The 23 Most Exciting Film Composers Working Today
The work of a film composer, if all goes according to plan, is meant to go unnoticed. A film’s score is meant to support the scenes and characters in an almost subconscious way, to move the audience without them knowing they’re being moved. Of course, great film scores can’t go unnoticed—they’re unforgettable. But oftentimes the work of a composer is undervalued. It’s a vital aspect of filmmaking, and one that can make all the difference between a scene connecting with an audience or not.
So, in the spirit of continuing Collider’s effort of highlighting all aspects of filmmaking, I’ve assembled a list of some of the best film composers working today. It includes both incredibly obvious veterans and up-and-comers with maybe only a couple of works under their belt, as each and every one of the composers highlighted here brings something special to the filmmaking community. So take a look (and listen) below.
Notable Works: The Dark Knight, The Thin Red Line, Gladiator
Hans Zimmer is certainly one of the most well-known composers working today, but over the course of his three decades-plus career, he’s also proven to be one of the most versatile. He’s always had a soft spot for electronics, as heard in his early works like Days of Thunder and True Romance, but he began branching out significantly, turning in incredible work on The Lion King, Gladiator, and the unforgettable The Thin Red Line—his theme for which is still used in movie trailers galore. He’s now become a close collaborator of Christopher Nolan’s, churning out some truly experimental and exciting scores like Inception and The Dark Knight, but he continues to surprise with diverse themes in films like 12 Years a Slave, Sherlock Holmes, and Kung Fu Panda. While there’s certainly a familiarity to someone as prolific as Zimmer, you never quite know what you’re going to get.
Notable Works: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter
I mean, obviously. John Williams is one of the greatest composers of all time. No one in history is responsible for more iconic themes than he, and I’m doubtful anyone will ever come close. Just one Star Wars or Indiana Jones would be enough to make somebody’s career, but Williams stacked them one on top of the other—E.T., Superman, Jaws, even Home Alone! One would think someone responsible for that many iconic works would eventually run out of steam, but Williams has consistently found room to play, be it his jazz-infused Catch Me If You Can score, his haunting Schindler’s List theme, or his horror-infused Jurassic Park soundtrack. He’s showing no signs of slowing down—“Rey’s Theme” in The Force Awakens is terrific—and he’s now responsible for scoring the childhoods of multiple generations with his enduring Harry Potter theme.
Notable Works: Gravity, The World’s End, Suicide Squad
Steven Price hasn’t been on the scene for too long, but he’s certainly made a strong impression. His breakout was the one-two punch of Attack the Block and The World’s End, both of which featured a pulsing score that accentuated the tension in each of the sci-fi films perfectly, and then he tackled Alfonso Cuaron’s wildly ambitious Gravity to Oscar-winning results. Recently he’s dipped his toe into blockbuster waters with Suicide Squad and brought a modern twist to the World War II film Fury, and his next collaboration with Edgar Wright on the music-driven Baby Driver promises to be noteworthy.
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Notable Works: The Social Network, Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
When it was announced that David Fincher would be directing “the Facebook movie” The Social Network, there were plenty of WTF reactions. So it was only fitting that his choice of composer was a similarly head-scratching decision. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails fame were certainly accomplished musicians, but hadn’t been too familiar with the world of film scoring. That didn’t seem to matter, as their Oscar-winning work on The Social Network solidified them as incredible (and incredibly exciting) new composers on the scene. Their icy tracks for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo drove home the harsh landscape of Fincher’s bestseller adaptation, and their work on Gone Girl transcends simple music cues to become something downright funny. Indeed, their work on Gone Girl mirrors the dichotomy aspect of the story with a gooey, romantic score for the film’s first half followed by a dark, violent twist. While not prolific, every time Reznor and Ross agree to score a film is reason to celebrate.
Notable Works: Sicario, The Theory of Everything, Arrival
How often do you listen to music that literally frightens you? That’s Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for the Denis Villeneuve drama Sicario. It’s a film about many things—about how America responds to violence abroad, about foreign policy, about what it means to be a woman in a man’s world—and Jóhannsson’s work further bolsters the effectiveness of Villeneueve’s direction (and Roger Deakins’s cinematography) with a score that genuinely haunts you as you sit there in the darkened theater. And it’s not a one-off! Jóhannsson has also proved adept at lighter emotions, like his beautiful piano-driven score for The Theory of Everything. His reunion with Villeneuve for the sci-fi drama Arrival is just as fantastic as you’d expect, and he makes his blockbuster debut on Villeneuve’s sequel Blade Runner 2049.
Notable Works: 10 Cloverfield Lane, Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead
Bear McCreary first made a name for himself on television, with his introduction to many coming with the unforgettable opening titles to Battlestar Galactica. Since then, he’s taken on a moniker akin to the J.J. Abrams of television, composing the scores for various smash hit shows like The Walking Dead, Outlander, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But his feature film work took a massive leap forward with 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. His work on the contained thriller is not just great for the genre, or great for 2016—it’s one of the best scores of the last few years. There’s a strong nod to the work of Bernard Hermann here, in keeping with the Hitchcockian tone of the film itself, but it stands on its own as a truly unique and refreshing piece of work. While McCreary’s TV duties no doubt keep him busy, here’s hoping he keeps one foot firmly planted in the feature film world.
Notable Works: The Lord of the Rings, The Silence of the Lambs, Spotlight
Howard Shore had already established himself as an incredible composer before his iconic work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy with haunting scores like Se7en and The Silence of The Lambs, but his iconic soundtrack for the Lord of the Rings films is something else. Fantasy only works if the atmosphere is wholly complete, and the themes Shore crafted for Lord of the Rings are as integral to the story as the cinematography and acting. It’s a landmark achievement (even if The Hobbit trilogy as a whole is lacking, Shore’s work is solid), and it’s even more impressive when you look at what Shore did after that franchise. The Departed, Hugo, Twilight—the guy is versatile, and he’s still churning out stunning work like his minimal yet affecting score for the most recent Best Picture winner, Spotlight.
Notable Works: Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Good Will Hunting
Not unlike David Fincher convincing Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to try their hand at film composing, filmmaker Tim Burton wooed Oingo Boingo musician Danny Elfman to the feature film world with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and right out of the gate, Elfman established himself as a unique voice. His collaborations with Burton have been incredibly fruitful, from the devilish playfulness of Beetlejuice to the emotional Edward Scissorhands to the downright exciting Batman and Batman Returns. But his work apart from Burton, on films as varied as Spider-Man and Milk, is mighty exciting as well. Some of his signature touches have certainly been toned down in the past decade or so, but he’s still an exciting and unique voice.
Notable Works: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Godzilla
French composer Alexandre Desplat threatened to become the most prolific composer in the shortest amount of time with a flurry of works over the past five years, and the only thing more impressive than the volume of Desplat scores is the quality. He has a way of tackling orchestral scores from unique points of view that makes them really stand out, be it his work on the Deathly Hallows films of the Harry Potter franchise or the playfulness of The Secret Life of Pets. His prestige drama work is tremendous—from The King’s Speech to Philomena to The Danish Girl—but he’s capable of switching things up significantly to suit his director. His collaborations with Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest Hotel are remarkably distinct, and he matched the wistful tone of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button perfectly. One of his standout works is on Gareth Edwards’ unique blockbuster Godzilla, and it’s a testament to his versatility that he’s capable of churning out something of such high quality for that film, then turning right around and tackling The Imitation Game with similar aplomb.
Notable Works: Fargo, Carol, In Bruges
While many composers have distinct voices, it’s hard to mistake a Carter Burwell score. His work with the Coen Brothers is particularly striking (I mean, that Fargo theme), but throughout films as varied as Kinsey, In Bruges, and Twilight his solitary piano is unmistakable. There’s an intimacy to Burwell’s work that suits particular films extremely well, and no one does lonely quite as well as Carter Burwell. Of course, he’s nowhere near burning out, as his score for 2015’s Carol is absolutely one of his best works yet. What other treasures lay on the horizon? We’ll surely find out.
Notable Works: It Follows
Is one score enough to qualify as one of the most exciting composers working today? If that score is for It Follows then the answer is yes. Rich Vreeland (who sometimes goes by Disasterpeace) crafted a wonderful soundtrack for the terrific David Robert Mitchell horror film It Follows that is a pitch-perfect fit for the film’s throwback vibe. The movie feels at once like it could’ve stepped right out of the 80s and also like a refreshing twist on the horror genre. Vreeland’s score could have easily just mimicked the work of 80s Amblin movies or slasher pics, but instead he evokes that music without copying it. His score is wholly its own, pulsing, distressing, and entrancing all at the same time. And I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Notable Works: There Will Be Blood, The Master, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Following in the tradition of plucking musicians from popular bands and thrusting them into the film music world, Radiohead guitarist made his narrative film composing debut on Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful There Will Be Blood, and the result was something truly disturbing. Greenwood’s score echoes the loneliness and ugliness of Daniel Plainview, alternating between hypnotic strings and violent strumming, only adding to the tension of the film as a whole. His work on The Master was similarly unsettling, albeit a bit more esoteric, and his 70s-infused guitar-driven Inherent Vice score is rambling, just like the film’s protagonist. Greenwood doesn’t compose many films, but when he does, you best pay attention. You’re in for something different.
Notable Works: WALL-E, The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall
With 13 Oscar nominations under his belt, Thomas Newman is certainly one of the most celebrated composers on this list—and for good reason. Newman’s career spans a vast array of films, but it was his beautiful score for The Shawshank Redemption with which he really broke through, toeing the line between foreboding and imposing. That would become a hallmark of his career, especially in his many collaborations with filmmaker Sam Mendes and his work on the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries Angels in America, but Newman has also proved capable of branching out, as with his dreamlike score for the Pixar masterpiece WALL-E. It’s this latter work that may be one of his best so far, but as of late Newman has had more than a few surprises up his sleeve, which makes the future of his career that much more exciting.
Notable Works: Equals, Transparent, Lion
The hypnotic piano tones of Dustin O’Halloran first came to light with Drake Doremus’ achingly intimate love story Like Crazy, and the guy has only refined his approach over time. There’s a trancelike quality to O’Halloran’s work, which was vital to Doremus’ underseen follow-up feature Breathe In as well as the sci-fi Equals, but also permeates in O’Halloran’s score for the acclaimed TV series Transparent. In the world of film composing, many can get caught up in massive orchestrations or experimental electronics, but with a simple piano O’Halloran works wonders.
Notable Works: Requiem for a Dream, Stoker, Black Swan
Clint Mansell’s theme for Requiem for a Dream remains, to this day, one of the most unsettling pieces of film music ever composed. That alone is enough to warrant consideration as one of the most exciting composers working today, but his continued collaboration with Darren Aronofsky on films like Black Swan and The Fountain has produced similarly fascinating results, not to mention his stirring work with Park Chan-wook on the sumptuous thriller Stoker.
Notable Works: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Step Brothers, Punch-Drunk Love
For proof of Jon Brion’s talent, one need only look at Step Brothers. This incredibly silly comedy has no reason having a score this good, but Brion approaches the film just like any other, and it goes a long way towards humanizing the ridiculous characters played by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. Of course, Brion’s meandering piano also captures melancholy like nobody’s business in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and ParaNorman, and his arresting score for the Paul Thomas Anderson romance Punch-Drunk Love is unforgettable.
James Newton Howard
Notable Works: The Dark Knight, Michael Clayton, King Kong
James Newton Howard has become something of a go-to for Hollywood, handling the scores for blockbusters like The Hunger Games, Batman Begins, King Kong, and just about every M. Night Shyamalan film. His work in the 90s is just as impressive as his output today, with his The Fugitive score still holding up incredibly well, but it’s always fascinating to see what he might bring to the table next, with curveballs like Nightcrawler or Charlie Wilson’s War thrown in for good measure.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Notable Works: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hell or High Water
There’s a reason TCM adopted the theme from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for much of its programming—it’s incredible. Indeed, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have been responsible for some truly astonishing scores in addition to their other music work, especially within the Western genre. Just this year, they composed the score for the terrific neo-Western Hell or High Water, and their atmospheric approach is mighty effective in these character-centric kinds of films.
Notable Works: Under the Skin, Jackie
There’s no one making music quite like Mica Levi. It’s not that she’s using wholly unique instruments or is inventing new ways of making music. It’s that her approach to film composing is all-encompassing. Her work washes over you like a flood of emotions, and while that may not be the right fit for every film, her composition for Under the Skin was one of the most affecting pieces of film music we’d heard in a very, very long time. Her scores flow like waves, rising and falling, and it results in a viewing experience that’s somewhat otherworldly. While this served the alien story of Under the Skin extremely well, it also proves to be a swell fit for Jackie, filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s artful film about Jackie Kennedy in the hours and days following her husband’s assassination. Once again, Levi’s music overwhelms the viewer, and the film is all the better for it.
Notable Works: Atonement, Kubo and the Two Strings, V for Vendetta
Dario Marianelli is one of the more fascinating entries on this list. He won an Oscar for his incredible typewriter-infused Atonement score, and yet he still feels like he’s flying a bit under the radar. His score for Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre is devastatingly beautiful, and his work on Joe Wright’s ambitious Anna Karenina perfectly captures the film’s theatricality with a Russian twist. But Marianelli has recently struck up a relationship with the folks at LAIKA with incredible work on two very different stop-motion animated features. For The Boxtrolls, Marianelli conjures mischief and gluttony-evoking aural tones, while his score for Kubo and the Two Strings is downright thrilling. This versatility makes me all the more eager to see what he does next.
Notable Works: Snowpiercer, The Homesman, The Wolverine
There’s an unmistakable swagger to most of Marco Beltrami’s works, and that’s certainly the case for his tremendous score for the criminally underrated Tommy Lee Jones film The Homesman. But Beltrami’s varied career has also straddled blockbusters like The Wolverine, dramas like The Hurt Locker, and even horror films like Scream. He’s a bit of a chameleon, and that unpredictability—along with his charm—makes him a wildly interesting composer.
Notable Works: The Incredibles, Star Trek, Inside Out
If there’s one composer who seems destined to pick up the mantle left by John Williams, it’s Michael Giacchino. He got his start in television with striking work on Alias and, most famously, Lost, and he crafted a stellar new theme for a new generation with J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot Star Trek. His willingness to go big, or throw in a xylophone or something unexpected, makes his scores a joy to listen to, and his work with Pixar—especially The Incredibles and Up—strikes the pitch-perfect tone for their emotion-driven animated stories. He’s started tackling more and more blockbusters, including massive franchises like Jurassic World and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but emotion has always been the name of the game for Giacchino, and his scores are at their best when there’s a big, beating heart at the center of them.
Notable Works: Pacific Rim, Game of Thrones, Iron Man
I’m assuming you’ve already started humming the Game of Thrones theme by now. Indeed, the Game of Thrones opening titles are one of the few that people actually want to sit through given how great the music and visuals are. But Ramin Djawadi is no one-hit-wonder, as he provided the chugging rock-infused score for Marvel’s 2008 debut Iron Man, and performed a similar task on Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 sci-fi pic Pacific Rim. There’s an edge to Djawadi’s music that’s at one fist-pumping but also not obvious. It’s not rock for rock’s sake, and there’s a melodic quality to the guitar chugging that makes all the difference.