Alright, this Decade shit is for the birds. We felt like we haven't slept in months or just had a newborn or something. F this. We've already made our Films of the Decade (00-08) list, the Best Documentaries, Music Documentaries, Best Animated films, Best Soundtracks of the Decade and today our (hopefully) final installment, the Best Scores of the decade.
So, what's the difference? Well scores are generally defined as being: 1. instrumental pieces of music (eg. not songs, that's what's in our soundtracks piece) and 2. typically original pieces of instrumental music written specifically for the film (as opposed to say, Tarantino, who uses mostly songs and pre-existing score pieces in his films). OK, we might have cheated a little, but we think this is a pretty solid list that you should be satisfied with. This decade saw a lot of mainstream, tentpole and genre films make some adventurous choices with their scores, as you'll see below. Avant composition, indie rockers, electronic pioneers and reclusive masterminds all feature highly throughout the list, and really break the mold occupied by the standard orchestra pieces that can almost seem like an afterthought in the final film. These are the scores that moved us, stuck in our heads and found their way to our iPods, making the daily commute a little more cinematic (and yes, there is an odd number of picks - sue us - there was too much good stuff).
26. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis — "The Proposition" (2002)
Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s occasionally anachronistic, always tense score perfectly compliments the slow-burning screenplay (also written by Cave) and the gritty vision of John Hillcoat. As eerie strings circle around the whisper-sung centerpiece “The Rider Song” throughout the film, the mounting pressure of the Australian sun and looming conflict are strongly felt. Since so much about this film is done right, it’s hard to say exactly what drives it. It is certain, however, that Cave, Warren Ellis, and their taut score play a huge role.
25. Carter Burwell & Karen O — "Where The Wild Things Are" (2009)
While Karen O & The Kids got all the musical ink — the indie rock supergroup she put together with members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Raconteurs, Deerhunter and many more — it's actually Carter Burwell (longtime composer for the Coen Brothers) that is the true heart-shaped center and core of Spike Jonze's accomplished and emotionally bittersweet adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book. While The Kids do provide a vibrant and raucous joyousness to the film (and yes, some moving childlike melancholy), it's Burwell's score (which Karen O sings on occasionally), that will really make your bottom lip quiver and force you to bite back some painful tears.
24. Clint Mansell feat. The Kronos Quartet & Mogwai — "The Fountain" (2006)
Darren Aronofsky's longtime composer Clint Mansell is not only a towering modern composer sure to become one of the all-time-greats (he's never been nominated, but you just wait), but he also has a preternatural knack for choosing the perfect musicians to realize his scores. For "The Wrestler" it was tapping Slash from Guns N' Roses to perform the hypnotic minimalist, guitar drones and feedback, for 'Requiem' it was the avante troupe the Kronos Quartet and for his romantic sci-fi mindbender, "The Fountain," he added Scottish ambient post-rockers Mogwai to bring a burning-ember effulgence to the transcendent picture. The idea was as brilliant as the rapturous score, making for a modern classic picture close to divinity.
23. John Murphy & Underworld — "Sunshine" (2007)
Yes, like many of John Murphy's scores for his buddy Danny Boyle, his work for the vastly underrated psychological sci-fi film, "Sunshine," is radiantly amplified and gloriously over-the-top, but with the help of Underworld, it's also incandescent and heavenly. This maximal, high-pitched score both simmers with disquieting tension and thunders forward. One could argue it's an emo-melodrama in space, but the luminous and emotionally-charged crescendos are so fervent and ardent, that they elevate the material and wondrously capture that blinding sense of staring the mother of creation right in her face.
22. Robin Guthrie & Harold Budd — "Mysterious Skin" (2004)
Sure Gregg Araki's cinematic decisions aren't always on-point, but his musical ones are top notch. On top of an excellent soundtrack for his thoughtful and empathetic look into child molestation (which we already covered), the score features tons of slow-burning and hypnotic shoegaze drones. Araki's masterstroke move was teaming up Robin Guthrie (of the ethereal dream-pop band the Cocteau Twins) with Harold Budd (a Brian Eno collaborator who worked on the seminal Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror album) which is like asking two titans of the ambient scene to give extra atmospheric blissfulness to your already-woozy and angelic picture. Uhh, fucking smart.
21. Air — “The Virgin Suicides” (2000)
According to the members of Air, Sofia Coppola knew their music was the right fit for her debut film from the very beginning; the filmmaker claims to have listened to the French duo’s debut full-length Moon Safari while writing the script and later used songs from the album in early edits of the film, (one song from Safari, "Ce Matin La," is still featured). Working in concert with Coppola, Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin took a decidedly darker approach to the score than their previous ‘70s soft-rock influenced electronic work might have suggested. It’s clear when listening to tracks like "Clouds Up," “Playground Love” (sung by Phoenix’s Thomas Mars) and “Dirty Trip,” (which is all melodic basslines, ominous sound effects, analog synths and heavy rock organ—at times sounding like a funeral organ), that the band was essentially doing their own version of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which is by no means a slight. Considering how well the score works alongside the retro soundtrack (10cc, Todd Rundgren, and Heart among others) and echoes the film's dark themes, it’s actually somewhat genius.
20.Terrence Blanchard — "25th Hour" (2002)
A more "traditional" score if you like, but Terrence Blanchard's meditative yet grand accompaniment to Spike Lee's best film of the decade, "25th Hour," has a somber, death-rattle-like disconsolateness to it (to echo the theme of Ed Norton's character going away to jail for 10 years on a drug charge) and a resilient, patriotic tenor as well (to mirror the post 9/11 mood in which the film takes place). It's understated and nuanced, yet knows just the right moments to elevate itself and aim for a dignified air of redemption.
19. Thomas Bangalter — "Irreversible" (2002)
Putting music together for Gasper Noe's nightmarish, brutally violent backwards revenge movie is a tall order, but Bangalter (one half of robotic French phenomenon Daft Punk) delivered the goods, big time. Mirroring the movie's descent into claustrophobic darkness, Bangalter's sometimes jagged, occasionally danceable score ("Spinal Scratch" is an electro gem, that captures both the bleakness of the movie's storyline as well as its borderline psychedelic visual scheme). Drawing on Italian horror score influences, as well as being interspersed with a few classical music tracks, this sounds like the kind of score a post-millennial Stanley Kubrick would have utilized, to equally awesome effect.
18. John Murphy — "28 Days Later" (2003)
When director Danny Boyle couldn't convince doomsdaying end-is-nigh orchestral rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor to score his back-to-basics digitally-shot zombie picture, he instead turned to composer John Murphy to pull off a similarly alarming and chilling sonic sense of dread. Moving pretty quickly from ethereal dreamscapes to bombastic, industrial rock nightmare, John Murphy's "28 Days Later" score fits nicely in the desolate yet beautiful vision of Boyle's paranoid portrait of an apocalyptic zombie takeover. It's also a score that's been aped in several trailers and films, perhaps one of the more memorably sinister soundtracks made this entire decade.
17. Cliff Martinez — "Solaris" (2002)
What is the soundtrack to celestial and futuristic ambiguity? The sound of modernistic confusion and uncertainty on another world when you don't know if you're hallucinating or your deceased lover has been reborn? Steven Soderbergh would wisely hit up an old collaborator, Cliff Martinez —who composed the score to "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," is a former drummer for Captain Beefheart and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and who earned one of his first composing credits for "Pee Wee's Playhouse" — to create the unnervingly anxious, low-key pulsations and low-end chimes of this electronic-like score. It's incredibly disconcerting and does wonders for the unsettling tenor of this moody sci-fi film.
16. Yo La Tengo — "Old Joy" (2006)
Plaintive, simple and carrying the weight of a subtle yet heavy heart, while no actually score or soundtrack was released for Kelly Reichardt's minimalist look into fractured friendship and America until a belated 2009 compilation, Yo La Tengo's atmospheric and pastoral folk-country-ambient lilts awash in reverb and idyllic dolefulness were deeply (and quietly) expressive and a big part of the reason that film is so tender, compelling and memorable.
15. Michael Nyman/J. Ralph — "Man On Wire" (2008)
Is it a soundtrack or is it a score? Technically it's probably a soundtrack, but it mostly contains all pieces of pre-existing score. Got that? We're talking about the score soundtrack to the fascinating documentary, "Man On Wire" about tightrope walker Philippe Petit who committed one of the most amazing heists/pieces of art in the 20th century when he walked on a wire between the World Trade Center twin towers in 1974. The soundtrack is mostly old, yet extraordinary pieces of Michael Nyman score (perhaps he's best well-known for scoring Jane Campion's breathtaking "The Piano") from old Peter Greenaway films (the pervy Brit art director obsessed with male genitalia and best known for the "The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover") — though J. Ralph does add a brief original score in the actually tension-filled "heist" section. Whatever you'd like to categorize it under, these sweeping, and grand Nyman tunes are stirring and awe-inspiring, the perfect soundtrack to the daringness, creativity and gloriously successful ambition demonstrated in the winning film.
14. Alberto Iglesias — "Volver" (2006)
Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" is such a curious and deceptively complex work. It's part passionate melodrama, part triste family chronicle, part Hitchockian-thriller and in some spots a riotous comedy. Negotiating those disparate and eclectic moods ever so deftly and carefully is his longtime composer Alberto Iglesias (his work in "Talk To Her" and several other Almodovar works is also incredibly venerable). While he's been nominated for an Oscar twice (The Kite Runner," and "The Constant Gardener"), the year this film came out (2006) it was overlooked by the Academy, disappointing several of the world's greatest composers, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore and Gustavo Santaolalla (to name a few) who all had him listed upon their year-end faves.
13. Alexandre Desplat — "Birth" (2004)
Jonathan Glazer's meditation on grief and loss announced the arrival of Alexandre Desplat, a composer of extraordinary emotion and inventiveness. As his first score for an American production, it also remains his best. Elegantly designed waltzes, finely crafted mood themes and traditional classical pieces provide an additional layer to Glazer's carefully hued tale. One has to look no further than the film's bravura opening in which Glazer combines a voiceover, a death and a birth in one transcendent sequence as Desplat's "The Prologue" follows the sweeping camera through a snow-frosted Central Park ornamenting and giving the film's drawing room drama chill a vibrant, moving center.
12. Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard — "The Dark Knight" (2008)
While the world both mourned and celebrated Heath Ledger's gleefully vicious turn as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's bleak and somber Batman film "The Dark Knight," one of the biggest reasons the film was so successfully frightening was the score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, which was surprisingly adventurous for a summer tentpole. Employing carefully crafted white noise, avant percussion with standard classical tropes, it created a sonic world that perfectly meshed the slowly unfolding anarchy onscreen. One doesn't have to look further than the "Why So Serious?" a sprawling nine minute track, that is almost nothing but a wall of sound and deep bass rumbles, punctuated by rock 'n roll strings. Or there's a "A Little Push" with its slowly ascending, minor key strings that sound like a lost piece from "The Shining" while pieces "Like A Dog Chasing Cars" prove the composers can still add something fresh and memorable to your standard superhero theme. Disqualified from Oscar contention due to rather arbitrary Academy rules, "The Dark Knight" still stands out as one of decade's most inventive scores.
11. Michael Galasso & Shigeru Umebayasi — In the Mood for Love" (2000)
Set in the 1960s, Wong Kar-Wai's masterpiece about love and longing, evoked the smoky and sensual underpinnings of a romance that flirts with the forbidden edges of consummation. Using his own youth in Hong Kong as inspiration, Kar-Wai created a mosaic of music sources — including traditional opera, 1950s film songs, and jazz — to create a singular tapestry that beautifully surrounds the glances and unspoken desires that fill the film. Particular standouts include the film's main love theme, "Yumeji's Theme" by Shigeru Umebayashi (written originally for Seijun Suzuki's 1991 film) a lovely and delicate waltz that is brilliantly reworked by Michael Galasso in his trilogy of themes composed for the film's climatic Angor Wat sequence. The Spanish works of the legendary Nat King Cole provide some of the soundtrack's livelier moments, including the wonderful "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps)" while the classic pop songs of the "golden voice" Zhuo Xuan allow the film to drift dreamily into memory.
Having previously worked on the cool-as-an-iceberg score to Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” David Holmes was a natural pick to score the director’s remake of Rat Pack movie “Ocean’s Eleven.” Aside from curating some outstanding song choices (forgotten Elvis Presley cut “A Little Less Conversation” went on to be a number one single in the U.K.), Holmes also contributed a jazzy, exotica score, as effortlessly cool as the rest of the movie. The underrated “Ocean’s Twelve” featured Holmes’ best work of the series, bringing a strong outré and European flavor to the globetrotting sequel, and rocked out a little harder (the choice and use of Ornella Vanoni's "L'Appuntamento" is so remarkable and the "laser field" minimalist techno track is aces ). “Thirteen” marked a return to the jazzier roots of the original '60s movie, and while slighter than the previous two scores, is still the third film's strongest element.
9. Gustavo Santaolalla — "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004)
Soulful, illuminating and imbued with a windswept solemnity thanks to Gustavo Santaolalla's incredibly evocative score — easily one of the world's best living composers right now — the soundtrack to Walter Salles' South American travelogue and journey of personal discovery is rich in mood and introspective texture. Though Santaolalla's complex-stringed acoustic balladery is haunting (and one of the reasons the film is so personally felt, he also generally uses an exotic instrument called a charango), the rest of the soundtrack (two or three pre-existing songs) is equally sonorous. Jorge Drexler's beautiful nylon-string Spanish-language acoustic ballad, "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" (The Other Side Of The River) is so damn gorgeous and reflective it always bring us to our knees. Santaolalla's meditative scores are always reverberating and flush with emotional contemplation and longing, many of which could be featured here, "21 Grams," "Amores Perros," "Babel" and "Brokeback Mountain" (the latter two won Oscars) as further examples of his incredibly moving and deep work, but we figured we'd keep ourselves to one, which also happens to be our favorite of the bunch.
8. Michael Andrews —"Me And You And Everyone We Know" (2005)
Sleepy-eyed, sun-kissed and ambrosial, Michael Andrews' wistful, weightless and dreamy-atmospheric synth score to Miranda July's debut feature (all old-school analog keyboards, plus the woozy, aerial voice of Inara George) is like a beautiful slo-motion collection of bubbles drifting skyward never to be seen again. There's so much forlornless and grace involved, the sounds tend to cradle your ears like a warm blanket and bathes the quirky picture in a warmth and tender mood. Andrew's talent would not go unrecognized, he did both "Walk Hard" and part of "Funny People," but the score to the July film is unforgettable, melodically resonant and outstandingly original. We might have even included it in our soundtrack section; the use of Cody Chestnutt, Spiritualized and especially the beguilng Virginia Astley piano number "A Summer Long Since Passed" are just heartrendingly good.
7. Philip Glass — "The Fog Of War" (2003)
So what do you do when your documentary — while endlessly fascinating, infuriating and powerful — is really nothing more than a single talking head intercut with news and stock footage? You hire Philip Glass to do the score. Errol Morris, who had previously worked with the composer on "The Thin Blue Line" and "A Brief History Of Time," found himself with some of Glass' best work to date on "The Fog Of War." The climaxing, pirouetting and overlapping orchestral swirls are concise and deliberately sober pieces that added an additional weight to the proceedings. Featuring 34 separate pieces, most of them running at a mere two minutes each, Glass packs entire worlds into just a few bars of music. The sample below is a string of a few of these amazing pieces put together.
6. Clint Mansell & The Kronos Quartet — "Requiem For A Dream" (2000)
Is there a more immediately recognizable (indeed, overplayed) 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 a dozen lesser ads since), and even sampled by Lil’ Jon (for crying out loud), it’s permeated the culture to such a degree that it’s now easy to forget what a huge impact the piece had in its original context, and indeed how fantastic Mansell’s score for the whole movie is. Teaming with crossover orchestral avant stars the Kronos Quartet, it’s actually, the central theme aside, a rather haunting, subtle, minimalist piece of work, consistently surprising, and the perfect accompaniment to Aronofsky’s bruising film.
5."Jon Brion —"Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004)
If wistful-looking, over-exposed footage from your childhood were distilled into music form, this is what it would sound like. Jon Brion's crestfallen collection of 17 pieces (clocking in at a little under 30 minutes) manages to convey something so universal, a personal and memory-filled swirl of heartsickness like you've never heard before. To take just one example, the one minute masterpiece, “Phone Call” plays two guitars quietly through a gramophone as a sorrowful string section sways beneath them. This simple two-chord motif so beautifully and clearly illustrates Joel's confused but earnest love for Clementine as he first calls her that to show it any other way would have felt somehow lacking. From the sad existential wisdom of “Row,” to the gentle assurance of hope in “Bookstore” each track manages to fit the subtext of its scenes so inextricably that, without them, you feel like you aren't being told the entire romantically sad story.
4. The RZA — "Ghost Dog" (2000)
We'll admit it, one of our biggest flubs in our Best of Decade picks was not including Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" in our Best of 2000 picks (we saw it in 1999 at the Toronto Film Fest which threw us off, but retroactively added it to our honorable mention section where it belongs). One of the most striking elements of the compelling ninja assassin drama and absurdist comedy is the inspired and groundbreaking use of hip-hop used to juxtapose the sleek, mysterious and enigmatic presence of the title character (superbly rendered by Forest Whitaker). Composed by the RZA, producer of The Wu-Tang Clan, the minimalistic score — all hip-hop beats with evocative Shaolin-like samples and Chinese instrumentation — only feels slightly dated almost 10 years later. It's still one of the most extraordinary, imaginative and innovative pieces of score music used in a film all decade.
3. "Yann Tiersen — Amelie" (2001)
In "Amelie," Jean-Pierre Jeunet rebounded from the grim phantasmagoria of his American debut "Alien Resurrection," with a charmingly earthbound romantic comedy. Still, he got to indulge his love for fantasy by creating a dreamily make-believe Paris in which true love blossoms like a candy-colored flower. Yann Tiersen's score was the perfect musical accompaniment — light, airy, both woebegone and strangely jubilant, it was the soundtrack to walking in the streets of a Paris-that-really-isn't. It's not often that a score can pull off accordions and still work, but by god if this quixotic little revelry didn't do just that. Just like the movie, Tiersen's magical compositions (with an assist from the Divine Comedy on one track) captures the ache of a broken heart and the glittery transcendence of falling in love, often at the same time.
2. Jonny Greenwood — "There Will Be Blood" (2007)
When it was announced that Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood would be providing the score to Paul Thomas Anderson's period epic about the oil industry, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Inspired by commission, Greenwood apparently wrote hours worth of music that was eventually whittled down to a very concise, very powerful thirty three minutes. Drawing inspiration from atonal, avant composers such as Penderecki, Gorecki and Bartok (and the disquieting horror show that was Kubrick's "The Shining" which utilized all these composers), Greenwood's score is a besieging and unnerving work that matches the drive and eroding sanity of Daniel Plainview's fathomless ambition. Disqualified from Academy consideration for using portions of Greenwood's previous composition, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, "There Will Be Blood" is nonetheless a uniquely singular work that distinguishes itself from the grind of homogenized period scores churned out of the Hollywood machine.
1. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis — "The Assassination of Jesse James" (2007)
Achingly dolorous, reflective and funereal, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' elegiac score to one of the moodiest and most somber mainstream films ever released since Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" — Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James" — is a breathtaking piece of work. Using repetitive motifs, melancholy and magical glockenspiel twinkles and bereaved, wailing fiddles, Cave & Ellis' praire-barren compositions are the sound of a decaying America and a moribund era. A fitting theme for the foreboding and eventual death of the original gangster.
Perhaps it needs to be seen in context, but the opening of Hsiao-hsien Hou's "Millennium Mambo" — in some ways a kind of somnambulant Hong Kong version of "Lost In Translation" about a female protagonist lost in life — with its swirling, circular techno theme, "Pure Person" by Lim Giong is such an incredibly affecting beginning to a film and such an evocative wonder to behold.
We could probably go on here forever, but we're trying to keep it simple and efficient (and we're doing it in order, so you could see this as #26 and beyond): T-Bone Burnett's dustbowl-era score and soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' "O Brother Where Art Thou?" is obviously first-rate; Mark Mothersbaugh's coruscating and enchanting score to Wes Anderson's "Royal Tenenbaums," which is obviously influenced by Christmas music; Yeong Wook Jo's unforgettable score for "Old Boy" and "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" ("The Last Waltz" and 'Sympathy's closing theme are especially stunning); Elliot Goldenthal's excellent work for "Frida" which earned itself an Academy Award for best original score; Howard Shore's wonderfully grand score to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy; the luminous "House of Flying Daggers" score by Shigeru Umebayashi; the Tindersticks smoky and evocative score for Claire Denis' "Trouble Every Day"; Almost anything that Michael Nyman touches is beautiful; David Holmes working under the name Free Association created an evocatively blurry and droney score for the sci-fi romance "Code 46" by Michael Winterbottom; Clint Mansell's lugubrious and grandiloquently venerable work on "Moon"; Michael Linnen and David Wingo's plaintive and wistful scores to both "George Washington" and "All The Real Girls" were both wonderfully expressive; J.Spaceman from Spiritualized and the Phoenix, Arizona, experimental rock group, the Sun City Girls' score to Harmony Korine's best film, "Mister Lonely," was certainly tender, thoughtful and entrancing; the very underrated and probably completely unnoticed ambient score by Asche & Spencer for "Monster's Ball"; Thomas Newman's estimable work on "Road to Perdition"; Dario Marionelli's inventive, diegetic sound-crossing over for "Atonement" (which won the Oscar in 2008); Hans Zimmer's epic themes for "Gladiator."
Michael Kamen's glory-filled compositions for the excellent HBO mini-series, "Band of Brothers"; Eddie Vedder's original songs for "Into The Wild" are fine, but it's actually Michael Brook's rustic and pastoral acoustic score that gives the movie its true heart. Max Richter's classicist and haunting score to "Waltz With Bashir" is sublime. Alexandre Desplat's score for Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is quite captivating and endearing and will certainly make any Best-of-2009 music list we make; Jon Brion's organ-centric quirk for "Punch-Drunk Love"; David Torn's unreleased ambient score to "The Wackness" is super underappreciated and his work on "Lars & The Real Girl" is quite nice as well, Michael Giacchino's whimsical, evocative and distinctly European score for "Ratatouille"; James Newton Howard's "Unbreakable," Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control" has an excellent drony score by his own band, Bad Rabbit, Johan Söderqvist's moody and atmospheric scores to "Let The Right One In" and "Brødre" are both very remarkable. — RP, Kevin Jagernauth, Alish Erman, Drew Taylor, Stephen Belden and Oli Lyttelton