Mike’s Top Film Scores of the Decade (100-91)

Film scores are one of my favorite things to listen to and the list of my top ones is one of the articles I get most excited for each year. I put way much more effort into that than I really ought to. I go deep, listening to some scores that I probably shouldn’t even bother with. And it’s because I love that aspect of film so much. The care that goes into all those notes. Think about how many films there are each year and how many have true, dedicated scores to them. Now consider that, despite there only being a handful of notes out there, each of them is utterly unique in its own way. It’s crazy to think about.

So when I was considering lists to talk about for this past decade, this one was one I couldn’t wait to get into. I know most people won’t rush to put a score on, but if you’re gonna go in for one, these are some of the best that have come out these past ten years:

100. Whiplash, Justin Hurwitz (2014)

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this one, since a lot of the score is built around those jazz band standards that aren’t original to the score. However, Hurwitz’s score is pretty driving, melodic and consistent, adding rhythm and tension to each scene even if you aren’t fully aware of it. It’s a really good score, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of Hurwitz’s other scores from the decade. It’s a good one to throw on if you just want something jazzy you don’t have to think about but can just groove along to as you fold laundry or whatever.

99. The Book Thief, John Williams (2013)

If you listen to enough John Williams, you tend to notice certain tropes of his that permeate all the music. Hell, you can say that about all composers, but Williams has a particular set of styles that he tends to work with. There’s the big, bombastic Star Wars type score, and then there are the quiet ones, that tend to be more based on piano melodies and some strings and horns rather than full on epic orchestra. This is one of those. What I love about his scores is that you can pull up any track and listen to it and immediately know it’s him. I don’t even know music — I took like, two years of band and barely remember how to look at scales on a sheet. But the ear can pick up certain melodies and tropes, and Williams is one of those composers where, at some point over a score, you will hear something that marks it as his and reminds you of another score of his that hits similar notes.

This one in particular is nice because it’s pretty quiet and adds an extra layer of emotion to the film (which is one of those films that some might consider a little ‘on the nose’ as far as story goes). Williams, above almost all other composers, has his music become a character in his films, and that especially is the case here. This is one of his few non-Spielberg scores of the past 30-odd years.

98. Prisoners, Johann Johannsson (2013)

This is the score that brought Johannsson over to America. Not the one(s) he’s most famous for, but definitely the first one where people took notice of him. There’s a quiet menace to this score, which underscores the plot and themes of the film, and became a hallmark of his later scores.

97. Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman, Tom Howe (2017)

This is a pretty unforgettable film score from a film that not many people saw, whose title people probably know, and whose story they might know. But considering that combination, the idea that people even bothered to listen to the film score is a very unlikely scenario. Which is a shame, because it’s a tremendous piece of music. It’s bold, it’s romantic, it’s soaring — it reminds me of the scores of all those 90s movies I grew up with.

96. Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat (2018)

Alexandre Desplat certainly has gotten into a rhythm with his Wes Anderson scores. And that’s not even a bad thing. But, when you hear one — you can tell. It sounds just like his score from Moonrise Kingdom which sounds just like his score from Grand Budapest Hotel. All are different, but they all sound the same. Which is the same as every Wes Anderson film. So it works. This one’s got some great taiko drumming going on, giving it a solidly Japanese (though not offensively Japanese, which is always a risk these scores run — just look at every film set in Asia in the 40s and 50s for proof) feel without being too beholden to the style. It felt like Desplat picked his style and stuck with it. And it’s a really solid score. Can’t say I love it as much as his other Anderson scores, but I definitely think it’s one of the more memorable pieces of work that came out this decade.

95. Midnight Special, David Wingo (2016)

This one feels like the score from an 80s movie. It’s almost something John Carpenter would have wrote. And since Starman and Close Encounters were Jeff Nichols’ influences on this film’s story, it makes complete sense the score would sound like that. The theme is great, but the rest of the score is more quiet and atmospheric. Meditative, like the film is. It’s not trying to be about anything big. If anything it’s taking a ‘big’ genre and boiling it down to basic human emotion and human situations. It’s a very muted score that picks the right moment to explode into a beautiful climax (I chose not to use it as the track I linked to for this entry, but go listen to ‘New World’. It’s an incredible piece of music). The main theme and that track are worth a spot on this list alone, but the rest of the score is also really terrific as well.

94. The Impossible, Fernando Velazquez (2012)

I have such vivid memories of seeing this film for the first time, not knowing at all the film I was getting into. I wasn’t expecting the tsunami sequence and it took me by complete surprise at how intense the whole film was. And then we got to the second half, which is when I realized how beautiful Fernando Velazquez’s score for the film is. It really takes center stage during the hospital sequence, and my god, is it a stunning score. Just listen to the way he uses strings. He’s one of the great, unsung composers working. Most people don’t notice his work, since he hasn’t scored too many films that are out there. But he’ll have two scores on this list, because he’s really great at what he does.

93. The Double, Andrew Hewitt (2014)

This score is perfect for the film. The film is just a surrealist, absurdist comedy where nothing makes sense and everything is there to frustrate the main character. And the score is equally as quirky as the film’s tone. Somehow it became a rule that comedies with this tone use that staccato string music as their score (I feel like this is exactly what The Favourite’s score is too). But there’s more to it than that. One theme is just electronic number machine noises. It’s all over the map in terms of what it uses, instrument-wise, which is nice. A film like this doesn’t need to be subtle, so the music can reach over the top of everything rather than cradling underneath. I love when they mix the scores along with the foreboding percussion. It’s just such a nice combination that feels almost like something that would score some D.W. Griffith one-reeler 110 years ago.

92. Gone Girl, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (2014)

Reznor and Ross’s scores are an acquired taste. They tend to be muted and much more atmospheric and electronic than you think. In the moment, they sound great and underscore the films well. But when you listen to them as pure scores, they tend to be more sonic than… you know… film score-y. This one feels a bit more muted than their other stuff, mostly because the narrative is such a slow burn, with that underpinnings of dread when you’re not quite sure what’s going on or when you do know what’s going on and you’re wondering what the fuck is gonna happen next. It’s a nice score. It somehow works on its own as a piece of music and really well within the film itself.

91. Out of Blue, Clint Mansell (2019)

Clint Mansell is one of my favorite composers. He earned my undying love with his score for The Fountain, which legitimately, if I made a list of my favorite film scores from last decade, that would be top three, if not #2 or #1. I love that score that much. Most people love him for that Requiem for a Dream score, which most people can name just from hearing it because it’s so iconic at this point. He’s not really a composer that’s gotten much recognition (zero Oscar nominations, not that that’s necessarily a point of recognition, but it says a lot that he’s never been nominated and some other people keep getting nominated for the same old film scores year in and year out). Off hand, outside of the Aronofsky scores, you probably couldn’t name too many pieces of his work. This decade, apart from the scores that will be on this list (and it’s a surprising number, given how few films of his seem like ‘major’ works)… he scored the movies Faster, Stoker, Filth and High-Rise. Not really movies where you jump out and think ‘score’, except maybe Stoker. But anyway, this film is not a film I’d recommend to people — it’s based on a Martin Amis book that was a parody of detective novels, only somehow the humor didn’t translate when they made the film. The cast looks nice, but the film isn’t all that interesting. This score, however, is incredible. Start that track up there and tell me that you’re not insanely interested in that within five seconds. Now keep in mind — the whole score is like that. It’s got shades of The Fountain, sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful. I downgraded it a bit to this section of the list because it’s not as consistent as I’d have liked. But still… he’s such a great composer and this is such a great piece of music. And without people like me who go out and listen to shit like this, most people wouldn’t even know this was out there and it wonderful.

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