2014 review: The year's best movie scores

Looking back on the scores of 2014, the diversity of styles and sounds belies a year which (in the opinion of this writer, at least) has struggled to find a voice in any one singular film. In a vainglorious effort to redress this, here are the 10 best scores of 2014 (in no particular order). Even if some of the films aren’t particularly memorable, their soundtracks deserve a mention on their own merit.


Under The SkinMica Levi


Was Jonathan Glazer’s third feature – a common feature on many 2014 Top Tens – a gooey horror, a Kubrickian mindbender, or a parable on the nature of humanity? At its best, it works on all three levels, as shown in Mica Levi’s eerie music. The score reflects the juxtaposition embodied in Scarlett Johansson’s extra-terrestrial lead: it’s frightening, but it lures us in with elements that are recognisably human. Levi, previously known as lead singer with Micachu and the Shapes, delivers a debut score of remarkable confidence and character, destined to linger in the mind long after the end credits roll.


Nightcrawler – James Newton Howard


Listening to Nightcrawler’s soundtrack, anyone who knows scores will instantly recognise it as the work of James Newton Howard. Playing like a higher-tempoed cousin of his contribtions to the soundtrack of Collateral, there are echoes of his scores for King Kong and Peter Pan However, there are other influences at work here. The electric guitars recall Elliot Goldenthal’s score to Heat, and seedier moments play like Shore (Crash in particular). Like lead character Lou Bloom, it’s energetic, spiky and liable to change its tone and speed in a flash.


Cold In July – Jeff Grace


Jim Mickle’s Cold In July aims for the look and feel of a 1980s thriller (see also: The Guest), and it gets a sound to match from composer Jeff Grace. A fully synthisied score is a rarity these days, so it’s refreshing to hear this pulsing, paranoid throwback to the time that fashion sense forgot. At the very least, it’s an effective thriller score in its own right. At its best, the score to Cold In July honours the works of the late Riz Ortolani, and John Carpenter (especially Escape From New York and The Fog)


Maps To The Stars – Howard Shore


Howard Shore and David Cronenberg go together like Spielberg and Williams. Adding in some Eastern influences can only make it better. As the Lothlorien themes from Lord of the Rings proved, Shore can use instruments like sitars to mesmerising effect. He uses it again to bathe Cronenberg’s warped image of Los Angeles in an otherworldly glow. This is not the LA we know, or is it?; it’s full of warped tastes and ideas. The score is by turns exotic and poignant; even when the film digs into perversions, Shore’s restraint is unparalleled.


The Congress – Max Richter

Ari Folman’s follow-up to Waltz With Bashir, a loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s futuristic novel, was met with an overwhelming critical shrug. The film itself seemed unsure about its message and its method, a split between live action and animation indicative of a film at war with itself. Still, the whole thing was held in place by Robin Wright’s committed performance and a beautiful Max Richter score. Largely strings-driven, the emotive elegance of Richter’s work carried the film through its most chaotic stretches with a grace and heft the rest of the film lacked.


The Double – Andrew Hewitt

Richard Ayoade’s sophomore feature (after Submarine) buried Dostoyevsky’s tale of paranoia and self-doubt under too many influences and tics, but one standout element of the production was Andrew Hewitt’s score. Unlike the film, Hewitt settles on one primary influence (film noir) and lets the rest of the score fall into place. Interspersed amongst its more fast-paced elements are moments of genuine emotion and tenderness, resulting in a score that manages to blend tones better than the accompanying film could.


Only Lovers Left Alive – Jozef van Wissem/SQÜRL

For Jim Jarmusch’s vampiric lament for times and tastes past, composer Jozef van Wissem takes inspiration from the film’s dual settings of Detroit and Tangiers. The first half is driven by the electronic guitars of Jarmusch’s own band, SQÜRL. Then, the action segues to Africa, and local strings kick in to give a heady, exotic flavour. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s hunt for blood and inspiration is guided by these colourful sounds. Like our leading duo, each piece boasts an underlying tension below their cool elegance as each string is plucked and strummed. Marvellous.


Godzilla – Alexandre Desplat


It’s been a busy year for monsieur Desplat. He provided charming faux-Eastern European sounds to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and provided a solid-if-unremarkable score to the even-more-unremarkable The Imitation Game. However, his standout work of 2014 can be found in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. The score pays homage to the sounds of the Tohu originals, whilst still creating a distinct and scary vibe of its own. Pulsing rhythms and errant, far-off horns dominate this score, a slick and well-built slice of dread.


Gone Girl – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

For his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, David Fincher directed composers Reznor and Ross to the music played at massage parlours. The underlying creepiness of such pieces is accentuated in this killer score. Like Rosamund Pike’s Amy, the surface calm and reassurance gives way to unexpected darkness, with the composers actively setting the listener on edge with a calculated assault of digital textures and off-kilter soundscapes. It ends up somewhere between Shore in his Cronenberg-ian heyday and Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score, which is no bad thing.


Interstellar – Hans Zimmer

With director Christopher Nolan reaching for the stars and beyond, Hans Zimmer elected to treat us to one of those scores he pulls out every few years as a surprise. When he isn’t constrained by superheroics or rote action beats, Zimmer can deliver works of real depth and technical nous. Interstellar is one such work. As Nolan flirts with comparisons to 2001 (They’re ultimately undeserved, but bless him for trying.), Zimmer looks to the great composers for inspiration. The result is an percussive and triumphant score, with organ work echoing Bach and Philip Glass, and a huge scope befitting the themes and narrative with which Nolan grapples.