Before fall festivals bring in a wave of serious awards contenders, IndieWire is looking back at the movies we’ve already seen and loved — and the scores that brought them to even fuller life. Releases may keep getting pushed back, but there are already enough film scores living rent-free in our heads (and on repeat in our Spotify playlist) to spotlight the movie music from earlier in the year that tends to get lost in the wave of fall and winter releases.
Our (so far) favorites are wide-ranging; they include everything from intimate love stories to inventive looks into the past to the biggest and loudest blockbusters. But the best scores of 2023 find ways to capture the scope of their stories through music, become an integral part of their films’ pacing, and innovate interesting sounds to better get at the heart of their characters.
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”
Superhero movie scores are as widespread as superhero movies themselves, but not since “Avengers: Endgame” has a film of this genre offered such distinct and powerful themes throughout as “Across the Spider-Verse.” Daniel Pemberton’s score makes masterful use of repetition, repurposing the main theme throughout its over 30 tracks and adding motifs like the eerie canon disruption notes that make you feel like you’re watching the movie when you listen to the soundtrack. The Indian flair in Pavitr Prabhakar’s sections (Karan Soni) veers a little too close to stock music but still come out more successful than most non-South Asian attempts at recreating Indian instrumental music (think of it as the multiverse version of those sounds). The album alone makes a case for seeing this movie again on the biggest screen possible, with Dolby surround sound and that music thrumming right in your seat. —Proma Khosla
“Chevalier” wouldn’t work if Kris Bowers’ and Michael Abels’ score didn’t. The film explores the life of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-George, and the extraordinary life he tries to carve out for himself in the waning days of (the still quite racist!) ancien regime France; as such there’s a great deal of virtuosic on-camera violin and chamber orchestra, which Abels executes by melding Bologne’s surviving work and the strictures of classical music with a modern viewer’s ear for how melodies repeat, develop, and bleed off of plaintive strings. The climatic “Sinfonie Liberté” is a moving synthesis of these, as lush as it is powerful. Meanwhile Bowers’ work is as far-ranging as Bologne’s passions; at times the score is atmospheric and brooding, and at times it soars to emotional highs. Music is core to Bologne’s journey and to “Chevalier,” and there is likely no higher praise than to say that film’s score is worthy of its subject. —Sarah Shachat
Composer Brian Tyler first began working on the “Fast and Furious” series with the franchise’s inaugural installment in 2001, and in the 22 years since that film was released his scores for the movies have grown bolder and more ambitious with each new chapter. Appropriately for the biggest and most expansive “Fast” yet, Tyler’s score for “Fast X” is his most audacious, complex, and memorable to date, a spectacular combination of disparate genres and styles that somehow coheres into a unified tone. As the casts have grown bigger in each “Fast” movie, Tyler’s challenges have multiplied as well; here, he composes a multitude of distinct themes and motifs associated with different characters and storylines and pulls them together in a richly textured score characterized by both epic sweep and intimate emotional moments. Incorporating aspects of hip-hop, IDM, metal, industrial and other forms, Tyler provides a sonic landscape as visceral and overpowering as the movie’s over-the-top spectacle, anchored by a traditional orchestra that pulsates with modern energy. —Jim Hemphill
“Knock at the Cabin”
M. Night Shyamalan’s latest is an apocalyptic thriller set almost entirely in the confines of a small cabin occupied by just a handful of characters, which raises an interesting filmmaking challenge: How does one create a sense of epic sweep when the camera barely leaves one room? One essential component in the case of “Knock at the Cabin” is the elegant and nerve-shredding orchestral score by Herdís Stefánsdóttir, which honors the end-of-the-world anxiety that Shyamalan’s script generates while also subtly underlining the film’s more intimate moments. The movie has a lot of risky tonal shifts, but Stefánsdóttir’s music unifies them in a way that makes “Knock at the Cabin” Shyamalan’s most satisfying movie in years; the aggressive, thundering string section anchors a horror score that both invites and earns comparison with the best of Bernard Herrmann while nimbly transitioning into themes of aching poignancy as the characters are faced with unimaginably difficult moral decisions. Shyamalan has always walked a razor’s edge between horror and sentiment, but in “Knock at the Cabin” he pushes it further than ever before; that the balance is so successful is due in no small part to Herdís Stefánsdóttir. —JH
There’s a metaphor, probably, in how tight one has to wind a violin string in order to play it properly. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) the character, as imagined by Christopher Nolan in “Oppenheimer,” is a man perched at a very violent-like juncture between beauty and horror, curiosity and arrogance, where the one constant throughout his life is the tension within himself. Ludwig Göransson’s score literalizes that tension and also completely blows it up. Göransson places electronic distortions, pounding percussion, and howling synths onto the soundtrack with perfect scientific accuracy. Even without the tell-tale ticking so many Nolan scores use in their key moments of fusion (and fission), Göransson’s orchestrations provide the epic emotional scope of nuclear physics, even when all we’re seeing is guys talking in a room. Göransson applies the same rhythmic arcs, building and building until they unravel, to the more intimate, relationship-focused cues, too; that allows the score, even more than either the subjective or objective presentations of the story, to provide us with the best sense of who Oppenheimer really was. —SS
Director Celine Song knew the kind of music she didn’t want to have scoring “Past Lives.” A movie that is about tentative approaches over long distances, messy, interior longings and paths not taken across our lives all resist the manipulation of a big score, one where sweeping strings and cloying leitmotifs could drown out the emotion on the characters’ faces. But composers Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen lighted on exactly the kind of score the film needed. A fresh blend of guitars, winds, loose snares, and bells all create a very tactile musical language for “Past Lives.” The instruments together evoke the sense almost of wind blowing past, giving the film an even further specificity of place as it focuses on its two childhood sweethearts’ reunion in New York City. And very few movies’ scores earn a plaintive piano track the way that “Past Lives” does: The film’s ending is carried through the momentum of Bear and Rossen’s composition, such that we feel all the feelings of Hae Sung’s (Teo Yoo) departure, and the release of it, too. —SS
“Suzume” director Makoto Shinkai has collaborated with Japanese rock band RADWIMPS before — notably on his other disaster-inflected love stories “Your Name” and “Weathering With You.” But this third road trip across Japan (plus a magical tectonic plane of land and ancestor spirits) feels like the culmination of something they’ve been working towards, something that is soulful and longing and contemporary as much as it is orchestral and massive as the mountains of Japan itself. The contributions of composer Kazuma Jinnouchi tip the balance of the score slightly towards orchestra and chorus, big horns and strings getting even bigger during the action cues; but the most exciting moments of the soundtrack are all the small, subtle ways the music gives voice to the awe and grief and love that Suzume (Nanoka Hara) finds in the places she travels. There’s a power and a lovely momentum no matter what gear the “Suzume” soundtrack shifts into, and the triumphant final chorus of “Kantala Haluka” paired with the film’s ending is about as magical a pairing as movie and song ever get to have. —SS