This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.
It’s difficult to articulate how much a film score can matter. Instrumental accompaniment is often integral to the mood, tone, and even structure of a film. It inflects a feeling, captures our attention, and imbues a film with a sense of atmosphere. And the 2010s have been a banner decade in the art of film composition.
To celebrate the most melodious and mood-capturing scores of the last decade, a few of us here at FSR put our heads and hearts together to pick 25 that stand out. You will notice that this is about scores, not soundtracks. We’re talking original and instrumental here, folks! You will also notice that as comprehensive as this list is, we have not seen every movie and we are making these decisions based on our opinions and personal preferences. Picking only 25 film scores from 10 years’ worth of options is not easy, but we like to think this list is a mix of celebrated favorites and overlooked gems that showcase the best OSTs this decade has had to offer.
So, without further ado, here are the 25 scores that slapped their way into legend status this decade, as decided by Brianna Zigler, Christina Smith, Ciara Wardlow, Kieran Fisher, Luke Hicks, Madison Brek, Margaret Pereira, Meg Shields, and yours truly.
25. Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alexandre Desplat‘s score for The Grand Budapest Hotel is, much like the film itself, peak Wes Anderson. It’s macabre and mysterious when it needs to be, and it’s whimsical and fun always. It conveys a sense of scale that’s a lot more singular than your typical high-budget “bwaaa,” instead leveraging its fair share of dueling mandolins, dulcimers, and even a stray Gregorian chant now and again to really drive home the film’s sharp humor and vibrant atmosphere. In short, Desplat’s music helps keep you right where you need to be from the get-go; from its first harmonizing yodeler to its last, it cements Anderson’s pink-hued, Central European sandbox as the perfect place to visit for a couple of hours. And shoutout to “Kamarinskaya” for being 30 espresso shots in song form, in the best possible way. (Christina Smith)
24. Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, Swiss Army Man
Swiss Army Man‘s erasure from the 89th Academy Awards’ Best Original Score category still plagues me to this day. Composed by Andy Hull and Robert MacDowell — half of the indie rock band Manchester Orchestra — the score to a film about a man stranded on a deserted island who rides a flatulent corpse back to civilization and falls in love with him on the journey home, is about as bizarre and unique as the fucked-up-sounding narrative itself. Comprised of actual contributions from lead actors Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, portions of the song “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” the Jurassic Park theme, sound effects, repeated phrases, and vocals from Hull, the score is both affecting and alienating — an imaginative process from beginning to end meant to illustrate Hank’s (Dano) journey back to society, and the magical realism of the world he experiences along the way.
Made up of haunting, moving melodies, the composing duo was actually instructed by Daniels to make the sound weirder and uglier during initial recording. “I really learned how to allow myself to be vulnerable to make some really strange sounds,” Hull told Consequence of Sound, “and to go outside my comfort zone of sounding cool or emotional.” The result is a score that depicts the fantastical, absurdist nature of the situation at hand while maintaining the human heart of the story. It’s an offbeat, all-encompassing amalgamation of weirdness, reflecting both the film it is set to and the very nature of humanity itself. (Brianna Zigler)
23. Joel McNeely, A Million Ways To Die In The West
Yee. Haw. Put your synths down, this is a real deal 95-piece Western score, an earnest as hell orchestral gift from the Western heavens and holy smokes what decade is it? A Million Ways to Die in the West sees Seth MacFarlane’s modern profanity dropped in a classic genre setting, a clash not only facilitated but elevated by Joel McNeely’s sweeping, straight-shooting orchestration. Western comedy scores are an art unto themselves, with McNeely expertly emulating shades of Elmer Bernstein, Alfred Newman, and Jerome Moross. Indeed: A Million Ways to Die in the West is one of the lushest Western scores since Wyatt Earp, with a resonant liveliness captured by recording the orchestra en-masse and emphasizing performance over parts. This score should not exist in the 2010s, but we’re sure glad it does. For our money, it’s a vision that pays off a million times over. (Meg Shields)
22. Mica Levi, Jackie
Mica Levi‘s score for Jackie earned the composer her first Oscar nomination, a well-deserved recognition but one that is somewhat surprising considering how completely unconventional her work on the film is. Eschewing the more traditional, understated beats of many a biopic, Levi’s Jackie score is the instrumental accompaniment to a downward spiral. It’s an anxiety-inducing journey into the eponymous first lady’s psyche that unnerves and envelops as it swells, contributing to the film’s most beguiling qualities. It’s a cacophonous whirlwind that perfectly captures Jackie’s (Natalie Portman) inner turmoil. The deeply melancholic “Graveyard” is an especially pointed composition as it meditates on and mourns for what has been lost and can never be found again. (Anna Swanson)
21. Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner, The Revenant
Co-created by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and The National’s Bryce Dessner, The Revenant’s score swells pensively through the snow, heart in its hands, in wonder and weariness for the unholy lengths men will go to resist nature. The Revenant’s musical presence is minimalistic and meditative; dovetailing between unions of cellos, pipes, bass, and even an Ondes Martenot (an ancient electronic instrument from the 1920s, expertly played by Motoko Oya). The score meets and balances the starkness of its subject; underpinning any perceived hostility with a beautiful, droning, ethereal experience that eschews catharsis for something more reserved and rumbling. “Killing Hawk,” “Church Dream,” and “Imagining Buffalo,” are essentials; oscillating from airy calm to unexpected, stalking thuds that threaten chaos and portent the film’s inevitable bloodshed. The Academy has many rules and many sins, and one of their greater errors is refusing The Revenant’s eligibility on the grounds of it being co-created. In case you needed further proof that awards recognition and merit are often passing ships. (Meg Shields)
20. John Williams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
While J.J. Abrams kicked off this generation’s Star Wars trilogy with a bang and some fresh faces in front of the camera, John Williams was a welcome return behind the scenes. He made film and pop culture history with his original composition, and with The Force Awakens, he works with his Star Wars theme, allowing its iconography to be present and to pull at the ol’ heartstrings. But make no mistake, this isn’t empty nostalgia — Williams’ new work is spirited and vibrant. It’s as spunky and energetic as they come, providing further zest and a lively pace to the film’s action sequences, while beautifully swelling to accompany the emotional beats. And, on a personal note, I have yet to make it through “Han and Leia” without shedding a tear. Williams, you’ve done it again! (Anna Swanson)
19. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, Blade Runner 2049
Tasked with revisiting the hallowed ground consecrated by Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner score (a month before the sequel’s release no less), Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch faced a daunting task. Naturally, the veteran composer and his frequent collaborator were more than up to the challenge, readily harnessing a king’s ransom of synths to deliver one hell of a hail mary: a score that does right by the DNA of its predecessor while achieving something unique in its own right. The Blade Runner 2049 score feels like someone dropped a theremin into a sensory deprivation chamber. It’s a musical space that feels haunted and hollowed out, an abandoned factory with echoes of softness (“Rain”), menace (“Wallace”), and urgency (“Pilot”). It’s an astonishing piece of work with melodic motifs eliding into what is tantamount to sound design: “sonic anarchy” by way of something delicate, dreamy, and utterly hypnotic. (Meg Shields)