Best Film Scores/Soundtracks of 2016 | Bill Loelke

The powerful song lineup from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina carry the Moana soundtrack into the great Disney hall of fame.

2016 was a year for the modern movie musical, whether it’d be from a Disney animated film or an old-fashioned throwback to the golden age of MGM. It was also a year for more fresh film composers to break out onto the scene, as well as veterans to deliver some of the best works of their careers. Here is a look at the best 2016 had to offer.

Note: This list is not only comprised of instrumental scores, but also includes songs if they are within the context of the film (most notably, musicals). However, if a musical is put in the list, the score must also be taken into consideration.

1. Moana | Songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina; score by Mark Mancina

When did Moana’s music have me? Was it when Dwayne Johnson’s Maui stroked his ego with “You’re Welcome”? Was it when star-in-the-making Auli’i Cravalho’s Moana charted her course with the emotional “How Far I’ll Go”? Was it when Jemaine Clement channeled David Bowie in “Shiny”? My answer: all of the above.

The powerful song lineup from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina carry this soundtrack into the great Disney hall of fame, featuring tracks that I have a feeling will live on for many years. Mancina’s score combines more conventional thematic scoring with a taste of Polynesian flavor. This is some of Disney’s best music ever.

2. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them | James Newton Howard

James Newton Howard proved himself a perfect match for J.K Rowling’s wizarding world with this throwback to old-fashioned orchestral finesse. Going back to the 1920s while paying ode to John Williams, Howard still managed to make the score his own, and it flowed with the magic onscreen. Not only is this score a perfect match for the wizarding world, but it also stands on its own as an enjoyable listening experience full of themes, wonderment, and heart.

3. La La Land | Music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

It is so easy to talk about the songs in this throwback musical film because they are so upbeat and memorable. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sell these numbers with enthusiastic conviction. Because the songs are at the forefront, it can be easy to forget about the incidental score from Justin Hurwitz, and that’s a shame. It’s a jazzy, sweepingly romantic masterpiece that makes particularly great use of the woodwind and brass instruments.

4. Jackie | Mica Levi

One word best describes Mica Levi’s brilliant score for the biopic about Jacqueline Kennedy: haunting. That’s what we should expect from Levi following her experimental music for the otherworldly Under the Skin. Where this score particularly succeeded was bringing us into the after-tragedy mindset of one of the most fascinating figures of all time. It is a beautiful score with wondrous orchestral elements that show a bright future for Levi.

5. Arrival | Jóhann Jóhannsson

Combining elements of classical music with a more otherworldly and experimental sounds, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s third collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve is on par with some of the great director-composer partnerships of our time.

What sets this particular score apart from Jóhannsson’s previous works is that, because it is so risky, it helps him move past the more conventional aspects of his contributions to films like The Theory of Everything and Sicario. We now have a score that is daring and stands out on its own.

6. 10 Cloverfield Lane | Bear McCreary

Bear McCreary’s score to the sort-of Cloverfield spinoff is a chilling, exciting, and frightening piece of orchestral instrumentation. It recalls some of the best works of Bernard Hermann when he collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock.

7. Hacksaw Ridge | Rupert Gregson-Williams

Finally breaking away from the non-challenging mediocrity of Adam Sandler productions, Rupert Gregson-Williams really stretches his muscles with this score for the Mel Gibson war film. At the center of this work is a message of faith. Gregson-Williams delivers a score that has influences of early Hans Zimmer and James Horner, giving the action-style music intensity and the more emotional moments gravitas.

8. Moonlight | Nicholas Britell

This is definitely different from his previous score for The Big Short, but different sometimes brings delightful, which is the one word I need to describe this score. It is a classical score that excites and exudes passion through every note.

9. Kubo and the Two Strings | Dario Marianelli

Travis Knight’s brilliant animated film is accompanied by a Dario Marianelli score that is playful, frightening, and effective. Our protagonist’s samisen becomes as much of a character as he is, and Marianelli uses it to its full advantage. This might be one of the most melodically fascinating scores in his career.

10. Finding Dory | Thomas Newman

With a stronger focus on the more comedic character of Dory, it would have been easy for Thomas Newman to get goofy with his composition for the Pixar sequel. However, he veers in a different direction. In fact, the score here gets dark and emotional in many moments, particularly with the cue “Shells,” which plays during the film’s big emotional through line. Newman refused to play it safe, and it paid off big time. | Bill Loellke

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