A score should ultimately not only reflect the overall mood of the film, but also complement it. I decided to stay within the last 15 years to hopefully cull some slightly more contemporary examples. As with all my lists, this one is a matter of personal opinion. You’ll notice that I’ve left off major blockbusters, and horror films. Though there are certainly great examples from these categories, the following list is comprised of scores that have stuck with me for years after seeing the film for the first time.
5) Friday Night Lights (2004), dir. by Peter Berg, score composed by Explosions in the Sky
There’s something about Explosions in the Sky’s highly expressive music that lends itself perfectly to this emotionally driven sports drama. The town of Odessa, Texas looks to their town’s high school football team for solace as their economy is dying, and their community seems to be racially divided. After the film’s (and the score’s) success, Explosions went on to gain a much larger, deserved fan base. This only grew as the band continued to allow the use of their music in the TV show of the same name—though it was in the film that they composed original music for the soundtrack specifically. The band has gone on to release a slew of incredible albums, and write the score for a handful of films.
4) Goodbye Lenin! (2003), dir. by Wolfgang Becker, score composed by Yann Tiersen
Though Tiersen is perhaps more largely known for his score for the French film Amelie (2001), I have a personal admiration for Lenin’s score, as it seems his skills have been more thoroughly developed. The various songs throughout the film seem to find the perfect balance between quirky and deeply emotional, which is conveyed throughout the entire film. Alex (played by Daniel Brühl) attempts to keep his mother (who has just awoken from a coma) from the possibly fatal shock that East Berlin in 1990 is no longer what it was. The film itself is at times very humorous, but the darker emotions of the film always linger, as is the case in Tiersen’s melancholic yet uplifting score.
3) Mulholland Dr. (2001), dir. by David Lynch, score composed by Angelo Badalamenti
I think we can agree to give Angelo Badalamenti a giant pass for doing the score for Wicker Man (2006) given how many outstanding ones he’s produced—mainly his scores for David Lynch films, and for “Twin Peaks.” His score in Mulholland Dr. is beautiful, unsettling, and grand—which are just a few adjectives that can describe the film as well. Not only that, but Badalamenti contributes greatly to the film by appearing as the mysterious Hollywood higher-up who mutters, “this is the girl” again and again after spitting out his espresso.
2) Waltz With Bashir (2008), dir. by Ari Folman, score composed by Max Richter
In this animated documentary, director Ari Folman seeks answers regarding his experience in the 1982 massacre with Lebanon. He beautifully captures the unpredictability of memory, repression, and PTSD by choosing to make the film animated. The film never presents inherent truth; rather it portrays accurately how subjective memories can be. Max Richter’s score is best described as haunting. There are many repetitions throughout the film, both in terms of seeing the same memory and hearing the same song. However, with each repetition minute changes can be determined. The film and score seem to blend together seamlessly, and leave you in a state of awe.
1) There will be Blood (2007), dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson, score composed by Jonny Greenwood
The score in There Will be Blood is highly unexpected. The film could have easily chosen an easier, more straightforward classical score. However, with Greenwood’s bizarre and talented mind behind the score, the result is something much more rewarding. The film is not comfortable, and neither is the score. It’s piercing at times, seemingly random at others, but it remains wholly unique throughout. What makes this score particularly impressive is that it manages to complement the period of time depicted in the film despite the score’s modern, avant-garde sound.
Honorable Mention: Drive
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.