As the title would imply, these are the movie scores (not soundtracks) that I most enjoy. And since I don’t want to pick favorites, I’ve ordered them by year of release. Also, if you haven’t already, check out Mr. Sculpin’s Top 12 List here. Enjoy!
The Godfather, 1972 – Nino Rota
From the opening theme to The Sicilian Pastorale, the music for The Godfather is just as iconic and enduring as the film itself. I’m not sure if this specific track is actually part of the film, but it certainly captures the chilling themes of the score (particularly around 2:45).
Presumed Innocent, 1990 – John Williams
To be honest, I don’t remember much of the score for the film. But the main theme is mesmerizing, so I felt it was worth including on the list. Played over an empty courtroom in the opening credits, it single-handedly sets the perfect tone for the preceding drama. Not to mention it shows a less bombastic side to John Williams.
Searching for Bobby Fischer, 1993 – James Horner
James Horner (RIP) is my favorite movie composer, in case you couldn’t tell from the cover picture. This may be one of his least known soundtracks, because it’s not a well-known movie. But the soundtrack captures every moment of the film flawlessly, no matter how mundane. This track perfectly accompanies a scene where the characters are playing speed chess – it picks up around 0:50.
The Shawshank Redemption, 1994 – Thomas Newman
Like The Godfather, the score enhances what is already a phenomenal film. And like James Horner, Thomas Newman will make several appearances on this list. While I love Zihuatanejo, this track gives me chills every time. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll avoid spoilers and say that this track plays during the triumphant ‘revelation’ – which it captures beautifully.
Gattaca, 1997 – Michael Nyman
This is one of the few soundtracks that can be emotionally exhausting to listen to – the themes are repetitive, making it hard to distinguish the tracks, and it’s almost entirely string instruments. But it’s a powerful backdrop for an underrated sci-fi noir drama, and it captures the frustration and endless fatigue of Jerome’s life perfectly.
The Truman Show, 1998 – Philip Glass and Burkhard Dallwitz
As my favorite movie, I thought it only fair to include it on the list. Given the wide range of genres that The Truman Show encompasses, it’s only fitting that there were two composers. Philip Glass provides minimalist, eerie, plucky tracks for the conspiracy-theory, horror, and surreal sequences. Burkhard Dallwitz’s more traditional style anchors the adventure, romance and escape sequences. And even so, the most memorable song is arguably the scene with the wall – which was the only contribution from Wojciech Kilar, a third composer on the project!
Erin Brockovich, 2000 – Thomas Newman
Like Searching for Bobby Fischer, the soundtrack for Erin Brockovich doesn’t draw any attention to itself. But it’s a fitting accompaniment to every scene, whether it be the heart-warming finale (333 Million), or an otherwise mediocre character-moving-the-plot-along scene (On the Plume).
A Beautiful Mind, 2001 – James Horner
This is my favorite of the three James Horner tracks on the list. The score is complex, haunting and inspiring – it brilliantly highlights the rich inner world of the protagonist. And while some may say it’s a loose ripoff of James Horner’s earlier works, I say, ‘who better to imitate than yourself?’ This track is my favorite, as it distinctly captures Nash’s descent into madness.
Wall-E, 2008 – Thomas Newman
While the film features some pre-existing tracks like Put on your Sunday Clothes and La Vie en Rose, Thomas Newman’s original score boasts a surprising variety of styles to match Wall-E’s epic journey. The dystopian introduction, 2815 A D; the bumbling protagonist’s theme, Wall-E; the elegant love interest’s theme, Eve; the grand spaceship reveal, The Axiom; the organized hustle and bustle of future humanity, 72 Degrees and Sunny; the romantic interlude, Define Dancing; and my personal favorite, the all-hope-is-lost climax: Fixing Wall-E.
Avatar, 2009 – James Horner
One of the high points of James Horner’s career, this is a singular success among sci-fi/fantasy soundtracks (and among Horner-Cameron collaborations). Just as James Cameron went to great lengths to build a culture and language for the Na’vi (courtesy of linguist Paul Frommer), so too did James Horner work to build a matching musical culture, with the help of ethnomusicologist Wanda Bryant. The score was nominated for Best Original Score the year it came out, but it lost to Up (and to borrow from Miss Congeniality, you can’t beat that).
The Martian, 2015 – Harry Gregson-Williams
I don’t know how best to describe the soundtrack beyond ‘refreshing’. It has a clear beginning/middle/end that lines up perfectly with the narrative; it has distinct, repeated themes; it ranges from pensive to bombastic in style without being jarring; and it’s one of the few scores where I enjoy listening to every single track (as opposed to one or two of the highlights).
Blade Runner 2049, 2017 – Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch
It was hard to choose between this, Inception, and Interstellar as my favorite Hans Zimmer OST. The score for BR2049 sounds like a spaceship is hovering above you – it’s deafening, impressive, and awe-inspiring when coupled with the sweeping dystopian vistas. Even the ‘quieter’ moments are overwhelming, like the track below.