Top Film Scores of 2010

     December 30, 2010

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Top 10 lists are a dime a dozen in the Hollywood circle, but while most writers are busy compiling their “Best of” in terms of films, directors and performances I’m always more curious to explore the less-appreciated categories – particularly Best Motion Picture Score. And so without further ado, here are my picks for the Best Scores of 2010. Hit the jump to see the list.

THE TOP FIVE

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HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON – John Powell

The year 2010 proved quite lucrative for animated films – Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, Tangled and even Megamind scored with critics and audiences alike – but the best in terms of overall production (in my humble opinion) belongs to DreamWorks Animations’ How to Train Your Dragon, an exciting, heartfelt, even epic motion picture if there ever was one. A lot of the film’s success can be attributed to John Powell’s terrific, absolutely riveting score, which combines a healthy dose of traditional orchestra with that of contemporary electronic rhythms. The results are spectacular and easily Powell’s most accomplished work to date.

Utilizing Scottish instruments, notably a bagpipe, along with female vocals and fiddles, which may seem slightly obscure for a film about Vikings, but works nonetheless, Powell pumps his score with heavy brass and luscious strings. Muscular action music dominates in cues such as “Test Flight,” while luscious strings and quiet choir prompt cues like “Romantic Flight” to live up to its name.

As typical for a cartoon, the Mickey Mouse-ish music kicks in from time to time – this is a kid’s film after all – but the score, for the most part, follows the more contemporary paths set by Hans Zimmer in his Oscar-winning score to The Lion King.

John Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon is a grand work that rivals James Horner’s The Land Before Time, Zimmer’s The Lion King and Thomas Newman’s Finding Nemo as one of the finer animated film scores of all time.

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INCEPTION – Hans Zimmer

Many a film-score enthusiast felt Hans Zimmer (along with composer James Newton Howard) was snubbed in 2008 for his work on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – hands down the Best Film Score of that year if you ask me (sorry A.R. Rahman). So it’s no surprise that the latest Zimmer/Nolan collaboration has received such a massive, even passionate following – as though an Oscar for Inception would make up for the lack of Batman love displayed by Oscar voters those many moons ago (Heath Ledger’s performance notwithstanding). Yet, ironically, while Inception truly is an incredible score (one that will probably win the statuette come March), I’m not sure I would consider it the absolute best of 2010. Zimmer’s work effectively lingers in the background of Nolan’s film; the quiet, brooding underscore adds much in the way of dramatic intensity, but doesn’t quite drive the film in the same manner as Zimmer’s scores for Nolan’s Batman flicks. The results are akin to a wonderful dream, albeit one that doesn’t remain in the subconscious for too long. It doesn’t help that Nolan went all George Lucas on us and chopped Zimmer’s work to pieces in the final reel, but such is the nature of film scores these days.

Tellingly, the most memorable bits of Inception’s music come courtesy of guitarist Johnny Marr, whose work lends the film a decidedly “debonair” sound that hearkens back to John Barry’s legendary James Bond compositions of the late-1960s. Indeed, for all of Inception’s bravura action bits (“Mombasa” anyone?), it’s the quieter elements of Zimmer’s score (the soft piano strokes that open the film, the rising and descending cellos, those eerie Edith Piaf vocals) that lend the film its unique voice. And yet, despite all of that, it’s Zack Hemsey’s trailer music and those powerful “BWAAAMS” that many people (myself included) associate with Nolan’s film. If Zimmer does win the Oscar, he’ll have a lot of people to thank.

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THE SOCIAL NETWORK – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

I’ve already made my feelings known* regarding Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ work for David Fincher’s absorbing Facebook drama, The Social Network, but a little reiteration won’t hurt anyone. Almost entirely electronic in nature, The Social Network is one of those scores that blends well with the images onscreen, but isn’t quite as enjoyable on a CD release. Does that dissuade me from calling it one of the better scores of 2010? Not at all. Sometimes film music merits rewards for its sheer stand-alone brilliance (John Williams’ Jaws for example), but other times we must pay respect to those scores that lend a creative voice to the film, or serve as a driving force to the images onscreen, even if they offer little in the way of standalone entertainment.

In this case, the hypnotic, electrical rhythms of Reznor/Ross’ score add another dimension to Fincher’s film, serving as the cold, endless stream of mathematical equations and algorithms flowing through Mark Zuckerberg’s lifeless veins. Those quiet piano strokes in the film’s opening titles might just be the small bit of humanity within him crying out for attention; lost amidst a lonely world of computer hacking and social inadequacy. Even the electronic rendition of Edvard Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” promotes a world overrun by digitalization, or a society in which communication is both enlivened and hampered by the internet.

Immediately following my viewing of the film I ran out and purchased the CD on Amazon. The score doesn’t have quite the same punch without Fincher’s images, or Aaron Sorkin’s snappy, smart-ass screenplay, but it is unique by itself and at the very least promotes a deeper understanding of the film. Notable standouts on the release are the tracks entitled “In Motion” and “Intriguing Possibilities.”

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HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 1 – Alexadre Desplat

I’ll admit I was livid when I heard John Williams wouldn’t be returning for the final installment of Harry Potter. Williams, after all, gave Potter his musical identity; shouldn’t he be the one to see the series through to the end? Then I heard Alexandre Desplat’s masterful work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, and was suddenly grateful that Williams opted not to return – the legendary composer can do many things, but subtlety is not among them.

That’s exactly what Desplat brings to Hallows – Part 1: a sense of foreboding doom (“The Exodus”), punctuated by bursts of high-octant excitement (“Bathilda Bagshot”). Desplat infuses Hallows with an intense driving force that meshes well with director David Yates’ spectacular images. The driving rhythms that open the film (“Snape to Malfoy Manor”) are chill-inducing (particularly when played over the opening titles), as are his more bombastic (even Williams-esque) action-cues, namely “Sky Battle” and “Fireplace Escape.” The composer’s work is unlike anything he’s ever done (including this year’s Ghost Whisperer and The King’s Speech). Truth be told, Desplat has set some fairly lofty expectations for the big finale.

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TRON: LEGACY – Daft Punk

Perhaps the most unique score of the year, Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy doesn’t follow conventional standards, but doesn’t quite surpass them either. Sounding every bit like Zimmer and Howard’s work for The Dark Knight, with a touch of Don Davis’ action motifs from The Matrix and a nod to Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall, Daft Punk’s score (like the film itself) moves in fits and stops and never truly achieves a thematic rhythm. Yet, much like Reznor and Ross’ score for The Social Network, Daft Punk strikes a slick, futuristic tone that perfectly captures the spirit of Joseph Kosinski’s otherwise lopsided film; the music manages to inject some much needed energy into the proceedings, particularly during that slow, even muddled third act.

Of course, my favorite bit of music from the score is the one featured prominently in the original trailer (found on the commercial album within “The Game Has Changed” track). The driving synthesizers (reminiscent of John Powell’s Bourne scores), punctuated with electronic beats and drums, fuel the spectacular light cycle sequence. Electronic strings found in the cue “Solar Sailer” hearken back to Vangelis’ impeccable work for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. While not exactly a home run, there’s no denying the uniqueness of Daft Punk’s exceptional score, nor its inclusion among the best scores of the last several years.

THE OTHER FIVE

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BLACK SWAN – Clint Mansell

Clint Mansell’s score to Darren Aronofsky’s strangely intoxicating thriller utilizes much of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a unique score in its own right. Much in the way Black Swan was more or less a contemporary retelling of the classic ballet production, Mansell’s work brings Tchaikovsky’s work to vivid, startling life.

DEVIL – Fernando Velazquez

Nobody saw Devil, mainly due to poor marketing on Universal’s behalf (which, for whatever reason, boasted M. Night Shyamalan’s contribution), a shame because John Erick Dowdle’s film is one the better horror flicks to come along in recent years. Fernando Velazquez’s Bernard Herman-esque score adds to the onscreen madness, with heavy cellos and bursts of tuba, not to mention those plucking strings, heightening the tension. Regrettably, Universal opted not to release a commercial album. So the only way to hear the score is to watch the movie.

TRUE GRIT – Carter Burwell

Carter Burwell has scored all of Joel and Ethan Coen’s work (except O Brother Where Art Thou?), so it was no surprise to see him among the credits for their remake of True Grit. Burwell’s score adapts several Gospel tunes, namely “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which serves as “Mattie’s Theme” to the film, and features prominently throughout the film. A lovely score.

THE WOLFMAN – Danny Elfman

I wasn’t a huge fan of Joe Johnston’s goofy, Hammer-esque take on The Wolfman, but I was blown away by Danny Elfman’s thrilling score. Tellingly, I was vastly surprised to see his name on the credits as the music sounds nothing like “typical” Elfman (I was equally impressed with his quiet score for The Next Three Days as well), as the composer all but nixes the electronic beats in favor of more traditional composition. Check this one out if you haven’t.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER – David Arnold

David Arnold has crafted terrific scores for ages, but, for whatever reason, continues to fly under the radar. His terrific score for Casino Royale should have pushed him over the top – it didn’t. Hopefully, his score for The Chronicles of Narnia – Voyage of the Dawn Treader will accomplish that. With heavy bursts of choir, luscious strings and exciting action cues, Dawn Treader is the best score the Narnia series has produced yet.

THE NOTABLES

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THE GHOST WRITER – Alexandre Desplat

I initially had this in my top 10, but decided to choose only one Desplat score. I liked Deathly Hallows more, but not by much.

THE KING’S SPEECH – Alexandre Desplat

Quiet Desplat, but still engaging. This will get a nomination, but only because the film is so well regarded.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND – Danny Elfman

Here is typical Elfman, albeit with a heroic nobility not heard since his early Batman days. The score as a whole is quite standard, but the main theme is terrific.

THE TOURIST – James Newton Howard

Say what you will about the lazy, star-studded caper film, but James Newton Howard’s score was delightful. So much so that it made me like the film more than I probably should have.

PREDATORS – John Debney

I have to give a shout out to Debney. The man wrote some terrific music for Iron Man 2 and then followed that up with Predators, a killer score that employs Alan Silvestri’s original themes, but with more kick-ass gusto than ever before. Antal Nimrod’s film wouldn’t have survived without it.

Click here for our top ten scores/soundtracks of the decade.

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