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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lane

Favorite 100 Film Scores of All-Time (30-21)

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

It's been 30 years since I started actively listening to film scores, not just with the film, but away from the film as well. People often ask me what my favorites are, and I finally decided to make an official list. I'm careful to note that the title of this list is "favorite 100" not "top 100". These are not all critically-acclaimed, nor are they selected primarily for how well they work in the film (although that is a consideration).

The criteria for me is in this order, (1) Instrumental Underscore only, no song soundtracks, (2) musical excellence, (3) Effectiveness in the film. (4) Originality (though not without the excellence. There are plenty of scores that I consider highly original, but not musically excellent.

To prepare for this list, I listened to well over 400 soundtrack albums this year. Most were titles I hadn't gotten to, but some were refreshers. So I feel very confident in my opinions on this list. Also, please know that I think EVERY score here is GREAT! #100 doesn't mean "sucks". #100 is an excellent score! I just happen to like 99 (out of how many hundreds of thousand possibilities?) more. Two things to note: First, there are a lot scores from the 3 J's (John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner), but a lot of total composers represented. Second, there is an obvious lack of diversity. I wish that weren't the case. I tried my best to judge the music only, and did not want to include any composers for reasons other than how I honestly felt about the work itself.




30. The Shawshank Redemption (Thomas Newman) - Newman's use of open harmonies (reminiscent of Aaron Copland) and great use of strings is basically his signature orchestral sound, but it's never worked better than it does for this very popular film. The story of Andy Dufresne is masterfully followed by Newman. Stand-out cues: the self-titled "The Shawshank Redemption" and "End Titles", but each moment in the score is the right one for the film.

29. Stargate (David Arnold) - Like so many scores of this type, it is seldom mentioned as anything other than a "Star Wars imitator". It also gets overlooked in favor of the composer's next big score, Independence Day, but every cue in this perhaps-less-than-great film stands alone from Star Wards and "ID4" and is a masterpiece in adventure scoring and orchestration. Again, every cue is great, but special mention to "Giza, 1928". The second half of that makes my hair follicles stand up every time, even if I play it 2-3 times in a row before going on. Whoever played 1st trumpet on this score was a beast!

28. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 version by Michel Legrand) - The question of what is my favorite film of all-time is harder for me to answer than what is my favorite score, because in the case of the former, it fluctuates. One of my common answers though is...THIS one. This Norman Jewison directed gem features 2 actors with charisma that the remake can't touch, brilliant use of split-screen, and just fantastic editing that Legrand comments on from start to finish. Dark rich strings, and a wonderfully frenetic piano ostinato. I've never listened to the soundtrack separate from the film, so I can't recommend specific cues, but the score is a masterpiece start to finish, and deserves to be known for MUCH more than the Oscar-winning song "Windmills of Your Mind".

27. Legends of the Fall (James Horner) - So full of heart! Only Cocoon rivals this Horner score in terms of just serenely beautiful material. However, there are plenty of suspenseful and adventurous moments that are all good. This is my second favorite Horner score, but I gave serious thought about whether or not it should be first. Stand-out cues include: "The Ludlows", "Off to War", "Samuel's Death", "The Wedding", and "Goodbyes".

26. Spirited Away (Joe Hisashi) - The composer of all Hayao Miyazaki films is not nearly as well-known in America, but rest assured is an icon in Japan. There isn't a score of his I wouldn't call at least good. As mentioned, Princess Mononoke is in my top 50. My favorite film itself from this collaboration is The Wind Rises, but Spirited Away is HIS masterpiece of scoring! (Sorry for overuse of "masterpiece", but we're within the top 30, so expect it from this point forward.). Great Japanese-style harmonies with lots of 4ths and 5ths mixed with sharp dissonances, and terrific orchestration featuring all of the families including the winds and percussion. Every cue is great, but the highlights include "A Road to Somewhere", "The Empty Restaurant", "The Dragon Boy", "The Bottomless Pit", and the simple, serene and simply perfect "Reprise".

25. Altered States (John Corigliano) - This is one strange film from 1980 starring William Hurt, and John Corigliano provided what I think was a ground-breaking score! But it was actually ahead of its time. With aleatoric clusters, sliding strings, high screeching brass, other techniques that basically make the orchestra sound as surreal and trippy as the movie is, it actually set a template that would become more commonplace in horror movies by the late '90's, but it wasn't until 1986 with James Horner's Aliens, before I heard it done again. Then there is some wildly bombastic rhythmic sections that is as harshly primitive as the visuals demand! The stand-out cues are "Main Title and First Hallucination", "Second Hallucination", "Second Transformation", "The Laboratory Experiment", and the "Love Theme" (melodic and beautiful, but with a truly well-crafted degree of complexity).

24. The Matrix (Don Davis) - As I mentioned with the score for Black Panther, there was quite a bit of John Adams influence in the score. The same can be said for this score. The signature sound of French horns doing a dramatic crescendo on a triad multiple times, overlapping with the trumpets doing the same thing on a different right out of Adams's Harmonielehre. But once again, it's still effective, and Don Davis has made it his own! Don Davis has struggled to make his name known as a composer beyond this franchise, but has had a remarkable career as an orchestrator, and it shines through in this score. Stand out cues: "Main Title/Trinity Infinity", "Welcome to the Real World", and "Anything is Possible".

23. Braveheart (James Horner) - Since I saw the film for the 3rd time in the theater and bought the soundtrack, this has been my favorite James Horner score. Yes, it uses uilleann pipes (which are Irish) instead of bagpipes for this Scottish tale, but that actually is a wiser choice for blending with the orchestra. This is a dramatic score with a lot of Horner's distinct touches (percussive panpipes, glissandi on tubular bells, synth blend), and James Horner created a score that is the heart of the film. I'm not as high on his score for Titanic as many others are, but I hope all could agree that the latter film's Oscar-winning score doesn't happen without exploring this sound world first in Braveheart! Stand-out cues include: "Wallace Courts Murron", "Freedom/The Execution", and the simply perfect and iconic "For the Love of a Princess" (with not only great melodies, but an inspired use of molto crescendo in so many places) a piece which I arranged for my own wedding.

22. Babe (Nigel Westlake) - Westlake is an underrated composer, not just of films either. His composition, Spirit of the Wild, is my favorite oboe concerto of all time! He hasn't written a lot of film scores, but this is probably the most famous. It's an interesting score in that it incorporates themes from classical works such as Saint-Saëns 3rd symphony, a lyric piece by Grieg, and a vocal work by Faure. Westlake takes this family movie with talking animals and makes it dark! There isn't a trace of "kids movie sound" in the score, and I love the effect it has on the film. The orchestration and every aspect of the composition is masterful. Stand-out cues include: "This is a Tale", "Them Wolves", "The Sheep Rustlers", and "Call the Boss".

21. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Howard Shore) - My favorite movie of the trilogy, 2nd favorite score. With that said, it is this film that has the best single cue of the entire trilogy, "Lighting of the Beacons", which has a flawless pacing and building of energy. Also some great vocal cues such as "The Sacrifice of Faramir", and the long sequence of cues that follow Frodo and Sam at Mount Doom.


Next: 20-11

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