Mike’s Top Film Scores of the Decade (20-11)

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:

20. Gravity, Steven Price (2013)

As we get further away from the film, people are gonna be less and less likely to realize what an incredible visual and aural experience Gravity is, and essential to that is Steven Price’s score, which may not seem like the sexiest choice for great film score, but when taken in context, there’s no way this isn’t one of the top 20 pieces of film music for the year. It’s an incredible piece of work, that only adds to the immediacy of the situation presented on screen and the overall sense of tension. It’s just a nonstop piece of adrenaline, and that’s exactly what the film needed to work as well as it does.

19. Sicario, Johann Johannsson (2015)

Well this is a real ‘no shit’ entry. Of course this is one of the best film scores of the decade. We all could, when presented with that ominous series of low notes, immediately recognize it as being from this film and immediately be transported back to one of the sequences from this film. This is another score where, while it’s not the greatest to listen to on its own, it’s an absolutely incredible achievement in terms of what it does when paired with the images on screen that it’s supporting. The pulse-pounding dread of the score, knowing that at any moment, bad shit can happen… it’s just terrific. It’s just unfathomable to me that I could have a list like this and not have this as high as this.

18. The Red Turtle, Laurent Perez Del Mar (2016)

One of the decade’s most beautiful pieces of music from one of its most overlooked masterpieces. The Red Turtle came out really quietly, and while it did get nominated for Best Animated Feature, it was largely overshadowed by other films that came out during its year, like Moana and Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings. But the film is just as good as all of those, and, unlike all of those other films, its score is actually more important to the film than theirs. Because the film is a fable of sorts, about a man shipwrecked on an island. There is no dialogue at all during the entirety of the film. It’s just visuals. And the music is front and center during all of that. And it takes what could either be a potentially boring movie about a guy on an island and a turtle that turns into a woman or a parable about human existence using heavy imagery and metaphor and really turns it into something cosmic and beautiful. The way I always tell people to gauge how they’re gonna feel about the film is to watch the trailer. If the trailer does something for you positively, then the film is for you. And also, if the trailer does do something positive for you, know that a lot of why it does is because the film’s score is prominently featured in the trailer. It’s a stunningly beautiful score. It really is. I don’t know music, but I can feel music sometimes. And you don’t often have music that does legitimately stir real emotions in you unless it’s something you’re really connected to. And this music does stir emotion within me in a big way.

17. Birdman, Antonio Sanchez (2014)

There’s something so frustratingly beautiful and simple about this score. Because it’s basically a jazz drummer doing improvisational jams for an hour and then that becoming a film score. That’s it. That’s all it is. They just improvised music. And yet, somehow that fits what Birdman is perfectly. The tightly controlled, single-take atmosphere of the visuals also somehow perfectly gels with the notion of a musician just riffing to create art. This is another one where its importance to its film outweighs the notion of simply listening to it for the sake of listening to it. What it accomplishes in the moment far outweighs the joys of simply throwing it on as something to take in by itself. If it was just about how much I like listening to the scores, then some of the ones from the previous article would be here and this would be lower. But it’s not about the rankings. It’s just about what I think are the overall best pieces of work. And this is one of those. It’s just a unique way to create a score and remains one of the most memorable and unique pieces of film music out there from this past decade.

16. The Ghost Writer, Alexandre Desplat (2010)

There’s that man again. I think we’ve established by now how much I love Alexandre Desplat and there’s really not much more for me to add on that front. And in terms of this score — like most of his work, you kinda just know immediately. You put it on and within about twenty seconds, you’re in. You know it’s just a great piece of music that you want to listen to. It’s got this unique melody to it and perfectly captures the air of mystery and intrigue of the story. It’s all there. And listening to him add layers to it throughout with the different orchestrations is just stunning. But to me, it all comes back to that initial flute melody. There’s something so unforgettable about that to me. Even ten years later, I could point to this as one of my favorite pieces of score. When presented with the year 2010 in terms of film scores, I know three off the top of my head that I’d tell you. All three are still to come. And how often do you have a situation where one of the first things you think about with a film is its score?

15. Cloud Atlas, Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek & Reinhold Heil (2012)

What a stunning piece of music this is. I have no idea why the film didn’t translate to most people. Okay, well maybe I do. But regardless of whatever people weren’t able to (or willing to) engage with on that side of things, there’s no denying the incredible piece of music that is this score. Each track is just one piece of great music after another. You so rarely get a director involved with the scoring of a picture, let alone a score this great. I just love with this music does and how it makes me feel when I listen to it.

14. First Man, Justin Hurwitz (2018)

Justin Hurwitz has scored four films. All Damien Chazelle films, the first of which was his initial film that was more of a festival deal than a real film that anyone saw. The other three scores are all on this list. That’s how great they all are. This is the most underrated of all three of those, because the other two scores are, in effect, musicals. This one is a straight film score, for a film that people just kind of decided they didn’t want to see. But wow, what a piece of music this is. He eschews the jazzy style of his previous works and instead goes for something much more atmospheric and melodic. The main ‘moon’ motif that runs throughout the score is just incredible. You keep hearing it, almost like a siren’s call to Armstrong, calling him to this place, and as he gets closer, it starts to come back and get louder, crescendoing on the moment when they actually land on the moon and achieve their goal. He also has nice ‘NASA’ theme that runs throughout the score as well, highlighting the more practical, earth-bound parts of the story. And, most importantly — he uses a theremin. How many films, outside of 50s sci-fi, use theremins in their scores? A theremin is a very bold move for a film score, and one that somehow works perfectly here. Especially since the theremin, which usually signals the weird eeriness of ‘space’ somehow becomes the emotional hook of the score, and becomes the emotion that Armstong has been unwilling to show all throughout the time we’ve seen him. I love how Hurwitz takes all these strands of themes and builds them all together to a really stirring emotional climax at the end of the film. I truly cannot say enough great things about this score.

13. Interstellar, Hans Zimmer (2014)

And we remain in space. Hans and Chris Nolan again. That’s three for them so far this decade, I believe. The operatic organ melodies here are just stunning and really create that epic, galactic feel that you want a film like this to have. Somehow it’s capturing both the far, outer reaches of space that would be fantasy for most of us while also keeping you down in the dirt, with that church organ that sounds like it would be in some rural wooden dirty building that you could hear from out in the field. There’s such grand emotion in this film, and Zimmer’s score is so versatile, able to handle both those moments as well as the big, epic thrilling space stuff. I love this score.

12. The Artist, Ludovic Bource (2011)

You had me at ‘silent film score’. I know it’s part gimmick, but it’s also an incredible piece of music. If you’re gonna make a silent film, the music is one of the two most important parts of it in terms of conveying emotion and giving you something to work alongside the images. Feel how you want to about this one, but it is one of the best pieces of film music to come out this decade.

11. Hugo, Howard Shore (2011)

Scorsese doesn’t use film score often. Usually it’s just period songs and one or two pieces of music by Robbie Robertson. But when he has gone to score in recent years, it’s been Howard Shore who’s done the composing. Everyone remembers his Departed tango. This score, though, is on a whole other level from that. This score is absolutely stunning. It captures the sights and smells and beauty of Paris. Just watching his score play over those opening shots as we get into the train station are some of the most beautiful moments of film I saw this entire decade. It’s magical but also is expressive enough to work for the milieu of a film for children. And it’s that expressiveness and creation of wonder and magic with its notes that really help the score when the film gets into what it really wants to be about, which is the magic of cinema and creating movies. And that’s when the score really hits its stride. There are few better pieces of music from this decade than that used for the montage of going through Méliès’ factory and seeing them make all those wonderful pictures. It’s all the wonder of film and music captured into a singular, beautiful moment.

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