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The 10 Best Film Scores of 2016

The 10 Best Film Scores of 2016

If you’re like me, you can barely stomach a walk to the market without the company of iTunes or Spotify. And though I’m always begging myself to expand my knowledge of music history to previously explored artists of past and present, I actually owe the bulk of my musical library not to the recording industry, but to the movie biz. The magic of film scores is in the way their intent to imbue images with cinematic quality translates to everyday listening. The John Williams, Alexandre Desplats, and Carter Burwells of the world can turn even the act of doing laundry into the climax of your own feature film.

The past year in cinema introduced some mightily intriguing film scores, many of which are by lesser known artists. If you’re as big a fan of movie music as I am, I’d invite you to peruse the below list of my favorite film scores of 2016. Give each a listen—a few of ’em are sure to turn your day into something else entirely.


Fans of Arrival have taken great effort to identify the film as “different from other alien invasion movies.” While Denis Villeneuve’s melancholy hit is hardly the only of its genre to deal in weighty subject matter, it is the flavor of Arrival‘s meat that distinguishes it from its extraterrestrial brethren. That such material is played for somber sincerity where it otherwise might translate to grandeur can be thanked in large part to Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose string composition practically sobs along with the audience as the world onscreen succumbs to tragedies vast and narrow.

Mountains May Depart

Music plays an especially big role at each end of Mountains May Depart, an ethereal story about love and time that could only really be effectively bookended by musical notes rather than lines of dialogue. Making the use of the lively pop ballad “Go West” even more effective is its complement in the film’s wilting orchestration. The marriage of these two musical styles is as strange and disarming as Jia Zhangke’s wonderful script.


Unsettled by the above tune (and still image of Krisha Fairchild’s stony stare)? That’s the idea. Krisha sends you careening down the mudslide of emotional volatility that amounts from its titular character’s long-put-off reunion with her estranged family. The film’s score, peppered notably with unorthodox efforts in percussion, really extracts the intensity of Krisha’s relapse into drug abuse and depressive behavior.

The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s latest film is a confluence of many different influences, transposing the story of 2002 Welsh novel The Fingersmith, set in late 19th century England, to 1930s-era Korea and Japan. The result of this amalgam is an animal with feet in classical romance and noir mystery, and as such warrants an appropriately haunting musical arrangement. Jo Yeong-wook (whose melodies you may recognize from past Park Chan-wook films like OldboyLady Vengeance, and I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, among others) keeps as at once engaged with and alienated from the antics of The Handmaiden‘s main characters, who always stay a few steps ahead of the viewer.

La La Land

Many will walk away from La La Land reciting the lyrics to “Another Day in the Sun” or “The Fools Who Dream,” but the film’s wordless melodies are just as integral—perhaps even more so—to painting the otherworldly picture of a land out of time that is starry-eyed Los Angeles. A nighttime jaunt down the quiet streets of your neighborhood, be it Hollywood or Sheboygan, will be immediately transformed into a stroll on the silver screen when accompanied by these tunes.


It stands to reason that a film as placidly tragic as Moonlight, a story about a young man combating his own homosexuality while growing up in a roughneck part of Miami, should entail a score to match. Chiron’s (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) lifelong journey of self-discovery is backed by everything from weeping piano numbers to stylish R&B ballads, and always to the end of allowing the viewer an even deeper understanding of the hero’s misery than he himself can grasp.

The Fits

Music integrates more directly into the story of The Fits than it does with most of the films on this list, and as such is handled with both immense care and delightful bombast. In the featured number in particular, percussion and woodwind join forces to chronicle 11-year-old Toni’s (Royalty Hightower) reluctant submission to the thrills of dance with attitude and sophistication.

Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man gets points not just for the catchiness of its a capella tunes (performed in fact by stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe) but for the creative way that such music is weaved into the movie. Functioning as a tangible piece of the story, the score of Swiss Army Man interacts with the evolving and corroding mind of main character Hank (Dano), managing to surprise, delight, and upset with every turn of events.


Exciting, unsettling, and weird—the cornerstones of any Ben Wheatley movie, High-Rise being no exception. Also perfect descriptors of its soundtrack, which is perhaps more brazenly theatrical than any other entry on this list. Because High-Rise takes place in a world altogether distinct from our own, it works wonders that its harmonies are so jarring and uneasy, albeit consistently beautiful.


For my money, Jackie features the most beautiful and affecting score of any movie to hit theaters in 2016, which is in no small part why Jackie is my absolute favorite film of the year. While Mica Levi’s brilliant orchestration stands alone as music worthy of your ear, it operates with a tenacity only witnessed once in a blue moon to hammer home the heart of its accompanying film. Director Pablo Larrain’s hyperconscious direction and star Natalie Portman’s tightrope walk between too real and too fake render Jackie the portrait of a woman trying to tell her own story, mostly to herself. And with Levi’s music does this challenging endeavor give way to masterpiece.

What are some of your favorite film scores of the year? Let us know in comments!

Featured Image: A24

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