface.

Even when An Unexpected Journey does not live up to its full potential as a film, the music is positively awe-inspiring, as good as fans of Shore’s work could possibly have hoped for. Unlike The Lord of the Rings scores – which were not released in full form until years after their release – listeners can purchase the near-complete score for An Unexpected Journey right off the bat with a very nice Special Edition release, and whether or not one is a fan of the film itself, I highly recommend one does so. This is film composition at its stirring, inspiring best, a wondrous and masterful symphony that stands tall as the best score of the year.

What did you think of these scores? Which movies featured your favorite compositions in 2012? Sound off in the comments and let us know what you think!

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  • Josiane Ochman

    I haven’t seen these 3 would love to though.

  • Duane

    Jon Brion’s work for ‘ParaNorman’ deserves at least a special mention.

    • Jonathan Lack

      Absolutely. Brion did a fantastic job. Very Carpenter-esque. I loved it.

  • Jeremy Lebens

    They Grey takes my #1 spot as most-listened to score/soundtrack on my Zune. Lots of good music out there though.

  • Kenneth Serenyi

    I believe that Howard Shore composed his best and most original music for ‘Fellowship’ and ‘Two Towers’. On the surface, ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Return of the King’ sound like they just reuse many of the same themes found in the first two released movies. I would have to sit down and really listen closely to notice anything new in ‘The Hobbit’ score. I’m not saying it’s a bad score at all, my point is that scores that have mostly original music rank higher for me on a list like this.