Hasitha Fernando on the best film scores of 2020…
The film industry took a devastating hit due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, and even as of yet we are seeing the ripple effect of it over a year later. Theatres closed down indefinitely, many tentpole release dates were pushed back and production activities came to a crunching halt. In spite of the aforementioned limitations, a few studios were brave enough to squeeze in a few of their tentpole releases like Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 last year but their dismal box-office returns were less than promising.
The biggest winners to rise forth from the ashes of the Coronavirus debacle was probably the streaming platforms like Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime and Disney +, who this time around struck back with a vengeance due to their uncanny knack of churning out content and bankrolling high risk, big budget film projects that major studios won’t even touch in their dizziest daydreams. But I digress, so here are the best film scores of the year 2020, in no particular order.
Mank (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
Auteur David Fincher hardly makes movies these days, so on the rare occasion that he does, it’d do you well to give your undivided attention to it. Scripted by his late father, Mank is something of a passion project for the accomplished director, who wanted to explore the tumultuous production of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane set in the backdrop of old Hollywood. And in a lot of ways the film acts as both a beautiful love letter as well as a scathing critique of that bygone era, brought to life by expertly nuanced performances and lavish production values.
One of Mank’s most memorable aspects however, is the sublime score crafted by former Nine Inch Nails’ duo Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. Their music effortlessly captures the very essence of Hollywood’s Golden era-a time punctuated with glorious highs and inglorious lows. There are echoes of Alex North and shades of Bernard Herrmann in this touching affair which offers upbeat jazz compositions and melancholy string sections. I know Reznor and Ross are the last people anyone would expect to craft a period appropriate score, but here we are, and to say that they delivered is an understatement of epic proportions.
Album Highlights: Welcome to Victorville, All This Time, M.G.M, San Simeon Waltz
Tenet (Ludwig Göransson)
Once upon a tender time Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was hyped to be ‘the’ film of 2020. Tragically COVID-19 raised its ugly head and the rest, as we say, is history. Despite Nolan trying desperately to salvage the situation his plan to revive audiences to revisit theatres with Tenet’s opening failed. But that doesn’t mean that the film itself was a dud, no sir, it was in fact the exact opposite. A high-octane sci-fi actioner featuring ambitious mind-blowing concepts, Tenet is, in every sense, what we’ve come to expect from a Christopher Nolan effort apart from one tiny detail.
Nolan’s frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer decided to sit this one out in favor of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, and filling that god-like void is none other than rising star Ludwig Göransson. Although, Göransson has tried to emulate Zimmer’s sound praise to some extent the score is his own beast with the robust masculine aspects being reminiscent of Zimmer and the more melodious parts bringing to mind Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy. It’s a heady brew but one that works flawlessly within the context of the film and then some.
Album Highlights: Rainy Night in Tallinn, Windmills, 747, Foils
Wonder Woman 1984 (Hans Zimmer)
Undoubtedly one of the biggest tentpole comic book films planned for 2020, Wonder Woman 1984 unfortunately became yet another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, suffering multiple release delays before eventually being released on HBO Max followed by a limited theatrical release in December. While the film itself was ultimately a bit of a mixed bag, which sailed through thanks to Gal Gadot’s infectious charm, the same cannot be said of the tremendous score crafted by the German Übermensch-Hans Zimmer.
Because this is him leaving behind the mass manufactured remote control sound of recent years and embracing his old glorious self. Think Crimson Tide, Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron, it’s that good. Since of late Zimmer’s over reliance on synthesizers have left even some of his most ardent fans scratching their heads, but here he achieves a remarkable balance, seamlessly amalgamating the electronica with the orchestral aspects of his epic score creating a larger-than-life soundtrack befitting our super-heroine. Be ready to be blown away.
Album Highlights: Themyscira, Games, 1984, The Truth
Da 5 Bloods (Terence Blanchard)
To say that musician Terence Blanchard’s score for Da 5 Bloods is a throwback to the 90s era political drama/thrillers is something of an understatement. Taking cues from the likes of Aaron Copland and Alex North this patriotism instilling, brass heavy sound was all the rage three decades prior due to box-office hits like Air Force One, Clear and Present Danger, Nixon and Executive Decision.
But Blanchard doesn’t try to simply ape that distinct sound here, but instead uses it as a jumping off point to add his own signature touch to the proceedings, and the results are truly astonishing. His contribution heightens the emotional aspects of the film whilst augmenting the quieter, more introspective moments pack an emotional punch. All in all, what Blanchard does here offer us film score enthusiasts a rare opportunity, to cast our minds back to what somber drama pieces sounded like back in the day.
Album Highlights: What This Mission’s About, MLK Assassinated, Finding the Gold, End Credits
Minari (Emile Mosseri)
Director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari navigates the journey of a young South Korean immigrant family as they try to settle down in rural Arkansas in the 1980s. A semi-autobiographical take on Chung’s own upbringing, the film received much critical acclaim, going on to nab six Academy award nominations during the awards season. For the music Chung turned to up-and-coming film composer cum indie-rocker Emile Mosseri to breathe life in to his passion project.
2020 was the busiest year thus far for the fledgling musician with Kajillionaire, Minari and Amazon Prime’s Homecoming season 2 under his belt. What Mosseri has crafted here is an intimate score possessing a bittersweet quality that perfectly captures the very essence of Chung’s moving drama. You can almost feel the emotions the characters in the film experience, through Mosseri’s stunning music. Listen and be amazed, that’s all I’ll say.
Album Highlights: Grandma Picked a Good Spot, Jacob’s Prayer, Minari Suite, Paul’s Antiphony
The Personal History of David Copperfield (Christopher Willis)
Having consistently churned out biting socio-political satires in the past, it came as quite a surprise to see writer/director Armando Iannucci tackle a period comedy drama like The Personal History of David Copperfield. Iannucci however, proved his naysayers wrong and delivered a fresh spin on Dicken’s timeless classic with a more contemporary edge.
Musician Christopher Willis who worked with Iannucci on his previous effort The Death of Stalin, returns to score the director’s latest venture, and those who enjoyed what Willis did with the former will be in for treat. This quintessentially traditional British score was certainly influenced by the great English composers of the late 19th century as well as a few contemporary ones like Craig Armstrong, Patrick Doyle and Rachel Portman but Willis still manages to make it his own, capturing the minutiae of Dickens’ richly woven narrative and the soul of its vivid assortment of characters flawlessly.
Album Highlights: Last Days of Innocence, Mr. Dick and the Kite, David’s Writings, A Life Well Written
Animal Crackers (Bear McCreary)
To say this Sino-American joint venture had a tumultuous history would be fairly accurate. Premiering at the prestigious Annecy International Animation Film Festival in 2017 the film’s release was delayed multiple times due to financial issues and the COVID-19 pandemic, ultimately seeing the light of day on Netflix in 2020. Apart from its astonishing voice cast the film was blessed to have the uber-talented Bear McCreary work his magic for the film’s score, and boy oh boy, does he deliver or what!
Effortlessly adapting the zany Looney Tunes sounds of yesteryear and infusing it with his own creative sensibilities, McCreary truly knocks it out of the park. There are hints of John Williams, Danny Elfman and Nino Rota here, but by and large the score functions as a beautiful love letter to Carl W. Stalling and Scott Bradley’s musical contributions to Warner Bros. animated movies and shorts in the past. If kaleidoscopic music mayhem is what your doctor ordered, you are in for one crazy fun ride and then some.
Album Highlights: Animal Crackers Overture, Life at the Circus, The Dogfood Factory, Showtime
Enola Holmes (Daniel Pemberton)
Over the years film composer Daniel Pemberton has established himself as a virtuoso of his craft, churning up scores for films which are vastly different from each other. Because of this, no two efforts of his sound similar. Within the past year itself Pemberton crafted the soundtrack for three films in succession – namely Rising Phoenix, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Enola Holmes.
Although the middle-child of this trio is likely to generate the most buzz, Enola Holmes is certainly the most ‘fun’ Pemberton has had with one of his assignments. A classic adventure romp through and through, Pemberton imbues Enola Holmes with an infectious charm and vibrant energy which brilliantly compliments the playful tone of this whimsical period piece, as well as the myriad vivacious characters inhabiting the narrative. Definitely one of 2020s strongest scores which will benefit from repeated listens.
Album Highlights: Enola Holmes (Wild Child), Cracking the Chrysanthemums Cypher, London Arrival, Enola Holmes (The Future is up to Us)
Emma (Isobel Waller-Bridge & David Schweitzer)
Penned by Jane Austen in 1815, Emma is a timeless classic that has been adapted time and time again as both theatrical and small-screen releases. This latest adaptation sees Emma embodied by the insanely talented Anya Taylor-Joy and up to her old mischiefs once again. The music for this newest retelling comes courtesy of Isobel Waller-Bridge (Yes, the sister of Phoebe Waller-Bridge!) and David Schweitzer.
For both composers this would mark their first foray into big screen movie territory and judging by the exceptional work they’ve done here, it looks like they have a very bright future indeed. The exquisite orchestral sections in the score are replete with gorgeous strings, ethereal woodwinds and delightful chorals which come together seamlessly to create the quintessentially charming British soundscape we’ve have all come to know and love in film. This is an outstanding work of music that certainly deserves a listen. Give it a spin, you might not regret it.
Album Highlights: Emma Woodhouse, Harriet Smith, Emma and Mr. Knightley, Emma Suite
Fukushima 50 (Taro Iwashiro)
Fukushima 50 is a Japanese drama film which recounts the story of the titular group of employees tasked with handling the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Granted, certain elements of Ryusho Kadota’s book, on which this is based, may have been Hollywoodized for greater impact but its real-life roots are something we will never forget.
Featuring an exceptional ensemble performance by its cast, the movie further benefits from the utterly poignant and dramatic score crafted by veteran Japanese film composer Taro Iwashiro. They don’t do it like this anymore in Hollywood, and Iwashiro’s sublime effort reminds us what we have missed all these years.
Album Highlights: Symphonic Suite F: 1st Chapter: All Life, Symphonic Suite F: 2nd Chapter: A Gift, 50 Wills, Dear 50
Honorable Mentions: Soul, The Witches, Artemis Fowl, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, News of the World
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.