Mike’s Top Film Scores of the Decade (90-81)

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:

90. Lion, Dustin O’Halloran (2015)

This is a score that feels better served in the context of the film than necessarily as a standalone piece of music. But still, it’s a great piece of work. It’s largely built around that main theme, which keeps returning consistently in different ways and contexts, just like the fact that this boy doesn’t remember where he came from hangs over his head consistently until he gets an answer does. It’s a great score, and if you want a perfect example of that fact, consider how emotional the climax of the film is, which is literally just a dude looking at Google Earth and crying. And yet the score works with the acting to create a beautifully transcendent moment that works so much better than it ought to.

89. Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman (2018)

This is just an unabashedly old-school film score. The overture alone is amazing, weaving in all the different songs from the score into it. I’ll say, I’m not a huge fan of the entirety of the score as something I want to listen to, but the construction of it as a score is quite brilliant and not something you see all that often anymore, and that’s mainly why I wanted to highlight it on the list. It’s not fun to have the same things on there all the time, and this harkens back to a different age of film scores in all the right ways.

88. Spotlight, Howard Shore (2015)

Shaw is a composer most famous for his Middle Earth scores lately than anything else, and it feels like he’s not someone who works all that often as compared to other composers. Just this decade, if you remove those Hobbit scores from his resume, he only has 12 scores to his name, and I bet most of them — The Song of Names, The Catcher Was a Spy, Denial, Rosewater, Jimmy P and Edge of Darkness — are ones most people either haven’t heard of or never saw. Maybe you saw the third Twilight movie, but I doubt you remembered his score. He did the Cronenberg movies, but those aren’t score heavy. It’s rare that he has a score that really sticks out to you, it feels. This will be the first of two scores of his on this list. This one is actually quite important to the film, and I love how it’s consistent but downplayed. It never overpowers the story in any way, but it’s always there, doing its job. Just like the journalists the film is about. That theme keeps showing up, coming up louder during the montages, and it provides this consistent drum beat for journalism, and it’s a lot catchier than you might realize the first time you see the film. But eventually, since the film is so rewatchable, you find yourself realizing just how good the music is, even if it’s not something you consciously think about most of the time. That’s a great score.

87. The Little Prince, Hans Zimmer & Richard Harvey (2015)

I love that Hans Zimmer is unafraid to take on any genre and always creates something unique and interesting each time. He’s always bringing in different types of musicians to craft a score that he feels fits his film’s story rather than just doing his same ‘thing’ over and over and over. It’s nice. Here… it’s not his first animated score, obviously, but it’s something you don’t really consider as the kind of film he scores. So it was a surprise when I put this film on and heard the score and went, “Wait, that’s really good.” You rarely think about an animated film score when it’s not something like Pixar or Disney. This score is just so beautiful. The opening repetitions of sounds to set you into the monotony of what this girl’s life is supposed to be, building toward the beautiful climax, which is just a stunning piece of music. Hans is really good at introducing elements and then weaving them together at the right moments.

86. Parasite, Jung Jae-il (2019)

What I love most about the score is that it always switches itself up, never falling into the same pattern (much like the film does), using different instruments and sort of building this one narrative before it changes again. It’s cool. The beginning section is this steady mystery/military-almost feeling, where you’re aware that something sneaky is going on and also it’s this steady march of the family infiltrating this house. And then it goes into this classical mode out of nowhere, which is amazing. Then the choir voices during that camping section. I love that, as a pure score, if you put it on, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to guess where it was from. Genre, time period, country, any of it. And I feel like all of us have this idea in our heads of what a foreign film score (especially one from Asia) might sound like, and this doesn’t fall into any of those preconceived notions in any way. It’s just so nice to listen to.

85. Lincoln, John Williams (2012)

Williams dips into the more quiet scores once in a while, sometime sin unexpected ways. Even the Saving Private Ryan score is like that. It’s sort of muted and military-sounding without being overpowering. This is another one of those, a trick he’s pulled out a bunch in recent years for the more talk-heavy Spielberg films. He creates this really unassuming theme and only occasionally pulls out the big ‘John Williams’ moments, to great effect. You listen to this and you just feel your heart soar when the music soars. You hear this music and it just feels like President Lincoln — dependable, worth looking up to, and someone you know is gonna do great things for the world. It’s all there. And that’s the beauty of John Williams. It’s always there.

84. The Sisters Brothers, Alexandre Desplat (2018)

The beauty of Alexandre Desplat is, even though you can usually tell it’s him, his scores are always just so unique and different. Compare this to the many other scores of his that will permeate this list (because as I say every year, he is my favorite working composer). It’s sort of out of left field. Especially since it’s a western, and this does not sound like a western score at all. It’s idiosyncratic, which is also what the film is. Every time I revisit this score, I think, “There’s no way I’m gonna keep liking this,” when I hear a track that sounds not like the kind of Desplat track I’m used to (and love). And yet… they’re all great. Every track on this score is incredible. And just underscores how much I love this man’s music.

83. Wreck-It Ralph, Henry Jackman (2012)

Any time you make a score built around 8-bit video game music, I’m already 1000% in. Sure, it’s not entirely built around that, since it is Disney and it is the 2010s after all, but the fact that even part of the score is reminiscent of that I love to no end. Jackman, as a composer, I feel is a bit too on the nose at times with his music. It works for certain types of films (mainly family films, where the music is supposed to be like that). Generally his stuff isn’t entirely for me past a ‘that reminded me of something I grew up with and is kinda nice’. This is the only one I really like, just because it layers in the feel of old school video games and immediately brings me back to when I was 6 and sitting in my living room, playing Sega Genesis. You can’t put a price on that feeling.

82. Moonrise Kingdom, Alexandre Desplat (2012)

It’s funny how there’s almost barely a score to this film. It’s the same piece of music placed over multiple points of the film. And yet — perfectly Alexandre Desplat and perfectly Alexandre Desplat doing Wes Anderson. Honestly, after this score (though I guess Fantastic Mr. Fox is the one that established this feel of Desplat and Anderson), there wasn’t even a question that this is what Wes Anderson films were gonna sound like going forward. You just get it. And that’s a hallmark of Anderson’s style. Everything’s kinda the same every time, but you don’t care, because it’s always great and it somehow never feels stale.

81. Darkest Hour, Dario Marianelli (2017)

I love Dario Marianelli’s work. He usually only pops up for me when he’s working with Joe Wright, but still, those scores of his are just so rich and layered and beautiful to listen to. Just listen to this track on its own. It’s the second track on the soundtrack album, after a prelude. When this kicks in, tell me you’re not immediately involved in it and ready to go along for the ride. It’s such a powerful piece of work, and not something you’d consider as the score to a film where largely people are sitting around tables, shouting at one another. But Marianelli somehow captures the air and the mood of the period and all the important stuff going on surrounding the events of the film. But mainly, he just writes some absolutely beautiful music. This is a score I’d listen to purely on its own, because it’s so well-written.

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