Mike’s Top Film Scores of the Decade (50-41)
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:
50. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, John Williams
It’s John Williams doing Star Wars. Of course I’m gonna love that score. But, it’s also John Williams doing Star Wars, and there’s a lot of history and motifs and things that I’m also responding to there. So I figured the best way to do this, to both honor the composer and scores I love so much while also making as much room as possible for maybe not so obvious inclusions, I decided to just make John Williams and all three of his Star Wars scores (essentially) #50 on the list. Just make them the midway point and rest easy knowing he’s here and properly represented.
49. Anna Karenina, Dario Marianelli (2012)
I love Marianelli’s work with Joe Wright. This score is just so perfect. It’s big and bold and romantic, with shades of Dr. Zhivago, while also just being a really nice piece of music. I just really love what they did here and it remains one of the most evocative scores for me from this year and from the decade as a whole.
48. Marriage Story, Randy Newman (2019)
Randy Newman was such a sneaky great choice for this score, and I love the notion that he, a man who, over the past 20 years since he’s essentially stopped scoring films, is really only known for his Pixar scores and nothing else, composed a Noah Baumbach drama about a dissolving marriage. That alone is one of my favorite things to just say out loud. But the score is also quite great. I love him as a composer. I say it all the time, but his Pleasantville score is absolutely perfect and I listen to it all the time. What makes this score great is that it has all of Newman’s musical hallmarks, which somehow (and either it’s because of the other scores or just because that’s what his musical style is) evokes that feeling of childhood in a way. That whimsical simplicity. The warmth of the family being together and the endless possibility of youth. And somehow that juxtaposes perfectly to all these adults screaming at each other all the time. It just makes it feel like everything’s gonna be okay, despite all that. I love it. Though truly, you’d almost never guess that this was a score for Marriage Story if you just heard it blindly. Which is still just so hilarious to me.
47. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alberto Iglesias (2011)
It’s so low-key and jazzy, which is perfect. Because 1) that’s the kind of spy movie this is, and 2) that’s the kind of character that Smiley is. He’s a great spy, but he’s understated. He’s not gonna drive down London Streets, firing a rocket launcher on the bad guy. He’s gonna bide his time, gather his evidence, and make an arrest under the table while also playing his political cards right. And the score evokes that. The score also has some really nice string work to it to underscore the constant, inherent tension of being a spy during the Cold War without ever overpowering the action. It’s a great piece of work by Iglesias.
46. Motherless Brooklyn, Daniel Pemberton (2019)
Pemberton is a composer who appeared almost out of nowhere for me when he did a score that will appear soon enough on this list, and the score that everybody knows him from as well. He came from the world of BBC dramas before that. He’s only really done a handful of film scores to this point, but most of them aren’t necessarily scores that would jump out to you as ‘oh man, that’s gotta be some good work/I remember that one’. This score is based around the world of 1950s New York noir, so as such, it’s very jazz-influenced. Which feels like a right fit for the piece. It helps that Norton’s character is soothed by jazz, and that a jazz club is a central element to the plot, but I like how he’s able to work in some strings and tension within the score when he needs to and the lonely piano/trumpet melodies without ever really moving away from the central core of the score. Plus, in a way, some of the freeform jazz elements somehow, to me, evoke the kind of scattered brilliance that goes on in Norton’s character’s head a lot of the time. So it fits in a lot of ways while also being really great to listen to.
45. Cinderella, Patrick Doyle (2015)
This is just beautiful, classical film scoring. Cinderella has a feel to it, even if it doesn’t have that classic Disney ‘score’ attached to it. So, for the live action version, they went all out on the score. It’s gorgeous. It’s the best of the Disney live action scores because it somehow evokes Cinderella without having to stick to what was already there. It’s such a throwback in so many ways, and there’s really not all that much for me to say about it other than it’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of music and I love listening to it.
44. Wonderstruck, Carter Burwell (2017)
Remember when I said that Carter Burwell is one of the most underrated composers out there? Well, this score is one of the most underrated out there from this entire decade. I saw the movie and, while I wasn’t overwhelmed by it and thought it was an ambitious failure in a lot of ways, Burwell’s score immediately jumped out at me as one of the best things about it. The film, for those who don’t know, is based on a Brian Selznick novel (he also wrote Hugo) about two kids separated by 50 years. And the stories are told concurrently. So what Todd Haynes (oh right, Todd Haynes directed this, for those who didn’t know that. He made it right after Carol) does is shoot the modern portion one way and the earlier section as a black-and-white silent film. No dialogue, no sound. Just score and sound effects. It looks and sounds like a silent film would in the theater. So half this score is a silent film score. Which — the fact that someone did that and it sounds exactly like a silent film score would sound — is perfect. But it’s the modern day part of the score that I love so much. It’s that central theme. I hear that central theme and it fills my heart with such joy. It’s admittedly kind of an uneven score that works really well in some places and maybe not as great in others (like the film is), but I only see the parts that I love. Life is boring when everything is perfect.
43. Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer (2017)
Zimmer has been almost building to a score like this during all his time with Chris Nolan. He learned that he can be big and bold but also really simplistic in a lot of ways and convey everything he needs to. You can feel him having learned things from all the other film scores and putting them all to use for this one. Inception has that running chord based on the Piaf song that becomes the main element of that score. Here, time becomes the key element of the score and film, and as such, there’s the constant clicking of clocks (whether you hear them or not, they’re somehow always there) and what feels like a constant, marching race toward either destruction or salvation, depending on how all these events go. It’s a relentless score, just like it’s a relentless piece of music, which fits the narrative of the film, where time is of the essence and something really needs to be done or a lot of people are gonna die and the war is gonna be lost. I also love the moments (like in the track I linked to) where the score breaks and for once, there’s actually a note of hope and uplift during the whole thing, and you finally get that note of release. It speaks to how well the score builds up tension until that point that a moment like this works as well as it does.
42. Vice, Nicholas Britell (2018)
Sneaky incredible score from this decade. You don’t necessarily think that when you think about the film, but it’s there. Britell completely changes up his style throughout the score, which fits perfectly with the way Adam McKay uses narrative in his films. He goes between orchestral ‘film score’ sound to jazz to almost 70s exploitation stuff. One track sounds like it came from a heist movie, then there’s that big orchestral moment during the fake ending — it’s a wonderful score that I highly recommend people listen to. Because as Britell gets bigger and bigger and becomes everyone’s favorite composer, this is one of the scores of his that will fall by the wayside, which is a shame, because it really is so amazing. And if you don’t think that’s true, realize that this next score is also one of his and already has rendered this score underrated…
41. Moonlight, Nicholas Britell (2016)
Britell again. He became immediately a sought-after composer after this score (and has somehow topped this score twice over since then). But it’s hard to listen to this score and not feel all the emotion that you feel when watching the film itself. It’s almost impossible to put into words except — just listen to the music. You’ll hear it, you’ll feel it. This is one of the best scores of this entire decade.
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