Mike’s Top Film Scores of the Decade (70-61)
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:
70. All Is Lost, Alexander Ebert (2013)
I love Ebert’s style. It’s so minimalist and almost radically opposed to what a traditional film score would be. Honestly it feels like someone who is untrained but knows how to play music, so he’s just playing what he wants to hear, even if it doesn’t fit that traditional mold of how film scores work. And somehow that’s been perfect for Chandor’s films thus far. This is just so wonderfully atmospheric and somehow perfectly captures that feeling of being lost at sea. You’re just kind of floating, drifting, and there are moments of pure dread, but others are serene calm. But really, this feels a lot like the — well, I’m stuck here at sea with nothing to do and nowhere to go, so let my mind drift to all these other thoughts and memories and fantasies. That’s what this score feels like. And it’s kinda wonderful.
69. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, James Newton Howard (2016)
You have to first realize you’re not dealing with Harry Potter. This isn’t that franchise, so you shouldn’t expect the score to be the same thing. It’s like The Hobbit. Maybe some themes will come back, but by and large, it’s its own thing, and you have to take it on its own terms. That said — it’s a pretty lovely score, this first one. It reminds you of the universe without being subservient to the same old themes. It has the feel of the early John Williams scores for those first Potter films. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s fun, and it just has a lot of nice themes working on it that feel like solid foundations for whatever this franchise is going to end up being.
68. War Horse, John Williams (2011)
John Williams is probably the one composer who can truly tap into what it is that is magical about movies. In a way, when we think of magical movie moments, his scores are what we think of. They’re just perfect, and they capture that indescribable emotion of fully giving yourself over to a film and letting it take you along for the ride. And you hear that almost immediately in this score. The story of War Horse is one that was absolutely perfect for both Spielberg and Williams to take on. It’s perfectly suited to each of their styles, and as such, Williams goes all out with this score. Not, like, Star Wars all out, but emotionally all out. When you think of a classic John Williams score, and what it sounds like, and what it does to you as you listen to it — this is that score. This is about as classical as you can get, and it’s absolutely wonderful to listen to.
67. Inception, Hans Zimmer (2010)
This is certainly a contender for most ‘famous’ film scores of the past decade. Everyone remembers the blaring horns of this score, reminiscent of Zimmer’s Dark Knight scores/theme for Nolan, and based around the ‘kick’ song of ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. But there’s actually a lot more great stuff around it. It’s a big, epic, blockbuster-type score. There’s really only three types of film scores — four if you wanna count ‘nonexistent’ — one that is very subtle underneath the action, to the point where you might not almost recognize it most of the time. The second is the one that hums right alongside the action, complementing it and working alongside it, and then there’s the third one that is a character in its own right and almost supercedes the action in a lot of ways. The Star Wars scores are kinda like that. This feels like one of those scores. The music is big and turned up to the point where it not only is a part of the action but is also guiding the tension you feel in a really on-the-table kinda way. Some scores want to create tension but not let you know they’re doing it. This one is front and center about it and it all adds to the whole epic feel of the piece. One thing Zimmer and Nolan have down pat is the use of music to work alongside action. Not every blockbuster filmmaker understands that.
66. Philomena, Alexandre Desplat (2013)
Desplat is gonna be the only composer on this list who averages one full song per article, meaning he’s the only composer that’s gonna have more than ten scores listed here. I say it all the time — he’s my favorite working composer. I love his scores. I remember hearing his name for the first time during the 2006 Golden Globes, when he won for his Painted Veil score and Hugh Grant said his name in such a way that it always stuck with me (trying to do the French pronunciation, Des-PLAH). And so I always just kind of knew who he was even before I realized how much I loved his work. That was just as he was coming into prominence. And after that, he did the score for Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, which I adore (both as a film and a score), and then did Benjamin Button shortly after that. Then within two years of that, he did Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Ghost Writer. And then he did the Deathly Hallows films. So at that point, we all should have known his name in some form. I did my first scores article in 2012, but it was this year and this score where I think I finally put it all together and realized just how amazing he is and how great his work is. For some reason this score was a complete surprise to me, and as I listened to it I realized just what a genius he is. This sounds about how I’d expect his scores to sound (even though he doesn’t have a particular ‘sound’ any more than most composers do). It’s just classical, quirky, and brilliant. I just love his stuff so much.
65. Fast Color, Rob Simonsen (2019)
This was a film that surprised me last year, and the score came completely out of nowhere for me. I didn’t even really clock it when I saw the film. It was when I went back late in the year and did my giant film score round up that I came across it. (The way I do it is, I get a bunch of scores, upwards of 125-150, usually, and then listen to them all blindly and just jot down which ones move me the most as I whittle down the list to ones I want to listen to in detail.) It immediately made me sit up and go, “What is that?” It’s so much more of an epic film score than you think you’re gonna get for a film like this, and it’s perfect. Simonsen is a composer who hasn’t really done anything of major note — that is to say, rarely are people going, “That score he did for (x) is really amazing.” He’s one of those working composers whose stuff doesn’t really jump out from the films all too much. Or, at least, it hasn’t for me until recently. You’ll recognize him as doing the scores for recognizable movies (like Foxcatcher… but who remembers that there even being a score in that movie?), but for me it was that Front Runner score last year that made me take note of him. It was a really nice, jazzy piece of work. This one, though, took me to another level. I’m only posting one score track for each entry, but I implore you to listen to the entire score for this film. It’s not overly long, and most tracks aren’t more than two minutes long. I can’t tell you anything in depth about music, but I can tell you that I know what my ears tell me. And my ears tell me this is a great and dynamic film score that does some really wonderful things. It does the computerized/atmospheric thing while segueing into ‘indie drama’ and then turning into ‘epic sci-fi’ rather seamlessly. This is definitely one of those scores I’m most excited about on this entire list.
64. Swiss Army Man, Andy Hull & Robert McDowell (2016)
This had to make the list in some form. This is one of the most unique scores out there. It’s such a beautiful score for such a weird movie. There’s almost nothing I can say about this score. Just listen to it. Separate the music from the fact that it’s for a movie about a guy stranded on an island with a farting corpse. It’s just beautiful.
63. Hanna, The Chemical Brothers (2011)
The beginning of this score actually does sound like the previous score on this list. Only realized that connection when I started listening to it again to write up this entry. This is one of the older scores on this list. I didn’t do ‘Favorite Scores’ articles for 2010 and 2011, so I didn’t have that cache in my head of ones I knew would probably make this list. So I had to go back in a lot of ways and listen to certain scores again (or for the first time, in depth) to see what I really thought of them. This was one of those. I kind of remembered the score a little bit, but really only the train fight sequence. I wasn’t sure what the rest of it was gonna be. So imagine my surprise when I listen to it all again and go, “Oh wow, this is kind of awesome.” It’s just so different. It feels reminiscent of an action movie, but the parts that are done for the action are the parts that would be used for other parts of other action movies. Though, to me, what makes this work are the ‘character’ based tracks, that play up the fairy tale aspect of the story. This track in particular that I chose I just love. Somehow it captures everything I feel about this as a film in one piece of music. I can’t explain why that is… but I can feel it. And that’s really all that matters.
62. Oblivion, M83 & Joseph Trapanese (2013)
I love Joseph Kosinski’s dedication to offbeat choices for his film scores. First Daft Punk for Tron and then M83 for Oblivion. This will sound a bit like the Daft Punk score to some, but it’s largely its own thing. It’s just a big, epic, synth-heavy sci-fi score. And it’s just awesome. I love the main song they wrote for it, which has shown up (or will be showing up, I forget where we are on that) on my Favorite Songs list. I just think this score is wonderfully epic and this is one that I find myself going back to more than a lot of others from this decade. It’s really listenable.
61. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Carter Burwell (2018)
Carter Burwell is, to me, one of the most underrated composers working. No one truly appreciates the amount of incredible stuff he’s done over his career. I bet right now, sight unseen, if I played his Fargo theme for you, most people would clock it immediately. It’s really only in the past decade, though, that his stuff has gotten to the level of being truly recognized by people. And it’s probably his best decade of work thus far. He’s gonna have something like five or six scores on this list, and they’re all wonderful. This might actually be the first, now that I think about it. Which should show you what I think of all his scores, that they’ve all essentially made the top 60 on this list. This one I wasn’t expecting to be a great score. But it snuck up on me. It’s got that old saloon upright piano thing going on, and some nice acoustic guitar stuff, largely eschewing big orchestral stuff to fit with the low key kinda themes and plots of the film. Mostly what I love is that opening theme they keep returning to every time we move back to the book for a new story. It’s just kind of wonderful and somehow captures the spirit of the old West in such a wonderful way. It feels broad enough to where it fits warmly over the whole genre, which is exactly what the western is. It’s an American glove. Well-worn and universal. So to me, this was the perfect type of score for everything this movie is and is trying to be.
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