Ranking film scores on their musical merits, as I’ve done here at Slate the last few years around Oscar time, is a somewhat unfair exercise. In the Best Original Score category, the Academy is interested in underscoring, the sort of generally wordless music meant to coax emotion or enhance atmosphere. This means that the composers in play are more handmaidens to a director’s storytelling than free artists, and that comparing the necessarily particular ways they meet their film’s needs can result in something of a mixed fruit bowl.
That said, I tend to think a listener can discern when a film composer is truly invested in his work (or at the very least having fun) and when he—all hes this year!—is just fulfilling the assignment. So for 2018’s ranking, I’ve rewarded those scores that have the spark of life and creative play in them, while demoting those that seem perfunctory or downright bored.
To be frank, Ramin Djawadi did the neo-cowboy thing better in the main titles for HBO’s Westworld. Burwell has assembled all the usual suspects here for his Western idiom—guitars, dulcimer, jangly piano, handclaps, chimes—but the overall effect is dull and dusty. His clarinet writing, however, can be moving, and some of the score’s softer moments glow with a humane warmth—even if Burwell’s heart often doesn’t seem to be in it.
Desplat’s work here is endearing and often gorgeously rendered but also disappointingly predictable. His sound palette—shimmering, liquid effects like bowed vibraphone (or is it crotales?), whistling, harp, celeste, and breathy woodwinds—are exactly what I would reach for if someone gave me the title of this film and nothing else. (And I am not a professional composer for a reason!) By-the-book–ness aside, the writing can be luscious and marked by a charming gentleness, and I can’t fault Desplat’s careful treatment of his themes. The trouble is I suspect I’ll soon forget them.
3. Dunkirk – Hans Zimmer
Zimmer and his team’s fascinatingly derived material for Christopher Nolan’s war epic is the hardest of this bunch to place, mainly because so much of it feels like they wandered into the sound design lab on the way to the recording studio. I mean, I’m definitely into the overprocessed rawness of the relentlessly tense, sprawling sonic landscape conjured here, but aside from the aching portions drawing on Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, it’s difficult to evaluate as music. To be sure, a number of Zimmer standbys are present, like his massive bass womps and his pulsating ostinato undercurrents. But for me, the lasting impression was The Dark Knight with even more vocal fry. Listening to this, I kept picturing a shadowy warehouse full of big metal beasts writhing in some kind of slow-motion rave. Which is cool. But maybe not what the Best Score category is for?
2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – John Williams
What can you say about ol’ JW? The man is still the master of the classic Hollywood orchestra, and listening to his stuff here—both the old themes and the lovely new material—is a joy. I’m consistently awed by his complete control of orchestration (the placing of the right note with the right instrument), particularly in the brass (those French horns!) and the percussion. His sense of happiness in this familiar musical space is palpable, perhaps nowhere more so than in the hilarious “Canto Bight” casino cue. If I must lodge a sour note, it’s just that Williams’ very literal tonal treatment of heroes (soaring horns) and villains (growling male vocals) feels a touch dated—but hey, it’s Star Wars. This score is so delightful that it might have garnered the top spot had there not been something wholly new in the fray.
Like Micachu’s score for Jackie last year, Radiohead member Greenwood’s efforts here can and should be a stand-alone concert work. (And indeed, you can see Wordless Music score the movie live this week.) While most film score albums allow for a certain amount of skipping around, I could not bear to pull myself away from any of these cues. Overall, the score offers a woozy, luminous, Debussian beauty, but there’s something poisonous waiting within the languid harmonies. Greenwood often employs a kind of phasing where two voices echo each other just out of joint, and he seems preoccupied with foregrounding the physicality of his instruments, particularly the strings and piano: The strained registers and tight harmonies he uses, in addition to a recording approach that catches every scratch, scrape, and thump, continually reminded me of the human sensuality of performance. The queasy grandeur of this score is arresting, and I’d hazard to say it’s the most complete artistic statement of the cohort this year. Let’s hope against hope that the academy is just as infatuated with it as I seem to be.