Top Ten Movie Scores...

I have to be honest. I’m posting this to draw opinion really.

This kind of thing is always very subjective, but it’s impossible to look at things like this and not be. Don’t get me wrong, I am going to try to be as broad spectrum as I can with this. but the subject matter encapsulates 1000’s of scores so I do need to focus on specifics to some degree.

I am looking at primarily major releases in my viewing lifetime, i.e. the last 73 years.

The way we remember music can be three fold.

It’s a major part of the scene, used to amplify the story. Escalate it.

It’s bound to a character, subtly introduced on occasion the character is.

It’s simply background, taken in via audio osmosis. But we whistle or hum it back later, not often entirely sure exactly where we heard it.

So using  these factors I want to try to recognise the best of what we have been privilege to over the past 30 odd years.

There are some obvious choices that come to mind - Williams, Shore, Zimmer, Elfman,  Horner etc. but there are also e few “lesser” (to some I hasten to add) names that deliver just as much power and beauty -  Doyle,  Desplat, Mansell to name a few.

The CV’s of some of these means they dominate the industry right now, but that cant last forever of course, meaning we will eventually see more and more of the newer names. And judging by their current material and future projects, exciting times are ahead.

If I’d made this Top Twenty more would be mentioned.

So. I am going to do this in reverse order. And you are not going to agree with me 100%. 

But here goes….

10. A Beautiful Mind - James Horner



Sadly, both the beautiful minds here are no longer with us. 

James Horners sweeping melodies carry us in many directions throughout the movie. Moments of awe, tension, love and understanding. All carried on on mildly repeating themes. The choral excellence of Charlotte Church used at intervals and the menace of darker elemnts via heavy strings. Total escapism.

9. American Beauty - Thomas Newman



This will suprise many people, but this score captures the empty, dysfunctional attitude portrayed in the film to perfection. We are pulled in by simple percussion and tones and carried into suburbia by what could almost be African rhythms. A few heavier string are apparent later in the score, but the ever present tones never subside ensuring our claustrophiia remains.

Like I said, not an obvious choice, but as score goes, this is magnificent.

8. Avatar - James Horner



Cameron’s masterpiece was achieved by three things. Amazing effects, great (though predictable) story and themes that were absorbed by the story and viewer so well we acted on them rather than listen to them.

Using an array of tribal and classical elements the world of Pandora invites us into an assortment of realms and emotions, including Navi ritual and joy with Neytiri,  to the sadness of the loss of Home Tree. The composition is as finely woven as the visuals, but far less appreciated in my view.

7. Inception - Hans Zimmer



The first to utilise the now famous “Boomin Horns” used so widely in other trailers. This was very clever use of the Edith Piaf tune used as a trigger when dreaming. Obvious tracks stick out here such as Time and Dream is Collapsing, but there is so much more on offer.

Zimmer threads together his now familiar style of orchestration under a lyer of synthesis and audio effects. Both depp and heavy tracks are mixed with soft, simple interludes, causing the score to range form slow to frantic and back again as Nolans visuals do.

6. The Return of the King - Howard Shore



This was actually a little tricky to choose. Not in any way due to its merit in the list, it’s more that worthy to be here. But the other two movies might also.

With ROTK I decided that the familiar themes across the LOTR series were almost too bonded. They were mainly character pieces and carried obver the trilogy.

I chose this as it contains the best of the three, but I want to note this is really a tribute the the entire trilogy score by Howard.

There was always going to be an edge to this one as it’s closing the arcs, delivering the finale and so on. And this is turn gives us such master work as White Tree and The Lighting of the Beacons to the Battle of Pelennor. 

This was a case where the music was often a character in itself, able to build the scene and stir the emotion further only adding to the visual.

A masterpiece.

5. Titanic - James Horner



As much as people play this down, I think deep down many more love this film than admit. This movie would not work without James Horner’s staggering music. From the chorus of Never an Absolution the Hymn of the Sea. The Celtic tones, Irish jigs and pounding beats of The Sinking, the music is used as obviously as possible in almost every scene.

First and foremost a love story and secondary a disaster, there is a lot of low moment to this score, but they are touching and necessary to remind us of the essence of the story.

But it keeps us one with Jack and Rose the whole way.

4. E.T. - John Williams



This mans name may pop up a few more times by the way.

For me E.T. was a prison. I saw it too many times, cried over and over, and listened to the soundtrack for months, able to identify each piece to it’s scene almost. I could not get enough.

Eventually I listened more than I watched.

This was easy. The music is boundless, drifting in and out of mood, tempo and style at all times, perfectly narrating the story of our lonely visitor.

Williams was able to capture emotion like I’d never heard before in a movie. Friendship, loyalty, love and fear. They’re all there. From the opening credit and main theme to the Escape and Chase and E.T’s departure. The score talks to us almost making us worry, smile and shed a tear.

Simply magical.

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark - John Williams



I wanted to become an archaeologist after this film. Truly.

Not actually because of the movie, but the Map Room scene, which offered me a glimpse of ancient Egypt, hieroglyphics and the power of mystery. This one scene is told (in my opinion) purely by the music it is that powerful. So I ran out and bought it. Then listened to the whole thing over and over.

I was taken to South America and Cairo, I was in bazaars and old bars surrounded by soldiers and vagabonds, just by listening and staring at the cover.

I remember hearing the main theme on radio 2 whils getting ready for school one morning and thinking how amazing it was that this music was getting attention by larger audiences at last.

Truly a tuning point form me.

2. The Empire Strikes Back - John Williams



I pondered over this for some time. This and my next choice.

I don’t really have enough words to describe what the next two movie scores do for me. I don’t actually need the films. Just let me listen.

The new approach that John Williams made to Empire after A New Hope, was beyond what anyone could have wished. It is a piece that so fully interprets the story, they could probably have left the dialogue out of the film.

As I said, I really don’t have the words, so I’ll just name some pieces. Go and listen to them now.

Imperial March - Asteroid Field - Betrayal at Bespin - Carbon Freeze Medley - Cloud City and Hyperspace.

1. Star Wars - A New Hope - John Williams



Why this over Empire when Empire is (probably) the better film?

Because the score is simpler. More perfect.

The moods that were captured in ANH were unlike anything I heard before, Williams had found a way to make music talk. 

From the Blockade Runner being dwarfed by the Star Destroyer in the opening seconds John Williams music was gently pushing every frame of the movie.

Moods were created for deserts, Jawas, droids, heroes, villains and battles. An absolute symbiotic relationship had been formed across audio and visual and scores were not just accompaniment any longer. There was dependency.

Again to name a few elements - 

Binary Sunset - Ben’s Death and TIE Fighter Attack - The Death Star Approach - The Battle of Yavin. Even the 20th Century Fox title was used as a part of it, and it worked.

Beyond words…

So there you have it. My top ten. Probably quite different to yours.

And I’d love to hear your comments.


Thanks for listening - Geek Paul