Saturday, 16 January 2016


2015 was an exciting year of film music, filled with plenty of good, a bit of bad, and some chunks of “Meh.” Naturally, there’s lots to recognize, so here are my 2015 Awards. If you’re looking for traditional awards like “Best Score” and “Best (insert given genre) Score,” you’d do better with Callum’s 2015 awards. Here, you’ll find more offbeat awards to represent 2015 in a different light. So sit back, sip some tea, have a laugh, have a rage, call me names in the comments, question my judgement or your own, whatever you do when you read “Best of” lists and articles, and enjoy.

The James Newton Howard Award for Best Score to the Worst Film
  • Jupiter Ascending, Michael Giacchino
  • Pan, John Powell
  • Pixels, Henry Jackman
  • Taken 3, Nathaniel Mechaly
  • United Passions, Jean-Paul Beintus
We kick things off with the James Newton Howard Award, named after the man whose best work seems to come from subpar films (Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender, Maleficent). Though Taken 3 made a hefty sum at the box office, it was panned by critics. However, Mechaly turned in a surprisingly well-crafted and often emotional score to accompany Liam Neeson’s latest hijinks. Few could argue with the putridness of FIFA’s propaganda film United Passions, partially because it grossed a paltry $918 in the United States. That’s right, it didn’t even make back enough to pay for the catering. Despite this and a 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating, United Passions was blessed with a vibrant score from regular Desplat orchestrator Beintus. The typically excellent director Joe Wright turned out a flop with Pan, which, following negative test screenings, led to the replacement of Dario Marianelli’s score. Stepping in was John Powell, who delivered quality swashbuckling music on short notice. Adam Sandler’s video game/invasion/disaster failed to impress even his most loyal fans, though it inspired composer Henry Jackman, resulting in a soundtrack channeling both John Williams and Independence Day-era David Arnold. However, few movies in 2015 were as reviled and fewer scores to 2015 films of any quality were as good as Jupiter Ascending. I’m not sure what inspired Giacchino, but he can now check off “grand space opera score” from his to-do list. Giacchino seized the pole position for this award in mid-Dumpuary and held on to the end.

The James Horner Award for Best Score to a Blockbuster Film ($1 billion+ box office)
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens, John Williams
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron, Danny Elfman/Brian Tyler
  • Furious 7, Brian Tyler
  • Jurassic World, Michael Giacchino
  • Minions, Heitor Pereira
The Best Blockbuster Score award is named after composer James Horner, who, at the time of this article’s writing, had scored the two highest grossing films in history. This year, Brian Tyler placed himself in a favorable position early on with two summer megablockbusters (can we have Godzilla fight Mecha-BlockBuster next?), while Michael Giacchino managed to beat his competition (mostly himself in Tomorrowland and Inside Out) in Jurassic World’s massive success. Pereira is a surprise nominee, his Minions score a competent comedy entry. In the end, however, all must bow before the O.G. of blockbusters and blockbuster scores, Star Wars and John Williams. The Force Awakens snagged the title late in the year with another phenomenal entry from the ageless maestro.

The John Barry Award for Best Spy Score
  • Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Joe Kraemer
  • Bridge of Spies, Thomas Newman
  • Kingsman: The Secret Service, Henry Jackman/Matthew Margeson
  • The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Daniel Pemberton
  • Spy, Theodore Shapiro
The spy genre had a plethora of films released this year, so much so that 007, the franchise that made Barry this award’s namesake, couldn’t even snag a nomination this year with Thomas Newman’s Spectre. Both Kingsman and Spy’s extensive parody/homage of the James Bond franchise extended into their music, Jackman, Margeson, and Shapiro all providing quality imitations of both David Arnold and John Barry’s contributions to the venerated spy franchise. Newman’s Bridge of Spies, based on real events during the Cold War, took a more grounded, solemn approach, but nonetheless featured a poignant conclusion brimming with Americana and Newman-isms. Pemberton’s U.N.C.L.E. and Kraemer’s Rogue Nation share a number of similarities. Both are based off of TV shows, both feature a retro 60s spy sound, and both have wickedly delightful use of percussion, including some inspired bass flute work on Pemberton’s part. However, Kraemer gets the edge for adapting two of Lalo Schifrin’s themes for the original show, as well as Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” into a fresh modern action score, resulting in arguably (and ironically) the ballsiest score of 2015.

The Alexandre Desplat Award for Best Period Piece (“A Long Time Ago…” does not count)
  • Far From the Madding Crowd, Craig Armstrong
  • Cinderella, Patrick Doyle
  • Crimson Peak, Fernando Velazquez
  • The Hateful Eight, Ennio Morricone
  • Muhammad: The Messenger of God, A.R. Rahman
Period pieces is a vague subset of films, but still has certain conventions and stereotypes. One of these is generally good music. Rahman’s score for Muhammad employs Middle Eastern textures and a choir for an aptly grandiose and religious score about the Muslim prophet. Interestingly, it is the only nominee in this category that isn’t set in the 1800s. Meanwhile, Morricone returned to the Western genre for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, but sidestepped the spaghetti western sound he’s known for in favor of a more sinister, almost Hermann-esque thriller score, heavily emphasizing the low winds and percussion sections. The result is quite inspired. Velazquez’s seamless blend of conventional horror concepts with gothic romantic flavoring in Crimson Peak wonderfully aided director Guillermo del Toro’s ghost story. Doyle returned to the lush, wonderfully melodic sandbox of English period dramas where he made his name, crafting beautiful music (and several waltzes and polkas) for Cinderella. In the end, however, he was out English-ed, out period-ed, and out drama-ed by Craig Armstrong’s sweeping violin-driven score for Far From the Madding Crowd. At once dazzling and melancholy, Armstrong’s music is a force to be reckoned with.

The Trevor Rabin Award for Best Sports Score
  • Creed, Ludwig Goransson
  • Concussion, James Newton Howard
  • My All-American, John Paesano
  • Southpaw, James Horner
  • United Passions, Jean-Paul Beintus
The sports film is one that frequently depends on the quality of the score for its own success. Both Howard and Horner’s scores utilized a strong electronic presence to explore darker themes in their respective films. Beintus’ United Passions brought energy and excitement to the soccer film (even though the executives were portrayed as the heroes). This award comes down to Paesano’s My All-American, and Goransson’s Creed. In the former, Paesano channels Jerry Goldsmith’s classics (namely Rudy and Hoosiers) for a heroic, almost noble Americana sound. In the latter, Goransson’s infusion of R&B into Bill Conti’s established sound for the franchise gave Creed a modern, gritty atmosphere that proved just as inspirational. I give the edge to Creed, though it’s virtually a tossup, and there’s no analytical basis for the decision; I just like one a little more than the other.

The John Ottman Award for Best Adaptation of a Different Composer’s Music
  • Creed, Ludwig Goransson
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron, Danny Elfman/Brian Tyler
  • Jurassic World, Michael Giacchino
  • Krampus, Douglas Pipes
  • Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Joe Kraemer
Stepping into the shoes of another composer’s franchise is both a great burden and a great opportunity. One must work within constraints set by his predecessors, but has the opportunity to contribute something unique to the franchise. John Ottman’s Superman Returns is a perfect example of when this goes successfully. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, wanting for thematic continuity for years, Elfman and Tyler overcompensated, blending so many previous themes that one might need an encyclopedia to keep track. The best topping of Age of Ultron’s everything pizza, however, was Elfman’s phenomenal reworking of Silvestri’s theme for the Avengers. Rising star Pipes made a devilish potpourri of iconic Christmas melodies into a thrilling horror score; I may never listen to “Silent Night” quite the same way. Similar to Kraemer in Rogue Nation, Giacchino was tasked with handling an iconic franchise theme and blended it admirably with his own material in Jurassic World. Ultimately, it was Goransson’s handling of Bill Conti’s iconic themes from Rocky that stole the show, culminating in glorious counterpoint to Goransson’s main theme in the fist-pumping “You’re a Creed.”

The Last of the Egyptian Batman Run Award for Best Collaborative Score (2+ credited composers)
  • The Little Prince, Richard Harvey/Hans Zimmer
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron, Danny Elfman/Brian Tyler
  • The Boy Next Door, Nathan Barr/Randy Edelman
  • Fantastic Four, Marco Beltrami/Philip Glass
  • Kingsman: The Secret Service, Henry Jackman/Matthew Margeson
2015 was filled with an unusually high number of prolific composer collaborations. It was kicked off by Barr and Edelman’s team-up on The Boy Next Door, billed by shameless advertisers as an “historic collaboration,” though it turned out to be a fairly standard suspense/thriller score. Beltrami and minimalist icon Philip Glass formed quite the odd couple for Fantastic Four, resulting in a competent superhero soundtrack featuring both of their sensibilities. Earning another nomination here is Kingsman with its espionage bravura. In the end, two multi-composer efforts stood above the rest. Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman, two of the most prolific composers for the superhero genre, combined efforts for an excellent score to Age of Ultron. In a way, it’s poetic that a superhero team-up film should warrant the ultimate composer team-up. While Tyler and Elfman’s work was fantastic, each composer’s music was created entirely independent of the other’s. Thus, the LEBR Award goes to The Little Prince. Hans Zimmer, no stranger to the collaborative process, joined forces with longtime friend Richard Harvey for the French animated film. Zimmer focused primarily on developing several songs, while Harvey integrated the songs into the orchestral score, resulting in a quite charming end product.

The Hamilton Award for Youngest, Scrappiest, and Hungriest Composer
  • Lorne Balfe
  • Tom Holkenborg
  • Daniel Pemberton
Named, of course, after the recent Broadway hit musical, the Hamilton Award recognizes an up and coming composer who displays a relentless work ethic. Pemberton arrived on the scene with two excellent scores for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Steve Jobs, while Holkenborg delivered four scores, including one for the critically acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road as well as a somber score for the crime drama Black Mass. But Balfe takes the cake, penning a whopping 12 scores during 2015 for a wide variety of films with a wide variety of qualities, including the surprise Dreamworks hit Home and a late replacement score for Terminator: Genysis.

The Yeezus Award for Best Album Artwork
Ironically named after Kanye West’s most recent album, which didn’t have a cover, the Yeezus Award goes to the score that also remembered that some people pick things up based on the cover art. In a time when many covers are mere cropping and rearrangement of the poster art, I feel this is something worth cherishing. Inside Out and The Force Awakens both earn kudos for their simple, throwback styles. The former displays an array of memories, each with a different emotion, while also emulating the style of a 50s jazz record. The Force Awakens simply displays the film’s logo over a star field, a nice nod to the cover art of the original Star Wars soundtrack album from 1977. The cover of Wolf Totem conveys the beauty, elegance, and majesty of Horner’s score with its landscape image of a wolf on a rock formation. Macbeth may be the cleverest of the bunch, arranging a number of its lead actors into an outline of Scotland, set against a blood red backdrop. The Revenant, however, wins on the strength of a beautiful font combined with a stunning, high-contrast image of stark desolation. Ironically, the score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner, is among my least favorite of 2015. But that cover raised my expectations before I started actually listening to it.

The Pitchfork Award for Best Score You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
  • Wolf Totem, James Horner
  • Paper Planes, Nigel Westlake
  • Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Robert Gulya
  • The 33, James Horner
  • Secrets of a Psychopath, Scott Glasgow
I want to take a moment to recognize music from films that flew under most people’s radar, some of which is among the very best of 2015. The main criteria is whether the film received a wide release in the United States. If not, it’s likely that many of you haven’t even heard of these films, let alone the music. James Horner, better known for a variety of high-profile films throughout his career, began to work on smaller projects before his tragic death in 2015, thus resulting in nominations for the uplifting The 33 and the majestically beautiful Wolf Totem, the latter of which takes the prize here. Also nominated were Glasgow’s wonderfully creepy score for the low-budget horror film Secrets of a Psychopath and Robert Gulya’s folksy adventure music for an adaptation of Mark Twain’s beloved novels. Following a long hiatus, Australian composer Westlake for a flighty and occasionally Powell-esque soundtrack for Paper Planes (no M.I.A. to be found here).

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