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  • David Lane

Favorite 100 Film Scores of All-Time (40-31)

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

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.


Previous: 50-41

#40-31


40. Pinocchio (Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith) - I'm putting aside the fact that I think "When You Wish Upon a Star" should be considered the best song ever written for a movie, this ranking is solely for the instrumental score, which is as instrumentally brilliant as a Ravel ballet, but with a tremendous amount of versatility. As mentioned with Jaws, the "Monstro Awakens/Whale Chase", had to be an inspiration for the latter film. "The Coach to Pleasure Island" is a montage that would make Charles Ives proud. "Message from the Blue Fairy" simply sparkles. THE stand-out cue, however, is "Transformation" which accompanies the scene that scared me and other boys throughout the years, where the puppets transform into donkeys and begin to lose the ability to speak. That cue is orchestral magic!


39. The Abyss (Alan Silvestri) - It may be the most underrated of James Cameron's films, and I think it has the best score, appropriately enough from the criminally underrated Alan Silvestri (who has a single Oscar nomination and no wins in his long career)! This score has some great action moments along with some suspense that sounds like you're at the bottom of the sea even without seeing it, but it also has such a wonderous sound with female choir and triumphant themes when the movie calls for it. Stand-out cues: "The Crane", "The Pseudopod", "Sub Battle", "Back on the Air", "Finale".


38. Elizabeth (David Hirschfelder) - Even with Oscar nominations for this score and "Shine", this Australian composer has stayed under the radar for a long time. The use of full chorus and orchestra in this gets to the religious undertone and speaks to the grandeur of the house of Henry VIII, and the struggle between Mary and Elizabeth before the latter's triumphant rise. Stand-out cues: ""Love Theme - Arrest", "Tonight I Think I Die", Parliament", "Conspiracy", and "One Mistress, No Master".


37. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (John Williams) - This is a very nostalgic pick for me, as it was the very first soundtrack I heard away from the movie. I bought the original album on cassette, which was missing more than half the music used in the film (including some of the best cues). This is the second best Star Wars film. John Williams, after Episode IV, realized the amazing things that the musicians could do and started writing for that. Incredibly fast and winding woodwind scales, rapid and high strings, incredible passages for the brass with triple-tonguing and going to the top of the range. There's a huge difference between the battle scene music here and the original, much more dazzling and impressive. The new themes that stand out the best are Jabba's Theme (an INCREDIBLE tuba solo) and The Emperor's Theme. Why it's not the best Star Wars score: Too many cues like the Jedi palace music and the celebration music that just isn't Williams' strength. Also, the "Luke and Leia" is the least impressive of the "Leia" themes. The Ewoks music is okay. Stand-out cues galore include: "Han Solo Returns", "Den of the Rancor", "The Fleet Enters Hyperspace", and the 27-minute sequence called "The Battle of Endor" which includes the final confrontations of Luke, Vader, and the Emperor.


36. Cocoon (James Horner) - If I had to pick one soundtrack to show what kind of amazing melodic conjurings could come from James Horner, it's this 1985 score. The two main themes are like candy for French hornists and oboists! This score really pulls the heartstrings. Stand-out cues: "Through the Window", "The Chase", "Rose's Death", "First Tears", and "The Ascension".


35. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (John Williams) - In case you're wondering, this is the only Harry Potter score on the list. I'm happy that John Williams could endear himself to a new generation of fans with the iconic "Hedwig's Theme", but for long-time fans, there is SO MUCH retreading of Home Alone and Hook in the first two HP movies. With new director Alfonzo Caurón, Williams impressively creates something brand new here. The amazing cue called "Buckbeat's Flight" (which works even better for Sirius's rescue) has, in my opinion, the 2nd best theme that John Williams ever composed (I'll mention the first later). There's an impressive burst of percussion that starts the cue, and then it just soars! Other great cues include "Forward to Time Past", "The Dementors Converge", "Mischief Managed" and "The Knight Bus" (which really shows how good of a jazz arranger Williams is).


34. Manchester by the Sea (Lesley Barber) - I truly wish I had more female composers represented on this list. This has lovely and original music for orchestra and voices that use very little vibrato, almost a mix of pop and neo-Renaissance. Stand-out cues include the truly lovely "Manchester By the Sea Chorale", "Plymouth Chorale", "Manchester Minimalist Piano and Strings", and "Floating 149 A Capella".


33. Columbus Circle (Brian Tyler) - This is a very underrated suspense film, and a VERY underrated score! Brian Tyler lets a string quartet lead this chamber score throughout. Stand-out cues include "Columbus Circle (Main Title), "Agoraphobia", "Emerging", "Dagger", and "Exit Strategy".


32. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Howard Shore) - More than probably any other movie series, LOTR fans (the films, not necessarily the books) consider it one long movie, and many would question ranking these scores. Nevertheless, I do rank them separately. I rank the top 2 movies in a different order than the scores, but agree on the 3rd of the trilogy...this one. That doesn't mean that it isn't wonderful. To reemphasize the spoiler, this is not the only LOTR score on the list, so I'll talk more about the music when I get to the other scores. The unique highlights here to me are "The Three Hunters", "The Plains of Rohan", "Edoras", and "Théodin King/The Funeral of Théodred".


31. Motherless Brooklyn (Daniel Pemberton) - Probably the most recent score on this list. This is one cool score! It echoes Lalo Schifrin and even 1970's era Miles Davis (such as Bitches Brew), but is distinct on its own. Groovy bass part, jazz-rock beats, great jazz harmonies and voicings, avant-garde lines from saxophone and trumpet, and suspenseful strings. Stand-out cues include "Tyrannous", "Sharp on the Line", "Fire it Up", and "Woman in Blue".

Next: 30-21

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