Film music has come a long way in the 100+ years since moving images were first accompanied with sound (synchronized or otherwise), but seldom has it ever evolved more radically or aggressively than it did over the last decade. Spurred on by digital technology and/or a general tone of cosmic dissonance, rock and avant-garde musicians like Jonny Greenwood and Mica Levi used narrative projects as inspiration to explore new facets of their genius, while more traditional composers such as Alexandre Desplat and Carter Burwell rose to the challenge by delivering the most beautiful work of their careers. Hans Zimmer went deep into outer space, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose plunged head-first into the abyss of being extremely online.
It was a great time to go to the movies, even with your eyes closed.
Earlier this week, IndieWire revealed our list of the 100 Best Movies of the Decade. Now, we celebrate the music that got those movies stuck in our head.
These are the 20 best film scores of the 2010s. This article is best enjoyed loud.
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20. “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
19. “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 Scott 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.
One of the decade’s most unnerving coming-of-age film, Corbet’s first feature 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
18. “The Tree of Life” (Alexandre Desplat)
It isn’t easy to score a Terrence Malick film. For one thing, you never know how much of your music will actually make it into the final cut, or when that cut might see the light of day. For another, your contributions will likely have to compete with several of the greatest orchestral compositions ever written, as Alexandre Desplat discovered when the brunt of the symphonic pieces he contributed to “The Tree of Life” were thrown aside in favor of timeless masterworks from the likes of Gustav Mahler, Hector Berlioz, and Johannes Brahms. It’s hard to compete with Brahms!
But Desplat, who tends to excel in a classical vein, delivered one of his best scores anyway. Malick may be ruthless, but he also has a way of finding the perfect images to make someone’s music feel transcendent (just ask Ennio Morricone). Desplat’s subtle, insistent arrangements lend a delicate forcefulness to Malick’s vision of the past, and layer a hushed awe over his glimpse of the future. The score is used sparingly, but it sometimes literally strings the movie together as Malick connects the dots between the Big Bang and Sean Penn. It’s a thing of quiet wonder, and a powerful reminder that Malick eventually gets the best out of his collaborators. —DE
17. “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 the average sci-fi film, while the poppy loops of “Safe Safe Safe” achieve a sense of cosmic acceptance that allows you to hum along in time. —DE
16. “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
15. “First Man” (Justin Hurwitz)
On “First Man,” it was composer Justin Hurwitz’s daunting task to find a sonic articulation of Neil Armstrong’s humanity; to build a two-way bridge between Armstrong as a pioneering symbol of American exceptionalism, and Armstrong as a grieving friend and father who had to reach the stars in order to make peace with the loved ones he’d lost to the heavens. To do that, Hurwitz made tremendous use of the theremin, using the spacey instrument to split the difference between humanity and technology. You can hear its aching warble front and center in the moments following Armstrong’s one giant leap for mankind, but it also sobs in the background of the track that first establishes Armstrong’s marriage with his wife Janet, like an echo from deep within the hole in their hearts.
At times, it feels as though Hurwitz is Armstrong’s only companion. Nowhere in the film is his score more present than in the Moon-landing sequence, a breathless crescendo that epitomizes Chazelle’s synesthesia-like approach to cinematic sound; the score is so completely bonded with the image that it almost feels as if you’re watching the music. —DE
14. “Jane Eyre” (Dario Marianelli)
The heart and soul of Cary Fukunaga’s brilliant and bleakly atmospheric 2011 version of “Jane Eyre,” Dario Marianelli’s haunted score doesn’t just distill the melancholy of life on the moors, it also doubles as perfect listening for a rainy Sunday afternoon train ride or a night of old-fashioned yearning.
Anchored by British violinist Jack Liebeck, Marianelli’s score is a very gray thing, gloomy even when it’s dressing up for a wedding. But there’s a powerful pulse underlying even the darkest of these tracks, the strings kicking around each other like violent windstorms as they ache for something we can feel without seeing. That’s a trick that will come in handy, if not for Jane then for the man she loves most. —DE
13. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin)
Whatever your thoughts on “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” it’s hard to deny that Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin’s rich and ecstatic score did much of the heavy lifting for that movie, pumping the indie breakout full of life with a suite of music that grabs you by the heartstrings and never lets go. From the trembling strings to the soaring horns to the gorgeous melodies that hold them all together, this intricate and emotionally pliant music creates an entire world in your head; it’s the sound of yearning and beautiful chaos and running through the end of the world with sparklers shooting out of each hand.
It was completely unsurprising that the “Beasts” score became a staple of television commercials, because it has the power to make everything on screen feel like the most essential thing on Earth. Director Zeitlin has been busy tinkering away on his next movie, but this score minted Dan Romer as one of the decade’s most in-demand composers; he’ll kick off the next decade by scoring the new James Bond movie. —DE
12. “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” — it’s impossible to get out of your head. —DE
11. “Good Time” (Daniel Lopatin)
How do you turn the most familiar city on the planet into a completely alien place? Electronic wizard Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) only needs a few jagged notes. His queasy and pervasive music for the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time” transforms the streets of New York City into a feverish synth nightmare, the cold beats chasing Robert Pattinson’s low-rent criminal from one corner of hell to another as he desperately tries to find a way out of the mess he’s made for himself.
Despite convulsing with echoes of everything from “Blade Runner” to “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” Lopatin’s “Good Time” score is ultimately unlike anything the movies have heard before. His paranoid soundscapes are like a wormhole into the hero’s addled mind, each of the score’s glitchy layers conveying a different one of his snowballing anxieties. Some of the pieces are noodling and conflicted (“Leaving the Park”), while others are so seductive they could almost be confused for Tangerine Dream (“Romance Apocalypse”), but all of them are strangely listenable for music so tinged with violence. By the time it finally caves into some kind of catharsis, you don’t know if you should sleep for five-to-ten years or flip back to the beginning and start it all over again. —DE
10. “You Were Never Really Here” (Jonny Greenwood)
Fresh off his majestic score for “Phantom Thread” — which he wrote after this — Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood re-teamed with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” director Lynne Ramsay for another of his inimitably dissonant symphonies. And thank God for that, because there’s no telling how long it might be until Paul Thomas Anderson gets around to his next movie.
“You Were Never Really Here” is a brutal, fractured story about a destabilized hitman (Joaquin Phoenix) who can only find himself through violence, at least until a similarly traumatized little girl offers him a chance for solace, if not salvation. Greenwood’s warped accompaniment is like a headache you can dance to. “Sandy’s Necklace” marries the Stravinsky-esque panic of “There Will Be Blood” to the surfer grooves of “Inherent Vice,” resulting in a piece that articulates a troubled cool that Phoenix will only allow himself to grumble. “The Hunt” imagines the violence that Ramsay cuts out of the most elliptical action scenes in recent memory, in much the same way as Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violins implied the stabbings in “Psycho.”
Most resonant of all are the cascading strings (and synthesizers) that are washed over the scenes that bookend the film, as Greenwood — and the London Contemporary Orchestra — finds a rare measure of grace for Ramsay’s hero. This is a gnarly film, but Greenwood wraps it in tenderness. —DE
9. “Cloud Atlas” (Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek & Reinhold Heil)
The plot of “Cloud Atlas” hinges on a piece of music — a piano-based sextet — that threads together a group of wayward souls over the course of several centuries. For all of the Wachowskis’ visionary genius in adapting David Mitchell’s novel, the movie simply would not work unless co-director Tom Tykwer and co-composers Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil managed to compose something that could believably endure for hundreds of years, through wars and the invention of interplay travel and whatever series of unfathomable events might turn Hugh Grant into a cannibal. They did. —DE
8. “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Nicholas Britell)
Nicholas Britell and Barry Jenkins make magic together. Britell’s knotted, cathartic score for “Moonlight” helped propel that film towards glory, and his music plays an even more prominent role in Jenkins’ sensuous James Baldwin adaptation, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Britell’s strings tremble and swoon with a timelessness that allows this celebration of black love and perseverance to reverberate through the years.
The music assumes the same shape as Jenkins’ languid imagery; the swirl of “Eden (Harlem)” is the sound of Kiki Layne looking into the lens in a slow-motion close-up, or Stephan James exhaling a puff of cigarette smoke as he thinks about her. “Eros” is the purest distillation of what it feels like when people in love are separated by cinder blocks or a panel of plexiglass. As thick and honeyed as Britell’s score for “Moonlight” was sharp and bloody, the score for “If Beale Street Could Talk” makes it that much easier to trust in the love that takes this movie all the way. —DE
7. “Under the Skin (Mica Levi)
With only a handful of scores under her belt, Mica Levi (formerly of Micachu and The Shapes) has established herself as arguably the most exciting film composer working today. In “Under the Skin,” a film that explores what it means to be human, Levi’s uses percussive and synth sounds that bring to life the inner being of a protagonist, who is very much Scarlett Johansson on the outside, but an alien inside.
Each experience is shaped and colored by the music reminding us of this non-human lens, yet the swirling strings make it also mysterious and new, rather than simply other. Levi’s music can be disjointed, sometimes abrasive, but there are always pieces of classical beauty. And when necessary, those strings can evoke the best of Bernard Hermann, as Johansson’s luring of men into the soupy abyss is practically “Vertigo”-like. —CO
6. “The Handmaiden” (Jo Yeong-wook)
An avowed maximalist, Korean auteur Park Chan-wook makes films that are easy to appreciate for their individual elements — each of his camera moves arrives with the intensity of an orchestra conductor waving his wand, each of his scores announce themselves anew with every note. Never has that been more true than it is in “The Handmaiden,” as longtime Park collaborator Jo Yeong-wook delivers a riotously unsubtle (and immensely beautiful) mess of music that drapes itself over almost every frame of this cheeky epic.
A thrilling set of compositions in its own right, Jo’s terrifically unsubtle accompaniment seeps into every frame of Park’s lurid masterwork, permitting the melodrama to go for broke and challenging the performances to meet the occasion. The music surges and seethes with the same tricksy sense of purpose that makes the film so much fun to watch — listen to a piece like Wedding,” its whirlpool of clarinets circling around a nervous tremble of violins, and you can all but see the story unfolding in front of you. Jo’s best compositions, like the barnstorming “The Tree from Mount Fuji,” are as virtuosic as any of the swooping shots that have become Park’s visual signature, and they charge forward with the same fatalistic grace. —DE
5. “Interstellar” (Hans Zimmer)
“Interstellar” wasn’t the most influential score that Hans Zimmer wrote for a Christopher Nolan movie this decade; that would of course be “Inception,” which changed movie trailers forever (if not quite for better) with sonic indigestion of a single low BRUMMMM!! Nor was “Interstellar” the most intricate or purposeful score that Zimmer wrote for a Christopher Nolan movie this decade; that would be his work on “Dunkirk,” which managed to keep time in a breathless war movie that endeavored to pull it apart. But “Interstellar” was, without question, the most urgent and wondrous score that Zimmer wrote for Nolan this decade, or has ever written for anyone.
Built around a 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison church organ (one of the only instruments on the score the composer didn’t play himself), Zimmer’s heavenly suite of music is a soulful and inventive mix of sounds that’s located somewhere between despair and hopeless — between resigning to the end of humanity, and taking one last wing-and-a-prayer shot at saving it. The compositions themselves are rooted in distinctly earthbound classical traditions, and orbit around the basic patterns that are at the bedrock of Western music.
But the way in which those compositions were recorded points towards the vastness of the unknown, as Zimmer used a mess of synths and warped human voices to stretch the music into alien territory. At first, that abstraction feels like an imminent threat. But as the movie (and the music) goes on, it begins to feel like a beacon, calling us towards the next chapter of our existence. Whether heard in pieces or in full, it’s an overwhelming work, and the driving force behind Nolan’s cosmic vision. —DE
4. “The Social Network” (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
Now regarded as one of the greatest movies of the aughts, “The Social Network” was dismissed by many as simply “the Facebook Movie” before its release. And why not? The social-media site had only truly risen to prominence a few years earlier, and it was hard to imagine David Fincher’s follow-up to “Benjamin Button” receiving such overwhelming acclaim. But everything came together nearly perfectly on the film, including the Oscar-winning score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Transposing the abrasive industrial soundscapes that made Reznor famous in Nine Inch Nails, the duo crafted a score that’s as ominous as it is catchy — which is to say, the perfect accompaniment to a genius’ rise to power. Their compositions are quieter than you might think, thrumming along in the background during the rapid-fire dialogue and being just noticeable enough to grab your attention without distracting from what’s happening onscreen. Listen to it on its own, though, and you’ll be treated to the rare soundtrack that’s as worthy of your attention as the movie itself. —MN
3. “The Revenant” (Sakamoto Ryuichi, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner)
In June of 2014, Japanese composer Sakamoto Ryuichi was diagnosed with Stage III throat cancer. On July 10 of that year, he made his illness known to the public, releasing a statement in which he expressed his need to take a break, and apologized “for all of the burden I will undoubtedly be casting upon everyone who has been working with me on various projects.”
The following spring, after Sakamoto completed an intense round of chemotherapy, he received an urgent phone call from director Alejandro González Iñárritu asking him to fly to L.A. — tomorrow, if possible — to discuss scoring a movie called “The Revenant.” Gaunt, sore, and weary just from waking up, Sakamoto accepted the invitation. He admired Iñárritu too much to say no.
Less than six months later, Sakamoto finished recording one of the best film scores of the 21st century. It’s a spare and haunted piece of work, punctuated by great silences that reflect the chaos of nature, as unpredictable and inviting as the surface of a frozen lake. Piano strikes are distorted until they rumble like rolls of distant thunder, while urgent strings press into the mix with such force that you can almost hear the first bloody streaks of orange sunlight creeping over the horizon and calling you home. It’s the sound of someone finding a way back to their body by listening for its place in the world around them. If it’s the perfect accompaniment for Iñárritu’s story of a crippled man crawling his way across a frozen white tundra, that’s because it’s the perfect accompaniment for Sakamoto’s story of fighting his way through the darkness beyond. —DE
2. “Carol” (Carter Burwell)
Beginning with an anxious see-saw of strings before allowing itself to be carried away by the richest piano melody that Carter Burwell has ever written, the score for “Carol” grabs you by the chest from the opening notes, pulling your entire body into a love story that’s largely told through furtive looks and delicate gestures. The music rushes forward with such inexorable force that it feels like the sound of destiny itself — it’s the sound of your legs turning to jelly and walking towards the great unknown as if they no longer have a choice.
When Therese Belivet presses her face to the rain-streaked window of a taxi cab and thinks about the life she’s denying herself, every note aches with regret as Burwell allows them to echo from major to minor and back again. When Carol Aird picks drives her through the Holland Tunnel on their way towards New Jersey and whatever happens next, Helen Foster & The Rovers’ “You Belong to Me” melts into the score the way that everything is subsumed by our most treasured memories. And then there’s the final cue, which crescendoes with so much emotion that Todd Haynes’ film can’t hope to contain it — the story has to end when the music does, tattooing us with the knowledge that no future we might imagine for these characters could possibly be as beautiful as the present moment they’ve given to each other. —DE
1. “Phantom Thread” (Jonny Greenwood)
Jonny Greenwood, the supernaturally creative Radiohead instrumentalist who steers Thom Yorke’s genius and pushes the band forward, has always understood the servile nature of writing music for movies. Each of the brilliant scores he’s previously composed for Paul Thomas Anderson have been bonded to their films on a molecular level, their discordant strings sewn into the material like dark thoughts. If Greenwood’s contributions to “Phantom Thread” are the most beautiful (and self-sustaining) music that he’s ever written for the screen, it’s only because his compositions are even more inextricable from this movie than they were from “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” or “Inherent Vice.”
At the risk of being a bit too cute about it, you could say that “Phantom Thread” wears Greenwood’s elegantly perturbed score the way that Reynolds Woodcock hopes his patrons might wear one of his magisterial dresses, each these symphonic pieces draped over the film like a careful bit of fabric that exposes the beauty (and the violence) of what lies underneath. Building out from the movie’s main theme — a delicate whirlwind of violins that comes in four different variations, like a model being newly outfitted for each new fashion season — Greenwood’s score is a masterpiece of troubled beauty, a glass of sherry spiked with poison.
At first, in fraught pieces like “Boletus Felleus” and “Sandalwood I,” the beauty is troubling. However, by the time we get to the climactic lilt of “For the Hungry Boy,” the troubling has become beautiful. Greenwood perfectly intuits the tidal dynamics of Anderson’s perverse romance, and translates them into something that everyone can feel for themselves. Thanks to Greenwood, “Phantom Thread” would still be one of the decade’s best films if you watched it with your eyes closed. —DE