One last list for the decade, and the hardest one – best film scores. Failures are easy, they reek and stand out like huge, fly-covered steaming piles in the sun. Soundtracks are tough to sort out but the greats are memorable because good songs with lyrics tend to be, and they enter the wider cultural landscape more readily than film scores through radio, ipods and the greatest monuments to our civilization, retail stores.
Where only some films have a real soundtrack to consider, every film has a score and usually it’s doing most of the work, even though a hot song may take the glory. You know right away if you like a song or not, but that’s not always the case with a composition for film, indeed it’s often irrelevant. More to the point, you must ask, how well does the score serve the film? And then, does it transcend that? These 10 scores do just that, and of course, they elevate the films they were made for to new heights. The Danny Elfman’s, Hans Zimmer’s and Trevor Rabin’s of the world occaisionally compose something that doesn’t utterly ruin a film, but I won’t waste any characters talking about them.
1. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. “The Proposition” (2005)
“The Rider #1” – Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
“Moan Thing” – Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Westerns lend themselves well to great scores, as composers like Ennio Morricone proved time and again. With “The Proposition” the genius Nick Cave and brilliant Warren Ellis have taken the western film score to new psychedelic heights and the result is completely mind blowing. The crazy trip Cave and Ellis were on fit like a favorite old hat on the mad, greasy head of this wild film. Gruff voices whisper of violence and betrayal over unnerving bass, a wicked droning blotted out by bloodshed, the sudden wattage of guitars timed with the hoof falls of riders on horseback cutting through the desert… unforgettable.
2. Jonny Greenwood. “There Will Be Blood” (2007)
At the moment the film opens, Greenwood’s orchestration sets fire to the screen, torches you and inflames the parched western landscape you find yourself in. He uses an array of strings to strike an incredibly enormous, unsettling chord – the effect of which is to fuse you, Daniel Plainview and that broken landscape all together – as it builds into an alarming cacophony. And just when it subsides and there’s a moment’s respite, he brings it back again, this time with a percussive barrage that sounds like all the bones of all the people maimed and displaced by Plainview’s oil company cracking together.
3. Phillip Glass. “The Fog of War” (2003)
Phillip Glass can sometimes veer to far off into repetitive psychosis land, but when he balances that tendency with his inherent musical brilliance the results are unparalleled. Just as Errol Morris set a new standard for documentaries, with “The Fog of War,” so did Phillip Glass with his spiraling, haunting score. For the first time, I actually felt for poor McNamara. This score will forever be the sound of his crimes and failures.
4. Yann Tiersen. “Amélie” (2001)
The wily Jean-Pierre Jeunet sure picked the right composer in Yann Tiersen who few outside of France had ever heard of before he composed all those wonderful pieces for “Amélie.” They so perfectly accompany the whimsy and nostalgia of the adorable miss Poulain that I can hardly comprehend her without them.
5. John Murphy. “Sunshine” (2007)
When I was in college there was a brand of acid going around called sunshine, and everyone who took it lost their goddamn mind, permanently. If I wanted to score that last moment of sanity before blasting a mind into the sun this would be it. Murphy’s intense score for Danny Boyle’s partially amazing “Sunshine” lent so much gravity to the proceedings sometimes it felt like it was crushing me in my chair. I am convinced that the moment the absurd villain was revealed the movie turned into a joke but I couldn’t get perspective on it with that score pulling all my emotional strings. It truly hits some kind of primal, universal chord.
6. John Williams. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
John Williams has been churning out great scores since the 1950’s and is responsible for the most infamous compositions: “Star Wars,” “Superman,” “E.T.,” “Jaws,” the “Indiana Jones” series and the first few Potter films. Echos and snippets of his themes remain in all of them, but it started with the twinkly, gossamer, “Hedwig’s Theme.”
7. Shigeru Umebayashi and Michael Galasso. “In the Mood for Love” (2000)
The music throughout Wong Kar-Wai’s sultry love story is top shelf as is typical of his films. The Nate King Cole bits are of course incredible, but it was the compositions that got me all bothered. When the piece called “Yumeji’s Theme” came on, who was not completely swept away? Certainly on my list of the best uses of music in film of all time.
8. Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet. “Requiem For A Dream” (2000)
You know the score, you’ve heard it a thousand times before. Clint Mansell’s creeped out “Requiem For A Dream” score performed by the Kronos Quartet has been copied, remixed, reused and abused many times over since 2000. In particular the piece “Lux Aeterna” was redone and used for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “The Da Vinci Code,” and “300” trailers among who knows how many others. It was once a powerful piece of music.
9. Howard Shore. “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001 – 2003)
I am one of those people who thinks that Peter Jackson should have grown a pair to match the size of his now conspicuously missing girth and scored this amazing trilogy with the works of the mighty Led Zeppelin as a basis. What wonders could have been achieved with “Ramble On,” and “Misty Mountain Hop?” Certainly the only Tolkien approved rock and roll. Alas, he used Howard Shore and it’s clear he didn’t jam out to “Battle of Evermore” while writing these sweeping pieces. Well done nonetheless and forever part of popular culture.
10. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Yes, two for Cave and Ellis, geniuses that they are. This score is entirely different from the maniacal work they did on “The Proposition,” more conventional, pastoral, infinitely somber, but it is utterly gorgeous. I yield the decade to these fine sirs.