500 DAYS OF SUMMER
500 Days of Summer's soundtrack was singled out for raves when the film hit screens last year, and rightly so. Its tone-perfect mix of vintage rock (the Smiths, Hall & Oates) and au courant singer-songwriters (Feist, She & Him, Regina Spektor) captured a worldview, a vibe and a transitional season in Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's characters' minds. Love may not conquer all, but it inspires great mix discs.
Rock scribe-turned-writer-director Cameron Crowe successfully laid out a master template for soundtracks as a filmmaker's — and/or their characters — personal mix disc. Adventureland writer-director Greg Mottola seems to have taken close notes. Not even half the songs used in his film are on the soundtrack, but what made the final cut is choice: Big Star, David Bowie, Crowded House, the Cure, Falco, Hüsker Dü, INXS, New York Dolls, the Outfield, the Replacements, Lou Reed, Yo La Tengo ... If you're jonesing for the '80s, here's a rocking fix.
Paul Englishby's undersung score for 2008's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day flashed sass and brass in equally delicious measure, but his An Education score oozed class, with ruminative piano passages that suggested late nights, cocktail bars and morning-after consequences. Sultry ballads from contemporary chanteuses Melody Gardot, Duffy, Madeleine Peyroux and Beth Rowley fit nicely with midcentury nuggets from Ray Charles, Percy Faith and Vince Guaraldi, making this an obvious download for 21st-century lounge hounds on the prowl.
Critics complained, with cause, that too much of James Horner's score resembled his work for Titanic (including Leona Lewis' Celine Dion-mimicking "I See You"). But his action themes were exemplary — especially the epic (eleven-plus minutes long) "War." In its own way as heart-pounding as "O Fortuna" from Orff's Carmina Burana (used to rousing effect during a warriors-to-battle sequence in Excalibur), "War" was the Avatar soundtrack's musical highlight and dramatic saving grace — a thrilling example of movie music at its most effective.
AWAY WE GO
Low-key, largely acoustic music helped set the tone for director Sam Mendes' charmingly relatable story about an ordinary couple on an extraordinary search for their own kind of home. Thematic and emotional consistency was provided by a batch of songs from singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch, long championed by KCRW and Hotel Café tastemakers, who eschewed high drama in favor of finger-picked confessionals and mellow reminders to "Breathe." Classic Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Velvet Underground tunes occasionally complemented but didn't overshadow Murdoch's own.
Giuseppe Tornatore's epic love letter to small-town Sicilian life in the mid-20th century received magisterial treatment from frequent collaborator Ennio Morricone. His eleven-minute opener "Sinfonia per Baarìa" registered ominous portent with prayer calls and dialogue extracts, but for the bulk of the soundtrack he deployed his traditional arsenal of orchestral weaponry, alternating drum-pounding action with comedic reprieves and lovely, gracious interludes like "Il Corpo e La Terra" and "Il Vento, Il Mare, I Silenzi." The octogenarian Morricone isn't breaking new ground, but he remains a master in command of his craft.
Pedro Almodóvar reunited with composer of choice Alberto Iglesias for this convoluted tale of love, film and identity, and the resulting music was (as expected) sensual, passionate and mysterious. A provocative blend of classical and folk instrumentation, Iglesias' rhythmic themes reflected Almodóvar's nonlinear storytelling, while his restraint counterbalanced the film auteur's notoriously flamboyant style. They may not have the Midas touch of Spielberg and Williams or Cameron and Horner, but Almodóvar and Iglesias are one of the most artistically simpatico teams in modern cinema.
COCO BEFORE CHANEL
Alexandre Desplat was everywhere in 2009, or so it seemed; Chéri, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Julie & Julia and New Moon were only some of the films lit by his luminous music. Coco Before Chanel was another, and Desplat's clean compositional lines and refined sensibility were particularly well suited to filmmaker Anne Fontaine's subject, fashion pioneer Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel. Graceful patterns of piano, strings and woodwinds wove around one another in a romantic waltz of sun-dappled nostalgia and drama that not so incidentally lived up to Chanel's dictum (to women) to "be two things: classy and fabulous."
Like Jeff Bridges' star turn and Scott Cooper's buzz-generating indie hit, this T-Bone Burnett-produced collection of '60s- and '70s-era country, folk and blues escaped the year-end dustbin to become a champion underdog. Ryan Bingham's Golden Globe-winning theme song "The Weary Kind" gave rugged, knowing voice to every disappointed dreamer, and saddled up comfortably alongside cuts from Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, Lightnin' Hopkins, Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams. Musician-actor Stephen Bruton's instrumental "Somebody Else" added bluesy fire and more than a little emotion: The roadhouse veteran was widely mourned when he died of cancer at Burnett's home last May.
The sociopolitical consciousness of Neill Blomkamp's much-discussed sleeper hit was quietly drawn out by Clinton Shorter's dramatic score. Thundering drums, brass and metallic-sounding electronic effects heightened the sense of threat and encroaching doom, and fit the expected sci-fi template. More surprising, and what made the music more emotionally involving, was the use of vocals sung in indigenous African languages. Barely half an hour in length, the soundtrack served brisk notice that Shorter is a composer worth watching.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX
You didn't need to be a child to get caught up in the open-hearted joie de vivre of this eclectic soundtrack, a merry hodgepodge of selections from Alexandre Desplat's playful score and vintage pop, jazz and folk chestnuts; Burl Ives, Art Tatum, the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and Bobby Fuller Four all make appearances. Desplat's "Just Another Dead Rat in a Garbage Pail (Behind a Chinese Restaurant)" (which hilariously mimics spaghetti Western theatrics) and Jarvis Cocker's springy, jug band-style theme song best capture the mix of quirky humor and sweetness that endeared the film — and soundtrack — to audiences.
Sir Paul, John Lennon, Ringo Starr — nope, the unexpectedly sober Judd Apatow flick wasn't the occasion for a virtual almost-Beatles reunion. But their inclusion, along with that of Robert Plant, James Taylor, Warren Zevon, Neil Diamond, Andrew Bird & Wilco, guaranteed that this sometimes caustic, largely downbeat collection would appeal to baby boomers and Gen-X-ers. That so many songs dealt with time's passage, and costars Adam Sandler and Jason Schwartzman (as his one-man pop band Coconut Records) also made credible appearances, only sealed the deal. Give it a listen on the road to your next reunion.
Marvin Hamlisch blazed his name in Oscar annals for scooping up three 1974 statuettes for his music for The Sting and The Way We Were, but by the '80s his piano sounded tragically unhip amidst the new wave of synthesizers, and his brand of musically intelligent movie music seemed to go the way of wide ties and bellbottoms. But it was an ideal match for the self-consciously kitschy humor of The Informant! Echoes of Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman, Esquivel, twangy Western showdowns and '60s secret agent themes reverberated throughout Hamlisch's gleeful yet sophisticated score, making it that much easier to slip inside the mind of Matt Damon's titular character and see him as he envisioned himself: larger-than-life star of his own delusions.
THE LAST STATION
Sergey Yevtushenko's rich orchestrations matched the literary detail of The Last Station's source material, not to mention the theatricality of Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren's amorous yet embattled marrieds, in writer-director Michael Hoffman's adaptation of Jay Parini's novel examining the struggle for control over Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy's legacy. According to Hoffman, Yevtushenko composed his elegant score after reading the screenplay — a year before the film was even made. To whatever cosmic forces inspired that bit of cinematic serendipity, we say: thank you.
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
Although less engrossing when divorced from the dialogue and images of director Grant Heslov's surreal comedy, Rolfe Kent's score deftly boogied from psychedelic to suave and slinky. Sounded out by swelling strings, synths, vibes, electric guitars and faux-groovy percussion, his uncomplicated themes at times created the feeling of being stranded in a lounge on the far side of a Saharan oasis — an off-kilter mindset that boosted the suspension of disbelief required to swallow the storyline whole.
The allure of Nine has always been its sexy story; you don't stroll out humming Maury Yeston's score the way you might break out in song after hearing Sondheim or Rodgers & Hammerstein. Likewise, what made Nine compelling as film and soundtrack wasn't the music but the vivid performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Dame Judi Dench, Kate Hudson and Penelope Cruz — nonsingers all, yet their fierce acting chops transcended their vocal limitations, and offered a virtual clinic in performance technique. And the ribald "Be Italian" gave Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie her best chance yet to show she can do more than shake her humps.
PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE
"Life looks so amazing, I never knew that it could," the redoubtable Mary J. Blige wailed on this potent collection of R&B, hip-hop and gospel, old and new, that surprisingly (but smartly) didn't include pop fluff from costars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz. Studded with you-go-girl anthems from the likes of Blige, Nona Hendryx, LaBelle, Queen Latifah and gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, the all-female set list fairly screamed Empowerment.
A potent combination of big-band jazz, blues and Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal's dramatic score that helped ignite director Michael Mann's combustible onscreen cocktail of gangster romance and bloodshed. Goldenthal fans understandably complained that too little of his eerie music was featured in the official soundtrack. But the dark tones and minor keys of his compositions meshed surprisingly well with rustic blues from Otis Taylor, Billie Holiday, Diana Krall and Blind Willie Johnson, whose bone-chilling "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," the film's unofficial theme song, could have doubled as Dillinger's epitaph.
Marcelo Zarvos' evocative score, rife with Latin rhythms and percussion, justly earned kudos when Sin Nombre was released. Writer-director Cary Fukunaga's taut thriller about Central American immigrants caught in violent limbo was well served by the Brazilian composer's pensive melodies and primarily acoustic instrumentation (guitars, accordion, strings, hand-slapped drums), which helped set the scene emotionally and geographically. Would that his characters' real-life counterparts experienced more of the peace of the bittersweet "Sayra" and the graceful title track.
A SINGLE MAN
Abel Korzeniowski's lush and sensual compositions were a romantic complement to writer-director Tom Ford's acclaimed adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel. Korzeniowski's score expressed the refinement of Colin Firth's professorial protagonist as well as the unspoken depths of his grief, while pop hits by the likes of Etta James, Jo Stafford and Booker T. & the MG's flowed seamlessly with the orchestral cues and fixed the story's cultural time and place. Substance and style par excellence.
One of 2009's most anticipated soundtracks, composer Dario Marianelli's sensitive patchwork of Beethoven pieces was exquisitely rendered by cellist Ben Hong and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and brought grandeur and gravitas to the dramatic storyline. The music was magnificent — primarily from Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, the Ninth Symphony's third movement and assorted string quartets, with interstices and unobtrusive effects from Marianelli heightening the dreamy power of various character-illuminating tracks. For once, high expectations were well met.
This one's a no-brainer. Ang Lee's film took a seriocomic look at a little-known story behind the 1969 festival, and incorporated a heaping handful of music from that generation-changing event. Danny Elfman's score is included in the deluxe version of the soundtrack, but the main attraction is the (mostly live) classic cuts from Woodstock-era heroes: Crosby, Stills & Nash, Janis Joplin, the Band, Grateful Dead, Love, Richie Havens, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Jefferson Airplane, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe McDonald, Melanie and the Doors (who didn't actually perform at Woodstock, but we won't quibble). Peace, man.
UP IN THE AIR
Jason Reitman's much-hailed film humorously tapped into the frustrated zeitgeist in the age of iPhones and outsourcing, and the astutely compiled soundtrack likewise reflected the anxieties of characters and viewers alike. Sharon Jones' mighty soul-mama transformation of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" from campfire singalong into hard-times anthem was the undisputable highlight, but the film's themes of isolation and rootlessness were further fleshed out by understated offerings from Elliott Smith, Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, Roy Buchanan, Crosby, Stills & Nash, score composer Rolfe Kent and Reitman discovery Sad Brad Smith. A fitting soundtrack for the Great Recession.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
In creating musical accompaniment for Spike Jonze's dazzling adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O and an assemblage of indie-rock brethren evidently decided less is more. Hallelujah. The lack of treacle suited the source inspiration to an edgy T, and the handclaps, fingersnaps, hums, toy-piano sound effects and singalong songs about "Worried Shoes" and "All is Love" made for refreshingly unsentimental kids music — for tykes and grownup inner children alike.
THE YOUNG VICTORIA
All hail the queen. The verisimilitude of Jean-Marc Vallée's depiction of Queen Victoria's 1837 ascension to the British throne, and her fabled soul-mate union with Prince Albert, was winningly enhanced by Ilan Eshkeri's subtle adaptation of classical pieces by period composers like Schubert and Strauss. Eshkeri's simpler cues dovetailed elegantly with grander waltzes, making for a romantic listening experience and tribute to a woman more modern than the era she now represents. The only dud track was Sinead O'Connor's out-of-place pop ballad — but isn't that what delete buttons are for?