Mike’s Top Film Scores of the Decade (10-1)
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:
10. Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood (2017)
This is such a monumental step forward for Jonny Greenwood as a composer. Because this, his scores were good, but they felt more like ambient pieces of music with some great moments than full-fledged film scores. Almost like an extension of what Radiohead does. But this — this is a really expressive piece of classical music with some beautiful passages. It works subtly but tastefully in the film, like a fine wine pairing, underscoring the great acting and human emotion in the film without ever overpowering it unless (or until) it needs to. It’s great how he brings back the main theme in different ways throughout the film, none more memorable or powerful than that third time, when Alma goes back into the forest to pick a mushroom that we know is gonna poison Reynolds. It’s just this overpowering emotional moment, created entirely by the score. And while that is a terrific moment and a great theme, I love the more romantic sections of the score more. There’s something so beautiful about the tenderness of the pieces that focus on Reynolds and Alma and just simply Reynolds and the work. They’re so intertwined, musically and otherwise, it’s just so great to listen to how Greenwood weaves all that together. I couldn’t envision a top ten scores list of mine without this on it.
9. The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat (2017)
Like most Desplat scores, you know within about fifteen seconds that it’s gonna be incredible and that you’re gonna love the entirety of it. This one — I remember seeing the film and those opening credits and hearing that score and knowing, “He’s gonna win an Oscar for this.” You can just hear it as soon as it starts. That beautiful underwater quality of it, with the whistle and flutes. He perfectly captures that feeling of water in the music. And then there’s that accordion, which just highlights the love story aspect of the film. At this point, there’s so little for me to say about Desplat, with all the scores he’s had thus far on the list. If all of those entries haven’t turned you on to the fact that there’s almost no one better out there doing it these days, I’m not sure what will.
8. Jane, Philip Glass (2017)
I always forget about Glass as a composer because it feels like it’s so long between when he takes on film projects. Or, at least, film projects you might see as an average filmgoer. Usually it’s foreign stuff or obscure documentaries. This is a documentary film score, but it’s a very well-seen one, so there’s a good chance people will have heard this score. And, as we know, Glass is an incredible composer. He’s been nominated three times for his scores — for Kundun, for The Hours and for Notes on a Scandal — and this should have been a fourth. It’s just an incredible piece of work. There are only two documentary film scores on this entire list, and it’s because they’re so good that when you watch the documentary, you actually stop and go, “Oh my god, what is this music?” The first is more specific to the subject itself, but here… you almost don’t care what’s being said because the music is so beautiful around it. It’s literally a symphony that just happens to be the score of a documentary. Take this piece of music and just put it on for yourself. You can’t tell me it’s not one of the most pleasing things you’ve heard. I tried picking a great track from this one and eventually settled on, “I’m just gonna put the first one in hopes that it compels you to just listen to the entire score all the way through.”
7. Carol, Carter Burwell (2015)
It’s funny how I spent the whole list talking about how much I love Alexandre Desplat and how underrated Carter Burwell is, and here we are at the top ten and Desplat has only one entry and it ranks less than Burwell, who has two entries higher. If I had to guess, Burwell might be the second most-included composer on this list behind Desplat. He really makes some beautiful music. And it doesn’t get much better than this score, which is just so wonderfully melodramatic in all the right ways. The central theme of the film is just so stunning and has grown so much on me as more time has passed. That’s what I’ve learned about Burwell’s scores. They sit with you well. They seep into your consciousness and then years later, even if you haven’t seen the film in a while, you can put on his score and immediately be transported to a moment or moments from the film and instantly recall the emotions you’d be feeling as if you were watching it right at that moment. I wish I knew more about music so I could try to explain what it is about this score that’s so great, but all I can really tell you is that it’s one of the most romantic pieces of music I heard from this decade.
6. Inside Out, Michael Giacchino (2015)
It took about seven notes for this to instantly become my favorite film score of its year and honestly, the more time has passed, all I need to do is play the first thirty seconds of that opening track and immediately will become happier. That’s what this score does for me. Coincidentally named ‘Bundle of Joy’, that first track truly brings me joy, as does the rest of this score. Giacchino is one of those composers whose name is very much out there. People always rush to call him their favorite composer and talk about how great his scores are. I think because a lot of what he does are the ‘nerd’-centric films, like superhero stuff and big sci-fi and working for those same directors who tend to have those kinds of fan bases. I never really ever gravitated to any of those scores of his at all. Occasionally I’ll hear one and go, “Yeah, that’s kind of nice,” but I can’t think of too many instances (if any) where any of his scores have been in my ten favorite scores of the year, except when he’s doing scores for Pixar. Those are where he shines the brightest. Everyone remembers his Incredibles score, and is there a more immediately memorable and emotional needle drop than his ‘Married Life’ score from Up? To me, his Pixar work is the strongest embodiment of him as a composer. This score makes me so, so emotional. I mean, that ending — the whole melding of Joy and Sadness and when Riley finally breaks down — I truly almost burst into tears just now just thinking about it. Giacchino’s score is so delicate and beautiful in those moments, while also maintaining playful and fun during those other moments that are in the rest of the film. There aren’t many scores I turn to for immediate emotional reaction than this one. That’s about as high a compliment as I can pay any piece of music.
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin & Dan Romer (2012)
I have a regular playlist of songs I keep with me at all times to listen to. It’s like 4,000 songs and I change it every couple of months, taking some thing out, putting other things on. But there are some constant things that always remain. And it’s for daily listening, not for specific instances. When I’m in the car or out and about, that sort of thing. And it’s generally just music. There really aren’t any film scores on it at all. There’s maybe like three or four total pieces of film scores on there, and it’s just individual tracks and nothing else. This score, specifically the track linked to above, is on that playlist. I listen to this score constantly and it’s one of my favorite pieces of music. I listen to it the way I’d listen to something from The Rolling Stones or whomever. It’s just in rotation for me. I know the instrumentation of this song so well just because I’ve heard it so many times. It’s really that beautiful a piece of music. I know at the time, it took me a minute to warm up to the film, and likewise the score. But over the past 8 years since the film has come out, I cannot tell you how much I’ve grown to love this film score. There’s something full of life about it. Something defiant. Something essential. A sense of a people. A community. It’s all there in the music and it really shines through into the film. I’d be lying if I didn’t have this score in my top five for the entire decade. Because it’s one of the ones I listen to the most of anything else and is one of the ones I hold most dearly in my everyday life.
4. Tron: Legacy, Daft Punk (2010)
Daft Punk scoring a film was such a bold (and somehow really obvious) choice at the time. They’re so different from the usual composers and yet fit the idea of a Tron film perfectly. I remember seeing the film for the first time and just being blown away by how amazing the score was. I must have listened to this score about 50 times within the first three years of it being out. It’s one of the ones I would have constantly on repeat for a time. It’s just an incredible piece of music. I put it down for a while just so I didn’t burn myself out with it, but listening to it again for this entry, it reminded me of just how much I love this music and how beautiful every track is. I even went and downloaded an expanded soundtrack for the film, which has like fifteen or so extra tracks that aren’t on the regular soundtrack. Because I just needed more of this. I almost couldn’t even pick a track to link to for this entry because it’s all so good. I tried to go with one that both captures the Daft Punk ‘essence’ while also proving that this is a very good film score in the classical sense. Just because there are moments of DJ’ing and beats and stuff, there’s still actual orchestration here that is quite terrific. Again, another score that I just could not have ranked any lower than this. This is, to me, one of the most important pieces of score I listened to from this decade and something I consider one of my all time favorite scores.
3. La La Land, Justin Hurwitz (2016)
I mean, come on. Was there any doubt that this was gonna be here? Objectively, this has to be included on the list of film scores of the decade. Top ten, no questions asked. Now, in terms of favorite… you can do what you want. But for me, of course this is here. The film La La Land is about as perfectly tailored to me and my film interests as a film can possibly be. I love everything about it (except maybe the insistence on jazz at certain points), and the score is one of the most glorious pieces of music I heard all decade. There’s really nothing more for me to say here. The music speaks for itself, and I love it.
2.True Grit, Carter Burwell (2010)
When I first thought about making this article, I briefly considered what scores were gonna be on it from memory and what was gonna end up near the top. Because it’s one thing to have a giant list of scores you like… but which ones do you like the most? And immediately I came to this one and knew it was gonna be in the top three, if not #1. It’s one of the oldest scores of this list, but remains one of the ones I listen to most often and one of the ones that I truly can listen to at any time. This, to me, more than any other Burwell composition on this list, and anything else he’s ever composed (save maybe Fargo), proves to me that he is perhaps the single most underrated composer out there. I can listen to this entire score from beginning to end twice in a row and not bat an eyelash. It’s just such a perfect entity. I don’t know where anyone else is gonna come out on this one, and frankly I don’t care. I just love it that much and there really isn’t a list of my personal favorite film scores without this one on it. It’s absolutely perfect in every way.
1. If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell (2018)
Sure, I’ve listened to True Grit the most over this past decade, and in a lot of ways that could make it be considered my ‘favorite’ score… but this is the best score from this past decade, and as time goes on, I’m gonna listen to this one a whole lot more. Because it’s the most beautiful piece of music I heard all decade, and when I heard it I knew immediately that it was the best piece of music I’d heard all decade. Nicholas Britell — if you thought his Moonlight score was amazing… holy shit did he outdo himself with this one. Every ounce of emotion of the story of the film and the characters, and of a people as a whole — and love. So, so much love is in those notes. Words fail me in this moment because I’m listening to the film score as I type this. And there are really no words out there for me to fully and adequately explain why this is such a no-brainer choice for the best film score of the decade. It’s all there in the music. That’s all you can ever ask for out of a film score, and if you’re randomly stumbling onto this site by pure chance, know that if you’re going to pull up any piece of film score from this entire decade, or just in general, to listen to — make it this one. This score is love, this score is life. It truly doesn’t get any better than this.
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