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The Best Scores of the Decade

What a decade it's been. While the blockbuster score has become more and more homogenized, the indie score has risen up and put some of Hollywood's finest in their place with a particular focus on composers that have transitioned from the worlds of popular music. If you told the world in 2009 that the guy behind the lyric "I want to f**k you like an animal" would win a Best Original Score Oscar, most people would think you were insane. And then there's Mica Levi representing an increasing but still far too small group of female composers, while John Williams is still going strong and about to finish "Star Wars." With all that said, here are the best scores of the 2010s with clips so you can hear them for yourself.

"John Carter" by Michael Giacchino

For several years now, Michael Giacchino has been the go-to guy for scoring big Hollywood adventures, and with him about to hit Gotham City for Matt Reeves' "The Batman" it's a good idea to get reacquainted with his marvelous music for Edgar Rice Burroughs by way of Andrew Stanton. "John Carter" was savaged by the media before it even came out and wasn't helped by Disney's substandard marketing, but it remains a funny and exciting ride with an awful lot of heart, much of which comes from Giacchino's score. It's a wonderfully broad score with several themes representing the different factions as well as star-crossed lovers John Carter and Dejah Thoris, and it's a joy to listen to, full of romance and high adventure and an armful of emotion. It's a shame that it looks like Giacchino will never get to revisit that universe, but all the more reason to treasure this score. 

"Steve Jobs" by Daniel Pemberton

British composer Daniel Pemberton has become a force in the world of film scoring, diversifying himself for such projects as "The Counselor," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.", and "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse," all of which have allowed him to experiment and tinker to his heart's content. Danny Boyle's biopic of Apple bigwig Steve Jobs is set into three acts in three distinct eras, and Pemberton takes full advantage of this, using a unique sound for each differing time—so for the early Apple era he uses purely analog pre-1985 synthesizers, the middle section is designed as a mini-opera, and the final act is all digital. The ingenuity in this alone is quite brilliant, but Pemberton is also able to keep a high level of quality across all three eras, which results in a spectacular and incredibly effective score.

"The Red Turtle" by Laurent Perez del Mar

Despite having Studio Ghibli's name attached, Michaël Dudok de Wit's animated masterpiece is more of a co-production, albeit one that began at the request of Ghibli godfather Hayao Miyazaki (after seeing de Wit's 2000 Oscar-winning short "Father and Daughter".) What immediately makes "The Red Turtle" stand out from the rest is that it is almost completely wordless, preferring to tell its story of a shipwrecked man and the turtle-girl he falls in love with through visuals and Laurent Perez del Mar's score. Playing a crucial role in the narrative, the score is introduced slowly—conveying an early sense of danger from nature as our protagonist acclimatizes to the island, and plinks of string and xylophone as a group of hatchlings venture into the sea for the first time—and ramps up to the moment where the turtle-girl appears. The score matches the look of the island evocatively, with exotic woodwinds and percussion, but never overwhelming, and what you take away is an overwhelming feeling of serenity. It's a beautiful and intimate score for a wonderful film.

"War Horse" by John Williams

Unsurprisingly, John Williams has slowed down a bit over the decade, considering he's in his eighties and he doesn't have anything more to prove. But he's still composed music for several Steven Spielberg pictures, one of which is the director's homage to old classical Hollywood and John Ford, "War Horse." The tale of a working horse and its journey from a young colt to the trenches of World War I (as adapted from Michael Morpurgo's book) was the ideal subject for Anglophile John Williams, allowing him to channel his love for the English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, as he has in the past. The resulting score is just gorgeous, reveling in the pastoral English setting and utilizing several themes (of his usual earworm quality) to supply the unabashed boy's own adventure with some wonderfully emotive moments. Tissues required.

"The Social Network" by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

If you want to trace the evolution of much of the electronic music that has reverberated around the decade, a good place to start is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score to David Fincher's movie about Facebook, all coming from Reznor's obsession with electronic tinkering and Nine Inch Nails' indulgence in more abstract work such as their 2008 album, Ghosts I-IV. Even with the move into film scoring, you can easily identify Reznor and partner's stylistic hallmarks, but it's impressive how "The Social Network" develops this into a coherent design, creating an often exhilarating score that miraculously upends things like coding and hacking into a somewhat exciting yet not ridiculous activity. And of course, there's the regatta scene, where the pair score the race with an electronic interpretation of Edvard Grieg's classic piece"'In The Hall of the Mountain King," which seems like a potentially ridiculous choice but works like dynamite. As does the whole score.

"Mustang" by Warren Ellis

Audiences will be used to hearing Warren Ellis' film work alongside his Bad Seeds frontman Nick Cave for films such as "The Proposition" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," but Turkish drama "Mustang" illustrates his music in a new light, especially given that it's a grizzled man in his fifties scoring a tale about a group of teenage sisters. Nevertheless, Ellis' score delicately augments Deniz Gamze Ergüven's picture and underlines both the beauty and the darkness in its narrative, using alto flute and viola as the primary colors to drench it in quiet melancholy. What results is a mesmerizing work of confidence and specificity, with Ellis' score surgically striking to elicit just the right amount of beauty and heartbreak, without going over the top as so many do.

"If Beale Street Could Talk" by Nicholas Britell

Composer Nicholas Britell's follow-up to "Moonlight" sees he and director Barry Jenkins take on perhaps a more classical but no less experimental approach, switching out chopping and screwing for playing around with instrumental combinations and arrangements, resulting in a work of breathless beauty and overwhelming emotional satisfaction. There's a sense that not only the ups and downs of Tish and Fonny's relationship but also elements like Fonny and Daniel's legal situations are representative of something larger—certainly when you take into account the name of James Baldwin's novel that the film adapts. From there, Britell injects a sense of history into his score, especially when the pair are intimate. But none of it is intrusive. Indeed the expressionist nature that Britell gives his music feels natural, almost diegetic. It effortlessly shifts mood, from the lush strings that support Tish and Fonny to jazzier pieces with brass, and it never seems anything less than note-perfect, which is certainly an achievement in any decade.

"Under the Skin" by Mica Levi

Of all of the scores included in this list, this is undoubtedly the one that caused the most seismic activity, with Mica Levi exploding onto the scene and swiftly becoming a film score darling. And when you listen to "Under the Skin" you immediately understand why: it's a hypnotic tribute to the microtonal work of the likes of Krzysztof Penderecki and Gyorgi Ligeti with a similar avant-garde sensibility and an aptitude for perfectly blending orchestral and electronic sounds to create that holiest of holy grail—a true alien soundscape. Often missed in Levi's work however is the beauty and the truth, the conceptual underpinnings of another being trying to understand humanity and adapt to it. That sense of musical evolution is what elevates "Under the Skin" even further, and makes it a true classic of modern film scoring.

"Sicario" by Jóhann Jóhannsson

Given his innate talent for composing, it was inevitable that one of Jóhann Jóhannsson's scores was going to appear on the list. The only question was which one. And while his unquestionable ability created fine scores for films such as "Arrival," "Prisoners," and "Mandy," "Sicario" is the one for me that seems to best represent the uncompromising material he could write, even for somewhat mainstream filmmaking. At times, his music for "Sicario" sounds like a horror film, and his low-frequency palette used is full of hellish tones to draw from that perfectly accompany the morally murky characters of the picture, especially the conflicted soul of Emily Blunt's FBI agent Kate and Benicio del Toro's vengeful mercenary. The late Jóhannsson doesn't go overboard on the ethnic tones, but it makes it absolutely unambiguous how nihilistic and dark the situation with the drug war is, and how far some will go to keep it that way. He is sorely missed.

"You Were Never Really Here" by Jonny Greenwood

It's impossible not to include one of Jonny Greenwood's scores in this list. Thus far, his film music career is an embarrassment of riches, and anything from this decade's work could have easily made it in. That said, "You Were Never Really Here"—his second collaboration with director Lynne Ramsay—is a tremendous piece of work that affords Greenwood a wide spectrum of creativity, which he effortlessly spans to bring weight, intensity, and reflection to what, on the face of it, is a simple story of a hitman. Our journey into the head of Joaquin Phoenix's Joe is a boiling pot of complex emotions that Greenwood emphasizes with sounds of absolute horror, with a real Bernard Herrmann-esque sound which we might be used to in more overtly terrifying scenarios, but here is subverted. It's the same with the synth compositions, where violence is imbued into electronic melodies that in other films would be seen as cool. What we're left with here, however, are themes of retribution and catharsis and redemption that are not easily unwoven from another. Never is that better communicated than through Greenwood's score.

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