The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings


Day One: Favorite Characters

Day Two: Favorite Scenes

Day Three: Disappointments and Surprises

Day Four: Ten Worst Films of 2014

Day Five: Fifteen Best Films of 2014

Music (but also film, really)

This was not a year I spent listening to a lot of new releases. Music is tricky that way for me; I have a tendency to find a few good albums and focus on them almost exclusively, in part because I don't have a particularly good avenue to find new music, and in part because I spend so much of my listening time bulldozing through a massive podcast backlog. Still, I do want to highlight three aspects of music in 2014.

There were quite a few impressive scores that graced the silver screen in 2014, so I thought it would be prudent to spotlight my top five:

Under The Skin (Composer: Mica Levi)

Easily the most unsettling score of the year, Levi seems to take quite a few cues from the scores of other nontraditional composers like Jonny Greenwood's work on There Will Be Blood and The Master, or the Reznor/Ross collaborations with David Fincher. These works often eschew melody for more avant garde ambiance, content to live on the fringes of what would even be considered music at times. The score of Under the Skin is at its most striking when Johansson lures another poor soul back to the void (or whatever you want to call that black room), with its hollow, distant drum and the creepiest strings you could imagine this side of Psycho. The scoring of Under the Skin is as deliberate as the film is; the tempo is often agonizingly slow, the perfect companion for Johansson as she stalks her prey in the Scottish countryside. Mica Levi is not going to be lavished with awards beyond critics' circles this coming season (though it did, refreshingly, receive a BAFTA nomination), and her score does not have the presence of melody that would lead to it sneaking into the public consciousness like "Lux Aeterna" from Requiem for a Dream, but it is the sort of work that will be remembered for a very long time, and I guess that will have to be good enough.

Noah (Composer: Clint Mansell)

A year that features a new Darren Aronofsky movie is almost always a good one (Noah is not among his best, but it is still a singular experience in the sort of way only Aronofsky could make), and much of why it's a good one is the accompanied score from Clint Mansell that is destined to come with it. Mansell is among the best in the business, and his work has become hopelessly intertwined with his favorite director. Noah marks the first time Mansell has collaborated on a score with the Kronos Quartet since The Fountain (which is in my eyes one of the all-time great modern film scores), and their return is more than welcome. Indeed, there are a few times it almost sounds a tad too much like The Fountain, but not in a way that lasts for more than a few bars. The moody, melancholic and ominous strings are a perfect fit for Aronofsky's boldly weird take on the Biblical epic, full of paranoia and foreboding. Mansell's work with Noah is of a peace with his previous work, and there's nothing more you could ask of one of the greats of the form.

Whiplash (Composer: Justin Hurwitz)

Unsurprisingly, the score for Whiplash is all about jazz. A mix of new compositions and arrangements of old standbys (namely the song from which the film got its name and the Duke Ellington/Juan Tizol classic "Caravan"), Hurwitz's score likely works the best out of any of these choices as far as stand-alone pieces of music are concerned (Noah would likely be second in that race), though that does not make it any less effective within the scope of the film. The jazz is predominantly up-tempo and drum heavy as one would expect, matching the frenetic style and energy of its story. 

Interstellar (Composer: Hans Zimmer)

There was a lot of controversy surrounding Interstellar's sound, from questionable mixing practices making it at times nearly impossible to discern dialogue to how overpowering the score often was in the mix. In a way, it became Zimmer at his most punishing, an aural assault on the senses from a collaboration that had made themselves famous on aural assaults. It's an interesting approach, considering that in practice, this is by far the most tender and measured of Zimmer's work with Christopher Nolan. The infamous BWWAAAAAAAHMs that have so thoroughly infected movie trailers since Inception have faded into the background for much lighter, piano driven compositions. There are times, of course, that Zimmer brings the pain in the sort of way only he can, but with Interstellar it feels more purposeful and less of a case of sturm und drang without need. Interstellar is certainly a more personal and intimate film for Nolan, so it makes sense the score would be tempered without Batman running around, and this is not entirely new ground for Zimmer (who is a composer of legitimate range and skill) but their collaboration has never sounded better, even if it probably was a tad too overpowering in the (somehow Academy Award nominated) sound mix.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Composers: Jozef van Wissem and SQÜRL)

Jim Jarmusch's vampire hipster tale has music that sounds exactly like you would expect it to. With its two protagonists half a world away from each other in Tangier and Detroit, the score flits between fuzzy, American garage rock (the influence of Jack White is plain) and more traditional North African soundscapes. The compositions are perhaps more of a piece with the tone and themes of the film than any other on this list, which makes sense as Jarmusch is intimately involved in the process as one of the members of SQÜRL, the band that provides much of the playing. That sense of stately, disaffected cool has been baked into the very fibers of the score, It is such an effortless mix of its two  sensibilities that you often don't immediately notice when it shifts from Detroit to Tangier and back again. 


You know, I wasn't planning to write about The Good Wife for the second year in a row.  Game of Thrones remained strong in its fourth year, Mad Men had an incredibly strong first half of its final season,