This is it, boys. The big time. From here on forth, we will only be doing ranked lists. Which isn’t to say that the rankings won’t be kind of arbitrary, but it does give a sense that we’re coming down to the final stretch of it all before the Big 150 list, don’t it? Anyway…
Almost as much as I am a movie-oriented fella, I also happen to be a music-oriented fella. I play musical instruments, I just as often have something on to fill the air as I comfortably sit in silence to think, and honestly I almost always have a song playing in my head. So it’s a tiny frustration to me that I sometimes can’t help paying attention to the music playing in a movie above most other elements but I can’t help that sometimes when the music in a movie is on… it is on. And we know that even in the days of silent cinema, filmmakers knew and appreciated the effect of a really good music cue to shape the tone and atmosphere – whether playing it on set or having it arranged for the theatrical audience, it was present even if we weren’t the ones hearing it (Big shoutout to Kino Video for constantly providing accompaniment music to their silent films that make me prefer muting the tv).
So, music is an essential element of the cinematic experience just like everything else and much like any other decade… there are scores that I had deeply burned into my soul, some even deeper than the movies attached. They transform, they elevate, they transport, and so much more. They’re not necessarily bangers (though some are), but the marriage of image and music was so effective that I close my eyes playing certain cues and recall the scene in question. Without further ado…
THE BEST MOVIE SCORES OF THE 2010s
(And a quick note that – following the Indiewire list that kind of influenced my desire to make this list and thereby my desire to make this whole list series when I decided not to limit it to Scores, Scenes, Performances, and Movies – I decided to limit it to one score per composer with only one clear exception and one cheat because the person in question co-composed. More variety, you see).
20. Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, & Reinhold Heil – Cloud Atlas (2012)
I mean, the book and movie are literally named after a piece of music that affects certain characters in an inspired way. So at the very least, that piece of music would have to be the most moving possible thing for its appearance to be as emotionally pulling to the viewer and I expect Tykwer’s background as musician allows him to be actively involved in the creation of the piece from the dual perspective of composer and co-director (I’m also pretty sure his segments – and not the Wachowskis’ – are the only ones that it shows up in). Anyway, the Sextet piece alone may be one of the major reasons that Cloud Atlas made it on this list, but it is absolutely not the only one: its wonderful weepiness is part of what makes the film such a irresistible journey between space and time, refusing to give any grounding for the constantly shifting narratives and instead acting like a passenger on the same ride as us.
19. Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Yet another score co-composed by the director of the movie in question. And also another score that is sweeping but in an entirely different way: it has classical principles but the manner in which it approaches them feel more appropriate to the rustic nature of the Louisiana setting (especially the horns busting in over the strings). And since the endgame is to sit us in the sense of fantastical awe that our young hero Hushpuppy is facing such grim situations with, I’d say it is a phenomenal success on that front.
18. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Wind River (2017)
It’s just a matter of fact that all of Cave’s work as a musician in the past five years has been harshly informed by the grief of his young son’s death and I wonder if he found himself relating to the character of Martin in this film, despite the difference in race and gender. Cave and Ellis not only found a way to carve complete desolation and emptiness out of simple tones and mostly non-verbal vocalizations that translate to a universal starkness, but they made it feel camouflaged within the shape of wind whistles and gusts so that it lays into the soundtrack and creeps up on our spine at the moments where we have to most recognize the harsh experiences portrayed in the cold winter snow. Listening to the score by itself doesn’t do the film justice, you have to hear it wander ghostly within the Wind River‘s sound mix.
17. Rob – Maniac (2012)
I think there’s just something about synthesizer’s artificial sound that makes them perfect for otherworldliness. You’d think that this score was made solely for sheer 80s homage, but I think it’s more than that… the score never feels pleasant in and of itself and sounds like a curdling of the sort of romance that the titular killer maniac would conjure in his head for justification of what he’s doing. Except y’know, it’s not coming from an orchestra, it’s coming from an inhuman robot instrument. It basically sounds to me like what Carpenter Brut would be if it wasn’t also trying to be really cool dance music (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Rob and Carpenter Brut knew each other since they’re both in the same dark French synthwave scene).
16. Daniel Hart – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)
It’s basically sounding like a patchwork to me. One noise is happening and then Hart overlays it with another noise and then another one to make something like an emotional tapestry for certain moments (this is something he would also bring to great effect in another David Lowery film, A Ghost Story). And that it can just allow that collection of sounds to linger together long enough to make its mark once all the pieces are brought together is an impressive bit of sonic control.
15. Atticus Ross – Love & Mercy (2014)
We know the Beach Boys like the back of our hands for the most part. Ross counts on that and rewards us by conjuring up a fragmentary mash-up of samples and pieces of songs that we’ve never got a chance to hear but can recognize within the famous Beach Boys sound to become something else entirely. Something disorienting and wondrous, putting us in the distressed state of Brian Wilson while allowing us to hear something great just at the edge of these sounds if we could only grasp it and pin it down to a song. More than anything else in Love & Mercy, Ross’ score helps us understand just how an artist could go deep into their mind to snatch a stroke of genius but lose the trail back.
14. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Social Network (2010)
Pretty sure this blog isn’t popular enough to receive the torches and pitchforks I think one would expect if they made a list of the best scores of the past ten years and didn’t acknowledge The Social Network. But y’know what, I don’t need to worry about that (maybe I would need to worry about putting it outside of the top ten, though) because here I am acknowledging how Reznor and Ross use their very distinctive industrial sound skills to put together something no less jittery and OCD-sounding as the movie’s version of Mark Zuckerberg, trying to solve life like the calculation it isn’t and keeping numbers juggling in his head.
13. Dario Marianelli – Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Does it sometimes dip its hand in orientalism? Yes, but also it’s a movie that literally has an instrument in its title and so the saving grace about Marianelli’s score as an essential part of Kubo and the Two Strings is the way that it is driven by not just music’s place in culture (whether Eastern or Western) but also its unspoken ability at storytelling. Just as important to not blink while Kubo is telling the story is to not cover your ears or you will skip an emotional beat.
12. M83 – Knife+Heart (2018)
Pretty much the same thing as Maniac, except a lot more polished in a way that makes sense for the doomed tragedy of Knife+Heart‘s romantic side. It transforms slasher vibes into opera and thankfully not in a completely clean transition, all the better to allow ourselves to still feel uncomfortable within the abstract sound of a heart breaking and bleeding at the same time.
11. Mychael & Jeff Danna – The Good Dinosaur (2015)
I don’t even like The Good Dinosaur THAT much, but there is so much going right within the film that I can’t help being a full-throated apologist for it. And one such thing going very right is the Danna brothers’ music film: taking the easy (but unmistakably successful) way to deliver a constantly shifting sense of ambling wonder and anxious trepidation towards Arlo’s world. And that it does so with fun little Western-style motifs like banjos and such is a cherry on top for me. It is exactly the kind of music that would play in my head as a child while I look up at the stars, even if I never got to hear it until I was 23.
10. Ruben Feffer & Gustavo Kurlat – Boy and the World (2013)
Indulges in the same happy primitivism as the film it scores – complete with occasional DIY instrumentation – but it also uses those limited resources to deliver something bigger and kaleidoscopic than you’d expect the sum of its parts to be. And I’m sure by this point, it’s obnoxious how many of these entries are coming from movies where music plays an essential part of the narrative, but that we’re meant to match up with what the titular boy is trying to recognize within the sounds of the Earth before him and are returned with such playful tunes is a glorious joy in and of itself.
9. Disasterpeace – It Follows (2014)
A score it took me way too long to warm up to, but as you can see… I did in fact warm up to it nicely. And sure, at the end of the day, it’s just a glorified tribute to that mackdaddy of horror movie synths John Carpenter. But for a movie that’s essentially about the loss of youth and the dangers of nostalgia, I honestly think Disasterpeace’s score for the film is the only part of it that holds up as thematically effective. Plus, doesn’t it make sense for a movie about being followed by something have that rhythmic drone to keep you looking back over your shoulders.
8. Mica Levi – Under the Skin (2013)
Mica Levi is the single biggest reason that I had to put my foot down on that “one score per composer” rule, even despite the fact that they have not done THAT many scores this past decade. In any case, the score to introduce me to their genius remains the best of their film work in my eyes: an extremely alien soundscape for an extremely alien picture about an extreme alien responding to an extremely alien environment. Just as responsible for turning the film into a tone poem as anything else, there’s a complete allergy to putting together a tune or something recognizable as music-qua-music even by avant-garde standards. But there IS progression and there IS a sharp focus and it is what maintains this score as a guide to whatever is putting the character in the probing state or in the defensive state within the accumulation of noises.
7. Alexandre Desplat – The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
It’s basically like a cartoon of European concepts – that Viennese string work, the French piano progressions, the Romani swing of the drums – all mangled to something toy-like in its presentation. And somehow it fits in right well to Anderson’s precise style, following along with the lateral walks of its character with a bounciness yet adapting very well to the Zweigian elements of the tale in its own way (the choir voices particularly give the sense of something that would be mournful if it wasn’t for the continued tempo). The perfectly zany accompaniment to a desperately cheerful presentation of a world long gone.
6. The Chemical Brothers – Hanna (2011)
I mean, this is a movie that was advertising “MUSIC BY THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS” in its own title card and y’know what? I totally get it. The music is perhaps the most irreplaceable part of Joe Wright’s action thriller – maybe the single biggest reason it’s the only movie of his that I actively like – and it guides us in a poppy way through the cool (in both senses of the world) life of that otherwise distant badass that Saoirse Ronan plays in the film. Probably the score that I’m most likely to put on just because I wanted to listen to it.
5. Hans Zimmer – Rango (2011)
I am a snotty little prick who has almost no use for Hans Zimmer as a composer, but y’know what, he does have his occasional moments when he’s on. And when he’s on, he’s on fucking fire. And I guess something in Rango‘s cod-genre stylings meant that he found license to just indulge in any possible genre of music (and any genre of movie music) leading to the most amusing variety in styles that he could just throw in off the top of his head. And clearly when he couldn’t create it wholesale, he’d just happily steal it! (not for nothing did I elect to include the music cue that includes not ONE but two pieces of famous classical music making an appearance) It’s just part of the eagerness to just make you entertained by any means as the rest of Rango lives by and I’m not going to possibly complain if that means busting out the surf rock.
4. Cliff Martinez – The Neon Demon (2016)
Yep, these sorts of wobbling glittering electric tones are exactly what I would expect to heart on the catwalk to Hell. Martinez has already proven to be an excellent collaborator to Nicholas Winding Refn when it comes to different sides of Los Angeles, but Drive‘s music still had a sense of warmth to it that The Neon Demon has absolutely no time for and is all the better for it. For a movie trying to go between shallow beauty and encroaching threat, it’s the perfect accompaniment.
3. Alexandre Desplat – Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Ah now, we see the composer who made it in twice and confessedly I don’t feel so bad when Moonrise Kingdom is basically one giant piece of music in several variations. And a tough call it was to decide if I prefer the completeness of The Grand Budapest Hotel musical opus or the singularity of “The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe”. I think I went with this at the higher place for the fact that it is maybe one of my favorite pieces of movie music ever made with a patient sense of progression and eagerness for you to recognize each little note popping in to say hi while knowing it’s building to something cosmic and large and letting you brace for it when it’s time. It’s the sound of opening rain drops in my head before a storm writ playfully, a musical reminder of the climactic hurricane to come, modulating well enough to ease us in and out while introducing a brand new arrangement with each appearance. And at the end of the day, it’s basically just a Benjamin Britten homage meant to be appealing to children so the fact that the very last few minutes of the music (and credits itself) lean into it just keep me from taking it too seriously after being swept up.
2. Daft Punk – TRON: Legacy (2010)
“The Grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture, clusters of information, as they move through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles? Were the circuits freeways? I kept dreaming of a world, I thought I’d never see…” I think in those opening lines, I recognize what Daft Punk was trying to do with TRON: Legacy. They tried to apply the same principles of their electronic beats whenever they called for an orchestra and then apply the classical principles to their electronic elements like a topsy-turvy translation between the digital and the organic in music form. The attempts at flowing sweeps with Daft Punk’s sampling like when a movie score is journeying with its protagonist and the repetitions of patterns within the orchestra to simulate underlying beats brings a dynamic unlike anything I’ve ever heard prior in movie music. It’s a one-time thing, you can’t simulate that sense of surprise, but boy did it wallop when I first saw TRON: Legacy.
Anyway TRON: Legacy works as a glorified music video to Daft Punk more than anything else, including movie, so I just have to big it up to the most unforgettable part of one of my favorite movie theater experiences of the decade.
Jóhann Jóhannsson – Mandy (2018)
I think in the Mandy review, I claimed that Jóhannsson’s penultimate score was the closest I’ll get to hearing a Buckethead feature score and now I feel like that’s just ridiculously reductive. Mandy‘s score is a beast of its own kind but absolutely everything I could possibly want from music, attached to a movie or otherwise. It’s between heart-hooking soft motifs and physically crushing dark tones, amped up to a degree that make you feel pushed deeper and deeper into the Earth by the heft of it all. It’s obviously recognizable at progressive metal (it would have to be since the protagonist and the namesake are both prog and metalheads), but it’s also doesn’t have the luxury of metal musical phrasing… it picks one note, the thickest and heaviest it can and buries you beneath it for the length of a scene. Or – in the moments of soft emotion – it picks an arpeggio chord and lets that comfort and embrace you before slamming right back into the violence of its sound. It speaks to me on a deep emotional level that few music does, but it’s so primal and bold enough that anybody can get hit by the full blast of overtly tragic emotions. It’s a very affective score. One of Jóhannsson’s last acts here was to dissect the brutal core of another musical genre and strip it down to a basic cosmic emotional tapestry. It may be the case that Jóhannsson could only do so for metal because he was certainly a metalhead, but I trust that he showed an intelligence in this score that I think could be applied to anything else. Just as much as Mandy‘s score has me walking away affected by it, it has me walking away thinking about how all sorts of music could be expanded in such a way.
And this is just the music… wait until I talk about the rest of the movie…