[Editor’s note: The below article was originally published on February 4, 2018. It was been expanded from the 25 Best Movie Scores of the 21st Century to the 35 best on April 26, 2022.]
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 35 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 score 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 35 Best Scores of the 21st Century.
Christian Blauvelt, Jude Dry, Eric Kohn, Ryan Lattanzio, Jenna Marotta, Noel Murray, and Michael Nordine contributed to this list.
35. “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, 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
34. “Black Panther” (Ludwig Göransson)
Frequent Ryan Coogler collaborator Ludwig Göransson spent a month in Africa studying traditional music before he composed a note of his score for the Marvel film. Because the fictional nation of Wakanda had never had contact with the Western world, he took great care to ensure that the music he referenced predated European colonization. He recorded many Senegalese drum beats to form the “base” of his score, before layering his own orchestral compositions on top. The result was arguably the boldest film score that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen so far, combining authentic African music with Göransson’s own technical mastery in a way that complimented Coogler’s groundbreaking film without ever overshadowing it. —CZ
33. “Steve Jobs” (Daniel Pemberton)
Rather than make a conventional biopic of the legendary Apple executive, Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle divided “Steve Jobs” into three long scenes, each one taking place backstage before an influential product launch. The first is the original Apple Macintosh in 1984, followed by the ill-fated NeXT Computer in 1988, and finally the iMac ten years later, when Jobs had returned to Apple. The narrative device illustrates how much Jobs, and the world, changed throughout his decades-long career at the apex of American business. Daniel Pemberton’s score embraces this format as well, using a distinct style of music for each scene. For the first launch, he uses analog synths, a subtle reminder of how rudimentary the technology industry was at the time. For the NeXT launch, he uses a more orchestral score, which highlighted the increasingly elaborate production value of a Steve Jobs product launch. Finally, the film ends with a score that is fully digital, just like the world it takes place in. “Steve Jobs” is one of the better examples in recent memory of a composer working within the dramatic structure created by their screenwriter. —CZ
32. “Howl’s Moving Castle” (Joe Hisaishi)
“Howl’s Moving Castle” is one of Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s most complex films: a surreal fantasy that doubles as an anti-war statement, about a young woman using her wits and courage to navigate a world where capricious magicians alter reality on a whim. Joe Hisaishi’s score is suitably eclectic, ranging from the spooky to the rousing, with a fair amount of martial percussion and more than a few moments that wouldn’t sound out of place in an old-fashioned Hollywood action-adventure. But like Hisaishi’s other Ghibli soundtracks, what makes “Howl’s Moving Castle” so effective are the quietly lyrical moments, where the strings and woodwinds softly swell in concert, conveying the wistfulness and heartache of the central character. That sound also suffuses the song from the movie that became a hit, “Merry-Go-Round of Life” — a title that aptly describes Hisaishi’s aesthetic. —NM
31. “Cloud Atlas” (Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil)
It is hard to imagine a more daunting task for filmmakers than adapting “Cloud Atlas.” David Mitchell’s sprawling novel follows a multitude of characters from around the world over several centuries, and the connections between the stories are not always apparent. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer pulled out all the stops to make the novel work on the big screen, starting with the ingenious decision to have actors play multiple roles to emphasize the shared themes. This philosophy extended to the film’s music, with the elaborate score containing elements of many world musical styles, always matching the era of the current story while connecting the vignettes with consistent motifs. The music sounds like something ripped out of humanity’s shared consciousness, much like the movie itself. —CZ