My 10 Favorite Film Scores of the Last 20 Years

It’s coming up on one of my five favorite nights of the year, Oscar night! I love film almost as much as much as I love music and though my taste can sometimes be suspect (so like...did you guys not enjoy Jupiter Ascending or....?), the beauty of cinema is one of life’s great joys! When done right, you’re experiencing so much more than just a movie; it’s the combination of many art forms, such as writing, music, photography, etc. all complementing each other to create one singular work of art. It’s beautiful.

I’m sure, considering the title of this entry, you have an idea of what I’ll be talking about, and I’m happy to say that your suspicions are correct, though not entirely in the way that you think. Music in film is a complementary piece to a bigger picture. Its purpose is to enhance the emotion that’s being displayed on screen. You have your good scores, which help create atmosphere but ultimately only serve as background noise. Then you have the great scores, which go beyond that, creating a life of their own and becoming just as important and essential to the film as the characters themselves. We have our enduring classics, such as Star Wars, Chinatown, and The Magnificent Seven, as well as future classics, such as Harry Potter, Inception, and Up. You get the idea. All of these great scores have one thing in common: a theme that stays with you, a sound you recognize instantly. But think, do you ever find yourself listening to the rest of the film’s music? Many of these amazing films have just that, a theme that defines them, a couple memorable pieces, and while the rest of the music flows seamlessly with the film, it is still only complementing the bigger picture. What I want to focus on are my favorite film scores based solely on the music itself. Music that, to me, is more than the film it represents. Music that doesn’t need something else to bring it to life but instead IS the life. Music that sweeps me off my feet no matter how many times I listen to it. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of my personal 10 favorite film scores of the last 20 years. I feel that I should preface this list by saying that these scores, in my eyes, are all brilliant, and therefor don’t warrant a negative response from me in any way. There is nothing that I dislike about any of them, therefor, the order of my list is ranked by the weight of their positives. I hope this music brings as much beauty and clarity to your life as it has to mine, time and time again.


 

 10
Armand Amar
Pour Une Femme

 

There is something about the harmonies here: the way the instruments interact and how the music methodically moves along, taking its time yet firm with purpose. The overall feeling is ripe with melancholy, yet despite the sadness, when I put it on I have this overwhelming feeling of comfort. I guess, in a way, it’s less sadness that I hear and more a sense of longing. As the piano controls the melody, keeping everything intact, the string instruments seem to be crying, almost reaching out to the listener. It’s an odd description, I know, and while I think that everyone will draw something different from the music, I feel the longing is universal. You’ll find a heavy influence of John Williams’s Schindler’s List score here, both in style and in mood. The story that this score inhabits is a simple but interesting one. A family, while trying to rebuild after WW2, is interrupted by the father’s brother, who was thought to have died during the war. Hilarity ensues! Just kidding. Drama ensues, and lots of it.

One thing composer Armand Amar does very well is create tension without making you feel tense. That may seem a little backwards, so allow me explain. The scene featuring the track, “La Fuite,” carries some built up friction, and though the song helps you feel the intensity, it’s presented in a way that, musically, maintains composure. It is as if someone was arguing with you, but in a calm voice. While this approach doesn’t always work well for films, as sometimes the music’s intensity is literally what makes the tension (i.e. Inception, or more recently, this year’s Sicario), it works in this film and it definitely works when the music is listened to separate from the film. The score closes with the title track “Pour Une Femme,” sung beautifully by Nuria Rovira Saiat, who Armand has used multiple times throughout his career, and for good reason. Serenity is theme here, and it’s a theme I’ll never outgrow.


9
Rachel Portman
Never Let Me Go

Delicate may be the best way to describe this quietly moving score. Even though it’s at the backend of my list it was one of the first scores I thought of when I decided to create this ranking. Rachel Portman has remained fairly under the radar, despite being one of the industries most consistently employed composers over the last 30 years. She’s been nominated for three Academy Awards, her first of which resulted in a win for 1997’s Emma. Her other two nominations were actually better scores than Emma, but were lost in the shuffle of an excellent collection of nominees. Her score for 2000’s The Cider House Rules was bested by John Corigliano’s The Red Violin, which I’ll admit is beautiful. Though, I thought the award should have gone to Thomas Newman’s American Beauty or Gabriel Yared’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. She lost again the following year with 2001’s Chocolat, which fell to Dan Tun’s incredible score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: a well deserved victory. Other nominees that year were John Williams’s The Patriot, Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator, and Ennio Morricone’s Malèna. Now THAT is a tough field.

In Portman’s extensive body of work, nothing was more impactful to me than the score for Never Let Me Go. The film itself has a constant heir of innocent curiosity and you can definitely feel it in the music, which is one of the main reasons it’s such a beautiful listen. But despite the beauty, the sound is also inhabited by an underlying darkness, creating a moody atmosphere. The score reflects this subtlety wonderfully, taking on an entirely different life outside of the context of the film (as all of these scores on my list will). The music removes me from my surroundings, placing me into a different world yet that darkness is always present, lurking but never stepping into the light. Imagine exploring an old mansion, grandiose and beautifully crafted. You’re filled with wonder and excitement as you investigate its secrets and though you don’t feel any immediate danger, you can’t help but shake the feeling that you’re not alone. This scenario may sound a bit eerie, but I think there is a sort of serenity in exploring the unknown. That element of wonder combined with the uneasiness only adds to the score, giving it a much different presence than a conventionally beautiful score might give.


8
Tom Twyker, Johnny Kilmeck, & Reinhold Heil
Cloud Atlas

Easily the most diverse score on my list in terms of tempo and mood. When looking for something to put on, I tend to avoid listening to a film’s music if the film has a decent amount of action scenes. The music is often very up and down, jumping between loud and soft with little notice, making for a disruptive listen. But I’d have to say the biggest reason I don’t listen to the scores from action movies is because the music during action scenes is rarely beautiful. It’s loud, energetic, and fast pacing are great for the film. But to listen to separately? Not my cup of tea. One thing I love in movies is an approach used in this film: when an action scene has an elegant piece to accompany it. It adds a serenity to the chaos. Despite the constant mood changes in the film, this score does carry an outstanding flow. While yes, it jumps around, the cuts are never abrupt, easing you in and out. I’m all about continuity and transitions that make sense and Cloud Atlas has that down.

Before I forget to include it I should note that Tom Twyker, the lead composer for the film, also co-directed with the Wachowski siblings. This is a technique that I wish more directors were open to. When the music and film flow as one it creates a much more fulfilling experience and when scenes are created
with the music it becomes less of a complementary thing and more of two art forms interacting with one another with  gorgeous fluidity. The music here is equal parts rousing, inspiring, intimate, and all-consuming. With the exception of maybe the score for the film Atonement, I don’t think there is a better run of closing tracks. The last four, starting with “Death Is Only A Door” to the end of the album is absolute perfection as it finishes us off with the wondrous and magical eight minute “Cloud Atlas End Title.” I remember sitting in the theater and as this played I couldn’t move, all I could do was sit and appreciate, paralyzed at first by it’s simplistic rendition of the title theme then floored as it slowly built into this awe-inspiring burst of beauty. A wonderful experience that I rarely get.


7
Bruno Coulais
The Chorus

This is the only score on my list that includes vocals. I’m not sure why I chose to start with that, but now you know. Orchestrated by French composer Bruno Coulais, who also did the wonderful and whimsical score for Coraline ( which narrowly missed my list), it is a masterwork. Though the score is not necessarily simple, there is a simplicity to it, adding to the appeal. This score also differs from others on the list because it often acts as the focal point within the film rather than a complementary piece. I realize that because my post is based on the film’s music when used apart from the film, I don’t need to include information about the film itself, BUT I felt this seemed appropriate. It won’t take long, I promise. In fact, I’ll just use IMDB’s quick synopsis,

“The new teacher at a severely administered boys' boarding school works to positively affect the students' lives through music.”

…and how he does that is by creating a boy’s choir. Much like the music itself, the film is simple and easy to enjoy. See how fast and painless that was? Let’s get back to the score. While the music here could easily stand on it’s own, it really is the choir’s songs that take it to the next level. Beautifully imagined, it’s simply some of the best choir work I’ve ever heard. The layers, harmonies, and soaring solos that were sung by the lead actor himself, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, are enough to hold your ears captive for quite some time. One of the things I enjoyed quite a bit were the instrumental versions of the choir’s themes, which Bruno would tweak slightly each time to complement the different moods. This action removes repetition while also maintaining a nice, familiar flow. Though most film scores do that, it’s rarely to this effect. Lastly, and this is a compliment to not only this music but to Bruno’s music overall, he has a way of painting such a vivid picture with his sounds, making the different instruments dance around each other. It’s playful, yet still can sweep you away. Not an easy combination to perfect. Bon!


6
Jóhann Jóhannsson
The Theory Of Everything

The most recent entry on my list in terms of release date might also be the most consistently beautiful. Jóhannsson showed his versatility by following this film up with his dark, brooding, and powerfully atmospheric score for Sicario (which I’m upset wasn’t recognized in any major or technical fields this oscar season!). From the simplistic, piano led “A Game of Croquet” to the sweeping strings on “The Wedding,” every track is something that moves. Even when the mood dips to something sadder, it never comes across as sinister or sharp, which can often hurt a score’s fluidity outside of the film. While scores are never meant to be judged the way that I’m judging them, inconsistency in moods is one thing that turns me off of scores. Above, I mentioned the consistency of the album, which is something that even in the best scores you often never get. Even my favorite score has a few abrupt deviations in mood that disrupt the flow. Here, the score somehow manages to play as one piece of music.

While there are changes in mood, which can’t be avoided, the score slowly leads you in and out of them. The tracks here are all shorter. Of the 27, there are only four that go more than two and a half minutes, so the album breezes by. My only issue is that I want more, which I guess is an ok issue to have. Certain themes that I absolutely loved sometimes ran less than a minute (ex. “The Voice Box”), and you can hear all the different ways the song could be taken and formed into something more. I would love to hear many of these sounds expanded into longer versions to let us hear where the artist maybe wanted to take it. The only thing that’s lacking here, and why it isn’t ranked higher, is that it doesn’t have any tracks that blow you away. While there is consistency, its beauty remains simple, and while that makes it perfect to write to or work to, it doesn’t sweep you off your feet. Though I will say, “Forces of Attraction” and even more so “The Wedding” come extremely close.


5
Thomas Newman
Meet Joe Black

This was the first time I truly noticed the beauty that music can add to film. Accompanying one of my favorite films of all time, the score’s atmosphere and emotion swept me away. Running an intimidating three hours long, you’d be surprised at how serene the experience really is. The score was composed by probably...no, definitely, the most famous composer on my list, Thomas Newman. His style is easily identifiable, most notably from his distinctive use of tuned percussions. While I sometimes check on my favorite composers to see what films they’ve been involved in, for whatever reason I rarely look up who’s doing the music before I enter the theater. But without fail, I’m able to pick out Newman almost instantly (“Good ear Spense!” is something Alice Eve will say when we start dating). Out of what continues to be a never ending list of incredible scores by Newman (13 Oscar nominations), this one has always been my favorite.

Very few composers know how to induce the sort of joyous mysticism like Newman, and because this film’s subject matter calls for it, he’s able to let loose. The best part about his style is that he can just as easily soothe your soul as he can sweep you away. His ability to control your emotions with such a stranglehold is obviously what has led to a long, fruitful career and it seems that he’s getting better with age, as all of his 13 nominations have come since 1995 (his first was The Shawshank Redemption and his most recent is this year’s nomination for Bridge of Spies). On the direction of Theory of Everything I mentioned that the one thing it was lacking was those magnificent, all consuming tracks. Well, here is the best example of that as the track, “That Next Place” is the definition of sweeping. With its beautiful and subtle build, the strings linger and sway, leading you into that big, gorgeous burst of light before making its way back into intimacy and finishing with a smaller and fitting climax. It is the feeling of grandiose love, and it can’t be denied. Closing the soundtrack with Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s “Over The Rainbow/ What A Wonderful World” couldn’t have been a better choice. Its calming presence is the perfect counterpart to the big, sweeping finish we were given during “That Next Place.”


4
Dario Marianelli
Atonement

Earlier I mentioned the extreme benefit of having music that interacts with the film it’s accompanying, and I’d have to say that it’s never done better than when director Joe Wright teams up with composer Dario Marianelli. Their initial connection was on 2005’s Pride & Prejudice (which I’ll talk about later on this list!) and as of today they’ve worked on a total of four films together. While I think 2012’s Anna Karenina might be the duo’s crowning achievement in terms of fusing music to film, Atonement, which won the Oscar, is a close second and is the score that I prefer. Earlier (one sentence ago), I used the term fusing as a means of connecting music and film, and while that could be taken simply as the music fitting the film, I meant it in a different way. What makes Joe and Dario’s approach so unique is that they incorporate the film’s sounds into the music itself, using them like another instrument. You get a taste of this in the opening track, “Briony.” It opens with someone on a typewriter as the music slowly fades in behind it until the typing begins to form a pattern which matches the music. During “Elegy For Dunkirk,” the composer works in the sounds from the scene during a long tracking shot, including a men’s chorus, which flows seamlessly in and out of the theme. It's one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen. What they've created is more than a complementary piece, the film and the music have become welded into one.

This approach of having the film directly interact with its music heightens the score’s impact on the film, in my eyes, immeasurably. While the composer also did it to a much smaller extent in Pride & Prejudice by having characters hum along to the tune of the score in passing, he did it in a bigger way with Anna Karenina, going as far as doing a variation of breaking that fourth wall by having the characters move in unison, almost in dance-like motions, reacting to the music. It flowed seamlessly and added an element to the film that I’d never thought of and am eternally grateful for. I understand that my love of music may add to my appreciation of this and it may not have quite the same effect on you, but even solely from an artistic standpoint, it is impressive to say the least. While my love of this score is heightened by the film’s beauty (it’s inescapable!) the music can easily stand alone. Though the majority of the score is calm and melancholy, during the few scenes where the intensity increases, the music stays beautiful (i.e.. “The Half Killed”). His variations in the approach during those intense moments gives the satisfaction of not being too repetitive (my one issue with The Theory of Everything) but still keeping a consistency. Ending it with Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s perfect rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” is a beautiful touch.


3
Yann Tiersen
Ameile

This is the most important score on my list from a personal standpoint. It not only acted as the gateway to my love and obsession of classical music but also to foreign cinema: two things which I’m happy to say take up a big part of my life. Oddly enough, I don’t remember noticing the music when I first viewed the film. It could have been for any number of reasons, the most logical being that my 12 year old self didn’t have an ear for this type of music, as my tastes were still developing and my appreciation of instrumental (especially classical) music was in the earliest of early stages. It wasn’t until a few years later that a friend of mine recommended the soundtrack to me, telling me it was something he thought I might appreciate (Preston Hoppers, if you’re reading this, thank you). Obviously he was right. It was so different from anything and everything I had heard up to that point in my life. Layered, lively, beautiful, complex, intimate, there is no end to it’s genius. The depth of these traits can be found in its two most popular tracks, the gorgeous "Comptine d'un autre été, L'Après-Midi" and the wondrously whimsical "La noyée,” which play back to back and contrast each other perfectly. Now, when I watch the film I’m amazed that I didn’t recognize its contribution in full. My ignorance might have had to do with my focus being on reading the subtitles, so it wasn’t until after numerous viewings that I truly appreciated it’s masterful complementary work, which I’m sure played a large part in making the film one of the most popular foreign films of my generation.

Yann Tiersen is quite active outside of the music in film world, tackling many different genres and styles ranging from the dark and moody Yann Tiersen & Shannon Wright album to the experimental ∞ (infinity). Even accounting for those departures, his sound is still very much rooted in his unique French style. He’s never made an album not worth listening to, in my eyes, though my favorite solo work of his has to be his 2012 double album of Cascade Streets // Waltz of the Monsters. Also, for a great representation of his older works, listen to his 2002 live album, C'était ici, which includes quite a few works from this film’s score as well. Gorgeous stuff from a brilliant musician.


2
Abel Korzeniowski
W.E. // Romeo & Juliet

First off, I know. A double listing is such a copout. Allow me to explain. The scores resonate a strikingly similar feel and are composed by the same artist, therefor I deemed it necessary that they both be recognized, albeit as one. They are equally brilliant and I couldn’t bring myself to give one top billing and simply mention the other. Once you listen you’ll understand. While you might be more familiar with Abel from his magnificent work on A Single Man (which was not even nominated for an Academy Award; it seriously keeps me up at night), these two scores are what have taken me hostage. I’ll start with W.E., which is painfully beautiful throughout. It is the definition of lush. This is also the one instance on my list in which the greatness of the music is in no way matched by the film itself, making this the ideal example in the separation of a film and its music. Not many people saw it, and rightfully so; it isn’t good cinema, but to take the music in as its own entity creates an entirely different experience. When you remove the film from the equation, you are given a clean slate: an empty canvas to paint a new picture, a new story. The music is free to inhabit your existence, weaving its way around your experiences and slowly becoming a part of your life rather than the lives of others it was created to serve. This goes to show the importance of making a well-rounded product; even what I consider to be my second favorite score of all time couldn’t save the film it accompanied. 

I often wonder what this score could have been, had it been composed for a film that matched its brilliance rather than one that was written and directed by Madonna. Yes, you read that right. We were actually given a brief glimpse at what it could be like from the 2013 Romeo & Juliet remake. While the film wasn’t great, it was decent, and that’s more than I can say about W.E. The music in Romeo & Juliet, while carrying the same depth, is a different approach but through a similar sound. It’s odd actually, as I could describe it using the same vocabulary, yet there is something quite unique about both. As always, Korzeniowski leads with a heavy presence from the strings while piano, often times, will control the tempo. Back in 2013 he was asked what his favorite instrument was, to which he responded, “It’s the symphonic orchestra”. I found this to be an excellent response, as it describes his style perfectly. He is one of the best I’ve ever heard when it comes to utilizing and incorporating each member and you have no problem noticing as proven by the fullness of his sound. The music constantly envelopes you and brings an emotional intensity to the table in the most passionate way. This music is heaven. Let it wash over you.


1
Dario Marianelli
(accompanied by Jean-Yves Thibaudet)
Pride & Prejudice

Simply put, this is the sound of love. Simple, beautiful, elegant, passionate. I’ve long since gotten over the fact that the scores I adore rarely win the Academy Award, due to the fact that I usually grade the music separately from the film, but I’m still upset about this year. Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for Brokeback Mountain was the one that took home the prize, and not only was his score the worst of the five nominees, it wasn’t even in the 10 best that year! Obviously this is my personal opinion and some may disagree, but that score was the definition of background noise to me. Honestly, I have so many issues with the 2005 Oscars, and it’s all rushing back to me and I’ve made myself upset. Even if P&P didn’t win, John Williams produced two beautiful scores, much more deserving of top honors. And though I didn’t intend on making this a personal vendetta against sweet Gustavo, he also won the following year for his work on Babel, which crushed me. Not only was it once again the weakest of the nominees, but it beat Javier Navarette’s phenomenal score for Pan’s Labyrinth, another one of my all time favorites (and one that narrowly missed this list).

While I did say that I was judging the music by itself and not by its impact on the film it accompanies, I do feel the need to mention that this film is probably the most satisfying cinematic experience in terms of pure serenity. The film’s score is matched in full by Roman Osin’s perfect capturing of the English countryside as well as the rest of the film’s locations. Truly a marvel. But when all is said and done, it’s the music that stands tallest. Relying heavily on the magic of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, its ability to understand and convey the delicate subtleties of the emotions present in each scene is spectacular. Most notably, his nuanced display of the complexities of love; from the tension to the confusion to the longing, the list goes on and on. Combine that with the overwhelming power of passion and the sweeping beauty that the theme resides in, and you are left with something that will always be with you. It’s this music that allows me to imagine, to dream deeply and explore. It’s moving and inspiring, sparking both confidence and creativity. Then again, that’s what the best music does. We’re given a canvas and set free to paint whatever we desire. And this music paints a picture of the world that I want to live in.