10. “The Social Network” (2010) – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Initially Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and his collaborator Atticus Ross seemed an odd fit for David Fincher’s nightmarish examination of rich, entitled and tragically successful youth. But they came good, to Oscar-winning effect, with this surprising, scintillating score, borrowing from NIN’s own experimental Ghosts albums to create a perfectly alien and alienated soundscape. Portions of “The Social Network” where Fincher’s camera lingers over the dark, cavernous Harvard campus play like science fiction (and indeed it’s so rarefied an atmosphere it might as well be another planet) as if there weren’t a crueler, more dangerous place for a bright, directionless young person to be in. Unless, of course, you want to create a real-life supervillain.
9. “The Dark Knight” (2008) – Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
While the world both mourned and celebrated Heath Ledger‘s gleefully vicious turn as the Joker in Christopher Nolan‘s bleak middle Batman film, “Tche Dark Knight” also derived a considerable portion of its power to frighten from the score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Surprisingly adventurous for a summer tentpole, and cementing the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy as the thinking person’s superhero franchise, it embraces white noise and avant-garde, unidentifiable percussion alongside standard classical tropes, deep bass rumbles, and rock ‘n roll strings to create a soundscape that perfectly reflects a world devolving into anarchy onscreen.
8. “Birth” (2004) – Alexandre Desplat
Jonathan Glazer‘s meditation on grief and loss announced the true arrival of Alexandre Desplat, though he’d been working since the ’80s. A musical imagination of extraordinary emotion and inventiveness, and probably the most influential and in-demand composer currently at work, this was his first score for an American production, and despite all the hits that have come since (“A Prophet” “Ghost Writer” and his Oscar-winning “Grand Budapest Hotel” score come to mind) it remains far and away our favorite. Elegantly designed waltzes, finely crafted mood themes, and traditional classical pieces provide an additional layer to Glazer’s infinitesimally detailed and precise tale, with moving, restless loops signifying the births, deaths and rebirths that can happen in the space of time it takes a tear to fall.
7. “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” (2004) – Jon Brion
Jon Brion’s beautifully crestfallen collection of 17 pieces of music (clocking in collectively at a little under 30 minutes) for Michel Gondry‘s wondrous psycho-surreal odyssey, manages to convey the same universal sense of nostalgia as a childhood photo album, yet it feels utterly personal and intimate too. Scratchy and bleached-out like an old polaroid, the sweet, forgotten, lost-sounding notes land like arrows in your heart — like you’re being told something you always knew but forgot, somewhere along the way. Mixing old and new, confusion and earnestness (like when two guitars play quietly through a gramophone while a sorrowful string section sways beneath them) there’s an existential wisdom in this music that feels like a balm to soothe the beautiful, whimsical tragedy of the story.
6. “Upstream Color” (2013) – Shane Carruth
It’s frankly a little insolent of Shane Carruth to write one of our favorite scores of the century almost as a side order to his main gig(s) as the film’s writer-director-editor-producer and star. But we’re very glad he did, because we get one of the purest and most beguilingly hypnotic electronic, ambient mood-scores we’ve ever heard. Seemingly nodding to the lucid dream sonic aesthetic of Aphex Twin, it’s an unforgettably profound experience of synesthesia and heavy-lidded semi-conscious surreality. Synths phase in and out of focus like blurry memories, under the buzzing of cheap lights, and you might find yourself suddenly wondering if you can understand the concept of a holistic universe prompted by nothing but the sound of dot matrix printer.
5. “In the Mood for Love” (2000) – Michael Galasso & Shigeru Umebayasi
So we’re dancing a bit close to the edge of our own self-imposed definition of the term “score” here, as many of Michael Galasso & Shigeru Umebayasi‘s compositions for Wong Kar-wai‘s suffocatingly beautiful film are based on previous tracks. But they’re such comprehensive rearrangements and rediscoveries, and they blend into such a seamless whole that we just can’t not include it: this original soundtrack is smoky and sensual and almost unbearably romantic, but unlike most filmic conceptions of romance that are too pretty or too twee, it also absolutely brims with sex, the way only an affair trembling on the brink of consummation can.
4. “Requiem For A Dream” (2000)– Clint Mansell & The Kronos Quartet
Is there a more immediately recognizable theme in recent film composition than Clint Mansell’s “Lux Aeterna,” from his score to Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream?” Reorchestrated with a choir for the trailer to “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and chopped and changed for about two dozen lesser titles since – even sampled by Lil’ Jon (!) – it has permeated the culture to such a degree that it threatens to overshadow the massive achievement of the overall score. Which is fine, really, as it leaves the rest of this haunting, complex yet subtle work for devotees like us to wonder at repeatedly. Alongside orchestral avant garde stars the Kronos Quartet, Mansell’s work, outside of that central theme, is evocatively minimal, consistently surprising, and the perfect accompaniment to the bruising narrative, sometimes acting as a salve, and sometimes as a further intravenous poison.
3. “Under The Skin” (2014) – Mica Levi
As the placement of two of his films not just on this list, but inside the top 10 suggests, when Jonathan Glazer taps you to score a film of his, you could be forgiven for buckling under the expectation — especially as a neophyte. But perhaps that lack of experience was what made Mica Levi, aka Micachu from Micachu & The Shapes, so perfect for his brilliant sci-fi-horror mindfuck. Capturing the film’s otherworldly point of view, it’s uniquely disquieting: this is how an alien might hear our world. From woozy, amniotic, almost biological pulsations, like fetal heartbeats, to ethereal sinking doomy drones and layered string motifs that sing out like warnings, like every great score, it feel utterly indivisible from the shimmering film it accompanies.
2. “There Will Be Blood” (2007) – Jonny Greenwood
There would be an obvious, or to use a less pejorative word, traditional way to approach Paul Thomas Anderson’s tale of towering hubris and ego during the first oil boom – with the kind of symphonic, classical music that is par for the course for period films. Which was possibly why choosing Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood to score the film caused such raised eyebrows: it was unlikely he’d turn in that sort of score. And indeed he did not, instead writing hours of music (whittled down eventualy to 33 minutes) that was inspired by atonal, avant-garde composers such as Penderecki, Gorecki and Bartok (and Kubrick’s “The Shining” soundtrack, which featured all three). Greenwood’s score is fascinating, multilayered beast, that lays siege to your senses and gradually unnerves, mirroring first Daniel Plainview’s grotesque ambition, and then his decaying sanity, as it crumbles to dust in his too-tight grip. It may have been disqualified from Academy consideration for using portions of Greenwood’s previous composition, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, but this score doesn’t need any statuette to ensure its longevity.
1. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007) – Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
As much as we might like to leave you on an up note, we’re not going to. Instead we’re going to close out this massive list with a score that, like the film it keeps pace with, breath for measured breath, seems to become more immense and more vital with every passing year. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis had hinted at what they could do before, with the score for John Hillcoat‘s terrific “The Proposition,” and they would do again, on Hillcoat’s subsequent pictures “The Road” and “Lawless,” as well as Amy Berg‘s devastating “West of Memphis” and David Oelhoffen‘s criminally underseen “Far From Men.” But while elegiac, lonely, twangy Western scores have become something of a hallmark of theirs, they’ve never found such a symbiotically resonant vehicle as with Andrew Dominik‘s expansive, enormous end-of-days masterpiece. Somber, moody and utterly breathtaking, it’s a score that uses repetitive motifs, melancholic and magical glockenspiel twinkles, and fiddles that wail like bereaved widows, and more than anything they’ve ever done, it evokes the windy, barren prairies and all the broken promise that the vast American West once offered. It’s the sound of the end of an era, a moment of bowed-head introspection at the passing of Old America, which reluctantly, uncomprehendingly and finally resignedly must give way to the new, however undeserving they might seem. As serious and sober as the film, and its wildly atmospheric, deceptively simply score might be, in it we can feel a connection across the ages and across the landscape of the imagination that is the western mythos, and connection is always uplifting, even when it puts you into contact with something so inexpressibly sad.
There are simply too many terrific film scores in the 21century to mention on this list and we could have easily gone to over 100 picks. But bickering and fighting aside about our favorites, here goes with trying to give some more love to composers and scores. It’s not a full score which sort of disqualifies it here, there’s soundtrack cuts and what not, but Boris and Sunn O)))’s smoldering avant garde doom metal in Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits Of Control” is sludgy hot fire. Super group, David Wingo & Explosions In The Sky’s plangent and uplifting score to David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche” just missed the cut, but only because they’re both represented elsewhere on the main picks. Another close cut and already represented on the list is Terence Blanchard’s tragic score to Spike Lee’s phenomenal four-part Katrina documentary, “When The Levee Breaks.” Superstar composer Alexandre Desplat was up for multiple options, “The Grand Budapest,” “Thirty Dark Zero,” “A Prophet,” “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” and more, but we decided ultimately to go with his haunting breakthrough in “Birth” (“The Ghostwriter” also had a lot of support).
So many good composers and music to choose from. Other near misses from the main list included Jonny Greenwood’s “The Master” (already represented twice), Robin Guthrie (of the Cocteau Twins) & Harold Budd’s pillowy ambient score to “Mysterious Skin,” Johnny Jewel’s sad synth score to “Lost River,” Grizzly Bear’s ace work on “Blue Valentine” and James Murphy‘s twinkling lullabies in Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” (“Greenberg” is pretty good too).
Plenty of composers just didn’t quite merit multiple inclusions, but all of these choices were up for much heated debate; Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ “The Proposition” score, Clint Mansell’s “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” several choices by Hans Zimmer including “Interstellar,” “Man Of Steel” and more, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ ironic score for “Gone Girl,”and Alberto Iglesias’ understated music to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
Other options included “Man On Wire” which is so resonant, but many of its Michael Nyman cuts are from pre-existing films. The Polyphonic Spree’s Tim Delaughter wrote a hopeful score to “Thumbsucker” that was discussed; Nigel Godrich & Beck’s rocking tunes for “Scott Pilgrim Vs The World” (though that music made our Best Soundtrack Of the Century piece, because there’s lots of various bands on it); Keegan De Witt’s frosty “Queen of Earth” tunes; Yann Tiersen’s fanciful and underrated music in “Amelie“; Mastadon’s Jonah Hex. On vacation, Oli will kill us for not including
Alex Turner’s song score to “Submarine”; Jez Kurzel’s doomy gloomy “Macbeth” dirges and quixotic “Slow West” ballads were considered; Jeff Grace is always on the brain and his John Carpenter-inspired
If TV scores were allowed on this list, they’d likely do serious damage to the top 10 including Dustin O’Halloran’s beautifully melancholy score for “Transparent,” the synthy and nostalgic score for “Stranger Things” and of course the throbbing and contemporary electronic music for Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” by Cliff Martinez (who is already on our main list). We could go on and on; “How to Train Your Dragon” by John Powell; “Jane Eyre” by Dario Marianelli; “Victoria” by Nils Frahm. “Let Me In” and “Super 8” by Michael Giacchino (his main list exclusion sure to cause furor in some circles); “True Grit” by Carter Burwell; “Monsters” by Jon Hopkins; “Rabbit Hole” by the underrated Anton Sanko; “Stone” by Jonny Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Jon Brion, John Curran; “Rubber” by Mr. Oizo; “Hugo” – Howard Shore; several, several options from the aforementioned Cliff Martinez; “A Single Man” by Abel Korzeniowski; “Oblivion” by M83; many choices by The Tindersticks incuding Clarie Denis’ “Bastards,” Cliff Martinez & Skrillex – “Spring Breakers” (which has lots of soundtrack cuts), Steven Price’s “Gravity” score; “Smashed” by Andy Cabic & Eric D. Johnson; “Take This Waltz” by Jonathan Goldsmith; Danny Elfman’s underrated and uncharacteristically understated music in “The End Of The Tour,” the list goes on and on.
We could list out probably another 100 choices, but we can’t be here all day. Your favorite score of the 21st Century? Drop your choices, angry fists, pitchforks and other debate into the comments section below.