The Best Movie Music of 2011: CONTAGION, DRAGON TATTOO shine in a stellar year

The notion that any great movie music should be audibly invisible is ridiculous. The 2011 movie year is full of rich original film scores and song choices that are so readily apparent during sequences, you hear all of it and think those scenes could not work without a single note.

Along with Hans Zimmer (INCEPTION), Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) were whom I considered 2011’s movie music MVPs. This year, they nearly went back-to-back.

While Reznor and Ross certainly did not disappoint with their brilliantly moody GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO score (once again collaborating with David Fincher), it was Cliff Martinez who pried the championship belt from their fingers with his work on DRIVE (celebrated by many for having the best soundtrack of the year), but most notably on Steven Soderbergh’s epidemic thriller CONTAGION.

So before I go into any detail on Martinez and the rest of the elite maestros responsible for some of my favorite movie music in recent memory, let’s at least acknowledge how wonderful this year actually was in this department. Not only did so many films deliver, these composers were more than just cogs in the machines. Eliminate them, and you might eliminate any effect the films might have had. Some films work without music, sure, and you never want to drown yourself in sap or manipulation. But in some cases, manipulative musical masochism was the only answer, and without sacrificing the narrative or overall design of the film.

I’m including original scores, songs used in the films and even music cleverly used in some trailers. So here’s my favorite movie music from 2011:

Cliff Martinez “Bat & Pig”
We’ll return to Martinez shortly, but the way the man bookends Soderbergh’s film is rather breathless and slightly eerie. In one of the just plan coolest sequences of 2011, Soderbergh closes his film suggesting the genesis of the MEV-1 virus. The track is bare-bones simple, a redundant non-progression of the same sound beating over and over as the sequence travels seamlessly from A to Z. And then in a flash, Soderbergh cuts to black as a red font appears. The imagery is frightening enough, especially when all it could take is some bad pork. But Martinez delivers the blow with a calculated, deadly serious clip that would breathe life into one of the best modern thrillers in years.

war horse
John Williams “Reunion”
To put it simply, John Williams is a beast, as impressive as Joey in Spielberg’s film in his finest moments. After decades of phenomenal output, including the medium’s most indelible themes, you’d think that gift might escape him at some point. As soon as I heard the “War Horse” theme in the first trailer, it was all over. I was hooked at least on Williams’ contribution. But each time it rears its head in the film, it works, provoking an immediate emotional response as was intended. Naysayers insist Williams often lays it on a little thick along with Spielberg here, but it just doesn’t bother me a single bit. Used well throughout but best in a pivotal scene towards the end that I will not ruin. Spielberg could have played it impossibly hokey, but he, Williams, cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky and everyone else go for the jugular and land a direct hit.

Sidney Bechet “Si tu vois ma mère”
If Woody Allen is good for nothing else, it’s showcasing the finest jazz we might have never heard otherwise. Setting the perfect magical tone for his wistful tale about the treacherous nature of nostalgia, Woody goes with the namesake of one of his kids, Sidney Bechet, making for what I consider one of the director’s finest selections in his career in one of his better films in recent memory. Woody takes several minutes to introduce his audience to Paris, highlighting its most famous landmarks and landscapes along with a few less familiar. Letting Bechet’s swooning horns do all the talking the film’s opening moments need, Woody takes us to that place where we need to be for the next 100 minutes or however long we wish to escape. Used nicely to close the film, too.

Chemical Brothers “The Devil is in The Details”
Joe Wright has established himself as a musical filmmaker, even if he doesn’t exactly make musicals. The man knows what sounds should accompany his films, so why not tap The Chemical Brothers for his fairytale about a teenage female assassin on the run from predators? Their score does wonders throughout, but I was never captivated than when Cate Blanchett first visits Tom Hollander’s appropriately creepy hitman in a nightclub of sorts where it looks like he’s overseeing some strange Asian play or musical. Its devilish theme, whistled and hummed by Hollander for the rest of the film, gets an uncomfortable introduction here, played as if a wolf in sheep’s clothing is attempting to lure children to an ice cream truck where they will inevitably disappear. Like I said, creepy.

Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross “Hidden in the Snow”
With “An Itch,” my favorite track on Reznor and Ross’ score, this track most reminded me of their work on THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Not to say it sounds like it wound up on the cutting room floor of that film and wandered its way into this one, it just evoked similar tones and feelings from it, especially when Sean Parker calls Mark Zuckerberg from jail late in the film. Here, it’s used during one of DRAGON TATTOO’s best sequences, when Henrik first recalls Harriet’s disappearance, flashing back to a silent account of the 1960s dinner party and subsequent events. It’s one of those tracks you could leave on for hours and forget you did, in a good way, I assure you.

Cliff Martinez “They’re Calling My Flight”
While we’re returning to some films, why not highlight Martinez’s opening track right after Gwenyth Paltrow ends her phone call with perhaps her doomed lover (voiced by director Steven Soderbergh!). This sets up an adrenaline-fueled montage depicting how viruses travel, in this case a frighteningly fatal one. Immediately Soderbergh has you second-guessing how often you touch your face or where your hand is in relation to your theater armrest. You might even forgo holding hands with your significant other while watching things. And guiding the entire thing is this pulsating electronic track, pleasantly reminiscent of the stuff we heard from Reznor and Ross this and last year.

Jason Segel & Bret McKenzie “Muppet or a Man”
Easily the funniest song in this delightful return to these beloved characters, Jason Segel hams it up his best when he and brother (and new Muppet) Walter come to a crossroads in the narrative and must pick a side. Written by Bret McKenzie, this and several of the other songs are glorified “Flight of the Conchords” tracks, but I had the most fun here with what I genuinely consider to be a great song lyrically and melodically. Chances are this one gets snubbed at the Oscars in favor of “Life’s a Happy Song” and “Pictures in My Head,” but how awesome it surely would be if McKenzie took the Kodak Theatre by storm with a live performance of this one. Either way, the man better walk away with an Oscar.

Danny Elfman “Wolf Suite Pt. 1” (from “The Wolfman”)
The Alberto Iglesias original score is perfectly suitable for Tomas Alfredson’s weaving of British spies and paranoia, but no trailer brought it quite like TINKER TAILOR’s did, using a track from Danny Elfman’s underrated WOLFMAN score from a few years ago. At least we can gain something positive from that wreck. While trailers ought not reveal much in the way of their narratives, especially ones as twisty and turny as this one, they should suggest the overall tone of a film and completely sell you on it. Such is the case with any TINKER TAILOR trailer, but this music is now part of a film’s identity, even if it doesn’t actually appear in the film. Whenever I want to look over my shoulder, I’ll put this track on.

Chromatics “Tick of the Clock”
Director Nicolas Winding-Refn likely wins the prize for song selection, blending synth-driven pop tracks seamlessly with Cliff Martinez’s near-invisible score. It’s hard to choose a favorite of the bunch — College/Electronic Youth’s “A Real Hero,” Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,” Desire’s “Under Your Spell,” etc. — but this repetitive Chromatics track (like “Bat & Pig”) drew me in during the films opening heist sequence. The beat clips along like your pulse while Ryan Gosling’s Driver maneuvers his way through the Los Angeles streets, away from the police.

Michael Giacchino “Letting Go”
J.J. Abrams’ coming-of-age alien adventure isn’t perfect, but so much of it is, especially the sense time and place he and his crew establish from the get-go. I didn’t feel like the film’s most emotional moments were totally earned, but newcomer Joel Courtney does his damnedest to sell you on them. I will say Courtney’s earnest portrayal of a child who misses his late mother works, making for a teary finale propelled by Abrams’ MVP composer Michael Giacchino, for my money, the best working composer we have and the next John Williams if there ever was one. If ever a composer could fake emotional resonance for a story that lacks it, Giacchino has that power, as I’m sure you’ve seen on the show “Lost.” Even if SUPER 8 fell short in some places, the climax, thanks to Giacchino, gets it right.

Trent Reznor & Karen O “Immigrant Song”
Can’t go on without mentioning Reznor and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s singer Karen O’s pumping take on Led Zeppelin’s classic track, used during the unusual opening credits sequence in Fincher’s film. Again, music effectively establishes a tone for a film, in this case a quite dark tone. Fincher broke into the business directing music videos for major pop artists, and you’ve got to think he reached back into that bag of tricks for this one. I must note how well this song was used in the film’s teaser trailer. I was initially skeptical, having already seen the Swedish version of this story, but the quick-cutting preview topped off by Reznor and O’s collaboration did me in.

Richard Wagner “Tristan und Isolde Prelude”
I find that the less I talk about Lars von Trier’s depression opus, the better off I am (and strangely, the more I like it). But Wagner’s prelude, no matter how many times von Trier plays it, works in this darkly beautiful and operatic tale of an impending apocalypse. The imagery is gorgeous if slightly disturbing, and who better than Wagner to score that combination?

Howard Shore “Purpose”
For me, Shore’s score was one of the only things about HUGO that didn’t totally work. Something about the slightly stereotypical accordian-driven “look it’s French!” theme was the only thing that felt dishonest in this otherwise beautiful ode to the medium Scorsese happens to dominate. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad score. It’s pleasant enough, with some truly gorgeous tracks, especially during a key sequence towards the end of the film involving a character we get to know a little bit better. But when young Hugo is explaining his philosophy on where we all fit in the world if it were one big machine to Isabelle, Shore is on point.

Least favorite

The “Inception” horn in what feels like every trailer I see. Included in the following:
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”
“The Avengers”
“The Thing”
“The Immortals”
“Snow White & The Huntsman”
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
“Red Riding Hood”
“Battle: Los Angeles”
“Tron: Legacy”
“Saw: The Final Chapter”
“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3”