Every year I feel the need to clarify that I’m not really a “score person.” I don’t collect OST albums, I only know a handful of film composers by name, and frankly I don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on background music in movies. It’s not uncommon for me to hear people praising or criticizing a movie’s score and realize I didn’t even remember hearing the music while watching the movie. However, because of this I feel like the scores that do jump out at me deserve all the more praise.
- The Handmaiden: Jo Yeong-wook is a composer who has worked almost exclusively in the Korean film industry but his work on The Handmaiden shows that he’s certainly been world class for a while. His score for the film is very classical in nature, certainly more in keeping with the film’s European elements than its Eastern elements. It can function as conventional scoring at times but there’s also a side to it that can get really contemplative and Phillip Glassy at times.
- High-Rise: Out of all the nominees here and with the exception of La La Land Clint Mansell’s music for High-Rise is probably the score here that I’d have the most interest in listening to when removed from the film. Mansell’s score is surprisingly maximalist coming from such a strange little movie, but that shouldn’t be mistaken to mean that it’s conventional per se. In fact one of its strengths is that it can sound really unique while still using the traditional tools of film composition.
- La La Land: I have at times criticized La La Land for having “weak songs.” I stand by that criticism but I feel I should clarify that what I’m mostly referring to there are the lyrics and the vocalists singing said vocals. Fortunately I’m not looking at either of those things here, I’m strictly looking at the underlying music by Justin Hurwitz, and that is extremely strong. This is bombastic music that’s very interested in calling attention to itself, which isn’t always what you want in a film score but it is what you want in a movie like this.
- Moonlight: A big part of Moonlight’s strength is that it looks at the life of a poor Miami kid and tells his story with all the highbrow techniques that would normally be applied to… I don’t know, the life of an artist in Paris or something. A part of that is the inclusion of a score by Nicholas Britell that is largely rooted in classical chamber music. The score is primarily conveyed through strings and you can observe how these strings become less discordant as the character increases in confidence.
- Swiss Army Man: Possibly the most unique and innovative score of the year, the music Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (members of an indie rock band called Manchester Orchestra) have crafted for Swiss Army Man uses make use of what sound like vocals basically as an instrument. These aren’t actual songs with vocals mind you, for the most part the vocal sounds here do not make intelligible words so much as they make a sort of a capella backing music. I don’t think Hull and McDowell actually assembled a choir to do this so much as they programed vocal sounds into a computer and assembled it as music. However they made it, it really helps add a lair of whimsy to the movie and improves it in a big way.