The 2000s were a fine decade for film, and correspondingly a great decade for musical scores. Certain trends in film soundtracks became quite popular, notably Zach Braff’s indie mixtape formula so perfected in the music for Garden State and The Last Kiss (though most tout the former as his best, I prefer the latter). While mixtape soundtracks grew in prominence, certain composers rose to legendary status, notably Hans Zimmer, who by the decade’s conclusion had a prodigious body of work. In a world of increasing musical diversity, much is available to filmmakers in creating sonic backgrounds to their moving pictures.
The following list represents what I found to be the best in cinematic scores over the past decade. I’ve decided to narrow down my list specifically to scores, as comparing a soundtrack comprised of multiple songs by various artists to a body of music composed by one artist specifically for a film wouldn’t make for a fair list. Some of these soundtracks do feature a song that wasn’t written specifically for the movie, but all of the scores represented here are analyzed for their merit as pieces of music composed specifically for film.
10. Danny Elfman
Corpse Bride (2005)
As one of Tim Burton’s go-to collaborators, Danny Elfman has demonstrated his skill in the macabre. Elfman, along with Burton, had a great decade, but his best moment came in the minor masterpiece Corpse Bride, which for my money is Burton’s best foray into stop-motion animation. The soundtrack does feature original songs, such as the jazz-lounge ditty “Remains of the Day”, but the film’s instrumental score is equally good, and a further testament to the excellence of the Burton/Elfman collaboration. Elfman remains one of the most consistent composers in film music today, and Corpse Bride is but one of many reasons why directors have such an affinity for his talent.
Runner-Up: Big Fish (2003)
9. Javier Navarrete
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro’s magical realism masterpiece is well-known for its scenes of shocking brutality, but one of the most memorable things about the film is not its horrific violence, but instead its delicate score. The hummed melody that becomes the main motif of the film (“A Long, Long Time Ago”) is both haunting and gorgeous, its soft quality serving as a sharp contrast to the darker elements of the film. One of the central conflicts of Pan’s Labyrinth is Ofelia’s innocence being pitted against the evils of war and the darkness of the underworld from which she came, and Navarrete captures that struggle with the grace of a studied composer. The score to Pan’s Labyrinth is a subtle yet powerful evocation of the tenderness of youth as it faces the harsh realities of a world that has come to dismiss the value of childhood naïveté.
8. Philip Glass
Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
Philip Glass’ most lauded score came in 2006’s Notes on a Scandal, but I maintain that his overlooked contribution to Woody Allen’s equally overlooked 2007 film Cassandra’s Dream was where he truly shined. Though Glass has yet to clear the bar set by his 1980s masterpiece Koyaanisqatsi, Cassandra’s Dream still reveals Glass as a master of his craft. While not as minimalistic as most of his other work, Cassandra’s Dream does find the composer at his most thrilling; “The Pursuit & Murder in the Park”, which serves as background to one of the film’s most important moments, is a masterclass in building tension, just as “Death on the Boat” is a masterclass in capturing anguish. It’s amazing how brilliant scores by legendary composers can slip through the cracks of the critical gaze, but hopefully Cassandra’s Dream won’t succumb to that fate. Not everyone can handle Glass’ repetitive minimalism, but for those looking for a good introduction to the director that doesn’t have that many arpeggios, this score does the trick.
7. Hans Zimmer
King Arthur (2004)
Because of Zimmer’s vast output over the 2000s, any one of his excellent soundtracks could stand in here. Most would point to Gladiator as the director’s shining moment, but for me King Arthur’s soundtrack stands even above that exemplary score. Despite being critically derided, I enjoyed Antoine Fuqua’s take on the Arthurian legend, due in large part to how the film turned the tale into a moody, contemplative exploration of destiny and freedom. Zimmer’s brilliant score captured that mood throughout, particularly on the ethereal “Tell Me Now (What You See)”, a collaboration with Irish singer Moya Brennan. Given the breadth of scores in Zimmer’s oeuvre from the last decade alone, it’s hard to pick a favorite, so this one is winning out by a slim margin. That fact alone is a testament to Zimmer’s skill as a composer and his importance to cinema as a whole.
Runners-Up: Gladiator (2000) and Sherlock Holmes (2009)
6. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
The Dark Knight (2008)
Zimmer and Howard crafted a moody, atmospheric score to the first of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films (2005’s Batman Begins), and they pulled something of a 180 in the score for the 2008 sequel The Dark Knight. The score’s opening track, “Why So Serious?”, sets not just the overall tone for the soundtrack, but for the film as well. Beginning tensely with the sound of an atonal, shrill cello, the song then builds into bursts of frenetic electronics, capturing the mood of escalation that pervades the movie. The soundtrack varies from there, ranging from dramatic strings (“Harvey Two-Face”) to brooding, dark pieces (“Always a Catch”). With The Dark Knight, Zimmer and Howard proved that sometimes two heads are better than one, as they crafted one of the decade’s most jarring soundtrack experiences.
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5. Howard Shore
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
Dare I say that it would be criminal to not include these soundtracks on the list. These soundtracks’ booming themes and airy moments of tranquility helped shape what will stand as one of the best examples of cinematic storytelling; one cannot talk about the importance of these films without mentioning the epic scale of Shore’s contributions to them. Trying to pick out an analyze certain themes or melodies wouldn’t be quite helpful in discussing the overall brilliance of the score: while it’s near impossible to sit through them in their entirety (the “Complete Collection” runs over ten hours), the expansive nature of the music is that it should be experienced not in fragments, but as a cohesive whole. Few motion picture events can match the grandeur of Peter Jackson’s masterful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary classic, and likewise few film scores can match what Shore did here.
Runner-Up: The Departed (2006)
4. David Holmes
Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
The soundtrack to any of the three Ocean’s films could really stand in here, but for me the Euro-tinged score to Twelve is the best of the lot. Holmes’ jazzy contributions are as sharp as ever, particularly the glamorous “7/29/04 (The Day Of)”. What makes this score stand apart from the others is its inclusions of beautiful instrumentals like Piero Umiliani’s “Crepuscolo Sul Mare”. which was a song that helped contribute to one of the movie’s most memorable shots. Soderbergh had many such shots over the trilogy, such as when Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” played as the elevator doors shut on Andy Garcia’s character in Eleven. In Twelve, Soderbergh expertly captures the backstory of Rusty (Brad Pitt) as he falls in love with the inimitable Isabel Lahiri (Catherine-Zeta Jones), all the while Umiliani’s acoustic guitar weaves a romantic sonic background. Though the Ocean’s trilogy may not have been the most philosophically deep of Soderbergh’s films, they were definitely the director’s most fun works. With music like this and a cast of Hollywood A-listers, what’s not to like?
Runners-Up: Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Thirteen
3. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Andrew Dominik’s vast, scenic Western was overlooked after its release, but fortunately the brilliance of its soundtrack has lived on. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis had collaborated once before on the music for the Australian western The Proposition, but with the soundtrack to Assassination (seriously, how did the studio get away with a name that long?) the two musicians crafted what might stand as their finest work. The soundtrack is very intimate and mournful; though the film’s expressionistic landscape shots are vast, the music here is rooted in a small but nonetheless powerful performance. The soundtrack deftly balances the minor-key laments (“What Must Be Done”) to sweet, lullaby-like melodies (“Mary’s Song”). Cave and Ellis have crafted a soundtrack that packs an emotive punch, but that also works as an accessible piece of music. One of these days, pop this in your car’s stereo and take a drive through the countryside. It’ll make for a rather lovely afternoon.
2. John Murphy and Underworld
Danny Boyle’s 2007 science fiction masterpiece was, while critically praised at the time of its release, strangely forgotten by the decade’s conclusion. Yes, Slumdog Millionaire was the British director’s biggest moment, but in truth Sunshine is the better film. The scientific merits of the movie are no doubt ludicrous (one atom bomb having the ability to reignite the sun?), but its mix of philosophical exploration, theology, and–most controversially–horror is wholly memorable. The soundtrack by composer John Murphy and English electronic outfit Underworld serves as a captivating backdrop, providing an excellent balance of ambient, reflective pieces and powerful crescendos (the memorable theme “Adagio in D Minor”). Unlike many film soundtracks, this one incorporates dialogue from Sunshine to memorable effect, notably on the tense “Pinbacker Slashes Capa”. But the soundtrack’s (and film’s) greatest moment is the radiant “To Heal”, which is — for lack of a better word — transcendent. Music critics (myself included) overuse that word like no other, but here it’s the best description there is. Like the rest of the soundtrack, “To Heal” shines with the light of the beaming sun.
1. Clint Mansell
The Fountain (2006)
The objective critic in me could point out all of the great things about this score: the gorgeous, intimate nature of the recording, the minimalist motifs, the innovative mix of post-rock and chamber classical, and, most of all, the sheer emotive power of the music. The soundtrack’s performers, the Kronos Quartet and post-rock legendaries Mogwai, are in top form. But in my view, the score to The Fountain is more important experientially than analytically. This is a score that cuts to your emotional core, sometimes without you even noticing. I’ve never been able to casually listen to this record, for each time I’ve become immersed in its lush, golden beauty. (The movie, which featured a chiaroscuro of gold light and pitch-black darkness, is well-reflected by the score.) Though The Fountain remains one of my favorite films (and in my view Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece), I knew upon first viewing that it wasn’t one that everyone would love. Its Tomatometer is still split right down the middle, some calling it a masterpiece while others consider it confused. But one thing I knew for sure was incontestably great was Mansell’s hypnotic score that, while innately tied to Aronofsky’s film, stands alone as a masterwork of cinematic music. When the soundtrack reaches its climax in the finale of “Death is the Road to Awe”, it’s easy to see why I’ve placed it at number one. Its power is unparalleled, and its beauty unmatched.
Runners-Up: Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Moon (2009)