Mike’s Top Film Scores of the Decade (30-21)

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:

30. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Carter Burwell (2017)

Carter Burwell again. This is a bit of an unassuming score that grew on me at the time (I remember not thinking I was gonna put it in my top ten on that year’s scores list, and the more I listened to everything the higher it rose) and continues to grow on me even now, several years later. The more I revisit it, the more I realize it’s one of the most evocative, perfectly-captured piece of film music from this decade. You hear these notes and you immediately can think back to moments of the film and be reminded of everything you love about it. And I feel like that’s perfectly representative of Burwell as a composer. He never gets his proper due, but you always find yourself going back to his music and letting it bring you back to watching the films for the first time. I said it before on the list — think of his Fargo theme. Is there a more reflective piece of film score from the 90s than that? Just hearing that immediately puts you on that snowy road with the car coming toward you. That’s what this score is for me. You hear those opening notes and you immediately picture Frances McDormand in her overalls, ready to go to war with the police. There’s not as much of score as everything else at this point in the list, but in terms of how effective it is in a broader sense, it absolutely deserves to be here at this point on the list.

29. Thor: Ragnarok, Mark Mothersbaugh (2017)

I think this is Mark Mothersbaugh’s first entry onto this list. People know where he came from as a composer, right? If not — he was one of the members of the band Devo. He got his start composing the scores for 80s comedies and quickly moved into TV, eventually writing the theme song that most of us know really well — Rugrats. That’s right, he wrote the Rugrats theme. Wes Anderson then picked him to score Bottle Rocket, and he ended up doing a lot of the early Anderson films, including The Life Aquatic, which is one of my favorite film scores of all time. He also ended up scoring The Sims 2. But outside of Anderson, he’s been kinda quiet on the film score side, doing mostly comedies and family movies, most of which you wouldn’t necessarily think as being particularly ‘score’ heavy. So it was a bit of a surprise to see him jump into the Marvel game. And yet, when you hear this score… it’s a perfect choice. That Ragnarok suite is incredible. It sounds like the epic movie music of the 80s, and somehow perfectly captures the tone of the film. And then there are these other tracks that sound like they came from 80s video games, with the synthesizer and offbeat melodies. It’s perfectly Mark Mothersbaugh and also perfectly captures the tone of this film, which is its own sidebar of the Marvel Universe that stands out as its own thing.

28. Mary Queen of Scots, Max Richter (2018)

All you need to do is hear that first track of the score to know you’re in great hands. Max Richter is an up and coming composer, but it’s work like this that tells me he’s gonna be around for a long time and continue being one of my favorite composers working. He beautifully captures the upscale elegance of the costume period drama, with soaring themes and beautiful melodies that perfectly underscore the grace of the material. I love how he switches it up between tracks. One track is great on drums, the other uses a chorus, another is string-heavy. But mostly I love when he returns to that ‘Scotland’ theme he sets up at the beginning. That them is absolutely stunning and is worthy alone of a spot on this section of the list.

27. Blade Runner 2049, Hans Zimmer (2017)

I wasn’t sure what I was gonna get with Blade Runner as a film, especially with Zimmer as a composer. But I really didn’t expect his score (and the film, to a different extent) to be as incredible as it is. It’s the perfect complement to the original Blade Runner score without being repetitive. It’s influenced by it, never copies it, but in fact updates it to fit the mood and tone of the current film. It’s more atmospheric and meditative, which is basically what Deckard is now as a human as compared to before. I love how the score slowly builds to that incredible climax during the ‘Sea Wall’ action sequence. That’s the track most people would cite as the main piece from the score that you’d want to listen to, and it’s hard to refute that. But for me, I like the quiet, emotional moments more than I like the big, action-heavy ones. So for me, I like the tracks that come after that one best, ‘All the Best Memories Are Hers’ and ‘Tears in the Rain’. The latter especially captures the synth-y atmosphere of the rest of the score while also crescendoing the emotional arc of the film. But really, all around it’s a beautiful piece of music that is probably better than even I’m giving it credit for, since I bet it really works well as a singular piece in terms of how everything builds and repeats and becomes its own arc to mirror that of the film’s.

26. The Imitation Game, Alexandre Desplat (2014)

It took about three notes for me to fall in love with this score. When those first three piano notes hit and started repeating, I actually looked up and said, “Oh wow.” And then the orchestration comes in alongside it — oh man. The main theme of this score might be my favorite single track of this entire decade. I love it that much. It’s also got some amazing other tracks as well. It’s just a classy, melodic, and in a fitting way mathematic kind of score. It captures everything it needs to for the film and is just an incredible piece of music to listen to on its own. It all goes to show just how incredible Alexandre Desplat is as a composer. He’s been sprinkled throughout the list, but it’s the rest of it that’s gonna show just how much I mean it when I say he’s my favorite working composer. He’s got six scores remaining on this list, three more of which are in this article. But to put a final point on it — this score is really, really incredible, and if it weren’t for how the numbers came out in the one moment where I chose to put this article together, this could have been in the top 20. I wouldn’t focus on the numbers so much as just how much I want you to know that this is one of the best single pieces of film music from this entire decade and is one of the best things you can do yourself the favor of listening to.

25. The Light Between Oceans, Alexandre Desplat (2016)

Desplat #2 in this article. This film got utterly forgotten due to a studio partnership dissolving and the film being swept under the rug. But it’s quite a great film if you go in for that classical melodrama-type feel, and Desplat’s score is just so lush and beautiful. Usually with him, you know by the first track the kind of beauty you’re in for with the music and then it’s all just more greatness on top of that the rest of the way through. It’s just such a big and romantic score. The key to melodrama in a lot of ways is the score. The emotions are big, but the characters aren’t always so. A lot of times, the characters are repressed or holding something in, and the score is usually the thing that expresses everything they’re unable (or unwilling to). So I love how this score jumps out front and center to take the lead here. The score goes so much harder and is so much more melodic and beautiful than it almost needs to be, and I’m really thrilled about that. Just listen to that track I picked. That’s the track that the plot hinges on, the moment where they find the baby washed ashore in the dinghy and decide to adopt it on their own. It’s got a bit of an air of mystery to it, but really what Desplat does with it is just let the emotional subtext of the moment shine through, since that baby represents so much for this couple, who’ve been unable to have children to this point and, in a way, represents the saving of their marriage (even if it’s part of a bigger moral quandary). But honestly, I could have picked like a dozen other tracks from this one. The whole thing is incredible from top to bottom. That’s where we’re at on this list. Every track on every score is just insanely good.

24. The Mountain Between Us, Ramin Djawadi (2017)

One of my favorite things to do on a scores list is include something from a film no one saw or thinks is any good and put it there. Not just to make people have that reaction, but because it shows you that a great piece of music can come from anywhere. And people so often tend to default to the same group of ‘big’ and well known films to pick their best scores. Or they just look at composers and go there. You look at anyone who puts out a top scores list, and it’s always the big films, the composers who come from the alternative indie music world (because apparently it’s really cool to put someone the hipsters like on your scores list) and the same big names you always expect. So I like when I can truly find something I love from a film that I wouldn’t expect. And that’s what we have with this score. Djawadi comes from the TV world, being the guy who composes for Westworld and Game of Thrones, and most of his earlier film work before this isn’t overly memorable at best. Maybe Pacific Rim some people liked, but otherwise, most people wouldn’t think to single any of the work out. This score, though — it’s beautiful. The film was supposed to be this big epic survival romance and then just fell flat and no one saw it. But the score remains one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard from this entire decade. Of course, this is the only score on this entire list that’s not available in full to listen to online (the full score is only available for Premium members), so I’m stuck putting a soundtrack ‘preview’ video up there for you to listen to. It sucks, but do yourselves a favor and listen to the full score if you can. It’s beautiful.

23. Knives Out, Nathan Johnson (2019)

I don’t even think I need to say anything about this one. You heard it in the trailers for the film and you can almost hear it playing in your head right now. The staccato strings and plucky air of fun and mystery that abound in each note. There’s such great stuff here, and it’s a perfect piece of music for a murder mystery. There’s not even much to say about this one. It’s all there. You feel every ounce of the tone of the film in that music, and it’s just wonderful to listen to.

22. Godzilla, Alexandre Desplat (2014)

Desplat again. I think this score is the one, for me, where I realized he could do anything. Because he’s not a classical choice for Godzilla. It’s a big studio action movie. And yet, he does, in his own way, what John Williams does with Star Wars — he makes the music big and breathing. The music is a character in the film and is constant. It’s not underscoring moments. There’s not that ‘scary strings’ moment when the person gets to a blocked-off ledge and the score is like, ‘Oh my god, are they gonna make it???’ Here, the score is just there, and it’s setting the mood for the entire sequence. I remember watching that power plant sequence and thinking, “Oh wow, they’re really going for it with this score.” Because it’s so unlike any other film score of this magnitude. Desplat has the ability to put his stamp on it, and the result is wonderful. I’ll admit, this isn’t a score I listen to a bunch on its own, but in terms of what it means in the context of the film and how wonderfully it fits and elevates the material, it needed to go this high on the list.

21. Little Women, Alexandre Desplat (2019)

And there’s Desplat #4. This is a score — honestly if it weren’t so recent, it probably would be in the top 20 already. I’ve just had more time to sit with everything else that’s been ranked higher than this. But still — this score is just so lovely and incredible, and in my mind was the best piece of film scoring of this past year. Like all his other pieces of work, I knew immediately that I loved it. Whatever his style is, whatever melodies he chooses, it just works for me. It takes me to that magical place where I feel transported to the world of cinema. And you can’t put a price on that feeling. His music takes me to another place, and it’s just so great to listen to. I can listen to this film score for hours, and I already know this is gonna be one of those scores that I put on as I write in the future, because every note of it is just incredible.

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