The question has no doubt been keeping you up nights since we ran our 25 Best Movie Soundtracks of the Century: when the hell is the Playlist going to do scores? Well, here we are now, so quit your bellyaching. Of course, eagle-eyed observers may smell a rat: why was our Best Soundtracks list only 25 strong while this is one is twice as long? Well, simply put, as much as we appreciate the fine art of curation and understand how much a well-chosen pre-existing track can enhance the experience of a film and open up new avenues of music for us to explore, the even finer art of scoring —that is, creating music specifically tailored to the rhythms and cues of the film in question— is closer to our hearts. Utterly integral to the film experience, yet at the same time completely invisible, often almost subliminal, a given score also should be celebrated for being music that simply would not otherwise exist.
Any scores written for films released since the year 2000 were eligible; we’re very proud of and inspired by our final selections and hope you will be too. Failing that, a quick plea for civility: This is an absolute labor of love and every inclusion is important, so while this list is ranked, let’s not go to war over relative positions, eh?
We freely admit that if the wind were blowing a different way today, or if we’d had something else for breakfast, the order, if not the list itself, might look completely different. We hope you embark on this long journey in the same spirit of discovery and rediscovery that we did, where every second suggestion prompted a chorus of “Oh I love that one!” Here, then, are our 50 favorite movie scores since the year 2000. Enjoy.
50. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
If this had been the first collaboration between David Fincher, Nine Inch Nails frontman Reznor and British composer/engineer Ross, would it have made such an impression? It feels like almost-too-perfect casting for this poisonous tale of rape, murder and torture. But coming after their Oscar-winning success with “The Social Network” instead, their ‘Dragon Tattoo’ work is flattered by contrast, and the grinding blackhearted beast of a score becomes far less on-the-nose than it might at first seem, its atmospheric thrum accented by choral echoes, sharp piano notes and skittering synth-lines. And then, at times, it’s even calm, as though lying in wait.
49. “Tron: Legacy”(2010) – Daft Punk
It’s hard for us to altogether divorce score from movie — you’ll note there are few enough films on here that we don’t like overall. That’s because the score’s primary function is to serve the film, so you could argue, as with Daft Punk’s ‘Tron Legacy’ beats, music that’s distractingly better than the film actually fails as a score altogether. That’s if you weren’t too busy dancing and grinning. The music is so much fun that we can overlook that it’s only in moments, like the bar showdown where the French electro wizards themselves cameo, that you glimpse how slickly irresistible ‘Tron Legacy’ the film, could have been.
48. “Ruby Sparks” (2012) – Nick Urata
A film about a novelist who wills his dream girl into existence, does, admittedly, sound annoyingly twee, but “Ruby Sparks” is actually quite the devastating cautionary tale about control in relationships. Nick Urata of DevotchKa, the band that scored “Little Miss Sunshine” with composer Mychael Danna, delivers a lush, sonorous score that hints at the whimsy and magic of the story, yet manages not to cloy, and bears in mind at all times the deceptive, melancholic wisdom of the apparently fanciful premise. Cooing female voices, balletic violins and orchestral swooshes deliver inspiration, elation and sorrow in equal measure.
47. “Never Let Me Go” (2010) – Rachel Portman
There are many reasons why it’s a shame no one saw Mark Romanek‘s austere, intelligent sci-fi “Never Let Me Go,” but high on the list is that they all therefore slept on Rachel Portman’s best score. A soul-searchingly tender evocation of emotional repression, it’s music that feels almost lonely in its purity, and where Portman can sometimes stray too far into lush over-expressiveness, here the balance between hesitance and deep feeling is perfectly struck. Often using only a forlorn-sounding piano, the score says what the characters cannot, expressing a moving, inchoate longing for a life they are not allowed to have.
46. “Life Of Pi” (2012) – Mychael Danna
Spoiler: this is not Canadian composer Danna’s only entry on this list, though it is the one that won him his Oscar after decades of work, so the Rule of the Oscar Opposites means it should be his weakest. It’s really not. A shimmering tribute to the blue of the ocean and the burstingly vibrant colors of India, his compositions for Ang Lee’s awards-magnet epic find Danna at ease with Indian instrumentation — tablas and sitars — yet also working those traditional notes into a very modern-sounding score, which is by turns soulful and bombastic as the tidal swell of the story demands.
45. “Old Joy” (2006) – Yo La Tengo
The music in Kelly Reichardt’s gentle, fractionally minimalist road movie feels more foregrounded than usual — perhaps because the film stars alt-folk musician Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billy), and moves to a languid, plangent rhythm that feels more like a ballad than a traditional three-act story. The tunes, from muso-favorite band Yo La Tengo, are plaintive and simple but carry the weight of a heavy heart, never distracting from the spartan beauty of the intimate drama, but rather filling out its wordless moments with twanging, sustaining notes that seem to strain outward in the hopes of finding connection.
44. “Take Shelter” (2011) – David Wingo
This eerie, chiming score felt at the time like a fascinating development for Wingo, the singer-songwriter from indie folk group Ola Podrida best known for his plaintive but relatively simple acoustic music for early David Gordon Green films. Full of haunting drones and tintinnabulations, the score builds along with the film: initially, it’s all tinkly bells glistening like raindrops, but as the movie’s psychology turns darker and more fearful, Wingo’s ominous inclinations take over to eventually furious, dissonant effect. Unconventional and yet effective, it’s a fitting accompaniment to film’s storms —literal and figurative— as well as the calm that comes before.
43. “Attack the Block” (2011) – Basement Jaxx and Steven Price
Like many aspects of Joe Cornish‘s “Attack the Block,” the score, from genius electro-pop duo Basement Jaxx (Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe) alongside Steven Price (who’d win an Oscar for “Gravity”), is something of a throwback. Big, chunky beats pummel ominous electronics that recall the atmospheric synths of the great John Carpenter scores, particularly “Assault on Precinct 13.” But this is not pastiche. It’s something new —from the way they weave subtle orchestration, sing-songy rapping and melodic hooks together in the main theme, to the tinkling incidental music before the final showdown that feels like the sound of goosebumps.
42. “Where The Wild Things Are” (2009) – Carter Burwell and Karen O & The Kids
Karen O & The Kids got all the musical ink as an indie rock supergroup composed of members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Raconteurs, Deerhunter and more. But it’s Carter Burwell (longtime composer for the Coen Brothers and another repeat offender on this list) who is the true heart-shaped center of Spike Jonze‘s exquisitely bittersweet adaptation of Maurice Sendak‘s classic children’s book. While The Kids do provide moments of raucous joy (and some engagingly lo-fi childlike melody), it’s Burwell’s don’t-make-me-go-home-again happy/hopeful/grief-stricken score (on which Karen O sings occasionally), that prompts a lump in your throat that just won’t go away.
41. “It Follows” (2015) – Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpeace)
The musical knock-offs of John Carpenter are everywhere these days —he’s presently touring his music. And to be sure, there’s more than a little Carpenter in Rich Vreeland’s eerie piano and shimmering synth score for breakout arthouse horror “It Follows.” But he goes much further than imitation and, coming from the video game world, delivers a score so heavy on suffocating atmosphere that it lathers you in dread immediately. Credit too to director David Robert Mitchell for using the score so daringly and inventively, at times roaring the woozy, pulsating music into a sonic tidal wave of endlessly approaching, inescapable doom.