It’s been a great year for movies, and consequently, it’s been a great year for movie music. While an original score’s purpose can vary wildly—from unnoticeably eliciting emotions to very noticeably rousing an audience’s spirit—it takes a special composer to craft something truly memorable and iconic. As evidenced by the below list, the great scores of 2017 vary pretty significantly in tone, dynamic, and even purpose. There’s a relative newcomer like Daniel Pemberton’s who’s mixing things up in a really exciting way, and an incredibly busy veteran like Michael Giacchino who’s able to craft multiple wholly different but nevertheless terrific scores in one year.
So behold, the best movie scores of 2017.
10.) A Ghost Story – Daniel Hart
Filmmaker David Lowery’s still, almost wordless A Ghost Story was certainly one of the strangest films of 2017, and it’s one that gets a heavy lift from Daniel Hart’s longing, ever-so-slightly unsettling score. Hart has been working with Lowery for a while now, crafting some truly terrific work on films like Ain't Them Bodies Saints and Pete's Dragon, and the same can certainly be said for his A Ghost Story score. While Lowery’s framing and the performances of Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are integral to the film’s success, the score is really the third main performer here given the lack of dialogue and action. It’s a mood piece, a film that you feel and experience rather than follow in any kind of exposition sense, and Hart’s fantastic score beautifully compliments the truly original, existential ghost story that Lowery tells here.
9.) Thor: Ragnarok – Mark Mothersbaugh
While Marvel Studios makes big, successful movies, one thing they aren’t known for is crafting memorable scores. Mark Mothersbaugh sought to change that on Thor: Ragnarok, as he was specifically influenced by a video essay calling the MCU out for its plain aural quality. So the former Devo frontman gets weird with it, mind-melding with director Taika Waititi to craft a downright funky score that fits perfectly with the goofy quality of Thor: Ragnarok overall. It’s big when it needs to be, but this is a score that isn’t afraid to lay on some 80s guitar, heavy synths, or straight-up laser sounds. Behold, the first great Marvel Studios score.
8.) Coco – Michael Giacchino
Michael Giacchino is certainly one of the most prolific composers of the last decade or so, but he’s also one of the best. His signature tone is present in all his scores, but his talent is such that he’s able to adapt to a variety of styles of music. His work with Pixar thus far has been terrific, and Coco offers yet another dynamic sample of Giacchino’s talents. The composer dives headfirst into the world of Mexican music to colorful results, putting the guitar front and center instead of his traditional piano. Moreover, Giacchino maintains the emotional throughline that makes so much of his work effective, supporting the family focus of this particular story. That the score exists wholly separate from the film’s also great original songs is even more impressive—both stand out as distinct and moving.
7.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi – John Williams
While John Williams’ score for Star Wars: The Last Jedi doesn’t have anything as memorable as “Rey’s Theme,” it does have a few new beats that vault it up a few spots on this here list. First and foremost there’s “The Spark”, which kicks in at an integral moment towards the end of the Battle of Crait. Then there’s Rose’s theme, which is as pure of heart as Rose herself and wonderfully heroic. While Williams may have (understandably) slowed down in recent years, the guy is still able to crank out some classically tinged themes that are destined to stand the test of time.
6.) Lady Bird – Jon Brion
The marriage of Jon Brion and Lady Bird is a match made in heaven. Greta Gerwig’s coming of age tale is a warm, hilarious, genuinely heartfelt piece of filmmaking that never strikes a false note, and the friendliness and color of Jon Brion’s score compliments the film perfectly. It’s never saccharine or twee, somehow always finding the right chord for the moment, and in the film’s most emotional scenes the composer gets to the truth of the matter rather than trying to explicitly manipulate the audience. Like Lady Bird itself, it’s hard not to fall in love with Jon Brion’s lovely, lovely work here.
5.) King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – Daniel Pemberton
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is, truly, one of the more criminally underrated/underseen movies of the year. It’s ridiculous to be sure, but instead of offering a gritty, self-serious reboot, director Guy Ritchie continues the groove he found on Man from U.N.C.L.E. and with King Arthur crafts a flighty, breezy, unabashedly fantastical adventure tale. Daniel Pemberton’s score is literally made up of screams and fast breathing, complimenting the fast pace that Ritchie sets for the film. Indeed, the movie zooms through an origin story with an inspired montage, and Pemberton’s score moves. The folkish flourishes ensure that Pemberton’s music doesn’t feel too modern, and in truth many times it feels like Pemberton was straight up adapting what Charlie Hunnam punching the air would feel like aurally. This score is literally a breath of fresh air.
4.) Darkest Hour – Dario Marianelli
Composer Dario Marianelli and director Joe Wright are a match made in heaven. Marianelli already crafted one iconic score for a Joe Wright film in Atonement, and he does it again here with the rousing tones of Darkest Hour. The film is a chamber piece almost, a story made up of people in rooms talking, but at heart it’s a leadership story. One of a Great Man trying to stand up for what is right in the face of insurmountable odds and overwhelming naysayers. Marianelli’s score mirrors the grandiose personality of Winston Churchill but works hand in hand with Wright’s cinematic style, moving this story along at a brisk, determined pace. It’s stirring and rousing, and yet has time to slow down and strike a more playful note in scenes between Churchill and King George, again mirroring the larger-than-life personalities on the screen. It’s a delight, plain and simple.
3.) War for the Planet of the Apes – Michael Giacchino
Jerry Goldsmith famously laid down an iconic score for the original Planet of the Apes, and while composer Michael Giacchino paid homage to those delightful xylophones on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, on the third film in this new franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes, he successfully combined some of Goldsmith’s sensibilities with his own talents to create one of the most memorable blockbuster scores in recent memory. There are touches of Goldsmith to be sure, but War also ventures into far more somber territory to reflect Caesar’s tragic arc of the film, hitting a moving Western vibe along the way. This is a character-driven score through and through, and the fact that Giacchino makes this list twice this year is a testament not only to his talent, but that he’s able to maintain his own voice while hopping from film to film, especially in the blockbuster realm.
2.) Blade Runner 2049 – Benjamin Wallfisch & Hans Zimmer
In every respect, Blade Runner 2049 is a better film than Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner—and that extends to the score. What Vangelis did in the first movie was groundbreaking at the time, but here Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer build on that foundation while also breaking new ground of their own, further blurring the lines between score and sound design. Blade Runner 2049’s score is a score to be sure, but it feels so organic to the cold, damp, unforgiving world that it ceases to be something separate from the rest of the film, and simply supports the tremendous world building that director Denis Villeneuve does here. Stirring, unsettling, and ultimately beautiful, this is one score that bores itself into your brain and refuses to leave.
1.) The Shape of Water – Alexandre Desplat
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a lovely film, and it appropriately gets a lovely score from Alexandre Desplat, turning in some of the best work of his career. There’s a French-infused romance to the soundscape here that, even though this is very much an American story, is wholly appropriate for the fairy tale del Toro has crafted. This is a love story at heart, but not exclusively romantic love. It’s about loving yourself, loving others, loving those in far less fortunate positions than you, and it’s a testament to Desplat’s talent and del Toro’s craftsmanship that all of that is reflected in the film’s score. You get that thematic resonance through Desplat’s themes and choice of instruments, as the piano strokes float as if underwater. It’s the best score of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Wind River, Dunkirk, Logan, Good Time
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