Hasitha Fernando on the top film scores of the 2010s…
To say a film’s score is an integral aspect of it is a gross understatement. The right score can do a lot of things. It can elevate a film from the realm of mediocrity to the extraordinary, breathe life into characters, augment the emotional impact of the narrative and in some instances, metamorphose into the most memorable and defining aspect of the film itself; taking on a life of its’ own. The past decade saw many a talented film composer being whisked away from us. Notable of which is the passing of American composer James Horner, whose critically acclaimed work on James Cameron’s Titanic garnered him an Academy award in 1997. Icelandic electronica artist turned composer Johann Johannsson, who scored The Theory of Everything and Sicario, is another talent who passed away before his time.
In compiling this list, the music heard within the context of the film and its effectiveness as a separate album were both taken into consideration and individual composers have not being included more than once. That being said, here’s my list of the top 15 scores of the decade.
How to Train Your Dragon (John Powell)
John Powell first appeared on my cross-hairs for his musical contribution to the X-Men: The Last Stand film. But nothing, I mean nothing, will prepare me for what he had in store for me with How to Train Your Dragon. On many an occasion I found myself searching for my jaw on the floor while listening to the album. The seamless marriage of orchestral, choral and exotic instrumentation featured here is absolutely astounding and the resulting tapestry of sound, is reminiscent of Erik Wolfgang Korngold’s epic music from Hollywood’s Golden era of film. There is a distinct Celtic-flavor to the overall score despite the stories’ Scandinavian roots but never for a moment did it serve as a distraction, in the context of the film or album, which is saying something. And although Powell went on to duplicate this successful formula for its sequel, this still remains, my personal favorite. Plus, the fact that it was able to shock Academy Award voters to bless it with a nomination too, is worthy of mention here.
Album Highlights: This is Berk, Romantic Flight, Test Drive, New Tail
TRON: Legacy (Daft Punk)
Say what you want of Joseph Kosinski’s TRON: Legacy, but if there’s one thing they got right, is luring French electronic music-duo Daft Punk to score the film. And goddamn does it pay off in spades or what! TRON: Legacy marks the first instance this enigmatic pair had ever composed music for a feature length movie, but they step up to the challenge with panache and ease. Clearly influenced by the early works of Vangelis, John Carpenter and Hans Zimmer, the talented duo ends up crafting a uniquely beautiful 80’s-esque soundscape by the flawless, almost organic, merging of orchestral sounds with electronic-synthesizers. And to say that the score ‘perfectly’ complements the dazzling visuals unfolding on screen, would be quite the understatement, since imagining the film without it… is virtually unthinkable.
Album Highlights: Adagio for TRON, Solar Sailer, The Son of Flynn, The Game has Changed
Maleficent (James Newton Howard)
Maleficent kick-started the live-action re-imaginings of Disney which have plagued the cinemas ever since. In spite of the mixed reviews it received, Maleficent performed remarkably well at the box-office, chiefly receiving praise for its aesthetic appeal, of which James Newton Howards’ score was one of its main contributors. Along with Avatar: The Last Air Bender and Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, the past ten years saw some of the composer’s best works come to life. But Maleficent is undoubtedly his piece-de-resistance. Howard utilizes ethereal chorals to represent the joyous light-hearted aspects and accompanies the darker, action-heavy facets of the film with aggressive brass sections and thundering percussion. The gothic-quality of the choral and lush string works is evocative of Danny Elfman but by and large this is, one hundred percent James Newton Howard. One wonders what this talented composer would have accomplished with a project along the lines of Lord of the Rings…one wonders.
Album Highlights: Maleficent Suite, Maleficent Flies, Aurora and the Fawn, Prince Phillip
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Joe Kraemer)
Since the mid 90’s the Mission: Impossible franchise has been a revolving door for various modern-day music composers to showcase their talents, with each putting their own unique stamp on it. After Giacchino’s memorable run with two M:I movies, scoring duties were handed over to Christopher McQuarrie’s frequent collaborator Joe Kraemer. And boy does he step up to the challenge or what. This is without a doubt the most Schiffrin-esque score out of the previous films, functioning both as an homage to the original TV series, as well as being a throwback to the soundscape of spy-thrillers from that era. With literally no reliance on synthetic elements Kraemer instead went for a more old-school approach, employing a full-scale orchestra to bring his vision to life. In addition, interpolating Puccini’s Nessun dorma aria from Turandot was a pure stroke of genius. Long story short, look no further, for this is the definitive M:I film score of our generation. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Album Highlights: A400, Solomon Lane, Havana to Vienna, Finale and Curtain Call
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (John Williams)
It’s hard not to mention virtuoso John Williams when putting together a list for film scores. The guy was nominated a whopping six times at the Oscars within a span of a mere ten years and John Williams on a bad day is still better than most. But in spite of such notable highlights as War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and Lincoln, it’s hard to overlook the maestro’s triumphant return to the Star Wars universe with 2015’s The Force Awakens. The fact that even at the age of 83, he’s able to recreate the magic and nostalgia associated with this gargantuan franchise whilst conjuring memorable themes and motifs for the new characters introduced within the narrative, is testament for his crazy insane talent. No modern-day film composer possesses the musical storytelling prowess of Williams and he’s out in fall force here delivering yet another masterpiece. Let us hope that the Force will remain strong with this one, as he continues to churn out more beautiful music for us fans, before leaving these shores to a galaxy far, far away.
Album Highlights: The Scavenger, Follow Me, Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle, The Jedi Steps
War for the Planet of the Apes (Michael Giacchino)
The contemporary prequel-trilogy to the original Planet of the Apes franchise is truly something special. A rare instance where each movie in the ternion surpasses the other in terms of scope, ambition and storytelling. When director Matt Reeves took over directorial duties, he brought on board his usual collaborator Michael Giacchino to give a modern-day interpretation of the avant-garde soundscape crafted by the late Jerry Goldsmith for the original Planet of the Apes movies. With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Giacchino laid a strong foundation for his take on the franchise, but it is with War for the Planet of the Apes that he truly comes to his own while paying tribute to Goldsmith’s contribution to the franchise simultaneously. The score is a far cry from his other notable works this decade like Tomorrowland, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol or Jurassic World, being both a very somber and restrained affair. But sometimes less is so much more, and this rings true, especially in this instance.
Album Highlights: Assault of the Earth, Exodus Wounds, Paradise Found, End Credits
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Howard Shore)
Back in the late 90’s when Lord of the Rings was in pre-production, Howard Shore being hired to compose the soundscape for middle-earth raised many an eyebrow. Fast forward a decade later, there’s no one who’d refute Shore’s contribution those films. The man walked away with two golden nudies for Fellowship of the Ring & Return of the King respectively, going on to solidify his status as one of the greatest modern-day film composers of all time. Fast forward another decade later we have Shore returning to middle-earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Although the music is considerably less dark and doesn’t quite scale the dizzyingly high bar left by LOTR he does come damn near close to achieving the same greatness and, boy oh boy, it’s sheer unadulterated magic. A wide of advice though, try to get hold of the Special Edition versions if possible, to get the ultimate experience of what Shore has accomplished here.
Album Highlights: My Dear Frodo, The Hill of Sorcery, The White Council, The Edge of the Wild
Wolf Totem (James Horner)
James Horner was a big deal in the 90’s era, being responsible for composing a plethora of memorable scores including The Rocketeer, Casper, Apollo 13, Braveheart, Mask of Zorro and Titanic. But the few years prior to his tragic demise, saw Horner distancing himself from Hollywood and its ilk taking a three-year hiatus and making a return on 2015 to score the Chinese-French co-production Wolf Totem, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud. And what a triumphant return to form it was. This is pure vintage Horner and no one does sweeping epics better than he. Hints from his earlier works which range from Willow, Braveheart and even Troy is seen here. Beautiful, brutal and utterly haunting Wolf-Totem will be remembered as Horner’s last greatest work by his loyal fans. And it is indeed saddening that this talented composer was taken away from us, so soon.
Album Highlights: Leaving for the Country, A Red Ribbon, The Frozen Lake, Little Wolf
Ready Player One (Alan Silvestri)
Long have I waited for a score by veteran composer Alan Silvestri that would hearken back to his glory days of Back to the Future. My dream was at long last fulfilled in 2018 with Ready Player One. This is Silvestri unleashed, in its purest unadulterated form. And it is simply glorious. By composing the scores for Captain America: The First Avenger & Avengers, Silvestri made a significant contribution to crafting the soundscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it’s his inputs that still remain instantly recognizable to the casual listener, which is saying something. But all that pales in comparison to what Silvestri has to offer with Ready Player One. Just like the Steven Spielberg’s film, the album from start to finish, is one non-stop adrenaline-fueling thrill ride which never lets up on its energetic pace. No one, I mean no one, scores action material quite like this chap which makes him ‘the’ perfect choice for this action heavy sci-fi flick. Here’s hoping Silvestri will be afforded more opportunities like this to flex his creative muscles.
Album Highlights: Main Theme, Looking for a Truck, She Never Left, End Credits
The Shape of Water (Alexandre Desplat)
The past decade has been a pretty busy one for French composer Alexandre Desplat. It saw him being nominated a whopping eight times at the Academy Awards but also walking away winner on two separate occasions for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shape of Water. Both being much deserved wins for the talented composer it’s hard to decide which though, is the better score when heard in the context of the film, as well as on album. But in my personal opinion it is The Shape of Water which takes the trophy. Being a love letter to the romantic sound of yesteryear, replete with a Parisian flavour, the score truly captures the heart and soul of Guillermo del Toro’s weird dark fantasy and that’s no mean feat. The film traverses’ multiple genres ranging from gothic horror, campy romance to Shakespearean tragedy. And only a composer of Desplat’s calibre can pull of something this complex with such style and panache.
Album Highlights: The Shape of Water, Elisa’s Theme, Underwater Kiss, The Creature
Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
Interstellar was an ambitious film, even by Christopher Nolan’s high-standards. It was his version of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, made for our generation. For the most part Nolan succeeds with his lofty goal, crafting a thoughtful sci-fi flick with emotional heft. But one of the more memorable aspects of the film was Hans Zimmer’s score for it. And although Zimmer is a bit of a hit or miss for me, it’s hard to deny the integral role his music plays in the context of this film. The influences here range from Phillip Glass’s Koyaaniqatsi to the 2001: A Space Odyssey itself, with the latter being the most prominent. The utilization of church organs which swell gradually in tandem with the scenes unfolding on screen, are particularly reminiscent of 2001. But it’s when Zimmer exercises restraint and opts for a more minimalistic approach, that he wins my heart. And there are a fair number of instances he does that here, which work stunningly well with the more emotional aspects of the film. This was a busy decade for Zimmer with film scores like Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Dunkirk and Blade Runner 2049 under his belt. But Interstellar, in my opinion is his best effort, functioning as a tribute to his body of work thus far, as well.
Album Highlights: Cornfield Chase, Dust, S.T.A.Y, No Time for Caution
Black Panther (Ludwig Göransson)
In spite of the myriad achievements the films of the MCU have accomplished, not much can be said of its soundscape or the scores that accompany them. Save for Alan Silvestri’s significant contribution and Christophe Beck’s underrated score for Ant-Man, the rest are fabulously forgettable. Black Panther however changed all my preconceived notions. Unanticipated and unexpected I was completely blown away by what Ludwig Göransson has crafted here. To capture the distinct sound he desired, the composer researched Senegalese music extensively and enlisted the assistance of vocalist Baaba Maal. The resulting output is, a surprisingly authentic sounding score which compliments Ryan Coogler’s visual epic. And quite deservingly Göransson walked away with an Academy for Best Original score that same year. In short, thank you Mr. Göransson for injecting some much-needed life and colour, to the MCU soundscape. It really needed that.
Album Highlights: Wakanda Origins, Wakanda, Ancestral Plane, Killmonger vs T’Challa
The Wolfman (Danny Elfman)
There’s no modern-day film composer out there who can do pure Gothic-horror like Danny Elfman can. Tim Burton’s twisted Sleepy Hollow in 1999 allowed Elfman to explore his inclinations to the fullest resulting in a full-blooded horror score replete with haunting chorals and lush orchestrations. The Wolfman would be his follow-up to it 11 years later. Polish composer Wojciech Kilar’s score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula serves as an important influence to Elfman here, whose ultimate output is more or less a merging of the sounds of Dracula and his very own Sleepy Hollow. The main theme performed with strings is evocative of Christopher Young’s Drag Me to Hell them the year prior, but Elfman’s has a far stronger Easter-European-esque feel to it. This deliciously dark, brooding, and vibrant score certainly should get more love than it deserves. I cannot speak for Joe Johnston’s trouble ridden film but its score its truly something to behold.
Album Highlights: Wolf Suite Pt 1, The Funeral, Travelling Montage, Finale
If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell)
If Beale Street Could Talk follows an emotional love story set in 1970’s Harlem. Based on the book of the same name the film won numerous accolades for the powerful performances given by the leads, with actress Regina King nabbing the 2018 Academy Award for Best Supporting actress. But one aspect of said movie that may have been overlooked was Nicholas Britell’s beautiful score for it. To listen to it, is akin to being tucked inside a warm blanket on a cold winter’s eve. Influences range from Philip Glass to Ennio Morricone and even hints of Bernard Herrmann’s jazz-infused Taxi Driver can be heard. There is a warm, intimate quality to the work that instantly draws a listener in, from the get go. But of course, this is counterbalanced skillfully by equally moody, atmospheric aspects of the score which address darker more dramatic parts of the film. If Beale Street Could Talk? Then it would sing joyous praises for Britell’s effort here.
Album Highlights: The Children of Our Age, Agape, Eden, Eros
The Neon Demon (Cliff Martinez)
Ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez is one of those uniquely talented musicians who primarily work in the fringes, taking on offbeat indie projects and the occasional mainstream one when he feels like it. But what makes him unique is that whatever project he undertakes, the resulting output perfectly complements the film. No two Cliff Martinez scores are alike. Martinez’s score for Nicolas Winding Refn’s nightmarish psycho-drama Neon Demon, is therefore no different. Listening to it is an utterly surreal experience in itself, and if you, like me are a fan of dark 80’s synth-wave music you will relish this score with devilish delight. Just sit back, close your eyes as you allow yourself to be beguiled by these hypnotic symphonics and tumble down the rabbit hole, like Alice.
Album Highlights: Neon Demon, Messenger Walks Amongst Us, Runway, Something’s in My Room