THE YEAR THAT WAS 2008: The Music That Made the Movies

(Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard)
(Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard)

I may be going backwards in time a little, but after compiling a list for the best scores of 2009, I started to think about the music that stood out in 2008. And just like '09, good film music wasn't too hard to come by.

Most of it I knew about because the compositions were attached to good films, or films that I had personally seen. But it's kind of a nice surprise when you dig up some great compositions that you didn't think to look for in the first place.

Below is the list of the 16 movie soundtracks that I thought stood out, either by enhancing the quality of certain titles that were already good, or by being the one good thing a few of the films had going for them, and as a result, igniting (or reigniting) an interest in the movies themselves.

AUSTRALIA (David Hirschfelder) - despite its best efforts to get people excited by its old-school Gone with the Wind-esque presentation, word from those who saw it was that Australia just didn't work (I wouldn't know, I was never interested enough to see it). Nevertheless, David Hirschfelder did a great job with his sweeping music score. He creates a fairly impressive collection of tracks that are, at times, eerily reminiscent of classic scores from the '50s and '40s.



CHANGELING (Clint Eastwood) - whenever Eastwood decides to score his own movies, you typically know what you're in for: laid-back, soft, often jazzy piano and horn compositions. The thing is, as easy as it is to predict what a Clint Eastwood soundtrack will sound like, the music rarely ever disappoints. Such was the case here with Changeling, one of his most enjoyable compositions to date.



THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (Alexandre Desplat) - there's an undeniably magical characteristic to the Benjamin Button music that really lends itself to the film as a whole. It'd be a bit ambitious (particularly since the movie's nearly three hours long), but I could easily visualize watching the film with just the music and no dialogue. I don't think it'd lose any of its appeal.



THE DARK KNIGHT (Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard) - sometimes delicate and other times in-your-face, Zimmer and Howard's score to The Dark Knight definitely succeeded if the intention was to get you excited (or even more excited) for the movie. Just listen to "Like A Dog Chasing Cars," and see if it doesn't rev you up.



DEFIANCE (James Newton Howard) - I can't quite put my finger on it, but there was something about this film that just seemed very. . .unrealistic. In any case, James Newton Howard took a break from co-orchestrating with Hans Zimmer, and he came up with a nice score that sounds like a cross between Schindler's List and The Village.



THE DUCHESS (Rachel Portman) - I think that I actually predicted this would earn an Academy Award nomination for Portman, but Milk got in instead. Just the same, The Duchess is one of the female composer's best compositions, utilizing much more subtle instrumentation and less of the over-the-top symphony music that's present in some of her earlier works.



FROST/NIXON (Hans Zimmer) - for once, director Ron Howard didn't employ the services of his go-to man, James Horner. Instead, he sought the musical expertise of a composer more recently known for his ability to set the mood for big-budget action pictures (Sherlock Holmes, The Last Samurai, Gladiator). I don't know if Zimmer was the first choice to write the music for this, but after hearing the score, I can say that he was definitely the right one.



THE HAPPENING (James Newton Howard) - sure, the movie sucked, and it served as yet another reminder that the promise M. Night Shyamalan once had is all but gone, but Howard's score was fantastic. In fact, the track I've included ("Be With You") is probably my favorite piece of film music from the past decade.



IN BRUGES (Carter Burwell) - you might not think a comedy that incorporates so much gun-use would include beautiful piano music, but that's exactly what you get with Carter Burwell's score. Much like the film, it will likely pleasantly surprise you.



MILK (Danny Elfman) - it almost seems kind of strange to hear a Danny Elfman score that isn't creepy-sounding (a la Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow) or epic (Batman, Spider-Man). It's easy to forget that he can just as easily score soft, quiet independent films (Good Will Hunting). He reminded everyone of that with his very good score for Milk, a composition that earned him his first Oscar nomination in a long time.



THE READER (Nico Muhly) - I can't say I've ever heard of Nico Muhly, and I've probably talked ad nauseum about how average I thought the film was, but I'm surprised by how little attention the film's score got. It's a very understated piece of music that, unlike most other movie compositions, never overwhelms the film itself.



REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (Thomas Newman) - I remember sampling tracks from the soundtrack before the film was released, and based off those, it seemed like this was going to turn out to be a great film. While that proved to be a little misleading, there's still plenty of good (as there always is) in Thomas Newman's score.



SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (A.R. Rahman) - honestly, I don't understand why the film's music won so many awards. Most of what's on the soundtrack is by other artists, and more often than not, the original music by Rahman is just okay. But I can't deny how good "Mausam & Escape" is, and it's probably the major force behind so many of the score's accolades.



THE VISITOR (Jan A.P. Kaczmarek) - every year, there's always at least one film with an original score that kind of knocks me out. The score that played during the trailer for The Visitor sounded good, but I had no idea how great the composition as a whole would turn out to be.



WALL-E (Thomas Newman) - even though Newman's score was one of the only good things about Revolutionary Road (besides Michael Shannon), his score for WALL-E was even better. It's a shame he hasn't won an Oscar yet, but if he keeps composing music like he did here, it probably won't be too long before it happens.



WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Max Richter) - last but not least comes Max Richter's score to Waltz with Bashir. While there were plenty of great scores from 2008, this was, to me, the most haunting. It stuck with me long after I had seen the movie, and I couldn't get the music (or the images that accompanied them) out of my head for days.

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