2014 – the year’s best movie scores

Looking back on the scores of 2014, the diversity of styles and sounds belies a year which (in the opinion of this writer, at least) has struggled to find a voice in any one singular film. In a vainglorious effort to redress this, here are the 10 best scores of 2014 (in no particular order). Even if some of the films aren’t particularly memorable, their soundtracks deserve a mention on their own merit.

 

Under The SkinMica Levi

Was Jonathan Glazer’s third feature – a common feature on many 2014 Top Tens – a gooey horror, a Kubrickian mindbender, or a parable on the nature of humanity? At its best, it works on all three levels, as shown in Mica Levi’s eerie music. The score reflects the juxtaposition embodied in Scarlett Johansson’s extra-terrestrial lead: it’s frightening, but it lures us in with elements that are recognisably human. Levi, previously known as lead singer with Micachu and the Shapes, delivers a debut score of remarkable confidence and character, destined to linger in the mind long after the end credits roll.

 

Nightcrawler – James Newton Howard

Listening to Nightcrawler’s soundtrack, anyone who knows scores will instantly recognise it as the work of James Newton Howard. Playing like a higher-tempoed cousin of his contribtions to the soundtrack of Collateral, there are echoes of his scores for King Kong and Peter Pan However, there are other influences at work here. The electric guitars recall Elliot Goldenthal’s score to Heat, and seedier moments play like Shore (Crash in particular). Like lead character Lou Bloom, it’s energetic, spiky and liable to change its tone and speed in a flash.

 

Cold In July – Jeff Grace

Jim Mickle’s Cold In July aims for the look and feel of a 1980s thriller (see also: The Guest), and it gets a sound to match from composer Jeff Grace. A fully synthisied score is a rarity these days, so it’s refreshing to hear this pulsing, paranoid throwback to the time that fashion sense forgot. At the very least, it’s an effective thriller score in its own right. At its best, the score to Cold In July honours the works of the late Riz Ortolani, and John Carpenter (especially Escape From New York and The Fog)

 

Maps To The Stars – Howard Shore

Howard Shore and David Cronenberg go together like Spielberg and Williams. Adding in some Eastern influences can only make it better. As the Lothlorien themes from Lord of the Rings proved, Shore can use instruments like sitars to mesmerising effect. He uses it again to bathe Cronenberg’s warped image of Los Angeles in an otherworldly glow. This is not the LA we know, or is it?; it’s full of warped tastes and ideas. The score is by turns exotic and poignant; even when the film digs into perversions, Shore’s restraint is unparalleled.

 

The Congress – Max Richter

Ari Folman’s follow-up to Waltz With Bashir, a loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s futuristic novel, was met with an overwhelming critical shrug. The film itself seemed unsure about its message and its method, a split between live action and animation indicative of a film at war with itself. Still, the whole thing was held in place by Robin Wright’s committed performance and a beautiful Max Richter score. Largely strings-driven, the emotive elegance of Richter’s work carried the film through its most chaotic stretches with a grace and heft the rest of the film lacked.

 

The Double – Andrew Hewitt

Richard Ayoade’s sophomore feature (after Submarine) buried Dostoyevsky’s tale of paranoia and self-doubt under too many influences and tics, but one standout element of the production was Andrew Hewitt’s score. Unlike the film, Hewitt settles on one primary influence (film noir) and lets the rest of the score fall into place. Interspersed amongst its more fast-paced elements are moments of genuine emotion and tenderness, resulting in a score that manages to blend tones better than the accompanying film could.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive – Jozef van Wissem/SQÜRL

For Jim Jarmusch’s vampiric lament for times and tastes past, composer Jozef van Wissem takes inspiration from the film’s dual settings of Detroit and Tangiers. The first half is driven by the electronic guitars of Jarmusch’s own band, SQÜRL. Then, the action segues to Africa, and local strings kick in to give a heady, exotic flavour. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s hunt for blood and inspiration is guided by these colourful sounds. Like our leading duo, each piece boasts an underlying tension below their cool elegance as each string is plucked and strummed. Marvellous.

 

Godzilla – Alexandre Desplat

It’s been a busy year for monsieur Desplat. He provided charming faux-Eastern European sounds to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and provided a solid-if-unremarkable score to the even-more-unremarkable The Imitation Game. However, his standout work of 2014 can be found in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. The score pays homage to the sounds of the Tohu originals, whilst still creating a distinct and scary vibe of its own. Pulsing rhythms and errant, far-off horns dominate this score, a slick and well-built slice of dread.

 

Gone Girl – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

For his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, David Fincher directed composers Reznor and Ross to the music played at massage parlours. The underlying creepiness of such pieces is accentuated in this killer score. Like Rosamund Pike’s Amy, the surface calm and reassurance gives way to unexpected darkness, with the composers actively setting the listener on edge with a calculated assault of digital textures and off-kilter soundscapes. It ends up somewhere between Shore in his Cronenberg-ian heyday and Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score, which is no bad thing.

 

Interstellar – Hans Zimmer

With director Christopher Nolan reaching for the stars and beyond, Hans Zimmer elected to treat us to one of those scores he pulls out every few years as a surprise. When he isn’t constrained by superheroics or rote action beats, Zimmer can deliver works of real depth and technical nous. Interstellar is one such work. As Nolan flirts with comparisons to 2001 (They’re ultimately undeserved, but bless him for trying.), Zimmer looks to the great composers for inspiration. The result is an percussive and triumphant score, with organ work echoing Bach and Philip Glass, and a huge scope befitting the themes and narrative with which Nolan grapples.

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Interview: John Hurt at JDIFF

John Hurt

There is something inherently powerful about John Hurt. A lot of it may be in the voice. His gravelly tones, somewhere between a rasp and a roar, have depicted power and distrust for decades. Now a little older, those marvellous intonations and informed pronunciations convey a great wisdom. All of this means the prospect of interviewing Hurt is initially terrifying. Be assured, though; behind the curtain there is just a man. Mercifully, he’s a very pleasant and chatty one. On entering the interview room, we are greeted with a vision resplendent in corduroy and a majestic unruly goatee. We acknowledge our nervousness. “You don’t need to be nervous. I’m just a bloke!” The 5’9” frame might suggest so, but that wonderful voice causes us to suspect otherwise.

We meet Hurt in Dublin, where he’s arrived as a guest of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. He’s here to present a preview of Only Lovers Left Alive, the latest lament for lost time from acclaimed director Jim Jarmusch. It tells the story of two married vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), whose disaffection for the modern world and its values threaten their very existence. Hurt plays a vampiric version of Christopher Marlowe, the infamous alleged ghost writer of most of the works of William Shakespeare. It’s an marvellously entertaining and smart film, treating the vampire with the respect that such a dangerous creature deserves. Was Hurt a vampire fan?

Hurt as Marlowe in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
“No, not really.” comes the frank reply. “I never thought of it that way. But I like the device of it, because you can’t… look at somebody over one lifetime. And if you get the chance of looking at them over maybe another lifetime, and maybe looking at them from a different point of view and so on, then you begin to think, ‘Oh, yes, I see the point.’ I’ve never seen the point of drinking blood… to be whoever you are, but I’m not asked to do that. I’m asked to play a part. I mean, if I were making a film I wouldn’t choose to make it about vampires!”

The idea of the vampire as a device is very relevant to Only Lovers Left Alive. Both Adam and Eve are accomplished artists in various mediums down through the centuries, having idolised and even befriended great thinkers and writers through the years. Their melancholy look back to the past is a theme of much of Jarmusch’s work. The elegiac mood and unhurried pace of his films has won Jarmusch many fans, and a varied repertoire of actors with whom he works. Only Lovers… is Hurt’s third film with Jarmusch, about whom he is very complimentary. “I just love Jim. I like the way he thinks. I like the way he talks, and it’s fun working with him. It’s just nice. I mean, if Jim calls me up I say, ‘Where and when?’ I don’t ask what it is, because you never know with Jim. He can’t explain himself, he’s hopeless!”

Hurt continues, “But he’s a good filmmaker, a really good filmmaker, and I’m not ashamed of any of the three films I’ve made with him at all.” This may be a reference to the cool critical reception for their last film together, 2009’s The Limits of Control. Not that it matters much to Hurt. “Not that I’ve had a lot to do in any of them!”, he acknowledges. ”It’s just the way it works out, and I like him, so it’s always nice to make a film with him.” That said, Hurt is keen to dispel any idea that enjoying working with someone doesn’t make it easy. “It’s quite tough when it comes to it. When the juices are going, [Jim]’s quite tough, which is great. It takes you along, it takes you on a journey. It’s not just sort of nice and simple and bla bla bla. You are working properly, which is nice.”

One of the noteworthy trends on Hurt’s CV is the number of real people he has portrayed onscreen. He won much praise early in his career for his performance as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (a role he returned to in 2009 follow-up An Englishman in New York). Hurt earned one of his two Academy Award nominations for his heartbreaking portrayal of John Merrick in The Elephant Man (the other was for Midnight Express). He also played Stephen Ward, the man at the heart of the Profumo affair, in Scandal and was Mel Brooks’ vision of Jesus in History of the World, Part I.

Yet playing Marlowe, or at least this version of him, is different. How does one approach turning one of history’s greatest silent partners into a vampire? “The difference between playing Marlowe and the reason for seeing him spread out over four centuries is the whole Shakesperean myth, which I was never particularly interested in before. Shame on me, because I should have been!” The conspiracy theories never go away, with each one gaining momentum even still. “Jim got me very interested.” explains Hurt “So much so that I actually deviate from him. I think it was De Vere (Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford) who wrote the plays. I think everything points in that direction. But we’ll never know that, unless something is unearthed. But it’s completely fascinating!”

Hurt as Quentin Crisp in THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT (1975)
Hurt’s long career (52 years since his first appearance in an episode of Z Cars, and counting) was due in no small part to his portrayals of real people, but with the years and the award season rolling on, the glut of biopics being foisted on award voters and audiences alike seems to grow ever larger. We asked Hurt how he feels about this trend, considering the amount of films he’s made based on true lives. “I suppose I never considered them biopics. Certainly, I never considered The Naked Civil Servant a biopic, and yet it is the most obvious. It just never occurred to me. I was playing Quentin, and I met Quentin, and so on. But the word ‘biopic’ hadn’t come into being then anyway. ‘Biopic’ now has that sort of thing that it makes you feel like you’re.. it’s a ‘sub’-genre.”

The mention of awards in this context causes him to sit up. “Don’t go into that with me.” Have we hit a sore spot? A tense pause follows. “I mean… well, you can, but I’m not in favour of awards anyway.  And I’m not dog in the manger; I’ve got plenty.” Despite awards recognition many times in his career, Hurt is not rushing out to canvass for glory. “I don’t agree with them, and I don’t agree with the idea that you can compare one thing with another and say, “Oh, this is better than that.” I don’t think you can. I mean, we do because the audiences love it. But I can’t think of any good reason other than that. 12 Years A Slave was not made as a big movie, by any means.”

Whether or not he gets awards, Hurt has had an incredibly diverse and interesting career. He works with auteurs like Jarmusch or Lars von Trier, backs up bigger ensemble pieces like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or the Harry Potter series, and he turns out to be Doctor Who. Is this variety what keeps him going? “I have no idea!I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know if you’ll be sitting in that chair in 40 years time. Hopefully not! What do you want to be doing?!”, he asks with wry laughter. We’re caught on the hop there. The wise old man has caught us napping. “I’ve no idea how it works. It’s just a bit here and a bit there, and it’s interesting. That takes over your life at that point, and then something else takes over; I never know from one year to the next what I’m going to be doing.”

Review: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

*****

Amongst the many beasties that have come to define horror, vampires have inspired some of the more respectable and emotional exemplars of the genre. However, it usually happens that any insight offered by these films works purely on a level of subtext. Most bumps in the night have no modus operandi beyond death and grue, so intelligent discussions are backgrounded; zombies want to eat brains, not use them. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about vampires but, next to its heavily-accented and caped kin, it is not a vampire film. They may drink human blood, but the protagonists of Jim Jarmusch’s latest are first and foremost to be admired. They are wonderful creatures, blessed with intelligence beyond normal boundaries and the faces of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. Lucky them.

The myth of the vampire has existed for centuries and it has developed certain rules and narratives over time. In most versions, they require blood to survive, they must avoid direct sunlight and a stake to the heart is certain death. Jarmusch is a singular auteur, but the closeness with which he cleaves to the established lore is admirable. Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton) are vampires and lovers, living continents apart and forever in fear of detection and the sun. He lives in a rundown corner of Detroit creating snippets of classic hard rock; she hides out in Tangiers, enjoying the company and remembrances of fellow bloodsucker Christopher Marlowe (yes, THAT Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt). After an extended period of separation, broken by chats on Skype, Eve ventures to the States to be reunited with Adam. Even the undead need to be loved, y’see?

Adam is a musician, creating great samples to be played at the local underground circuit in Detroit. To avoid detection he passes himself off as a reclusive music genius, which sits fine with his sole external contact, fawning producer lackey Ian (Anton Yelchin). Jarmusch’s genius links the vampire with another perennial outsider, the artist. Adam is forever distant from the word around him; apart from his vampiricism, he can’t come to terms with technologies and a society evolving at a rate far quicker than he would have been used to centuries before. He has the usual challenge of finding sustenance (leading to some hilarious interplay between Adam and Jeffrey Wright’s unscrupulous haematologist), but also can’t use or share his gifts in the same ways as before. Sensing his isolation, Eve heads to Detroit for a joyous reunion. There’s a tenderness to their embraces that belies previous incarnations of vampires as hyper-sexualised nymphos.

Horror is fertile ground for the imagination, but it is also a pigeonhole. Only Lovers Left Alive transcends the tropes by making the vampire both respectable and identifiable. Adam and Eve may seem all-knowing, but their immortality is a fragile construct. Blood and good company aren’t always easy to find. It’s also good to know that even the undead have to cope with family troubles. Adam and Eve’s reunion is interrupted by the arrival of Eve’s little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a spoilt brat who’s more Bling Ring than Bela Lugosi. This could be all too much for Adam to bear; even vampires are changing their style. Eve’s ice-cold wisdom contrasts sharply with Ava’s here-and-now loquaciousness. Vampires are a product of their time, and when you can’t fit in with the present you can’t hide in the shadows any more.

From all this you can probably discern that, despite the blood-suckers, Only Lovers Left Alive is very much a Jarmusch film. Its humour is dark and witty, and its pace is measured and unhurried. That said, if ever a film was to win over Jarmusch’s critics, this might be it. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the pacing only accentuates the elegance of Hiddleston and Swinton’s features and performances. Despite all this and another great soundtrack, Jarmusch’s latest is a most unlikely elegy, not to anything specific but to the past. Tangiers is all crumbling Moorish arches, whilst the real decay of overstretched modern Detroit is vividly realized. Richer, livelier times have given way to death, whose stench infects the darkened lighting schemes and dour colours in every frame. We all resent the passing of good times, and thus we should all find something to love in Only Lovers Left Alive.

Cynical Corner: The best of 2013

Another year ends, and all of us in the critiquing world itch to disseminate what has passed. We do this via an unscientific arrangement of the best films of the year. Their subjectivity and haphazard nature is the ultimate proof that critics are not a hive mind. We simply cannot agree on anything. This is but one man’s opinion, but it’s offered in good faith and a simple desire to highlight those films that merit praise. It’s been an odd year (A first-half dearth of quality output has been steadily balanced out since October), but it has always offered fodder for debate and analysis. As we move in to the new year, here’s my take on the year just gone.

Note: this list is subject to revisions. Certain titles have yet to be seen (The Wolf Of Wall Street, Her, etc.), and make me curse the fact I live in Europe. Oh well.

THE FILM CYNIC’S TOP 10 FILMS OF 2013

10. All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor)

Robert Redford returns to relevance in J.C. Chandor’s follow-up to Margin Call. A dedicated physical performance from the 78-year-old combined with tight direction and minimal sets and dialogue make this the ultimate challenge for an actor. With no place to escape and no co-stars to bounce off, Redford anchors this thrilling tale of impending mortality and desperation.

9. Night Moves (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

As with All Is Lost, less is more in Night Moves. The tale of three environmental activists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Saarsgard) plotting to blow up a dam is played straight with little flourish, meaning tensions rise naturally and steadily. The cast are uniformly excellent, whilst Reichardt keeps the pressure building to an ending full of poignancy. Superb.

8. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)

It’s been said before, but Woody Allen is well and truly back on form with Blue Jasmine. Cate Blanchett gives a career-best turn as the addiction-riddled Jasmine, a ball of depressive energy who arrives in San Francisco to disrupt the lives of her extended family. The barbs come thick and fast as Jasmine learns some harsh home truths. Its bittersweet brilliance makes this Allen’s finest film since Deconstructing Harry.

7. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)

Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz) openly and admirably airs our her family’s dirty linen in Stories We Tell. This could have been manipulative tosh, a snooty vanity project or a sickly mixture of the two. Instead, it’s an examination of the meaning of family and the subjective nature of storytelling. It’s stonkingly intelligent and surprising in all the best ways. A true gem.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Thematically, Inside Llewyn Davis is nothing new for the Coen Brothers: a roving and isolated   genius searching for an escape from the here and now. Yet familiarity is no obstacle when the story is brought to life with such enthusiasm and style. Oscar Isaac’s performance is star-making, whilst the look and sound of the film are simply sublime. It’s poignant, thoughtful and often very funny. In short, it’s none more Coens.

5. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

Another nine years, another reunion with Jesse and Céline. The third chapter of modern cinema’s finest romance takes place against a sun-kissed Greek backdrop, but there’s potential for tragedy here; our central couple are married with children, and even they are not safe from the problems of martial bliss. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy know these roles inside and out, and their script with director Richard Linklater is another genuine and emotive chapter to this lovely saga.

4. 12 Years A Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

In a sea of award-spying biopics, 12 Years A Slave stands out from the pack. The tale of enslaved  Northerner Solomon Northup (a steadily dignified Chiwitel Ejiofor) in the Deep South of the 1840s is well-acted and technically adept, but it’s also necessarily brutal and cruel. It’s a fine testament to a remarkable life story, and a clear example of how to treat such material with the respect it deserves beyond awards hype. Masterful.

3. Under The Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

It wears its influences on its sleeve (playing like Hitchcock by way of Ken Loach, with a little Lynchian nightmare for good measure), but Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy Beast, Birth) latest is something shockingly original. It sounds like Species in Scotland, but Laura’s (Scarlett Johannson) alien mission is more vague and altogether more sinister. It’s not pure horror, but it’s breathtakingly creepy and directed with bravura. Unforgettable.

2. The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)

It hearkens back to La Dolce Vita, but the monied denizens of The Great Beauty aren’t very dolce, whilst ageing insider Jep (Toni Servillo) finds something is lacking in his vita. Accusations of self-importance only highlight the indulgence at the core of the film’s satire. It’s absolutely ravishing to look at, Servillo is an identifiable guide through the Dionysian morass, and the soundtrack’s a cracker. Bellissimo.

1. Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Or: How Dracula Got His Groove Back. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s vampiric couple lament their time apart, whilst writer/director Jarmusch mourns the passing of the past. He surrounds his ghoulish twosome with crumbling cities (Most of the actions happens in Tangiers and Detroit) and memories of times and musics past. It’s haunted and haunting, delving into the dignity of the vampire myth without exploiting it for cheap thrills and gore. Only Lovers Left Alive is funny, thoughtful and elegiac. It may be Jarmusch’s best film yet. It IS the best film of 2013.

The next 10:Computer Chess
Blue Is The Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche): Lovely lesbianism
The Act Of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer): Evil egos
Computer Chess (dir. Andrew Bujalski): Nerdy nirvana
Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne): Lottery lament
A Field In England (dir. Ben Wheatley): Devil’s drug
Tom At The Farm (dir. Xavier Dolan): Saskatoon secrets
The Gatekeepers (dir. Dror Moreh): Israeli investigationsNebraska
Camille Claudel 1915 (dir. Bruno Dumont): Brilliant Binoche
Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass): Shitty shipping
The Selfish Giant (dir. Clio Barnard): Wilde and wonderful

Best actor: Robert Redford, All Is Lost
Honourable mentions:
– Bruce Dern, Nebraska
– Chiwitel Ejiofor, 12 Years A SlaveBlue Is The Warmest Colour
– Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Best actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Honourable mentions:
– Adéle Exarchopolous, Blue Is The Warmest Colour
– Juliette Binoche, Camille Claudel 1915
– Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha

Best supporting actor: James Gandolfini, Enough SaidEnough Said
Honourable mentions:
– Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
– James Franco, Spring Breakers
– Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Best supporting actress: June Squibb, Nebraska
Honourable mentions:
– Luputa Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave
– Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis
– Alexandra Maria Lara, RushThe Act of Killing

Best director: Jonathan Glazer, Under The Skin
Honourable mentions:
– Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty
– Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
– Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act Of KillingIn A World

Surprise of the year: In A World

Lake Bell’s debut as writer and director sneaked in under the radar, ready to charm. It’s a clever and proudly feministic slant on a male-dominated industry, and is brilliantly funny to boot.

Disappointment of the year: ElysiumElysium

Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9 got too bogged down in social commentary to remember to craft rounded characters or to tie up its plot points sufficiently for it all to hang together satisfactorily.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch HuntersWorst Film Of The Year: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

It can’t decide on a tone. It can’t stop focusing on Gemma Arterton’s cleavage. It can’t make Jeremy Renner look any way interested. It can’t stop throwing blood all over the place. IT. JUST. CAN’T!only-god-forgives-blog-jpg_155528

(Dis)honourable mentions
Only God Forgives
– The Counsellor
– The Hangover, Part III
– Pieta