Weird begets weird and in 2018 the cinema was a great place to find these strange times reflected and refracted.
Explorations and exploitations of the body were examined in horror, like Hereditary, and in the surreal socialist commentary of Sorry To Bother You. The latter also dealt with how our actions influence a better world, as did Paul Schrader’s post-Lohan triumph First Reformed. That film gave industrial icon and Hollywood sound vet Lustmord a platform for one of the most truly alienating pieces of film music of 2018, just as Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse gave MMMD a place to manifest their electronic experiments. All that and a member of Radiohead feature in our favorite scores of the year.
Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury
It’s surprising that Alex Garland managed to get his treatment of Jeff VanderMeer’s complex sci-fi story Annihilation off the ground. The book reads as if it would be un-filmable: it’s a sci-fi adventure that’s mostly an internal dialog about overcoming trauma. But Garland re-arranges the details and highlights the action without sacrificing the story’s integrity, and he’s assisted by a powerful score from Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury. Barrow & Salisbury pull references from all the right places: bizarre waterphone sounds, inspired by Lalo Schifrin’s score for Dirty Harry; Ry Cooder-influenced acoustic riffs that mirror the oppressive landscape of Southern Comfort. But Annihilation is altogether more unique, and decidedly more alien. JT
Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block & Dream Door
Channel Zero is the best horror series you might not be watching. One of the show’s biggest complements is the extraordinary range of Jeff Russo, who has boosted each creepypasta-based season. For 2018’s surreal Butcher Block, about a family of cannibals whose patriarch is played by Rutger Hauer, Russo innovates the sharp crystalline sound of a slasher flick kill with precision and added ambience. He goes more percussive and emphatic for The Dream Door, which features the strangest clown introduction this side of It’s sewer grate. His malleability across seasons, as well as his work from Fargo to Edith Finch, make Russo one of the most interesting contemporary score composers. CL
Anna Meredith’s score for Bo Burnham’s gentle coming-of-age drama Eighth Grade is one of the year’s most remarkable gems. Tired American “teen movie” tropes are nowhere to be found – instead Meredith uses electronic pop and dance elements, layering them with anxious synth experimentation that mirrors protagonist Kayla Day’s complex emotional journey. Eighth Grade is a subtle, kind-hearted film that dares to dive deeper than its predecessors and so much its charm is down to Meredith’s disarmingly whimsical score. JT
It’s over an hour into Paul Schrader’s masterful First Reformed when Lustmord’s brooding dark ambience is heard for the first time. Schrader is a veteran filmmaker and expert in transcendental film – he literally wrote the book on it – and First Reformed is his long-awaited tribute to the style. When Brian Williams’ creaking drones finally do make an entrance, they’re a crucial addition to the narrative itself: they’re Reverend Ernst Toller’s internal fears, bubbling to the surface and finally becoming real; they’re purpose, veiled in thick, oozing darkness. JT
Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse
Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse is Berlin-based director Lukas Feigelfeld’s debut feature; in fact, it was his film school graduation project and he crowdfunded it to completion. Set in Austria in the 1400s, it’s a bleak, spine-chilling folk horror – not unlike 2015’s The Witch – and the soundtrack is just as terrifying as the desolate backdrop. Recorded by ex-PAN outfit MMMD, the score anchors the film with groggy sub bass drones and anxious, scraping strings. It sounds removed from time – it’s not merely an experimental electronic treatment and it neither does it sound exactly like primitive European folk music, it’s something in-between, and that’s what makes it so eerie. JT
A horror film masquerading as a family drama, or perhaps a family drama that devolves into real-life horror, Hereditary explores so much of what the body is and isn’t, could be or could be willed to be; there was no one but Colin Stetson who could have scored this. Stetson’s method of playing saxophone involves challenges to his own body – looped breathing, throat clicking – giving the otherworldly creepiness of his Hereditary compositions an extra depth. CL
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final score is undoubtedly among the composer’s most impressive achievements. Panos Cosmatos’s Nic Cage-starring psychedelic revenge flick is fine, providing you have easy access to mind-altering substances, but the score elevates it beyond cult novelty. Jóhannsson’s subtlety was always his greatest asset and he commands Mandy with space and suggestion. It’s a rock-influenced treatment that toys with the impressionable mind of the listener – what might sound like guitar is morphed imperceptibly into buzzing synthesizer drones and unsettling bass tones are transformed into crashing Sunn O)))-influenced slabs of axe noise. When Jóhannsson died earlier this year, he left a chasm in his wake. JT
Sorry To Bother You
Merril Garbus and Nate Brenner took the global-collage focus of their music as Tune-Yards to create an off-kilter, unhinged score that perfectly matches the, frankly, WTF essence of Sorry To Bother You. But the work took on another meaning for Garbus herself. “I’m learning to complicate the word ‘ally’,” she told FACT earlier this year. “It implies a white supremacist power dynamic. It was interesting with this movie to be included and to find our place as the white musicians scoring it. It was really interesting to be in this conversation and in the back seat. This is a beautifully black film.” CL
You Were Never Really Here
Yes, yes it’s the obligatory Jonny Greenwood score, but don’t stop reading yet – this one is really quite special. Firstly, it accompany’s Lynne Ramsey’s latest full-length, You Were Never Really Here, one of the year’s most viscerally powerful films. Ramsey is one of cinema’s finest living directors and with Greenwood she’s found a composer to truly mirror her exceptional level of creativity. As Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe digs through his personal trauma, falling deeper into a grim, violent world, Greenwood’s score takes genuine risks, skipping through odd, hiccuping electronics and Moondog-esque percussive weirdness. It’s a mirror of Joe’s psyche, and stays with the listener long after the film has hammered its final point home. JT
Claire Lobenfeld is FACT’s managing editor. John Twells is FACT’s executive editor.
Keep up with all of FACT’s Best of 2018 coverage here.
Read next: From Studio to Screen: Becoming a Composer