Jan 18, 2012 at 6:00 am

Sound your eyes can follow

Happy New Year! Despite a somewhat somber mood in the music business, 2011 was full of vibrant original music and emerging talent. I’d love to write about the year’s best albums, but there’s not enough space in today’s column. How about we explore the music written for movies last year? Whether they were massively budgeted commercial hits or human-sized dramas, almost all of the major film composers had significant projects.

At the multiplex, there was an encouraging diversity of styles. “Captain America” cleverly included a 1940s USO musical number that was hilarious (and heartfelt) by songsmiths Alan Menken and David Zippel. Herzog’s surprise 3-D crowd-pleaser “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” featured a wonderfully weird score by Dutch cellist Ernist Reijseger. Terrence Malick, a director with a history of great soundtracks, brought us “The Tree of Life,” which requested audiences to enter a poetic world of sounds and images. Its composer, Alexandre Desplat, has a growing list of inventive scores from “Birth” to the Harry Potter finale.

A strange companion to “Tree” is Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” which feels like its darker twin with a similarly oblique vision. “Melancholia” presented one of the most shocking and beautiful moments in many years, scored by Richard Wagner’s prelude to “Tristan und Isolde.” Keeping with his provocative tendencies, the director then almost punishingly repeats this lovely music. Thanks, Lars.

Michael Giacchino continued his prolific partnership with J.J. Abrams on “Super 8” (a robust homage to Spielberg’s films and John Williams’ music) and created the rousing orchestral tribute to Lalo Schifrin for Brad Bird’s super fun “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” The most overlooked action masterpiece of 2011? Joe Wright’s “Hanna” featured a brilliant score by The Chemical Brothers, full of dreamlike collages and distorted beats.

Many independent or low-budget films had incredible music, often utilizing the filmmaker’s talent for digging up the perfect track. Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block” was the surprise of the year, fusing an awesome premise with humor and social commentary. It worked in classic beats from KRS-One, Basement Jaxx and Richie Spice, and orchestral dubstep by Steven Price. “Drive” perfectly blended Euro-pop songs (eerily sounding like actual 1980s recordings) with Cliff Martinez’s synthesizer atmospheres. Martinez found the perfect tone for Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (avoiding melodrama and apocalyptic bombast). The pulsating rhythms propelled the film without emotional tricks, accompanying dedicated scientists fighting to save the world.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” featured a masterfully paranoid suite from Alberto Iglesias. “Win Win” scored with fuzzy jambox rock and a new song by The National. “Beginners,” an absolute triumph for actor Christopher Plummer, had the best use of “house music” as a story moment and featured sweet selections like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” As for “A Dangerous Method” (score by Howard Shore), “The Muppets” (songs by Brett McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords”) and “War Horse” (music by the innovative John Williams), I can’t wait to see them. “The Artist,” “Pina” and “Tin Tin,” too.

Versatile and intense actor Michael Fassbender arrived in several great films. “Jane Eyre” had elegant string arrangements by Dario Marianelli, while “X-Men: First Class” rocked a retro/spy feel. Steve McQueen’s unsettling and powerful “Shame” mixed NY nocturnal pop and aching modernist classical. Weirdly, both “X-Men” and “Shame” borrowed from Hans Zimmer’s “The Thin Red Line” soundtrack. “Take Shelter” examined ordinary life and 21st century dread, with a song by Ben Nichols of Lucero and creepy ambience by David Wingo. “The Descendants” captured family drama in beautiful, painful detail, and its Hawaiian setting inspired songs by many celebrated local musicians. Martin Scorsese’s sweet and wonderful “Hugo” showed the whimsical side of radical composer Howard Shore. Scorsese also released the George Harrison documentary “Living in the Material World.”

What will 2012 sound like? While I’m brutally excited for “Prometheus” and certain Dark Knight and Avengers films, it’s also great to imagine the emerging young directors and composers. With new films by Mary Harron, Wes Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron, Genndy Tartakovsky and John Hillcoat, we’re in for a damn good year.

P.S.: Thanks to Moonshake for the title, and Ryan Patterson for movie research.