It goes without saying that movie music has come a mighty long way in the last 100 years or so, but the first two decades of the 21st century have nevertheless been an extraordinarily active and evolutionary stretch of time for film scores. Without discounting the bold and formative achievements of old masters like Bernard Hermann and Toru Takemitsu, it’s fair to say that the rise of independent cinema and the challenge of the digital age have provoked a true paradigm shift in how we think about musical accompaniment.
Rock and avant-garde musicians like Jonny Greenwood and Mica Levi have used narrative projects as inspiration to explore new facets of their genius, while more traditional composers such as Alexandre Desplat and Carter Burwell have risen to the challenge by delivering the most beautiful work of their careers. Indeed, some of the very best movie scores in recent memory (including the one at the very end of this list) don’t reinvent the wheel so much as they perfect it.
In determining the 25 Best Movie Scores of the 21st Century, we’ve inevitably had to wrestle with what greatness really means when it comes to original film music. Is a great scored determined by the power and indelibility of the music on its own, or should the only legitimate metric be how that music serves the movie for which it was written? For us, the answer was a little bit of both. On the one hand, there’s never a bad time to pop on Dario Marianelli’s score from “Jane Eyre.” On the other, Oneohtrix Point Never’s contributions to “Good Time” aren’t exactly easy listening, but it’s impossible to imagine that movie without them.
Here are IndieWire’s 25 Best Scores of the 21st Century.
25. “The Hours” (Philip Glass)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a contemporary composer more suited to scoring a movie about Virginia Woolf than Philip Glass. Both pioneers of the avant-garde, Woolf’s prose can sometimes be as opaque as Glass’s cyclical compositions. Where Woolf found life in the banalities of daily life, Glass finds beauty from repetition. Both artists leave an indelible imprint on the reader or listener. Ironically, the score to Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours” represents some of Glass’s most accessible work, favoring delicate melodies over droning cacophonies. Each refrain swells into a cascade of ideas, a musical representation of the inside of Woolf’s troubled and brilliant mind. — JD
24. “Catch Me If You Can” (John Williams)
The script that lead to the 20th collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams featured no menacing foe, like a shark or an SS tyrant. “Catch Me If You Can” is about gifted con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), barely out of boyhood, and being tailed by an FBI agent (Tom Hanks) who’s starting to like him (the feeling was likely mutual – Abagnale Jr. eventually went to work for the federal government). In behind-the-scenes commentary, Williams described his jazz-inflected score as “a sort of bonbon…it’s light, it’s amusing, and entertaining.” Many beats waver slightly – as tough to seize as the intrepid New Yorker who made millions posing as a doctor, a pilot, a lawyer. Williams’s melodies are a send-up of flirting with disaster, for which he earned his 42nd of 50 Oscar nominations to date. — JM
23. “Mudbound” (Tamar-kali)
“Strings, darkness, and intimacy.” Those were Dee Rees’ words of instruction for Tamar-kali when she entrusted the polyphonously talented Brooklyn native to write the music for “Mudbound,” and “strings, darkness, and intimacy” is exactly what she got when the finished recordings were delivered to her just five weeks later. Using the groan of a contrabass to capture the stagnant quality of the film’s Mississippi Delta setting, Tamar-kali built a stunningly evocative soundscape that anchors the sprawling plot to a particular stretch of land in the deep South.
Moments of levity jump out of the higher registers like flickers escaping a fire, but the music always returns to that low rumble, those strings absorbing all manner of hardship and violence. That consistency only makes Tamar-kali’s final tracks more powerful, as the torture of “Missing Letter” gives way to the divine transcendence of “…But for Love.” — DE
22. “A Ghost Story” (Daniel Hart)
There’s literally no such thing as a David Lowery movie without a Daniel Hart score — every one of the director’s features, stretching all the way back to 2009’s micro-budget “St. Nick,” has been made in collaboration with the Dark Rooms frontman. That collaboration has been instrumental to the rich mood and rustic energy of films like “Ain’t them Bodies Saints” and “Pete’s Dragon,” but Hart’s music is at the very soul of “A Ghost Story,” these creaking songs tasked with nothing less than conveying the sound of eternity.
So what does eternity sound like? For Hart, it’s beautiful but also a little stagnant, the music wheezing with awe like it’s always right on the edge of a great discovery. Each piece feels like a distant echo of the soaring Dark Rooms song that Casey Affleck’s character records before he dies; the ominous expanse of “Thesaurus Tuus” offers more queasy future shock than anything you’ll hear in “Blade Runner 2049,” while the poppy loops of “Safe Safe Safe” achieve a sense of cosmic acceptance that allows you to hum along in time. — DE
21. ”The Revenant” (Ryuichi Sakamoto)
Main composer Ryuichi Sakamoto said it best: “The amount of music for this film is just gigantic.” Sakamoto was more directly referring to his choice to bring on additional help in the form of frequent collaborator Alva Noto (along with The National’s Bryce Dessner), but the sentiment stands when considering the full breadth of the score for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stunning 2015 survival tale. The filmmaker was hailed for using a different kind of musician — Sakamoto is best known for his work on electronic music — for a period-set historical drama, but there’s still a strong sense of tradition in Sakamoto’s sweeping score, which blends both more expected strings and unique electronic elements to kit out an album that is both intimate and daringly, well, gigantic. It’s big enough to encapsulate the wide Western plains and the tremendous pain of Hugh Glass, but propulsive enough to drive forward through some of the filmmaker’s most horrific action sequences. It is, however, mostly just sharp, stinging, and surprising. It’s never the same, but it’s always clearly part of one massive whole. — KE