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The 25 Best Film Scores of the Decade

Hear, hear! We assembled the best of the best original soundtracks from 2010 to 2019.
Best Film Scores of the Decade
By  · Published on November 28th, 2019

18. Jóhann Jóhannsson, Arrival


Arrival is one of the most compelling movies of the last decade, and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is one of the biggest reasons why. Jóhannsson crafted a score that’s both unmistakable and unobtrusive, and that contrasts moments of tonal quiet with blaring, dissonant sirens. It’s absolutely crucial for the atmosphere of this film, as it seems to suspend you in zero gravity. There are elements of randomness, creating an infinite effect that aids the film’s thematic underpinnings. In many ways, it’s as emotionally reserved as Amy Adams is in the film, as it reaches out for something not quite tangible, in these unknowable discordant tones. What is special about it is also what’s difficult to describe. There’s innateness to it, a quality that feels like a human couldn’t have produced it. Jóhannsson’s score is not unpleasant or scary, but it builds an anxious urgency that supports each move Arrival makes. (Margaret Pereira)

17. Jonny Greenwood, The Master

The Master

Our understanding of Jonny Greenwood as the transcendent Radiohead lead guitarist has evolved amidst the blossoming of his creative relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson over the past 12 years. Simply put, he’s emerged as one of the greatest composers on the planet, and his score for The Master — performed by London Contemporary Orchestra and The Aukso Chamber Orchestra — might be his most glowing achievement, which is saying a lot for the man who scored Phantom Thread and Inherent Vice. Greenwood is the kind of musician who learned how to code his own music software in order to get the precise tones he wanted on an album, so it shouldn’t shock anyone to learn that he took another professional detour to master the art of orchestral composition. That his music meets Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction in its unparalleled originality and allure is a testament to Greenwood’s prowess.

From the serene cacophony of waxing and waning strings in “Overtones” to the hampered, dying woodwinds of “Time Hole” to the clicking clamor of “Able-bodied Seamen,” his work on The Master embodies the experimental dissonance of Aaron Copland as much as it does the poised gumption of Philip Glass. Greenwood and Anderson seem to exist on a similarly inaccessible plane of brilliance that allows them to communicate their visions clearly and feed off one another’s work with profound collaborative results. Greenwood’s score is so integral to the unnerving tone of Anderson’s formless story, it seems impossible to imagine the film without it. (Luke Hicks)

16. Cliff Martinez, Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives

Would God forgive us for leaving Cliff Martinez off this list? Unlikely. Nicolas Winding Refn’s divisive and sadistic Drive follow-up delivers a soundtrack you can fight to — a neon Thai cathedral of piercing pipes and soaring synths, with a syrupy pop spirit and a mean left hook. Peddling in gongs, chimes, and woodblock drum thuds, Martinez’s score is ambient and anxious; a panicky and uncompromising hustle of melody and mood that’s accidentally one of the decade’s best prog-rock horror scores. For all its bombast and fury, Only God Forgives is Martinez’s most delicately themed score to date, finding lyrical hums and ethereal resonance in an otherwise bleak, torture-forward punch’em up. Speaking of which: “Wanna Fight” is a goth techno standout, an organ grinder of pulse-pounding percussion and spiraling arpeggios that’s like if Akira and Interstellar got in a car accident. It’s sinister, kitsch, and dreamy. Praise be. (Meg Shields)

15. Jo Yeong-wook, The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a film that is as lively as they come. It’s elaborate and intricate, masterfully crafted in every respect, and Jo Yeong-wook‘s score is no exception. At times explosive and at other times delicate, with lyrical piano notes and piercing strings, the score is a rhapsodizing and atmospheric accompaniment to this erotic thriller. It keeps pace with the film’s twisting plot and matches the enticing narrative at every point. The score’s traditional elements perfectly suit the film’s period setting, but it also has a fresh and vivacious spirit. “Wedding” may be one of the standout tracks, but “Feels Just Fine” is a succinct way to summarize this masterful composition. (Anna Swanson)

14. Jonny Greenwood, You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here

Recently minted Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Jonny Greenwood makes scores so incredible it seems easy. I can just imagine him trolling other film composers, Elle Woods style: “What, like it’s hard?” This isn’t the first of his scores on this list, and it won’t be the last. The score of You Were Never Really Here fucks in its entirety. Lynne Ramsay’s elegantly brutal (brutally elegant? either shoe fits) crime drama is a hair-raiser of a thriller. Greenwood’s music isn’t just a perfect companion but the sort of score you can appreciate all on its own. It smashes into your earholes with the brute force of a hammer and the fine point of a nail, the sort of instrumental music you put on to provide background that instead steals all your attention as you attempt to unravel its mysteries. (Ciara Wardlow)

13. Jóhann Jóhannsson, Mandy


Panos Cosmatos’ prog-rock opera revenge fantasy has two stars: Nicolas Cage and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. By Jóhannsson’s hand, Mandy dissolves into Tommy by way of The Devil’s Candy, malicious guitar wails kept at bay by ethereal strings and pulsing thumps with righteous purpose. Meeting and matching Cosmatos’ bad-trip visuals, Jóhannsson’s score is a dark, processed, sonic pit: part industrial, part fantastical, and completely massive in every sense. Dark and desperate, Mandy revels in bass rumbles and lashing, chunky chords: from the bleak bombastic sludge of “Sand,” to the sweeping haze of “Death and Ashes,” to the cosmic chaos of “Black Skulls.” Mandy’s score is engulfing; like being swallowed up by a dangerous magic. (Meg Shields)

12. Michael Giacchino, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

Michael Giacchino isn’t just one of our greatest living composers, he’s also the only one who properly appreciates the power of a good pun, and that makes him number one in my heart. From “Give Her My Budapest” to “Mumbai’s The Word,” Giacchino perfectly racks up the tension to somehow make one of the best action movies of the decade even more exciting. He works with the classic Mission: Impossible theme while molding it to conform to his signature composition style, one that is playful and exhilarating, full of elation and humor. For me, the mark of a truly great score is one that lingers so powerfully it allows you to visualize key scenes by just hearing the right few notes. I can’t think of a better example of this phenomenon than the way the music swells in “A Man, A Plan, A Code, Dubai” so that I instantly picture Brad Bird’s reveal of the imposing Burj Khalifa tower. If that doesn’t make for a stellar score, I don’t know what does. (Anna Swanson)

11. Hans Zimmer, Inception

Inception Leonardo Dicaprio

One two many overzealous fanbros and the fact that everyone and their mother “took inspiration,” shall we say, from Inception for years afterward has soured some on Hans Zimmer’s score in retrospect. Sure, seat-shaking horns got done to death for the better part of the 2010s, but try to recall that original theatrical experience. Because I do, and it blew my 13-year-old mind in genuinely life-changing ways. Inception‘s score is already pretty iconic considering it’s only nine years old, but it deserves its spot on this list for reasons that go beyond the impressive (if sometimes irritating) legacy it’s left. Great film scores aren’t just perfect companions to the films they’re in but are interwoven in the very fabric of the film, and the way Zimmer’s score truly integrates itself into Christopher Nolan’s narrative is positively dreamy. (Ciara Wardlow)

10. Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight

Screenshot At Pm

You can say what you want about Quentin Tarantino, but this man, in the year of our lord 2015, coaxed millions of people into spending the Christmas season watching a three hour Western. This took guts, but it also took a first for the filmmaker: an original score. And in typical Tarantino fashion, he collaborated with the best. Ennio Morricone is a living legend and perhaps one of the most influential composers of all time. His work on The Hateful Eight is incredible, utterly transfixing and adept at capturing the tense mood of this chamber drama. It also earned Morricone his first Oscar, an award as long overdue as it was well deserved. (Anna Swanson)

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.