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The 25 Best Movie Scores of the 21st Century

From "There Will Be Blood" to "Under the Skin" the last 18 years have given us some of the most memorable music ever written for the movies.

Best Movie Scores of the 21st Century

20. “The Childhood of a Leader” (Scott Walker)


“The Childhood of a Leader” might be set in 1918, but it sure sounds a lot like 2016. Written by art pop god Scott Walker (as opposed to embattled Wisconsin governor Scott Walker), the score for Brady Corbet’s directorial debut begins with 17 seconds of an orchestra tuning up, as if warning you to brace for what’s to come. And when the first strains of Walker’s panicky accompaniment slice into the soundtrack like Penderecki having a heart attack, the strings cutting into archival footage of World War I troops marching in deadly formation, you’ll be glad for the warning.

Corbet’s unnerving coming-of-age film is a troubled look inside the formative experiences of a young boy with a dark future. But rather than paint a reductive portrait in which every adult psychosis can be clearly traced back to a childhood trauma, the director relies on Walker’s score to articulate the rage that foments inside his pint-sized protagonist. The music charges around with authoritarian confidence: In one piece, a violent insurgency of strings crashes into a war balustrade of trumpets. In another, the ratatat of a printing press assumes a militaristic beat you can dance to. Every brief respite that Walker writes into this sonic nightmare is meant to lull us listeners into a false sense of safety, meant to make us relax so that we can feel when the hairs on the back of our neck go stiff again. — DE

19. “Swiss Army Man” (Andy Hull & Robert McDowell)


The story of a suicidal man on a desert island who farts his way to freedom by discovering a hyper-flatulent corpse and riding it across the ocean like a gas-powered jet ski, “Swiss Army Man” shouldn’t even exist, let alone cohere into a movingly humanistic movie about all the things that make life worth living. But cohere it does, its every aspect tuned in to the same wonderfully demented wavelength. And that goes doubly or triply true for its soundtrack.

Written by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (better known as the lead singer and guitarist of the confusingly named Atlanta rock band, Manchester Orchestra), this brilliant suite of music is performed entirely a cappella — when it came to writing the perfect accompaniment for a movie that celebrates the beauty and ridiculousness of the human body, people were the only instruments that Hull and McDowell needed to use. The finished product is a lightheaded fog of hushes and harmonies, recalling Björk’s incredible “Medulla” in how intricately it layers different voices into rich sonic textures. Two of those voices belong to stars Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano, who sing ethereal covers of everything from “Cotton Eye Joe” to the theme from “Jurassic Park,” improvising their own lyrics when necessary. It’s fun, it’s strangely emotional, and — in the case of “Montage,” the best new song written for any film in 2016 — it’s impossible to get out of your head. — DE

18. “Belle” (Rachel Portman)


Rachel Portman’s string-heavy score for Amma Asante’s thrilling period piece echoes its eponymous lead in style and structure — old-fashioned and lovely, surprisingly strong and soaring. Asante’s film follows Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Dido Elizabeth Belle as she tries to come into her own, despite the oppressions of 18th century Britain and her outsider status due to her mixed-race heritage. Belle’s existence is ostensibly one beholden to high society standards — giving Portman space to work in more traditional strings and woods — but as she grapples with the sense that she still doesn’t quite belong and falls in love with a man who she might not ever be able to be with, it gives way to stronger tones and more racing notes. Such a full story to track is surely a gift for any composer, and Portman doesn’t waste a note, making the “Belle” score a full-spectrum affair that seems both charmingly appropriate for the era and genuinely forward-thinking in its make-up, just like the heroine it attempts to turn into song. — KE

17. “The Fountain” (Clint Mansell)

Arguably Darren Aronofsky’s most ambitious (and under-appreciated) movie, “The Fountain” is the filmmaker’s most abstract work, a mishmash of time-spanning sci-fi and spiritual yearning that’s best appreciated as a collection of moods. Clint Mansell’s score is the driving force behind this ponderous movie’s mysterious aura, with a pair of unlikely collaborators that reflect the movie’s tonal soup. “The Fountain” veers from the moody strings of the Kronos Quartet to the hard rock shadings of Mogwai as the tale of a husband coping with his wife’s untimely death transforms into a space odyssey with swirling nebulas and cosmos. At once awe-inspiring and understated, Mansell’s achievement clarifies the nature of Aronofsky’s intentions by giving the movie an ethereal quality that defies precise definition. —EK

16. “The Painted Veil” (Alexandre Desplat)


“The Painted Veil” is the kind of sumptuous period melodrama that we used to take for granted, a straightforward W. Somerset Maugham adaptation that’s short on novelty and long on style. Nothing sums up the film’s pleasures more eloquently than Alexandre Desplat’s lush and quicksilver score, which is so expressive that the rest of the film could be silent and you’d still understand every beat of this story about a shrill man and his cheating wife moving to rural China and rekindling their love against the backdrop of a deadly cholera epidemic. Collaborating with the Chinese piano prodigy Lang Lang, Desplat delivers a flowing body of music that captures the violence of betrayal, the beauty of working through it, and the beguiling waltz of two people moving together through time. — DE

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