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The first part of my summary of the decade was a little on the negative side.  Since I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I think everything is rubbish, I thought I would spend the second part offering my own views on the best the decade has had to offer.  At first I was going to give a top twenty – but there were so many titles I didn’t want to exclude, it ended up being a top thirty.  It is a very mainstream list – I deliberately wanted to concentrate on scores either by high-profile composers or for high-profile films.  Of course, an awful lot of fine music has been written for films outside the Hollywood mainstream and you can find reviews of many of them at this website.

The rankings are somewhat arbitrary, of course, and the whole thing is very much “one man’s opinion” – but hopefully it’s a decent summary of the most noteworthy film music of the decade.  It is very hard to know how recent things will end up sounding alongside older ones – to that end, there’s only one 2009 score here.  To be honest though, I doubt any other scores from this year are genuine contenders.  So, here are my thoughts on the thirty most essential pieces of film music of the decade.

1: Mission to Mars (Ennio Morricone, 2000)
There have been few film scores which have so polarised opinion as this one.  It was lambasted by many mainstream film critics and many film music fans, but for a select few this was like manna from heaven.  I was one of the few.  It was Morricone’s last Hollywood score to date – perhaps he’s given up on Hollywood after the reaction it got.  For me, it’s everything that film music could aspire to be – bold, daring, unexpected, getting right under the skin of Brian de Palma’s underrated film.  The spectacular music for the finale is my favourite single piece of film music of the decade; the earlier, complex “Sacrifice of a Hero” a close runner-up.

2: Angels in America (Thomas Newman, 2003)
This score was for television and is the strongest work for that medium I’ve heard since Morricone’s Nostromo.  Featuring moments of extreme beauty – and just as many moments of stark terror – it’s probably Newman’s richest and most colourful music.  The composer obviously prefers working on a smaller scale – but this score proves beyond any other that when he does choose to paint on a grander canvas, he’s as good as anyone and better than virtually everyone.

3: The New World (James Horner, 2005)
I know this shouldn’t really be in the list because most of it was not used in the (beautiful) film, but I couldn’t let such a stunning piece of music go unmentioned.  Horner was blatantly completely the wrong choice to score the film (his notion of what film music should do and what films should be like could hardly be further from Terrence Malick’s) so let’s just treat the music as a tone poem based on the natural world instead.  On that level, it’s a spectacular success, featuring the most beautiful and heartfelt music Horner has ever written.

4: The Black Dahlia (Mark Isham, 2006)
Another Brian de Palma film – he does seem to bring out the best in composers.  Isham’s mean, moody music was clearly heavily influenced by Jerry Goldsmith’s LA Confidential and that score’s own primary influence, Leonard Bernstein’s On the Waterfront.  The movie is a mess but the score is simply spectacular, rumbling and growling along with the seedy underworld portrayed in the film. 

5: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Howard Shore, 2001/2/3)
These scores aren’t perfect but there’s a truly mind-boggling array of themes contained within them.  The scores are all good but the highlight for me is the final one.  Such strong, intelligent music – and I’m sure, for many people, these scores would be at the very top of the list.  Shore seemed such an odd choice for the job – nothing he had written previously indicated why he was chosen – but looking back, it’s impossible to imagine the films with any other music.

6: Memoirs of a Geisha (John Williams, 2005)
Williams reportedly sought this film out, so enamoured was he by the novel – and while the film never lives up to the quality of its source material, its music certainly does.  A beautiful main theme, so vibrant and full of colour, perfectly captures the main character Sayuri; and “Becoming a Geisha” is a piece of classic montage scoring, vintage Williams.

7: Far From Heaven (Elmer Bernstein, 2002)
Talk about going out with a bang.  It’s fitting that Bernstein’s final feature score was for this beautiful film, a loving (and successful) attempt at creating a similar atmosphere to the kind of films Bernstein himself was scoring in the 1950s.  The main theme is a stunner – and listening to the final bars of the end title is like hearing Bernstein close the circle on his glorious career.

8: Avatar (James Horner, 2009)
It is of course difficult to know where to place such a recent score on a list like this.  One thing’s for sure – I’ve played it more often than all other 2009 scores combined.  This film was made for Horner– playing to all his strengths – and he makes the most of it.  Derivative of his past works it may be, but his dramatic instincts are so precise, and the musical world he created for the film so rich and diverse – who cares?  If there’s one score from 2009 which will stand the test of time, it’s this one – so it wouldn’t be surprising if I revisited this list in a few years and ended up placing this one higher up it.

9: Revenge of the Sith (John Williams, 2005)
Williams’s final dip into the well which made his name saw him scoring a film which at last saw George Lucas deliver something worthy of the series which made his name; and the score spectacularly reprised so many of the great themes from the past films and introduced plenty of new stuff as well.  Williams wrote some of the most iconic and popular film music of all time for this series; and this score made a worthy finale.

10: Birth (Alexandre Desplat, 2004)
Desplat had written various scores before this one, but it was Birth which really saw him grab a lot of attention for the first time.  The score – with its successful mixture of elegant, classical writing mixed with more modern elements – essentially follows a similar pattern to many others by the composer.  But it’s a formula which has produced exceptional results on various occasions – none more so than here.

11: The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (Don Davis, 2003)
The films were pitiful but somehow Davis managed to create awe-inspiringly grand music for them.  I thought it would be the dawn of a new film music superstar – but mysteriously he hasn’t done anything high-profile since.  The combination of orchestra, choir and electronics has never been done better in a film score; the music is unbelievably intellectual for such silly films; and best of all, it’s written in a way that can appeal to everyone.

12: The Bourne trilogy (John Powell, 2002/4/7)
Powell made his own indelible contribution to action film scoring in this series, creating a sound which has been imitated many times since, even by some very high-profile composers.  He is so comfortable integrating electronics into his music – he does it so naturally – that it’s no wonder that these scores have become the template for many other composers to follow.

13: Sideways (Rolfe Kent, 2004)
The music is highly unoriginal, but so, so enjoyable.  Kent infused this terrific little film with light, playful, summery European jazz and few film music albums have found their way into my CD player with such regularity in the years since.  Few film scores bring a smile to my face in the way this one does.

14: Planet Earth (George Fenton, 2006)
Fenton had the enviable task of writing music to accompany the most spectacular sights on our planet – and he certainly made the most of it.  Beautiful, elegant, charming – the soundtrack album contains two long CDs and there’s not a minute of it which isn’t welcome.  It plays like a series of short pieces, all linked together by style, but all with their own character.  A remarkable achievement.

15: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (James Horner, 2008)
This little-seen film offered a child’s-eye view of the horrors of Auschwitz.  James Horner was an odd choice to score it, but as it turned out an excellent one – his main theme is a stunner, the scoring of the finale enough to leave the viewer speechless.  This is a prime example of what good music can do for a film.

16: The Village (James Newton Howard, 2004)
In truth, I could have put any of the scores Howard wrote for the films of M. Night Shyamalan into this list; they’re all excellent.  But this one’s my personal favourite, with its beautiful violin solos adding such dramatic colour to the film.  It’s a pity Shyamalan doesn’t make three or four films a year, such is the quality of Howard’s scoring for him.

17: Open Range (Michael Kamen, 2003)
Kevin Costner’s terrific film was the last one scored by the great Kamen, taken from us far too young, and it inspired one of his finest scores.  Full of the spirit of the old west, and with a pair of beautiful themes, its wistfulness seems all the more poignant knowing what condition Kamen was in when he wrote it.

18: Fateless (Ennio Morricone, 2005)
Another Holocaust drama, this time scored by Morricone, whose soaring music elevates it immeasurably.  His music for Lisa Gerrard elicited her finest contributions to film music, and some of the most beautiful melodies of the decade.  It’s another stunning achievement from the Maestro.

19: The Shipping News (Christopher Young, 2001)
Seemingly forever typecast in the horror and thriller genres, Young showed a completely different side in this beautiful score.  The ethnic elements mean the score is awash with the sights, sounds and smells of Newfoundland – he does those horror scores better than anyone else, but let’s hope that in the new decade Young gets some more opportunities like this one.

20: Band of Brothers (Michael Kamen, 2001)
An excellent miniseries, in which Kamen’s music plays a very important role.  The soaring main theme is full of the kind of spirit suggested by the show’s title; the scoring of the discovery of the concentration camp a knockout. 

21: Ratatouille (Michael Giacchino, 2007)
One of film music’s rising stars during the decade, and this is his finest score.  Pixar’s delightful film inspired him to write a score so charming, so witty, so delightful, he set a very high bar for himself indeed.  If he can live up to it, he might end the next decade at the very top of the pile.

22: Little Children (Thomas Newman, 2006)
A brief-but-brilliant score, this one is perhaps the culmination of the highly-personal style first noticed by many people in American Beauty.  The lengthy, orchestral end title piece is as good as anything written for film during the decade. 

23: 3:10 to Yuma (Marco Beltrami, 2007)
Beltrami has written several very fine scores, but this one’s the best of the lot – there’s a slightly quirky sound perhaps inspired by Morricone, a fantastic main theme, and it’s brilliant in the film too.

24: Beyond Borders (James Horner, 2003)
It’s Horner again – but I couldn’t possibly leave this one out.  People always accuse him of being predictable, but this is anything but – a completely-satisfying score dominated by electronics which is full of the horrors of the world – and moments of extreme beauty spring forth amongst it all.

25: The Painted Veil (Alexandre Desplat, 2006)
There are hints of the Chinese location for the film in its music, but by-and-large it’s just Desplatdoing what he does best.  Wonderful piano solos showcase some of his most impressive melodies; this is serious, intelligent music but at the same time, truly beautiful.

26: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (John Williams, 2004)
Easily the best of the Potter scores, Williams injected this one with a lot of variety, reprising the best material from the earlier scores and building on that with some sparkling new material.  “A Window to the Past” is one of his most beautiful creations.  The whole score is just magical.

27: Blizzard (Mark McKenzie, 2003)
My favourite Christmas score, blessed with a main theme full of adventure and excitement, this makes for a simply delightful album.  It’s such warm music – so obviously composed straight from the heart.  Let’s hope over the next decade McKenzie gets to dazzle us again with his knack of creating gorgeous orchestral music.

28: Spiderman 2(Danny Elfman, 2004)
In the film the music was butchered, but on album it probably plays slightly stronger than the first score.  After Harry Potter, Elfman’s theme for this series is the decade’s most memorable – and the score as a whole is a brilliant combination of everything that makes his music so good.

29: The Passion of the Christ (John Debney, 2004)
This is another score whose influences (from Peter Gabriel to Hans Zimmer) are obvious, but it ends up outshining all of them.  It was hugely popular at the time, and deservedly so – it’s very moving, affecting music.  It’s so unlike anything else Debney has written before or since, too – will he manage to be so inspired again?

30: Slumdog Millionaire (A.R. Rahman, 2008)
Sorry to the music’s numerous detractors, but I just couldn’t survey the film music of the 2000s without mentioning this.  The songs are brilliant, the score perfect – the music overall is a key element of what made the film so successful.  And the album is just pure entertainment from start to finish.

  1. Basil Boehni (Reply) on Thursday 31 December, 2009 at 13:45

    A very interesting summary!
    As a die hard James Horner Fan I’m very thrilled that he got so many mentions in this list (especially for “Beyond Borders”, a true beauty).
    Now I need to order four scores from this list that I seem to have missed! 🙂

  2. Antineutrino (Reply) on Thursday 31 December, 2009 at 15:55

    There’s one score I remember I really didn’t like: The Black Dahlia. I got it two years ago and listened to it a couple of times when it arrived. I think I haven’t listened to it since then.

    Basil, which scores did you have missed?

    I think I know all of them except McKenzie’s Blizzard (which was sold out too quickly for me)

  3. Basil Boehni (Reply) on Thursday 31 December, 2009 at 16:43

    @Antineutrino: According to this list a really should check out “Mission to Mars” (Morricone), “Far from Heaven” (Bernstein), “Birth” (Alesandre Desplat) and “Open Range” (Kamen).
    I don’t have “Blizzard” (McKenzie), but I too was not fast enough purchasing it, when it was released. Well…

  4. Paul Roper (Reply) on Thursday 31 December, 2009 at 20:17

    I can’t see Mission To Mars reviewed on your site… am I blind? I haven’t got it but remember being impressed with the score when I saw the film. Guess I’ll check it out.

  5. Clark Douglas (Reply) on Thursday 31 December, 2009 at 21:57

    Great list! However, I’m surprised to see that “La Sconosciuta” was not included… if I remember correctly, you gave that score a ***** review.

  6. Kevin A.K. (Reply) on Friday 1 January, 2010 at 06:35

    As a big Thomas Newman fan, I’m pleased at the mention of Angels in America, his tour de force for sure. But what about Road to Perdition? Or The Good German? WALL-E?

    This has been a good decade for Newman for many reasons, not the least of which is that the Academy nominates him practically every other year. Here’s hoping the 2010s will be the decade he finally wins the coveted Oscar.

  7. Kevin A.K. (Reply) on Friday 1 January, 2010 at 06:36

    BTW, did you ever review The Green Mile? I’m curious as to your thoughts on that score, since it was obviously overshadowed by American Beauty.

  8. Parthipan (Reply) on Saturday 2 January, 2010 at 11:14

    Im very happy that my Favourite james Horner leading in ur list. though im disappointed 2 huge musics Brave heart and Titanic is missing here. any way thanx


  9. Parthipan (Reply) on Saturday 2 January, 2010 at 11:37

    hey ‘kevin’ whether its listed or not thomas newmans compositions r brilliant enough. he too one of my favorite. i normally like to hear his all compositions well like i do with Horner.
    green mile is perfectly painted Varnish on the film.

  10. Karol (Reply) on Saturday 2 January, 2010 at 11:50

    I agree on most of the choices. But where is The Golden Compass?

  11. Sirusjr (Reply) on Saturday 2 January, 2010 at 14:34

    The only score worth mentioning from 2009 was Avatar? I would suggest that Twilight New Moon is a worthy contender as well as Giacchino’s score for Up. Although the rest of the stand-out scores from 2009 came from European label Moviescoremedia so I’m not surprised to see them absent from this list.

  12. James Southall (Reply) on Saturday 2 January, 2010 at 15:56

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Kevin – I thought Green Mile was wonderful in the film, but I haven’t listened to the album for a very long time. Think I need to give it another go.

    Karol – I really enjoyed Golden Compass. Didn’t want too many scores by the same composers though (there’d have been too much Horner, Newman and Desplat otherwise).

    Sirusjr – I thought Twilight New Moon was great (and The Informant) but wasn’t sure either was quite “top 30 of the decade” material.

  13. Ian Hall (Reply) on Sunday 3 January, 2010 at 13:04

    “It’s a pity Shyamalan doesn’t make three or four films a year”

    No. No. No, no, no. See ‘The Happening’. You do not want to be thinking that. You simply do NOT.

  14. AJH (Reply) on Monday 4 January, 2010 at 08:45

    I could not create a top 30 list … in terms of creativity and skill in film music composition the decade all but lost. John Williams A.I and Minority report would probably be in the list, probably some Morricone, Goldsmith and Bernstein but no significant new talent by way of striking example. I’m completely reliant on past work seeing new release.

  15. Mark Camilleri (Reply) on Monday 4 January, 2010 at 17:18

    Great list. Very interesting.
    Must go order ‘Open Range’ cos it’s the one I haven’t heard. need to dig out Black Dahlia and New World for another spin too.

  16. Bhel Puri (Reply) on Tuesday 5 January, 2010 at 22:28

    I didn’t expect to see 3 Horner scores in your list, but a nice one nevertheless.
    A minor grouse– there are too few European composers/works in this list. I would think that Talgorn, Rombi, Kaczmarek, Yared, Illarramendi, Frisina, Iglesias, Soderqvist and Banos would change the list quite a lot if only you checked them out with more regularity.

  17. JJ (Reply) on Thursday 7 January, 2010 at 03:48

    James, I wholeheartedly agree with your list.

    very interesting. Mission to Mars is a crappy film, but the music is so moving as is The Village.

  18. Jockolantern (Reply) on Friday 8 January, 2010 at 10:23

    A very good list, Southall, albeit there is faaaaaaar too much Horner in there for my taste. To each his own though. I’ve also always known of your particular fascination and love for Morricone’s ‘Mission to Mars’ score and I couldn’t agree more. It is a truly absorbing, intellectually engaging, and enthralling score through and through; it’s a shame more don’t appreciate it. For all the hundreds of scores I own, ‘Mission to Mars’ is the only Morricone score I actually have in my collection, oddly enough. And it is certainly one of my most prized. Grand film music indeed.

  19. dominique (Reply) on Monday 11 January, 2010 at 22:19

    and what´s about “canone inverso”? one of morricones best scores ever and from 2000.

  20. franz_conrad (Reply) on Monday 11 January, 2010 at 22:20

    Didn’t see this until today! i see i wasn’t far off with my predictions of the top 5. (incidentally, i didn’t name Angels in America over at maintitles, but i figured it’d either be that or a Fenton score.)

  21. Juanki (Reply) on Sunday 21 February, 2010 at 12:11

    Excellent list! But where did you left “Looney Tunes Back in Action”?