The 10 Best Movie Scores of 2016

5. Abel Korzeniowski – Nocturnal Animals

Abel Korzeniowski’s score for A Single Man picked up a Golden Globe nomination a few years back, but he’s been pretty under the radar lately. He’s scored smaller indie titles since then, but he’s more or less avoided scoring anything as noteworthy as his latest endeavor.

After several VOD releases and some work on Penny Dreadful, it’s refreshing to hear Korzeniowski on the big screen again. The second you hear the strings playing on “Wayward Sisters” over surround sound speakers, you know you’re in for a treat. The music in Nocturnal Animals is brooding and arresting.

This year’s most talked about awards season thriller is an unpredictable roller coaster made more mysterious by its quietly captivating score. Like Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl score, the main goal here is to create suspense outside of the plot. Nocturnal Animals is a serious nailbiter, and Korzeniowski helps bump up your anxiety thanks to tracks like “The Field.”

Korzeniowski’s music is always a treat. You don’t hear it as much as you’d like, but it’s always a nice surprise when it comes on. He’s proven his skills with this score more than ever. His career should continue to grow from here.

Highlights: Wayward Sisters, The Field, Table for Two


4. Nicholas Britell – Moonlight

Is there anything in Moonlight not worth heaps of praise? Not only are the acting, directing, and writing top-notch, but the score is also lovely. Nicholas Britell is probably a name you’ve never heard before unless you’re a huge fan of The Big Short, because that’s his only notable contribution prior to Moonlight. However, after his work in Moonlight, it looks like he’s probably here to stay. In fact, his Moonlight score could very well earn him his first Oscar nomination.

The score for Moonlight and the actual movie could be described using the same assortment of adjectives. The score ’s tragic, inspirational, heartfelt, and hard to ignore. It skillfully keeps up with the numerous emotional shifts. “The Middle of the World” is a tearjerker that slowly builds to a beautifully nuanced finale that will leave you breathless. “Chef’s Special,” on the other hand is a more uplifting, but equally moody track that is capable of hitting viewers just as hard.

If you’re a fan of film scores, Nicholas Britell is likely someone you’ll want to keep an eye on. The emotionally complex music found in Moonlight adds even more to an already near-perfect motion picture. Britell’s contribution to one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the year is noteworthy. It would be a shame to ignore it.

Highlights: The Middle of the World, You Don’t Even Know, End Credits Suite


3. Mica Levi – Jackie

Jackie is anything but your average biopic. This intimate and harrowing look into the life of Jackie Kennedy avoids nearly every tired cliché found in the genre. Following suit, Mica Levi’s score for the film is far from your basic orchestral dramatic score. Levi’s score is refreshingly strange. It feels like it would be more at home in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie than a biopic about a former First Lady. At leasts, that’s how it would seem to an outsider that hasn’t actually watched the movie.

When watching Jackie, viewers should be able to understand why Levi’s grim score is so fitting. Jackie isn’t the typical tearjerker biopic that some may have anticipated. Instead, it’s a raw and poetic character study of a woman grieving over the loss of a loved one. The titular character’s grief is the primary focus of the film rather than broader historical events. In other words, every single scene relies on Natalie Portman’s acting abilities to exhibit the emotional turmoil felt by this historical figure.

Portman is absolutely dazzling, but Levi’s score further helps bring the character’s psychological grievances to light. The solemn sounds of violin strings vibrating in the background make the most impactful moments even more powerful.

Jackie is a movie comprised of subtle moments meant to move the audience, and the score appropriately avoids being overly loud and showy. The music in the film perfectly goes along with the tone Larraín was aiming to capture. It’s beautiful in all the right ways.

Highlights: Graveyard, Lee Harvey Oswald, Burial


2. Justin Hurwitz – La La Land

By now, you’ve likely heard “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” but little did you know that La La Land also features some dazzling instrumental music courtesy of Justin Hurwitz, who previously worked with director Damien Chazelle on Whiplash. This time around, we get a bouncier assortment of jazzy tunes that sound both familiar and unique.

Most of the the music feels like it came straight out of the ‘50s. “Rialto At Ten,” for example sounds like an authentic product of the time. Though let it be clear that none of the songs feel at all like straight copies. They have the classic jazz sound, but it’s evident that they’re all a product of Justin Hurtwitz’s brilliant mind.

Despite the fact that the score takes a backseat to the original songs performed by the cast members, it is still a vital part of the film’s success. The score is a blast from the past capable of bringing about immense feelings of nostalgia.

La La Land has earned unanimous praise for its old school approach to musical filmmaking, so the composer’s ability to create a similarly retro score is welcome. By the time the movie ends, you’ll be happy to know that Hurwitz is perfectly capable of accenting Chazelle’s lavishly constructed world.

Highlights: Mia & Sebastian’s Theme, Bogart and Bergman, Credits


1. Jóhann Jóhannsson – Arrival

Jóhann Jóhannsson appeared on Taste of Cinema’s 2015 list of best movie scores for his work in Sicario. The percussion-heavy score paired well with the dark tone of the Villeneuve’s previous film. This was in contrast to his previous effort, The Theory of Everything, which had a lighter, more orchestral sound.

Always experimenting, Jóhannsson reunites with Villeneuve for the second time to create the most fascinating musical score of the year. It’s not as immediately listenable as some of the other entries on this list, but it’s an integral part the viewing experience.

What makes Arrival’s soundtrack so unique is the fact that it utilizes the human language in a majority of the tracks. Repeating syllables, cyclical murmurs, and harmonic blendings of vowel sounds all dominate songs like “Heptapod B,” “Sapir-Whorf,” and “Decyphering.”

It’s something that’s so unusual that it’s immediately striking every time you hear it. It won’t have viewers tapping their feet to the rhythm, but if the goal of a film’s score is truly to enhance a film’s narrative, then this particular score is a definite success.

In Arrival, language is symbolic. Jóhannsson further makes that apparent with each subsequent track that plays in the background. It’s rare to see a composer approach a film’s score with this much focus on the deeper elements of a movie. Jóhannsson has created something stunningly unique with his music for Arrival. It’s as hypnotic as it is beautiful.

Highlights: Heptapod B, Ultimatum, Kangaru

Author Bio: Justin is a paraprofessional teaching assistant and full-time film enthusiast with a degree in English. When he’s not writing about films, he’s probably watching them in his spare time.