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The Best Movie Scores of The 21st Century — IndieWire Critics Survey

From "The Grand Budapest Hotel" to "There Will Be Blood," our panel of critics hashes out the best movie music of the last 16 years.

Rooney Mara and Dev Patel in Lion


The Weinstein Company

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question:

Last Friday saw the release of Garth Davis’ “Lion,” the musical score for which is the gorgeous result of a collaboration between two giants of the neo-classical movement, Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka. It’s just the latest indication that we’re living in a fascinating, vibrant time for movie music, and December boasts a number of films that will only add more fuel to that fire. With that in mind, we asked our panel of critics to name their favorite film score of the 21st Century.

Tasha Robinson (@TashaRobinson), The Verge

There are some really striking contenders out there, topped by Susumu Hirasawa’s manic, bouncy score for Satoshi Kon’s anime phantasmigorica “Paprika,” the terrifically intense Disasterpiece score for David Robert Mitchell’s creepy horror film “It Follows,” and Ennio Morricone’s partially reclaimed, intensely driving old-school score for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” And then there’s the beautiful, mournful song selection T-Bone Burnett put together for the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and all the hilarious original folksongs in Christopher Guest’s “A Mighty Wind,” one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. But I guess if I have to pick just one, I’d go with Alexandre Desplat’s score for Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Like many of these other scores, it’s driving and intense, suitable to the sometimes manic action onscreen. But there’s a touch of frantic self-parody to the intensity that suggests that even while the characters are taking their adventures extremely seriously, we probably shouldn’t. I love the way Desplat weaves a few repeated themes in and out of the whole soundtrack, mirroring the way the story takes place in multiple timelines, but still follows certain parallel themes throughout. And I love the diversity of the soundtrack, which brings in everything from lutes to a men’s chorus to sand-shakers to strings in an attempt to round out a simple theme in a wide variety of ways. The music is catchy and memorable enough to have its own personality, and assert itself as part of the story.

READ MORE: How Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson Found A New Musical Language For “Arrival”

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance with Rolling Stone, Vulture, The Verge

When I’m walking through dark alleys, when I’m feeling especially paranoid on a vacant stretch of street, when I’m damn near certain that that guy with his hood up is following me, I hear Mica Levi’s prowling strings from “Under the Skin.” Soundtracks evince an uplifting swell or valleys of sadness all the time, but to hear music that is genuinely frightening, independent of its visual accompaniment — that’s a rare thing (for musicians that aren’t Karin Dreijer Andersson). Forget that the timbre of the violins sounds like scratching on the inside of your skull; the fear comes from the unearthly, unnatural quality of the music overall, a fitting counterpoint to alien ScarJo’s whole “streetwalker who fell to Earth” routine. Two-year-old-hot-take, or like, tepid-take: the pure uncut terror intrinsic to Levi’s score is the main cause behind the mass miscategorization of this existential sci-fi film as horror.

Christopher Rosen (@chrisjrosen), EW.com

This feels like an impossible ask. The best scores from the last 16 years — and there are many! — are towering achievements, diverse and fun and catchy and powerful. So I’ll cheat and give you two: Alexandre Desplat’s “Grand Budapest Hotel score,” and specifically the “Mr. Moustafa” cue, and Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ “Mistress America score.” Both are delightful.

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

Too many cool kids to choose from, all of them rewriting the rules: Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (“There Will Be Blood”) has taken a new orchestral path and never looked back; Iceland’s Jóhann Jóhannsson continues to supply grandeur to movies like “Sicario” and “Arrival”; and don’t forget those ageless punks Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (not to mention the flourishing Alexandre Desplat, having a glorious post-“Grand Budapest Hotel” moment). But the composer I can’t live without is Mica Levi, who, with her radical “Under the Skin” and now “Jackie,” mines dark psychology with a completely new language.

Jordan Hoffman (@jhoffman), The Guardian

I know saying Hans Zimmer is like stating “oh, Frank Gehry is my favorite living architect,” but even at the risk of being basic as hell, I’m going to say Zimmer’s “Interstellar.” Other than Duke Ellington’s “Anatomy of a Murder,” Miles Davis’ “Elevator to the Gallows” or, back when I was more into classical music, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, this is probably the composed original score I’ve listened to the most in the AS era (After Spotify.) How about good scores to bad films, huh? “The Theory of Everything” has a great score and that movie is a stinker down to its quantum elements! Back when Thrillist Entertainment Editor Matt Patches and I worked side-by-side in an office at the late UGO.com we used to listen to Daft Punk’s “Tron Legacy” songs non-stop, but that was somewhere between enjoyment and a goof.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

One of the (many) difficult things about answering this question is determining the proper metric for measuring the quality of a movie score. Are we talking about the best music, or are we talking about the music that best enriched the film for which it was written? The latter seems more pertinent, but the former is so much more relevant to my daily life — I can’t begin to imagine how many hours I’ve spent resting my head against a train window and listening to Alexandre Desplat’s flabbergastingly perfect scores for “Lust, Caution” and “The Painted Veil,” but it’s enough that hearing them in the background during those films is a bit jarring, as though they’ve become too much a part of real life to be trapped behind a screen. On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said I busted out Mica Levi’s queasy “Under the Skin” score on my commute home every night, but it’s hard to imagine that movie without it. I guess the safest thing for me to do would be to stay on brand and go with Carter Burwell’s score for “Carol” — no piece of original film music has made me perk up and lean forward quite like the first strains of the track that plays over the opening credits, and no piece of original film music has flushed my entire body quite like the aching, unfulfilled final notes of the piece that completes that perfect final scene. It’s like standing outside on a cold winter day, pulling the collar of your shirt forward, and breathing hot air down into your chest (but, ya know, more eloquent than that).

Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Film School Rejects and Film Journal International

If I was answering this question in a few years, I would seriously consider Mica Levi’s unsettling, gorgeous score for “Jackie”. But I want to sit with it for a little while longer. For now, it’s a split between “The Social Network” (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross) and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (Nick Cave & Warren Ellis) for me. These are the film scores I frequently turn to. The former score especially was such a startling surprise the first time I saw “The Social Network”. I thought it added the film a whole other pulsating, disquieting dimension. A close third to these would be the score of “It Follows.”

Matt Patches (@misterpatches), Thrillist

Cue Hanan Townshend’s “Knight of Cups” cues as I stare blankly at my computer, lightly tapping the keyboard, wondering how the fuck to narrow down my favorites for this impossible question. I mean, the last few years alone have been ripe with film scores that mix the new and old — search Spotify for David Wingo (“Prince Avalanche”), Joe Hisashi (“The Tale of Princess Kaguya”), Mica Levi (“Under the Skin”), Rob Simonsen (“The Spectacular Now”), Abel Korzeniowski (“Escape from Tomorrow”), Heather McIntosh (“Z for Zachariah”), Daniel Hart (“Ain’t Them Body Saints”), Andrew Hewitt (“The Double”), Illan Eshkeri (“Still Alice”), Marco Beltrami (“The Homesman”), Devonte Hynes (“Palo Alto”), or Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight”) to see what I mean. If I have to pick, I’ll beg forgiveness from Jon Brion’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” score and settle on Alexandre Desplat’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a frolicking, melancholy race around Europe and ties tradition in knots. Keep in mind that “Man on Wire’s” impeccable soundtrack sourced old Michael Nyman tracks and that Carter Burwell’s Coen bros scores are all canceling each other out in my mind. Oh wait, John Williams’s “Catch Me If You Can” debuted in this millennium too. No, no, has to be “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Or Gustavo Santaolalla’s “Brokeback Mountain?” Or Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s “The Proposition” score? OK, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” don’t @ me.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics and Film School Rejects

I’m not a good judge of what’s a great film score. I don’t pay attention well aurally, so I don’t always notice them in the movie. And if I do notice it too much during the movie, that can be a distraction. But there are scores I like to listen to on their own, mostly the sort that also can be ignored in the background as I’m writing. Repetitive and ambient scores work best for that. But the one score that I really began writing heavily to does have a little more melody than I tend to go for, and it remains a favorite simply for being at the start: “Amélie.” I always enjoy the fact that Yann Tiersen includes typewriter sounds in one track, to go along with my work. I will also sometimes listen to Tiersen’s “Good Bye Lenin!” score as a very close substitute.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

This isn’t an especially good time for movie music, but it’s a great time for noticing movie music — consistent with the overall inflated attention to all pop-culture products, which, by the very fact of existing (and, even more, by the fact of succeeding), are widely deemed to be worthy of lengthy exegesis, and that in itself is the highest form of praise. Some time in the early sixties, John D. Rockefeller, criticizing Lincoln Center’s planned launch of the New York Film Festival, said, “Movies are like baseball.” Well, he was right in one way: a low score is often the most aesthetically pleasing one. The first movie music that came to mind is from Chantal Akerman’s “La Captive,” from 2000; remembering the music with delight, I consulted IMDb to see who composed it and found no name. But I was sure that there was a darkly lush orchestral sound to scenes of driving around Paris in a luxury car, to scenes set beside the crashing of the tragic ocean—and so there is: it’s a recording of Rachmaninoff’s “The Isle of the Dead.” There are also excerpts from a performance of Schubert’s “Arpeggione Sonata” by the cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, as well as a–forgive the jargon, diegetic — superb Mozart duet, from “Così Fan Tutte,” stripped of its orchestral accompaniment and sung by an opera singer and a non-opera-singer, Sylvie Testud. Not much music in it, but what’s there is memorable and essential, because it’s carefully chosen and perfectly placed — and because, above all, Akerman’s images are music in themselves.

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “Manchester By the Sea”

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