Rarely can music be as grandiose, awe-inspiring and thematically complex than with movie scores. The very nature of cinema allows for nearly endless possibilities when it comes to setting music to scenery, characters and situations. Some scores end up iconic, hugely successful and win Academy Awards; others are never commercially released and their legacy survive only by word-of-mouth from enthusiasts. In honor of the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony on March 2nd, here are a selection of my personal favorite movie scores (note: I realize this list will be sci-fi/fantasy heavy, but I have been trying to expand my horizons. Bear with me…):
1. Danny Elfman – Batman
One of modern action cinema’s most recognized themes, Elfman’s score to one of the cornerstones of the superhero genre still remains a classic 25 years later. While the film itself may be more remembered for its marketing blitz than critical accolades (that level of respect goes to Returns), the trademarks of Elfman’s style are all here: simultaneously pompous and upbeat, while on the flip side, dark and brooding just like the man behind the batcape. If Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was Elfman’s great debut into the world of film scoring from his time in Oingo Boingo, Batman (and around the same time, The Simpsons) cemented his reputation as one of the greats.
2. Thomas Newman - Finding Nemo
Just as the film became an instant animated classic, so too did the soundtrack become one of Newman’s most creative and textured pieces of work. The sheer amount of musical variety and instrumentation make this one a winner.
3. Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil - Cloud Atlas
One of the richest, most satisfying scores of the past few years, co-director Tom Tykwer joins regular collaborators Klimek and Heil for a heartwrenching, genre-spanning masterpiece that’s every bit as ambitious as its accompanying film. (Even the people who hated the film admitted the soundtrack was great, a testament to the composers’ abilities). Classical Hollywood, ambient, electronica and jazz styles are just a few features of this remarkable endeavor.
4. Nigel Westlake - Babe
Taking its major cue from Saint-Saens’ “Symphony No. 3″, Westlake’s orchestration is surprisingly full of depth for a children’s film. Plus, who doesn’t like chipmunk-voiced mice singing “If I Had Words?”
5. Hans Zimmer - Inception
BRAHHHHHHMMMM. Actually, the iconic brass fanfare (known in film circles as “The Horn of Doom”) attributed to Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi headtrip was not written by Zimmer; little-known composer Zack Hemsey scored the music, appropriately titled “Mind Heist”, to the film’s trailers. While the Horn of Doom has, by this point, been overused in every film trailer and action movie score known to man, Zimmer’s actual compositions for Inception are much more subtle (Alfred Pennyworth quote there, ha!) and build to a stunning emotional climax by the film’s top-sy-turvy end (see what I did there?). As popular as he is, criticism of Zimmer’s style began to build over the 2000′s as detractors felt he was making the same action beats over and over again, but Inception proved he still had it in him to produce an original, fulfilling score worthy of an Oscar nomination (which it received in 2010). Then he had to go and make The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel. Oh well.
6. Cliff Martinez - Drive
To complement Nicolas Winding Refn’s tale of a emotionless getaway driver amid the streets of L.A., Martinez’s sleek, electronic 80′s-inspired score is moody and always has something bubbling beneath the surface.
7. David Newman and Van Dyke Parks - The Brave Little Toaster
A kids’ film that features an exploding air conditioner, a killer clown and a junkyard magnet of death must require music that reflects the darkness (and eventual light) of the characters’ journey, both physical and emotional. Newman’s score, one of his very first, more than qualifies. Along with well-written showtunes from Van Dyke Parks that cover a variety of styles, The Brave Little Toaster should be ranked among the more timeless scores that reflect the basic human need to connect and belong. Even when that need is exhibited by talking appliances.
8. John Williams - A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Another grand score that deals with the relationship between humans and their machines, Williams’ cues for the famous collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick accurately reflect the sentiments and emotional depth of each legendary filmmaker, and therefore A.I. itself. The 10-minute long track “Stored Memories/Monica Dreams”, beginning with its absolutely haunting choir, provides a perfect fit for the last (somewhat controversial) quarter of the film. Often overshadowed by Williams’ other, more popular scores (do I really need to list them?), the soundtrack to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence finds the human touch in its story of a robot who wants to journey to the land “where dreams are born”.
9. Carter Burwell - Twilight
Whatever you may think of the film itself (and, make no mistake, it’s not the greatest film in existence), Burwell’s indie-flavored score to the famous (infamous?) revisionist-vampire love story is intelligent and crafted with the best intentions. An unconventional use of churning electric guitar and the famous piano motif of “Bella’s Lullaby” are the music’s most defining features. Known mainly for his work with the Coen Brothers, Burwell straddles the line between understated acoustic atmosphere and pulse-pounding action cues quite nicely.
10. James Horner - Avatar
Continuing his longtime collaboration with director James Cameron, Horner’s bombastic, worldly themes made for the current highest-grossing film of all time is appropriate and filled with epic grandeur. Criticisms of Horner’s tendency to copy himself from other scores may be valid, but what matters the most here is how well he integrates ethnic flavors, vocal chanting and tribal percussion within the framework of a traditional sci-fi action score. It may not be the most original property on the block, but I’ll be darned if it isn’t rousing and spiritually satisfying. “I See You”, indeed.
11. Steven Price - Gravity
The most recent musical achievement on this list and another score set to a visually-innovative story. While listening, you’ll feel just as dizzy and claustrophobic as Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone navigating the inky blackness of space. Seriously though, don’t drink or eat a bunch of food before blasting this one. You’ll just feel nauseous. (I have not tried listening to this while on certain substances; if you are a purveyor of such daring and risky endeavors, let me know how it goes). And that is perhaps the point and the genius of Price’s score: to mimic the main character’s disorientation and exasperation until she finds more solid (thematic) ground. Perhaps the first score to utilize backwards-recorded instrumentation to such a large extent, Gravity (both the movie and the score) is a technical marvel with a giant, beating heart beneath it.
12. John Williams - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Few scores (and film franchises) are as beloved as Harry Potter. Though the series presents music by four different composers over the course of eight (ok, seven) films, each respective composer was able to add his own individual flavor and themes to the accompanying movie. John Williams’ scores to the first three HP films are consistently ranked as some of the series’ best, and it is on the third of these three, Prisoner of Azkaban, where Williams’ considerable talents shine the most. Careening from manic jazz (“The Knight Bus”), quirky Medieval-inspired pieces (“Double Trouble”) and heavenly, ethereal choir (“The Dementors Converge”), PoA covers the musical spectrum and conveys its title character’s maturity with thematic consistency and coherency. Few fantasy scores are quite like this one.
13. Michael Giacchino - Star Trek
J.J. Abrams’ thrilling prequel/reboot to the sci-fi series that started it all would be nothing without Giacchino’s loving homage to Alexander Courage’s original title theme for the TV series. By turns epic, tender and tenderly epic, the score to Star Trek is a well-orchestrated throwback to the days when sci-fi scores were classically influenced, with an eye toward the future. A thrilling addition to Giacchino’s filmography, after his well-known work on The Incredibles and Lost.
14. Thomas Newman - WALL-E
Collaborating again with Nemo director Andrew Stanton, Newman one-ups himself in the genre of animated films and creates his most romantic work since his Oscar-winning American Beauty. A plucky robot hero needs a plucky theme, and the score emulates WALL-E’s optimism and curiosity, as well as his intial loneliness. Again, Newman makes use of idiosyncratic and out-of-this-world sounding instruments, and grounds them in emotional resonance. The beloved scene where WALL-E and Eve dance around the spaceship (“Define Dancing” on the soundtrack) is a marker of how much film music can actually contribute to a scene (fun fact: Peter Gabriel co-composed this love theme with Newman, in addition to creating the movie’s end credits song, “Down to Earth”).
15. Marco Beltrami - Knowing
Although I feel the film is widely misunderstood (Roger Ebert seemed to be one of the few who appreciated it as much as I did), the tension, paranoia and ultimate beauty created in this score make it my personal all-time favorite. Taking large influence from Bernard Herrmann’s scores of the 50′s (most specifically, Vertigo), but adding his own percussive spin to the proceedings, Beltrami masterfully introduces themes and leitmotifs, develops them with nuance, layers all these elements, turns them on their head and sparks transcendental fireworks by the end of the film. What other composer can boast writing an action cue in a 13/8 time signature, and make it sound heart-pounding? These are just some of the reasons why Knowing needs to be more well-known.