Music can make or break a movie, often being as important as each line of dialogue or each master shot. Here’s a sampling of some scores that I believe do a fantastic job of enhancing their respective films to incredible heights. Why 12? Because why not??
To limit the scope of amazing music, I’ve decided to omit any soundtracks primarily made of songs (i.e. musicals, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Graduate, etc.) as well as sagas (a la Godfather, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, A Fistful of Dollars) in order to highlight some movies that stand powerfully on their own. I’ve also omitted fantastic scores to movies I regrettably haven’t seen (such as Chinatown and Jackie). This list is a bit arbitrary as the order and selection changes all the time. Nonetheless, all are worth giving a listen to.
12. The Last of the Mohicans: Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman
I found this score to be rather clever. Beyond being employed very tactfully during this film’s most critical moments, The Last of the Mohicans’ score reflects a great blend of period-accurate tunes with modern film composition. At times it feels like a rally to battle, and ultimately features themes that are insanely catchy but not heavy handed or overused.
11. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey: Bruce Broughton
Despite my deep nostalgia taking over for this one, I have no remorse. Truth be told, Bruce Broughton is actually an underrated composer for other projects like the excellent Silverado, and interjects a lot of movements in this score that fit its core themes of high adventure, comedy, and desperation to find home. Homeward Bound is arguably the best dog movie to exist, and I think Bruce Broughton is partially to thank for that. Its a silly movie with a silly score, but if you can’t have fun with the whole experience or get the feels by the end, you need to check yourself.
10. Perfect Blue: Masahiro Ikumi
In a TOTAL opposite direction from Homeward Bound is this creepy composition. Perhaps as a surprise to most people who know me (since I’m not a huge anime buff) is the inclusion of this bizarre yet potent score. Perfect Blue, the film on which Black Swan is loosely based, is my favorite animated Japanese movie purely because of it’s psychological intrigue, borderline horror-level suspense, and artistic direction. The score channels the film’s terror with beats more akin to a 90s Björk album than a soundtrack, and for this reason helps elevate the edge-of-your-seat suspense. Standing alone, its almost too bizarre even for my taste, but fits so perfectly in the unsettling context of the film.
9. Arrival: Johann Johannson
You know that sinking feeling you get when approaching a new or scary situation? I’m sure the characters in Arrival felt the same way, and Johann Johannson’s score helps communicate this to the audience. Johannson made huge leaps in film scoring prior to his unfortunate passing, and Arrival’s ability to blend the film’s alien presence with our own world through music is a perfect example of his acute creativity.
8. The Incredibles: Michael Giacchino
I guess I’m already cheating my own rules since this has a sequel now. Aside from Star Wars, The Incredibles was the first movie that really made me realize how important a score is for setting a tone and telling a story. Michael Giacchino’s choice to focus this score on 60’s jazz beats allows for The Incredibles to stand far off as its own kind of superhero movie that omits itself from the clutter of most others in the genre. Its so stylish and fun that you can’t help but tap your foot along with the movie’s zany action.
7. Dances With Wolves: John Barry
Some scores are simply too beautiful or evocative of tone and scope to have much deeper explanation for being great. John Barry’s score for Dances With Wolves is exactly this. You can hear the sweeping Great Plains and the sounds of Tatonka bounding across the landscape. In a wide empty setting, this score fills a void with emotional composition.
6. Phantom Thread: Jonny Greenwood
Who knew that the lead guitarist of Radiohead was capable of writing scores that sound like Debussy? Director Paul Thomas Anderson apparently did, and utilized Jonny Greenwood’s surprising composition skills in a number of film projects. Phantom Thread, while being a bit overrated in my mind, has a score that is nearly breathtaking. Swooning strings and virtuoso piano pieces deliver an acutely impressionist tone to the film, and stands on its own as a beautiful piece of easy classical listening.
5. Sicario: Johann Johannson
Johann Johannson and director Denis Villeneuve score two points for the excellent Sicario soundtrack. It features the ominous dread in Arrival but amplified tenfold, only fitting for the film’s violent subject matter. The sound is brutalist and industrial, in-your-face but not distracting from each scene’s natural intensity.
4. Blade Runner 2049: Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch
Few sequels seem to improve upon their original counterparts. Although apparently its a “crime” to say that Blade Runner 2049 is better than the original, I guess its even worse to like the updated score better than the original by Vangelis. Nonetheless, there’s a certain added aggressiveness to this score that, while not nearly as unique as the original, just felt so slick and perfect for each of the film’s key moments that I cannot help but rank it highly. Its also a testament to Denis Villeneuve’s awesome musical taste.
3. Taxi Driver: Bernard Herrmann
Taxi Driver‘s score surprised me as much as the movie did. It is incredibly distinct in blending turn-of-the-century composition with mid 20th-century jazz. The result is a sound which truly channels the central theme of the movie. In the midst of deep strings that give anxiety and sleazy brass that reflects the seedy underbelly of 1970’s New York City is a constant attempt to communicate a classical sense of beauty, the main struggle that protagonist Travis Bickle faces.
2. Apocalypse Now: Carmine Coppola and Francis Ford Coppola
Of course this soundtrack was going to end up towards the top as its from my favorite movie. Over-budget and having conquered numerous herculean challenges, Francis Ford Coppola arrived to post-production of Apocalypse Now exhausted and spent. He had one requirement for the score: sound unsettling. Using simple synths, he and his brother Carmine succeeded immensely in my mind. There are sounds that vaguely reflect Southeast Asia mixed with “haunted circus” tunes, and this blend allows the score itself to sound like its descending into madness, reflecting the same plight of the crew sent to kill Colonel Kurtz.
1. There Will Be Blood: Jonny Greenwood
By far the most mind blowing score I’ve heard is Jonny Greenwood’s masterpiece composition for what may be the greatest film of the 21st Century. It sounds like it could be from a horror movie, but concurrently feels industrial and fitting for the time period. Deep swooning strings channel wide landscapes in one movement, then harsh adversity and anger in the next. It provides truly critical tone for the film. There are montages of “nothing” happening where antihero Daniel Plainview expands his oil enterprises, but the score kicks in to reflect every deep ounce of greed fueling Daniel to conquer the industry. It is beautifully integrated into the narrative and a fascinating listen on its own. Do NOT listen to the score before seeing the film. It is far too critical to be heard within the context of the movie on first listen.