|by David Cornelius
We close this retrospective with a look at the twenty best musical scores written for the big screen in the past ten years.
“Brokeback Mountain” I never cared much for Ang Lee’s much-loved melodrama, but one element that stayed with me over the years is Gustavo Santaolalla’s minimal, delicate score. It’s music of few forlorn notes, quietly played out on a single acoustic guitar; soft orchestral tones and the occasional slide guitar underline the mood, which still conjures up images of sprawling western landscapes and lonely cowboys. The Argentinean composer has given us a modern American classic.
“Catch Me If You Can” The most talked-about part of Steven Spielberg’s con man biopic was its dazzling opening credits sequence, a throwback to the animated intros of yesteryear. The capper, a true moment of cool, was John Williams’ theme, with its staccato bounce in whispered tones, setting the stage for Abagnale’s sly adventures. Contrast this, then, with “The Float,” the movie’s secondary theme - louder and breezier, growing with Williams’ trademark flourishes into a joyous affair - and “The Father’s Theme,” which tucks old school jazz into the corners of the film.
“Chicken Run” It’s “The Great Escape” reworked with chickens, a conceit John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams (the duo who reteamed the next year for “Shrek”) understood marvelously. There are some obvious hat-tips to Elmer Bernstein’s military march without the whole thing turning into one giant paraphrase - something the use of kazoos (!) helps ensure. The duo also ensure the score never gets caught up too far in the joke. The buoyancy of the “kiddie movie” themes are countered by genuinely thrilling adventure tracks and a healthy dose of heartfelt emotion.
“Cloverfield” For seventy-plus minutes of the first-person monster extravaganza, all we get in the way of music is whatever Kings of Leon tunes are overheard at Rob’s going-away party. So it’s such a treat when Michael Giacchino is given all twelve minutes of closing credits time to spread out with the mammoth track “Roar!” The overture is something of a Monster Movie Greatest Hits, all over-the-top horns and wailing soprano as it spins into an epic tribute to Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla soundtracks, just the music you need to sober up after an hour’s worth of shaky-cam-induced motion sickness.
“The Dark Knight” When Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard teamed up for “Batman Begins,” they threw out all the rules established years earlier by Danny Elfman. Their score was pulsing and brooding, without much of a hummable theme - just right for this revamped Caped Crusader. For the sequel, the duo improved on their previous effort, allowing the driving rhythms to soar while adding some bonus dread, plus a twist: a string section that unnerves with every grating half-note slide further up the scale, a piercing whine that turns into one of the decade’s most daring musical choices. Heath Ledger’s Joker is scary stuff, to be sure, but he’d be nothing without his nerve-shattering violins of doom.
“Finding Nemo” To calm our nerves after our Joker run-in, let’s take in the soothing tones of Thomas Newman’s undersea score. The main title comes through like an undersea lullaby, first in solo piano, later reprised with full orchestra. Newman also works some of his trademark plinky-plinkies as well as the mandatory thrilling action bits. The greatest pleasures here, however, are in the tranquil moments, where Newman’s orchestra effortlessly matches Pixar’s deep sea visuals for a soothing sense of wonder.
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith” In one, John Williams invents new themes for a new franchise; in the other, he closes the book on two trilogies’ worth of orchestral magic. The “Potter” music as a whole could easily fit here (Patrick Doyle and Nicholas Hooper helped the series evolve superbly), but the best treats are found in the first film, as Williams lays the groundwork with flights-of-fancy tracks like “Harry’s Wondrous World” and “Hedwig’s Theme.” For “Sith,” the composer gathers up five previous films’ worth of memorable tracks and expands upon them. The old stuff helps the movie find its place in the saga, while the new material, often dark and unsettling, helps underline the grim nature of Anakin’s downfall.
“Hero” His work on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” brought Tan Dun to our attention (and landed him an Oscar). He topped himself a couple years later with his lavish score for this martial arts epic, which again mixes Western orchestral sweep and Eastern folk melody. The pounding of drums carries us through the action, while the delicate dramatic themes draw us in even more.
“The Incredibles” and “Up” Michael Giacchino - who, like John Williams, nabs three scores on this list - could very well be the composer of the decade, and/or perhaps the next one. He’s quickly become the go-to guy for great music, and his earliest and latest Pixar efforts are solid proof why. (In between, he scored “Ratatouille,” which just barely misses the cut here.) “The Incredibles” allowed him to fiddle around in a James Bond-ish universe, bringing a swinging, jazzy cool to a superhero genre that desperately needed a dose of attitude. “Up” finds him working with a softer palette, best fitting the movie’s mood - his work on that now-famous opening montage is a lesson in heartbreak, while the score progresses into more lighthearted territory as Carl steps further into adventure.
“The Informant!” Marvin Hamlisch is back! In the smartest hiring move in years, Steven Soderbergh called upon the veteran composer to score his quirky comedy. Did Hamlisch try to change with the times? Not a chance - his work here is gloriously, unapologetically old fashioned, as if airlifted right out of the Carter administration. It’s light and bouncy and crammed with… well, I’d call it “cheese,” but that implies something wrong, when there’s nothing wrong at all with what Hamlisch has delivered. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
The “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy It took a long glance back at Howard Shore’s collected work on all three “Rings” films for me to recognize that this was more than just great fantasy/adventure music; this is a masterwork. Shore’s music is as vital to the construction of the fictional Middle-Earth as Peter Jackson’s imagery, his numerous themes woven into the very fabric of this universe. He covers such vast ground, from the gentle sounds of the Shire to the darkest shadows of Mordor, all with a unified vision, tightly constructed and truly epic. Shore’s efforts here unquestionably make the short list of all-time great movie music.
“Million Dollar Baby” Clint Eastwood’s work as a composer often deals with simple themes and quiet, often repetitive tunes. For “Baby,” he crafts two short, elegant melodies, one on guitar, the other piano, both enhanced with tender orchestrations as the score advances. Like the movie itself, there’s nothing showy, just pure heart. Anything more would get in the way of the story, but even on its own, removed from the film, the music is mesmerizing in its emotional depth.
“Moon” Clint Mansell began the decade with “Requiem for a Dream” and ended it with “Moon.” Both scores are highly effective works, droning electronic rhythms designed to drill into our heads. The former is a definite favorite among movie buffs (especially since its theme got retooled into all-purpose trailer music), but the latter is my top choice. Like the film itself, the music here is just slightly otherworldly and paranoid, pushing the story’s mysteries ever so forward. It’s soundtrack as mood setter of the most lasting kind.
The “Pirates of the Caribbean” Trilogy Giving Howard Shore a run for his money are Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer, whose collaborations on “The Curse of the Black Pearl” gave us some of the decade’s most memorable themes, which were then expanded by Zimmer in the sequels. The best is the jaunty “He’s a Pirate,” which injects hearty bravado into a high seas melody. Later tracks get darker and deliciously stranger, most notably “Parlay” from “At World’s End,” which features a mischievous tribute to Ennio Morricone - the last thing you’d expect to hear in a pirate flick, but certainly just right for this franchise.
Did we overlook your favorite movie music? Tell us about it in the forums!
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originally posted: 12/30/09 17:08:45