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Top 10 Best Film Scores

By Jameson Brown · October 14, 2013

So who hasn’t seen a film score list? We all have, and we will continue to. We’ll see the standard Jaws, Indiana Jones and Star Wars pretty much every time. Atta boy, John Williams. And not to say that these pieces are bad; they aren’t. They are actually great. That’s why they have become so engrained in our brains. But what about the other guys? The scores that gave us genuine chills when we heard them matched with a perfect sequence, and we silently said to ourselves ‘that was awesome.’ They exist, and you’ve heard them. I’m here to help you remember them.

I have a serious problem with people who rely on a film’s score to only be epic. Having a sense of “epicness” is not always necessary. Of course if the story, characters and scene call for it, then it should be put in place, but a score is the orchestral structure that incubates a scene. It needs to musically reflect exactly everyone and all tonality of that scene.

The below scores are the cool kids smoking cigarettes in the bathroom at lunch break. Whether it’s the high-strung creepiness of Ravenous or the well-known sounds of Ennio Morricone, film scores need to be evaluated as a part of the scene at hand, not the overall movie’s “epicness.” This, ironically, can allow certain films to be, well, epic.

10. Alien3 (1992)

Seeing that this third installment to the franchise was “plagued” from the beginning of production, it produced what is a clean cut and horrifying score. Elliot Goldenthal’s score’s pacing is done well and picks us up with a tense hand and then slows us back down when we need a breather. Let me also jump to giving him a round of applause for the final “sterilization/shutdown” sequence that closes the film. This piece, “Adaglo,” goes against the other pieces that support the film in that it is the perfect mix of conclusion and “epicness” we want from an ending. As the sun breaks through the screen we finally get the sense of “we are done here.” Goldenthal, along with an impressive first entry from Fincher (yes, it’s impressive because of everything he had to deal with regarding the scripting of the movie), gives us a score that is much quicker paced on a whole than the previous ‘Alien’ entries, but does not go so quickly we feel lost. In fact, Mr. Goldenthal helps us look past some of the questionable plot points of the movie.

9. Moon (2009)

When it comes to music in movies, I try and categorize each film with one word or phrase. It follows the rule of if “you can’t explain it simply, you can’t explain it profoundly.” With Moon, that word is “loneliness.” Mansell from the start makes us feel scared of our surroundings, and not because of something tangible, but because of our mind blended with the alienation by location. We immediately miss humanity, socialization and stimulation. The heavy-handedness of Mansell’s piano based score actually works well here; it’s the perfect tic we need to stay nervous as Sam Bell’s erratic actions progress down a starry rabbit hole of delusion and paranoia. If Sam Bell were a score, this would be it.

8. Road to Perdition (2002)

Sam Mendes is a unique director. His direction and editing are like a lean piece of meat, always well sliced with little fat around the edges. Along with this though is his consistent inclusion, or should I say spotlighting, of Thomas Newman’s majestic score. Majestic is a hefty term, but I want to use it here since it reflects Newman’s tones of nobility and strength in Road to Perdition. The strength of young Sullivan bleeds through Acts I and II, building up to a sad, yet satisfying climax represented musically by a calm fade out that that leaves us contemplating about his future without his father and family.

7. The Mercenary (1968)

Or ‘A Professional Gun’ differs from most on this list. How? Well, the ear-welcoming  Morricone blends a sense of fun, “on the run” score to the dust, grit and bloodshed of the west. So what makes this selection go on the list and not the other various spaghetti western scores – the obvious, more known pieces like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly?” To me, this is NOT the best sounding spaghetti western music, but what makes this go on the list over the other, more widely accepted choices is the work put into this piece to pull off the scenes and tonality conveyed. Again, it is about the scene at hand, not the overall “epicness” of the film on a whole. Morricone pulls off a neat trick here in that he orchestrates and produces music that allows itself to not take itself ulta-sriously and leaves room for the comedic feel of the film’s plot and direction. Simultaneously, there is a sense of seriousness when needed, but not always. This, my friends, is a hard thing to accomplish.

6. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Now, Danny Elfman is one of the more known composers on the list, but don’t worry there is uniqueness in his work on Edward Scissorhands. So just unbutton your flannel shirt, take a long inhale of your cigarette and relax underground crew. An Elfman score can be identified immediately with its zany, mystic drift, but here it actually fits! My main critique on Elfman’s film scoring is not the work itself, but why it is always matched with certain movies – ahem, Burton’s Batman being one of them. The storyline, characters and, most of all, environment of Edward’s new found world are the perfect visual catalyst for Elfman to get in there and inject a sense of “finger scratching head” curiosity for the audience. The score helps us explore with Edward a genuine sense of curiosity, but excitement as well.

5. The Thing (1982)

Now that we’re to the Top 5, things are going to get weird, and that is exactly why Morricone will take the number five spot with Carpenter’s The Thing. The only musical piece that could satisfy the storyline and environment of this sci-fi thriller is an eerie, deep-bass, repetitive sound that makes us tremble in our snow boots. This is actually a great example of simplicity equaling complexity. Yes, a repeating deep-bass sound sounds basic, but it is actually the perfect tone to help build serious paranoia throughout, while also scaring the absolute hell out of us with gut-wrenching alien visuals that make us scream in the night.

4. Badlands (1973)

One of my absolute favorite films that is a shining example of a perfectly written, 70’s style screenplay. I will quickly insert that this is an essential piece of viewing for screenwriters looking for a no bullshit style of writing. Malick jumps right in and apologizes for nothing at all. Storyline, formatting and direction are all done with precise vision and an acute sense of character development through action (trust me, harder to write than it sounds). The Carl Orff score brilliantly blends quirkiness with joyous rebellion, allowing the audience to feel all right in rooting for Kit and Holly on their journey through the turbulent abyss of immature angst and life searching. Orff shows of their duel inner “middle finger” side with a score that makes you want to skip to the destruction they are causing around them. Again, Malick and Orff apologizing for absolutely nothing. I love you, Badlands.

3. Sling Blade (1996)

To echo what I said above regarding quirkiness, Daniel Lanois masterfully shifts from heart pounding, echoing guitars to soft tones that reflect Karl Childers’ simplistic nature and perspective on life. From ‘Orange Kay’ to ‘Jimmy Was,’ Lanois makes us scratch our heads from hearing southern gothic sounds that sometimes make us want to close our eyes and sometimes want to make us tear up with a smile. My one word here? Powerful.

2. Ravenous (1999)

We will get even stranger for the score that will take the number two spot: Ravenous. Of all musical pieces put to the screen, this is the one that still has me confused in the best of ways to this day. It’s confusing in the sense of we do not know what to think of it…ever, but it reflects each scene perfectly and upholds the story’s strange combination of gratuitous cannibal violence with the darkest of humor. Who ever thought eating someone else could be a topic of historical satire. Ted Griffin has stated that this script was the first time he felt he had broken out of the box of tradition – turning a “hard to look at” topic into a witty, black humor piece. Each character and scene is brilliantly brought to life with a score that creepily shows itself as a unique piece of orchestral mastery.  

1. Sunshine (2007)

John C. Murphy’s Sunshine score easily takes the driver’s seat for me. For example, Adagio in D Minor is the perfect piece that reflected the severity of Capa’s mission in the third act of Boyle’s Sunshine. It had a sense of “last chance” and “final efforts” mixed with “success will happen” and “grace will come soon enough.” All of these feelings were conveyed with this score mixed with masterful direction and Cillian Murphy’s notable performance. But hold the phone, this is an epic score? Damn right it is – because it’s exactly what was needed. And yes, I still say “hold the phone.” Bottom line: John C. Murphy allows Sunshine to embody the deep space “epicness” it deserves. Albeit there are some scripting shortcuts taken in Act III, Sunshine displays the triumphant combination of music and visual storytelling we all want to see in the theater.