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NOV
21
2 YEARS

Critic's Notebook: Thoughts on the Year's Strongest Scores by Some of Hollywood's Best Composers

From "Argo" to "The Dark Knight Rises" to "Hitchcock," THR's Todd McCarthy celebrates the best film music of 2012.

Alexandre Desplat
Alexandre Desplat

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Where film music is concerned, has any year since 2008 been anything other than the Year of Alexandre Desplat? The composer is as brilliant as he is indefatigable. In 2012, he has his name on eight films, and it's an extraordinarily eclectic bunch: Moonrise Kingdom, Argo, Rise of the Guardians and the upcoming Zero Dark Thirty as well as four European Cannes entries -- Rust and Bone, Reality, Renoir and Cloclo, a small French film.

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Musically, the most bewitching of his 2012 titles is Moonrise Kingdom, though that is not entirely Desplat's doing; the composer's original work is intertwined sublimely with compositions by Benjamin Britten, Saint-Saens, Mozart, Schubert and Hank Williams, among others. His score for Argo admirably amplifies that story's tension and excitement, and his work on Guardians is downright protean as his music nimbly adopts ever-changing tempos and motifs not only to propel the action but also to help unify a film that constantly jumps all over the place.

Otherwise, some of the year's outstanding original movie scores have resulted from mastering very particular sorts of challenges, some demanding originality dictated by the special nature of the films, others requiring a certain familiarity because of their subjects while avoiding outright imitation.

Any James Bond score is expected to offer reverberations of Monty Norman's immortal 007 theme, which in Skyfall is noticeable not only in Thomas Newman's music proper but also in Adele's dramatic title song. But while paying due homage, Newman, in his first Bond assignment, sprints off on his own to create a dynamic score that delivers what we expect from the series as well as flavors fresh and distinct.

Hitchcock recounts when the great director was making Psycho, and Danny Elfman faced the tricky task of avoiding the use of any actual Bernard Herrmann music but still evoking related motifs and stimulating similar responses of alarm, anxiety and emotional turmoil. A devoted student of Herrmann's, Elfman succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation.

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On The Dark Knight Rises, the irrepressible Hans Zimmer could not stray far from the heavy-to-overwhelming accompaniment he provided for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. His greatest work for director Christopher Nolan, and possibly the best of his career, was on Inception, and while Rises doesn't quite reach that rarefied realm, it's an imposing element of a prodigious achievement.

On the other hand, two 2012 films stand out for the ambition, individuality and singularity of their scores.

Mychael Danna's expansive score for Ang Lee's Life of Pi employs everything from Indian and South Asian instrumentations and flighty vocals to full-bodied orchestral backing. Given that much of the running time is devoted to a teenage boy trying to survive on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, there are long dialogue-free stretches to fill, and Danna supplies appealing, emotionally fluent music that stops short of overt sentimentality.

Finally, there is Jonny Greenwood's eerie, bracing, thoroughly unconventional score for Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. At some moments the music supports the drama at hand, at others it works in bizarre counterpoint; sometimes it erupts out of nowhere, just as it might later dwindle to nothingness for no evident reason. No one else scores films in this manner, and Greenwood's contributions add to the challenging, unsettling nature of Anderson's most recent work.

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  • Dolly Parton: Thirty-two years after "Nine to Five," Parton vies for her third overall Oscar nom with "Not Enough" from Joyful Noise.
  • Willie Nelson: A nom for "Midnight Run" from Lawless would be Nelson's first since "On the Road Again" from 1980's Honeysuckle Rose.
  • Jon Bon Jovi: The rocker has two songs, "Not Running Anymore" and "Old Habits Die Hard," in the octogenarian gangster comedy Stand Up Guys.
  • Whitney Houston: Houston might get a posthumous nom for "Celebrate" from Sparkle.
  • Diane Warren: Six Oscar noms and no wins -- will "Silver Lining" from Silver Linings Playbook break the spell?