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  • David Lane

Favorite 100 Film Scores of All-Time (50-41)

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: 60-51

#50-41


50. Princess Mononoke (Joe Hisashi) - One of the most intense animated stories I've seen. Joe Hisashi has been been Hayao Miyasaki's composer since 1984, and it's a wonderful collaboration. There's only one score of his that I rank higher than this one. This score is full of wild percussion, orchestration that gives each section a chance to shine, dissonant flourishs, and a lovely main theme. Stand-out cues: "The Legend of Ashitaka", "The Demon God", "Departure - To the West", and "The Young Man From the East".


49. Interstellar (Hans Zimmer) - As a big fan of old-school compositional craft, and considering it more important than production design, I've had to learn to appreciate Zimmer. I still find nearly most of his '90's work to be overrated, but think he has contributed some truly great scores in the last 15 years or so. My favorite of all of them is this one. In a way, that's odd, because the score is almost distractingly similar to a Philip Glass score, particularly his Koyaanisqatsi. But it's totally the right choice. The use of pipe organ pays homage to 2001, which this film definitely pays tribute to in terms of spirit. The standout cues are: "Stay", "Coward", and "Detach".


48. The Incredibles (Michael Giacchino) - His first big scoring opportunity for a feature film, and he knocked it out of the park! Giacchino replaced John Barry as the composer and reminds the listener of the James Bond style, but with a swagger John Barry never came close to! There's a ferocious energy to the whole score that mixes seems to mix the best of '60's secret agent material with jazz horns and a full symphonic sound! So many great cues, including: "The Glory Days", "Off to Work", "Missile Lock", "100 Mile Dash", and "Saving Metroville".


47. Planet of the Apes (Jerry Goldsmith) - Widely regarded as one of the most well-crafted experimental score. It's atonal much of the time, has mixed meters, has seemingly every percussion instrument known to man, along with unusual horns. It's not an influential score because, frankly, nobody can really imitate it. It's amazing, and it's truly unique! Stand-out cues: "Crash Landing", "The Search Continues", "The Hunt", "No Escape", and "New Identity".


46. The Hunt for Red October (Basil Poledouris) - This score is well-acknowledged for "The Hymn to Red October", the wonderful work for mens chorus and orchestra with original lyrics in Russian, with some great chords. The stand-out cue is the second track on the soundtrack "Nuclear Scam", which merges the Russian chorus aspects with some terrific orchestral action music. However, there are also some tracks like "Kaboom" with some synth and electric drum action that may have been one of the earliest influences for the action movie trends of the following decades.


45. The Time Machine (Russell Garcia) - Big band arranger and leader Russell Garcia didn't write many film scores, but he wrote a truly memorable one here. There is so much great orchestration, and so many great melodies throughout. The love theme is up there with anything John Williams has written. Filby's theme ("London 1900") is a lovely one as well. There is also ferocious action music with cues like "Fight with the Moorlocks", the suspenseful time machine motive ("Time Machine Model"). The standout cue is "Weena (Love Theme)".


44. The Death of Stalin (Christopher Willis) - Willis doesn't have many credits, but made a huge mark on this impressive satire of Russian life in the aftermath of Stalin's death. It's actually a serious story albeit with Monty Python-style situations. Willis attempts and impressively succeeds at sounding like Shostakovich might have composed this score (THE big Soviet composer of the era who famously clashed with Stalin at various points), without actually ripping off Shostakovich. Stand-out cues: "Back from the Gulag", "Setting the Trap", and "End Credits".


43. Vice (Nicholas Brittell) - Brittell has shown himself to be a very successful and versatile young composer. For this controversial biopic of Dick Cheney, he blends some Coplandesque/Thomas Newman-style Americana, but with an epic grandeur and liberal use of polytonality at times (which I would suppose captures the themes of family vs hunger for power that the film portrays), and a neo-Baroque use of counterpoint. Standout cues: "The Lineman - Prelude and Development", "He Saw an Opportunity - Counterpoint in C Minor", and "Conclusion-the Transplant".


42. Star Wars (John Williams) - Yes, I'm talking about the original, Episode IV "A New Hope". Yes, only #42. First of all, the top 50 of this list are all special soundtracks. Second, I think this is the 3rd best Star Wars soundtrack. I know this score tops many lists, but I really think it's only because of the chronology. This score began a new trend of symphonic scores. It's the film that made John Williams a household name. The craftsmanship of the composition and orchestration is stellar! Here's why it's not the best. Unlike the vastly superior score he would write in 3 years time, this is a victim of temp tracking. You hear the Holst, Stravinsky, Korngold, and Walton references all over the place. It's fun to hear John Williams navigate around that, but I think he's still trying to find his voice for this type of film at this point. Princess Leia's Theme along with themes for Luke and the Force are great, but the Darth Vader motif is uninspired compared to what he would write for Episode V. Finally, it was Williams' first experience with the London Symphony Orchestra, and he didn't really know what they could do yet. He learned on the recording session, and the inspiration paid dividends in future projects. I say that one should give this all the credit for the icon it deserves to be, but that doesn't make it the best score. Stand-out cues: "Main Title/Blockade Blocker", "The Return Home", "Rescue of the Princess", "Throne Room".


41. Krull (James Horner) - I've never understood why this film is held in lower regard than something like The Neverending Story. It's not great, but definitely not terrible. Although James Horner's breakout score was the previous year with Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan, I think this is when he unleashed what he could do for an adventure picture: sweeping strings, great brass fanfares with virtuoso passages, driving rhythms. The music is so difficult that you can hear the London Symphony trumpets crack on a note in the main title. Oh yeah, James Horner scored this at the age of 29. So many stand-out cues, but especially "Main Title & Colwyn's Arrival", "Slayer's Attack", "Quest for the Glaive", "The Widow's Web", and "Riding the Fire Mares".

Next: 40-31

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