The Best Film Scores of the Year
From dangerous road trips to desert terrains and harrowing examinations of FBI surveillance. In 2021, these composers brought the drama through the art of film scoring. Here are our top 10 soundtracks of the year, unranked
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
An ambitious film requires a composer who understands scale, and Hans Zimmer’s score for Denis Villeneuve’s six-years-in-the-making epic is dark, apocalyptic and enchanting all at once. As drama unfolds on the unforgiving desert terrain, Zimmer’s musical world-building adds to the sandstorm: deploying awe-inspiring, blockbuster crescendos in moments of action but pulling back into eerie, hushed tones to underpin the more mournful, mysterious chapters.
Dir. Janicza Bravo
Xylophone and harp motifs keep reappearing throughout the score to Zola, Janicza Bravo’s feature about the misadventures of two young women – Zola and Cookie – who meet in a Detroit restaurant and end up on an absurd and dangerous road trip to Tampa, Florida. The score, like much of the work by acclaimed musician and composer Mica Levi, juxtaposes the simplest of elements. In this case, the soft sounds of bells are set against Levi’s synth work, which quickly tips towards the sinister, much in the same way that the protagonists’ naive plan to make some extra money soon becomes something much more perilous.
Mark Isham & Craig Harris
Judas and the Black Messiah
Dir. Shaka King
The political tumult of the late 1960s is rendered in tense and unpredictable tones in Mark Isham and Craig Harris’ accompaniment to Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. The film charts the rise and eventual assassination of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was, during his short political career, one of the most radical orators in the United States. The score, moody and ominous throughout, uses conventional instrumentation such as string sections alongside bursts of free jazz and even didgeridoos; its constant changes in pace all underscoring the intensity and volatility of the period.
The Green Knight
Dir. David Lowery
2021 was neither epic nor adventure-filled. However, The Green Knight whisked us away to a land filled with Arthurian lore and quests – plus Skins-star-turned-Hollywood-favourite Dev Patel, who stars as Gawain in this reimagining of the medieval poem. Daniel Hart’s haunting score takes cues from the movie’s themes – from its supernatural elements to the historical setting – and amplifies them. For every defining step on Gawain’s journey, there’s a rousing choral number to spur the adventure on. Where there’s romance there’s a melancholic ballad; where there’s unease or danger, there’s a flurry of eerie voices. Classical and electronic instrumentation are combined with folk music to dial up the unsettling qualities of the film up a notch – or several.
Dir. Pablo Larraín
Jonny Greenwood’s finest score to date begins with a flourish of classical baroque – dignified, unyielding, and in short everything convention demands from a film about the royal family. But Pablo Larraín’s psychological drama focusing on Princess Diana isn’t that film. From the opening, the music evolves, introducing irreconcilable and disparate elements: church organ, dissonant strings, AOR rock. And drifting through it all, a kind of searching free jazz, an evocation of a spirit unmoored – or fighting free.
Dir. Sam Pollard
Setting the mood of one of the year’s most rigorous and chilling documentaries, jazz composer Gerard Clayton crafted a fittingly unsettling score for director Sam Pollard’s uncovering of the extent of the FBI’s targeted surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Throughout, drums and guitar build around a piano and arco bass. At points, a single note is sustained for long sequences – stretching tension and subtly echoing the incessant, pervasive nature of federal intrusiveness.
Dir. Jacques Audiard
Set in the high-rises of Paris’ 13th arrondissement, Jacques Audiard’s Les Olympiades weaves together a series of connected narratives about various friends with various benefits. To soundtrack it, French producer Erwan Castex (otherwise known as Rone) projected loops from the film in the studio – black-and-white vignettes of unravelling tower-block romances. The result is an improvised joyride through synth experiments, ambient beds and orchestral flourishes. Like the flashes of chemistry in Audiard’s story, this score is a bolt of electricity with a soft afterglow.
The Witches of the Orient
Dir. Julien Faraut
In postwar Japan, a group of textile workers were recruited to become the country’s women’s volleyball team. Known for enduring a merciless training regime, they enjoyed a winning streak of over 250 games, and took the gold at the 1964 Olympics. The players became legends, even inspiring a 1969 anime series, Attack No. 1, scored by Takeo Watanabe. One of Watanabe’s tracks makes it onto the soundtrack of this documentary by French filmmaker Julien Faraut, while the minimalist, almost mechanical, score by K-Raw – mostly built from drum machines, keyboards and guitars – roots the story in the monotony of factory labour.
Dir. Céline Sciamma
Céline Sciamma is one of Europe’s foremost directors, one who centres the experiences of young women in her work. Her ghostly fairytale, Petite Maman, is a meditation on time, family and memory as seen from the perspective of a young girl. The score, by French producer Para One, is heavy on the synths, giving it a retro feel that is suitably charged with feelings of discovery as well as melancholy. His use of choral harmonies and cyclical chord progressions adds an extra layer of depth to the hypnotic and heart-wrenching compositions.
Dir. Rebecca Hall
Based on the novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, Passing follows the complex narrative of Clare and Irene: two mixed-race Black women in 1920s Harlem living parallel lives. Until meeting Irene, Clare has moved through society as a white woman – a passing woman – and is quietly yearning to reconnect with her heritage. Devonté Hynes’ accompanying soundtrack is as delicate and thoughtful as the plot itself. As each mournful horn and sparse piano note unfolds, there’s a subtle sense of tension and release that only intensifies the beauty and emotional unease of this story.
Rachel Grace Almeida