Top 25 Film Scores

I had the idea for this post a little while back, but figured the 2011 preview was more important to get out of the way first. So, here we are.

2010 was one of the best years for original film scores in a long time. The innovative work by Daft Punk (“TRON: Legacy”), Trent Reznor (“The Social Network”) and Grizzly Bear (“Blue Valentine”), stellar output from old standbys like Hans Zimmer (“Inception”), Alexandre Desplat (“The King’s Speech”, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) and John Powell (“How To Train Your Dragon”), haunting atmospheric work from Herbert Grönemeyer (“The American”), Clint Mansell (“Black Swan”) and Dickon Hinchliffe (“Winter’s Bone”)…the list goes on. It got me to thinking about my favorite scores of all time. So, for your perusal and debate, I present my personal top 25 scores in film history. Hoorary list-o-mania!

25. “Finding Nemo,” Thomas Newman

Newman’s most hypnotic work yet, a gorgeous piece that ebbs and flows in a manner that perfectly suits the film’s aquatic setting. The sequence inside the belly of the whale remains my favorite part of the whole film, in large part thanks to Newman’s gently swooning strings.

24. “The Intruder,” Stuart Staples

Claire Denis’ woozy film is all about mood and atmosphere over narrative, establishing an uneasy tension that pervades every frame. That’s thanks in large part to Staples’ score, a primal work that will get under your skin and infect your soul, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way.

23. “Contempt,” Georges Delerue

Delerue’s score is an odd piece: though I can’t for the life of me recall the main melody right now, the instant I heard it, I would not only recognize the tune, I would want to punch the face of whoever started playing it. Why did this make the list, then, you’re probably wondering. Well, “Contempt” is something of a special case, because while the score on its own is so absurdly and incessantly melodramatic, director Jean-Luc Godard employs it to such brilliant effect that I have to give it a mention. “Contempt” is something of a meta-commentary on Hollywood domestic dramas, and Godard mocks the genre’s self-importance by having the music swell to ridiculous heights at moments of zero narrative or thematic importance. It’s a technique that perhaps needs to be seen in action to be understood, but it’s a perfect marriage of musical composition to cinematic style.

22. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl,” Klaus Badelt (with a serious assist from Hans Zimmer

Yeah, Zimmer’s work here is incredibly derivate of his own earlier themes in “Gladiator.” And yeah, the original “Pirates” score has been severely overused in pop culture in the past 8 years since the film debuted. But screw it, I’m putting it out there anyway, because it’s just too damn fun. We haven’t heard this kind of distinctive, bombastic, rollicking adventure-flick scoring since John Williams’ heyday. Perhaps it’s not one of the best scores from the standpoint of innovative composition, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most memorable.

21. “Chinatown,” Jerry Goldsmith

Though Goldsmith’s soundtrack plays for only just over thirty minutes of the film total, the prolonged silences in Roman Polanski’s brilliant sunshine noir just those haunting trumpet solos even more powerful. The most impressive part? Because the film’s first composer was fired at the last minute, Goldsmith had 10 days to write and record the “Chinatown” score. Sometimes slow and steady does not win the race.

20. “The Social Network,” Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Nine Inch Nails frontman Reznor and collaborator Ross were initially dumbfounded by David Fincher’s request that they score “The Social Network;” like just about everyone else in the world, Reznor couldn’t figure out what Fincher was doing working on a project about the founding of Facebook, anyway. Luckily for us, Reznor is a perceptive dude, and the moment he looked at Aaron Sorkin’s script, he realized what Sorkin and Fincher were up to. The two signed on, and created a dark, ambient score that gives the film exactly the touch of ominous dread that it needed.

19. “Days of Heaven,” Ennio Morricone

The first appearance on this list for the legendary Morricone. Terrence Malick’s masterpiece is usually cited as one of the most beautiful films of all time for its extraordinary cinematography, but the praise could just as equally apply to Morricone’s evocative work. Much of the film’s story is told through Nestor Almendros’ highly symbolic images, leaving room for Morricone’s score to set a magical, eerie mood.

18. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

The team of Cave and Ellis had a bit of a warm-up earlier a few years earlier with John Hillcoat’s Australian outback Western “The Proposition,” which itself won numerous awards and almost made this list. But “Jesse James” represents a maturation of that more experimental work: a meandering, lonely piece that perfectly complements Andrew Dominik’s stark film. Watch for Cave’s cameo in the latter part of the film as the strolling musician who raises Robert Ford’s ire with his rendition of “The Ballad of Jesse James.”

17. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Tan Dun

Simply put, Yo-Yo Ma is one of the greatest musicians of all time. So an entire score pretty much designed to give Ma as many heart-rending solo passages as possible? That’s a solid strategy.

16. “TRON: Legacy,” Daft Punk

OK, hear me out; I know it seems a tad blasphemous to rank such a recent, populist composition over work by legends like Morricone and Goldsmith. But Daft Punk’s soundtrack was one top-to-bottom of the strongest, most unique scores you’ll ever hear, drawing from the bombastic blockbuster style of Zimmer and Williams while mixing in some of the subtler emotionality of Philip Glass, all wrapped up in the French dance club-duo’s distinctive electronica sound. We don’t get innovative work like that every day.

15. “Paris, Texas,” Ry Cooder

A feature-length riff on Blind Willie Johnson’s soulful “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” Cooder’s slide-guitar score gives Wim Wenders’ Palme d’Or winning film a distinctive atmospheric flair. This affecting blues piece is a perfect fit for Wenders’ remote, poignant modern re-working of “The Searchers.”

14. “Dances with Wolves,” John Barry

Researching this post, I was shocked to discover that the legendary Barry died of a heart attack in late January without my noticing. A constant innovator (he was one of the first to start using synthesizer for film scores), Barry was famed for composing the scores to “Midnight Cowboy,” “Out of Africa,” and “The Lion in Winter,” plus the main theme for the James Bond series, but “Dances with Wolves” was probably his crowning achievement. How great is the “DWW” score? Pope John Paul II listed the piece amongst his favorite pieces of music ever. So yeah, divine approval good enough for ya? RIP, John Barry.

13. “The Pink Panther,” Henry Mancini

Perhaps this film should be lower on the list, since it really is only notable for one theme. But oh, what a theme. There have been few other times in history (including the other works mentioned in this post) when a piece of film became so inseparable from a corresponding melody. Peter Sellers’ self-assured Inspector Clouseau would be unimaginable without the smooth instrumentation of Mancini’s classic theme to accompany his inept bumbling.

12. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” – “Voices of Light” accompaniment, Richard Einhorn

There is no evidence that director Carl Dreyer ever picked a definitive score for his silent masterpiece; in any case, whatever music originally played with the film has been lost. I’m often squeamish about modern composers attempting to retroactively compose a score to fit silent films, as for some reason most of their compositions turn out to be entirely inappropriate electronica/synth crap. But Einhorn’s oratorio is a phenomenal exception, even if it was more a composition based on the film than made for the film (it’s available as an optional soundtrack on the Criterion Collection DVD in any case). Einhorn’s transcendent piece lends the film an other-worldly quality that is entirely appropriate, considering its divine subject matter.

11. “The Empire Strikes Back,” John Williams

Williams’ “Star Wars” scores remain amongst the most popular pieces ever composed for film, and for good reason. While the main “Star Wars” theme and a few other bits may have been recycled from “A New Hope,” Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra kicked it up a notch for the score for “Empire Strikes Back;” the sequel actually marks the first appearance of the famed “Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme)” melody, as well as other notable pieces like “Yoda’s Theme” and “Han Solo and the Princess.” Williams’ revival of the use of leitmotifs (certain themes associated with a particular character, setting, or plot element) was particularly influential on the development of the modern film score (entry #8 on this list, for instance, would’ve been impossible without Williams’ pioneering work).

10. “The Mission,” Ennio Morricone

Morricone displays a mastery of both liturgical and indigenous styles in his memorable score for Roland Joffé’s underrated missionary tale. The main “Mission” theme ends up as a sly blend of the Spanish and native themes, beautifully and hauntingly defined by a solo oboe.

9. “The Third Man,” Anton Karas

One of the most thoroughly unconventional scores you’ll ever find from the golden age of the studio era. Instead of the heavy orchestration that accompanies many a 1940’s noir, director Carol Reed instead sprang for the jangling, bouncing tones of Karas’ solo zither. Yes, a solo zither makes up the film’s entire score. And it’s brilliant. At times light and fanciful, at others sad and melancholic, Karas’ work fits “The Third Man’s” post-war Vienna setting like a glove. Right away, the music lets viewers know that this will not be your average Hollywood caper.

8. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Howard Shore

Peter Jackson’s definitive fantasy epic will forever remain a technical marvel on many levels, not least of which is Shore’s sweeping, operatic score. Using over 80 specific leitmotifs, Shore helped viewers weave their way through the tangled web of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth, appealing on an emotional level without ever getting schmaltzy, instilling a sense of heroic grandeur while somehow managing to never feel too over-the-top (though perhaps it was simply impossible to go over-the-top on a production of this scale). It will likely be a long time before we see anything the like of “Lord of the Rings” on screen again (well, other than “The Hobbit” movies, I mean), and likewise Shore’s score will forever remain a uniquely ambitious piece of work.

7. “Psycho,” Bernard Herrmann

In “Psycho’s” credit roll, Herrmann is listed second only to director Alfred Hitchcock, an unprecedented level of recognition for a film composer at the time (or any time, really). Hitchcock’s appreciation was well deserved; Herrmann’s string orchestra composition is surely the key to “Psycho’s” sense. Think about it; in essence, nothing in particular happens in the film’s first 15-20 minutes. Yet, thanks to Herrmann’s insistent contrapuntal theme, the audience remains constantly on edge for the violence that inevitably, inexorably creeps closer and closer. And then there is of course the shrieking Shower Scene theme, probably the most famous cue in film music history. Though it is not my personal favorite Herrmann piece (more on that one soon), it’s still clearly an exceptional work.

6. “On the Waterfront,” Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein’s only non-musical film score is a dark and furious piece. Melancholy string passages are intercut with blaring eruptions of brass and percussion, in a foreshadowing of some of the gloomier bits of “West Side Story.” The composition’s brilliance is encapsulated, I think, in the film’s final sequence, when Terry Malloy’s final walk to the docks is drawn out in unbearable fashion, the tension building to an impossible height as Terry stumbles along the pier.

5. “There Will Be Blood,” Jonny Greenwood

Greenwood wastes no time in putting his stamp on P.T. Anderson’s instant classic: with no dialogue for the film’s first 15-20 minutes, the deafening drone of the Radiohead member’s score stands out front and center, infusing the film with a “2001”-esque primality and uneasiness. Further cinematic set-pieces like the oil rig fire and the survey for the pipe line highlight one of the boldest bits of film composition in history, Academy and their finicky rules be damned.

4. “Lawrence of Arabia,” Maurice Jarre

Jarre, a little-known composer at the time, was actually David Lean’s third choice to write the score for his desert epic; after “Lawrence,” Jarre was Lean’s first choice for every single one of his films. Sweeping and lyrical, Jarre’s work here fits Lean’s romantic style perfectly, swelling to fill the vast desert vistas depicted.

3. “Vertigo,” Bernard Herrmann

Hitchcock’s woozy thriller demanded an equally unsteady score, and Herrmann delivered again with an unforgettably insecure and threatening piece. I really can’t put it any better than Martin Scorsese, speaking in a 2004 interview with “Sight & Sound:”

Hitchcock’s film is about obsession, which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again … And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.

I think the pinnacle of the score (and perhaps the film) comes when Judy finally transforms herself completely into Madeleine: walking into the room in a nauseous green haze, with her blond hair and gray suit, Herrmann’s score speaks volumes, with the triumph of Scotty’s desires and all the unsettling implications that go along with that victory.

2. “The Godfather,” Nino Rota

Controversy over the originality of the “Love Theme” aside, Rota’s score for “The Godfather” is pure genius, a perfect complement to Coppola’s melancholy tale of greed, violence and lost innocence. That unmistakable solo horn melody that plays over the opening titles tells the viewer everything they need to know about the film to follow. The psychological depth and complexity of Coppola’s mobster family is presaged in those sweet but ominous notes.

1. “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Ennio Morricone

Perhaps better than any other score on this list (or indeed, just about any in history), “Once Upon a Time in the West” can stand completely on its own, telling the film’s story just as well in music as Sergio Leone tells it in images. In fact, Morricone composed the score before filming began, so that Leone could play the music for his actors in the background as they were on set. Morricone’s leitmotifs perfectly suit each of Leone’s larger-than-life characters, elevating the Western drama from a stereotypical B-movie to opera. The unforgettable whine of the “Man with a Harmonica” theme is the most haunting, piercing, evocative piece of music composed for film I think that I’ve ever heard.

And there you have it. Which of your favorites did I leave off the list?

10 thoughts on “Top 25 Film Scores

  1. Wow. Kept James Horner out in the cold completely. While I approve on principle, I do like certain of his works. For example, “Braveheart” has a beautiful, haunting soundtrack. I’d also put “The Mission” much higher, include “Romeo and Juliet” for Nino Rota (though “The Godfather” score is really great as well) and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” I’m going to have to think about this carefully, but I might like “Dr. Zhivago” more than “Lawrence of Arabia” in terms of Jarre’s work. Oh the bailalaika. 🙂 On a Morricone note, must throw in a word for “Cinema Paradiso.” Music made the movie.
    Oh how I love film scores.

  2. I’m personally just not a Horner fan; just a little too conventional for me. And yeah, it’s really pretty much a toss-up between “Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” I just thought they were a little too similar to merit two places on the list; so we can just say that #4 goes to Maurica Jarre in general.
    “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is a very intriguing choice. That’s the kind of non-traditional score that I would like to draw attention to.
    And “Cinema Paradiso” is definitely worthy of inclusion as well; basically, Morricone is the master, and at some point I just had to draw the line with how many of his works I included.
    Also, the other day my film professor here informed us (he’s very set in his opinions) that there were only three film composers worth knowing in all of cinematic history: Morricone, Rota and Barry. I thought about arguing in favor of Herrmann, Williams and Goldsmith, but decided not to bother.

  3. I assume we were leaving musicals out of the mix, or else I could go on for years. And Disney.
    Other ones that probably aren’t good enough to make the list, but I must point out are “Pan’s Labyrinth” and its haunting melody, and even more randomly, “October Sky.” Nothing like watching Sputnik streaking across the sky to that violin.
    Oh, and “Schindler’s List!” My favourite John Williams theme. Perhaps I just like violin-dependent film scores… yeah… that might be it. And if I’m going to keep waxing on about Morricone, “The Battle of Algiers” score isn’t as “beautiful,” but it’s certainly effective.

  4. Perhaps a controversial choice but you’ve also left Tom Tykwer out completely.

    As standalone tracks the compositions may not be as strong as some of these other contenders but (when Tom is on point) their interweaving with the films is extraordinary. I’m speaking mostly about Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior.

    P.S. I have discovered your blog recently and am enjoying your writing/commentary immensely. Big up yourself.

  5. Ever heard of the movie “Young Toress” based on a novel by Robert Musel? I thought not. However, the score by Hans Werner Henze, is the only one I can think of that qualifies as truly great music. Try to find it and check it out. No synths, effects or anything like that, only a string sextet troughout. On an altogether different level.

  6. Yo hubiera sacado de la lista a por ej: Tron Legacy e incluido en su lugar el soundtrack de The Thin Red line de Hans Zimmer, memorable banda sonora.

  7. Just as beautiful a score by Ennio Morricone is the music to “Once Upon A Time in America”. The movie is dramatically underappreciated so it doesnt surprise me that the musical score is equally underappreciated. In my judgment, the uncut movie and score are among the top 5 of all time.

  8. oh hollywood bandwagoners.. 8 1/2, Rocco and His Brothers, Werckmeister Harmonies, Amelie, The Conformist, Breathless, Shik, Sex and Philosophy, Close – Up, etc.??

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