Favorite 100 Film Scores of All-Time (5-1)
Updated: Aug 19
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.
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (John Williams) - 2nd favorite Williams score, and possibly the best-recorded score! The instruments are mic'd so well that it's like you're hearing the score in a symphony hall from the conductor's podium. Every Indiana Jones end credits sequence ends the same way, but check out the French horns in the last 15 seconds of the End Credits ("Raiders of the Lost Ark") here compared to the other films in the series. The London Symphony horn section is just exploding! Some of that is quality of player, but much of it is, I think, the sound engineer. Besides the famous Raiders March, this score is filled with amazing cues. The Ark Theme is my favorite, and that is featured in the best cue from the score "The Map Room:Dawn". Also recommended: the entire opening sequence ("In the Idol Temple", Escape from the Temple", "Flight from Peru"), "Desert Chase", "The Basket Game", and "The Miracle of the Ark".
4. Batman (Danny Elfman) - I feel like this score needs a special asterisk. Orchestrators Shirley Walker and Steve Bartek are every bit as responsible for this score as composer Danny Elfman. I like to think of it as a collaborative score. And when I do, I get...the best superhero score of all time! The dark humor and superb orchestration is all over this score. There are times when it sounds like an homage to 1940's scores (Danny Elfman self-studies of composition included Duke Ellington score transcriptions) and then propelled right back to the modern era. The standout cues are "First Confrontation", "Descent into Mystery", "Attack of the Batwing", "Up the Cathedral", "The Final Confrontation", and "Finale".
3. Interview with a Vampire (Eliot Goldenthal) – We’re in the top 3, and while I’m inclined to rerank #4 through, well, 100 depending on my mood, I stand by my top 3. They’re my 3 favorite scores of all-time, and I’m confident that this is the exact order. Goldenthal is a former student of John Corigliano, and you can hear that if you compare Altered States to this, but only to subtle degrees. From the opening cue “Libera Me” featuring a boy soprano solo, boys choir, a viola de gamba, and dissonant orchestration, this score is magnificent from start to finish. When Louis is bitten by Lestat ("Born to Darkness, part 1”) you can hear the dizziness and transformation from the horns, strings, and synth. Lestat’s Lament” is brief, but features the first of many passages from incredibly virtuosic horn passages. “Madelene’s Lament” starts so calm and wonderfully melodic, and then resolves with the instruments seeming to tragically slide into place. “Claudia’s Allegro Agitato” starts off like a concerto for string quartet and orchestra in the style of Shostakovich. Wild piano and strings, and just SCREAMING trilling French horns decorates the ferocious “Escape to Paris”, not to mention to forceful low brass. Great harpsichord work is in “Lestat’s Recitative”. “Plantation Pyre” is ferocious! So many more great moments as well!
2. Poltergeist (Jerry Goldsmith) – Back in 1978, Jerry Goldsmith had to turn down the offer to score Superman because of a schedule conflict. John Williams won the job, and it’s hard to imagine the result being any better. Well, the reverse happened here. John Williams was asked to score Poltergeist, but couldn’t because of his commitment to E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Goldsmith came in to score Poltergeist, and I think everybody won! E.T. is a marvelous score that needed John Williams for that movie to be as great as it was. Here, however, Jerry Goldsmith turned in a score for the ages! I am 100% supportive of John Williams winning the Academy Award that year, but Jerry Goldsmith composed a complete and under-appreciated masterpiece that I rank higher! Rather than go cue by cue, I want to just talk about the highlight of the score, what might be the finest single moment in any film’s climax. It’s nearly 15 minutes of continuous music (listed on the soundtrack back-to-back as “It Knows What Scares You” and “Rebirth”). This begins with Tangina talking about the light and who is with the abducted Carol Anne. The strings and woodwinds are religious and reverent. Then when Tangina talks about the Reverend, bowed percussion and dark low brass take over. Tangina then tells the family, “Now let’s go get your baby girl”, and a prepared piano plays low notes of determination. Then we proceed to the cue “Rebirth”, and it is pure genius! Tests are made in connecting the dimensions with a tennis ball and ropes, and Goldsmith hits every one of those moments. The orchestration (including some of the best orchestral tuba parts, and wordless female choir) is flawless, and follows the back-and-forth of this scene, including one of the most memorable cinematic kisses with the static-channel TV in the background. Goldsmith’s theme for The Light soars in a way that would make Max Steiner or even Tchaikovsky proud! After much tension and the rescue, Goldsmith plays the success with some mildly dissonant counterpoint against the Carol Anne theme until we’re certain that she’s alright, and then it’s pure serenity.
1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (John Williams) – During the 30 years of keeping this at the top of my list, I occasionally wonder if I’m just holding onto nostalgia, if it’s not really as good as I think, so I have to listen to this music again. And once again I affirm...no, I’m not wrong! This really is the greatest film score of all time!! It’s also the biggest Oscar mistake in history for the Original Score category. The song-led Fame by Michael Gore won best (Instrumental) score over this, and that’s (sorry if this offends) like the song “Old MacDonald” winning a competition against Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. These shouldn’t even be compared! The thought at the time from people who didn’t really listen was, I think, “It’s just a sequel. He’s just recycling material from the 1977 film.” No, no, no! This score is not only better than Episode IV, but it’s not even close! Williams keeps all the great themes from Star Wars, loses the similarities to the classical temp tracks completely, and adds to them the most iconic themes in film history: “Yoda’s Theme”, “Han Solo & the Princess”, and of course “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)”. Then you have what might be the greatest single cue of all-time in “The Asteroid Field” that uses what I think is the best theme that John Williams has ever composed, and he only ever uses this one time...and never again! All of the battle scenes (from Hoth to the epic 17-minute escape from Lando’s palace while Luke faces Vader are AMAZING! Finally, let’s talk about what it does NOT have: cutesy tracks like Cantina Bands and Jabba Palace music. This is focused. It is his Opera without Words! Also, John Williams KNEW what he had with the Andre Previn-led London Symphony Orchestra, and he unleashes them! There isn’t an instrument section not being tested to the max, but they pass with flying colors. I think if you scour the history of classical music or film music recordings, you will never find finer orchestral playing than this original soundtrack. It’s the greatest score ever written, hands down!
If you've read the entire series, what scores do you think I overlooked or should reconsider? Thanks for reading!
Did you miss earlier portions of this countdown? Click here to start from the beginning.