My Favorite Movie Scores

This week the accomplished film-music composer Hans Zimmer spoke to one of my classes at UCLA, regaling us with stories of getting fired by Stanley Kubrick (on Full Metal Jacket), hired by Terrence Malick (who sought Zimmer out for The Thin Red Line because he loved the music in Disney’s The Lion King), and composing the “unprecedented” two-note Joker theme for the upcoming film, The Dark Knight.

Zimmer was quite interesting and gave me a new appreciation for the importance and artistry of film scoring. He also got me thinking about the films scores I have loved over the years—those that (in my opinion) elevated the films they accompanied to goosebump-inducing heights. The following is my list of my favorite ten movie scores of all time. What are your favorites?

10) Mulholland Drive – Angelo Badalamenti:
Like in his other work for David Lynch, Badalamenti creates a score here that is thick and layered and mysterious. Just like the film.

9) 25th Hour – Terrence Blanchard: This brooding, daring, deeply emotional score provides a cathartic and memorable accompaniment to Spike Lee’s sadly overlooked post-9/11 elegy.

8) Pride & Prejudice – Dario Marianelli: Marianelli received a lot of attention for his Atonement score last year, but I think his best work so far has been the lush, piano-driven score for Joe Wright’s 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice. Who can forget the impressionistic effect of the minimalist music in the famous sunrise scene at the end?

7) Hoosiers – Jerry Goldsmith: Music is so important for rousing sports movies (see Chariots of Fire), and in my view Jerry Goldsmith sets the standard with his synthy work in Hoosiers. Totally 80s… but totally timeless. It almost always makes me want to stand up and cheer.

6) Dances With Wolves – John Barry: Say what you will about the movie itself, but the sweeping, romantic score by the legendary John Barry is absolutely unforgettable. Combined with the film’s gorgeous western landscape photography, this music really soars.

5) Lord of the Rings trilogy – Howard Shore: The music in LOTR is bombastic and ubiquitous… but in all the right ways. So many memorable themes and melodies and moments. The climactic moment in Return of the King when Sam picks up Frodo on Mt. Doom and the music swells to the theme… Oh, man, it gets me every time.

4) Days of Heaven – Ennio Morricone: It was either this or The Mission for the obligatory inclusion of an Ennio Morricone score. I’ll go with Days, because it’s one of my favorite movies of all time… and Morricone’s score is such a beautiful tragedy.

3) Star Wars (the entire series) – John Williams: What can I say? It’s iconic. The Imperial March, the Cantina theme, the stunning main titles, even the “Duel of the Fates”… I don’t know what Star Wars would be without its wonderful music.

2) Braveheart – James Horner: Okay, so it’s true: music has never been more shamelessly employed for a tear-jerker ending. But it’s an ending that—thanks in no small part to the music—provides one of cinema’s most emotionally cathartic moments. Add in some bagpipe and woodwind glory and this is one of the most satisfying film scores I’ve ever heard.

1) The Thin Red Line – Hans Zimmer: A lot of people will tell you that Gladiator is Zimmer’s best film score, but in my view it doesn’t hold a candle to his masterful soundtrack to Terrence Malick’s epic WWII film. Utilizing a cacophony of dreamy strings, exotic chants, riffs on folk hymns, and otherworldy melodies, Zimmer creates a soundscape of Germanic romanticism and Heideggerian phenomenology—so fitting for a Malick film.

Just missed the list: The Hours (Philip Glass), American Beauty (Thomas Newman), The Godfather (Nino Rota), E.T. (John Williams), Last of the Mohicans (Randy Edelman), The Fountain (Clint Mansell), Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood), The Mission (Ennio Morricone), There Will Be Blood (Johnny Greenwood), Out of Africa (John Barry), Letters from Iwo Jima (Kyle Eastwood), The Cider House Rules (Rachel Portman).

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8 responses to “My Favorite Movie Scores

  1. Good call on Days of Heaven. I have the LP, but I never listen to it because it’s too emotional! What a beauty.

    I’m an old movie music guy for sure. A lot of the classic Hollywood stuff just sounds good to me.

    Louisiana Story (Virgil Thomson)—As far as I know, the only film score to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for composition. It gets to the soul of America like no other soundtrack I’ve heard.

    North by Northwest (Bernard Herrmann)—because there has to be at least one Herrmann.

    The Collector (Maurice Jarre)—William Wyler’s movie is about a murderer, but Jarre humanizes this character with a lilting, childlike score, one of the saddest in movies.

    2001: A Space Odyssey (various)—this soundtrack scares me.

    The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Miklos Rozsa)—Rozsa adapted this from his violin concerto, and its melancholy strings knock me out every time.

    A Clockwork Orange (Wendy Carlos)—twisted variations on Beethoven by the popularizer of the Moog synthesizer.

    The Wind and the Lion (Jerry Goldsmith)—A rousing, Arabian Nights-style adventure score to one of the more underrated films of the ‘70s.

    Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Wojciech Kilar)—one of the great modern film scores. Yes, it’s a bit worse for wear (every film trailer insists on using it), but it’s still powerful… and scary.

    The Secret Garden (Zbigniew Preisner)—Preisner’s work with Kieslowski is momentous, but this is such a lovely score, and the film hardly ever gets talked about anymore.

    The Merchant of Venice (Jocelyn Pook)—Pook is my wild card. She made memorable contributions to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, but this is her stand alone effort, a feaux-Elizabethan soundtrack with a contemporary feel.

    If I had more space, I’d probably include Michael Nyman’s score to The Piano, Rachel Portman’s score to Nicholas Nickleby, and Anton Karas’s famous zither score to The Third Man.

  2. I’d nominate Michael Andrews. His score for Donnie Darko colored the film with a hue i’d attribute more to the sound design than anything Richard Kelly contributed. The Me You and Everyone we Know soundtrack is a triumph and remains a staple on my iTunes list.

    Also worth mentioning Neil Young’s sparse guitar riffs that populate the turgid Jarmusch film Dead Man.

    It’s always great to see a tenured relationship between a director and a composer. You mentioned the Baldamenti/Lynch connection (best manifest in the Twin Peaks series), and I also think that Soderbergh has a good thing going with Cliff Martinez (Solaris, Traffic)

  3. shakespeherian

    Yeah the omission of Bernard Herrmann really jars me. I’d also nominate Zbigniew Preisner’s score for Trois Couleurs: Bleu over his Secret Garden work.

  4. I love movie scores. I have about half of the ones on your list. Some of my recent additions to my collection:

    Truman Show (Philip Glass)

    Transformers (Steve Jablonsky)

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (??)

    Edward Scissorhands (??)

    Glory (James Horner)

    1492 (Vangelis)

  5. Whenever I see a list like this, I automatically think of one movie score then slowly scroll the list until I find….I was happy to see that it made it to #1 on your list! Hans Zimmer’s Thin Red Line score is magical. I’m hard-pressed to find a more beautiful piece of film music than “Journey to the Line.” Great choice and great list all around.

  6. Glory – James Horner
    Field of Dreams – James Horner
    The Shawshank Redemption – Thomas Newman
    Legends of the Fall – James Horner
    Born on the Fourth of July – John Williams
    Gladiator – Hans Zimmer

    These are all scores that are so memorable even years later. I found this blog because I was thinking to myself how there hasn’t been a truly outstanding score in a long time.

  7. Hey!
    Really good post
    Thank you!

  8. I completely agree that Zimmer’s Gladiator score is no match for The Thin Red Line. With his main sound firmly established (primarily his sweeping bombast), I always return to TRL when his horns get to be too much, and it refreshes upon every listen. While I enjoy most of his scores, TRL will stand the test of time as his most delicate and moving masterpiece.

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