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The Best Film Scores of the 21st Century

Howard Shore scored “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), directed by Peter Jackson.
Howard Shore scored “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), directed by Peter Jackson. By Courtesy of New Line Cinema
By Alisa S. Regassa, Crimson Staff Writer

A great film score can stand alone outside of its movie, but a film without its score is only a shell of what it could be. For this reason, some of the greatest original scores can come from subpar movies — like the brilliant score composed by Ennio Moriccione for John Boorman’s critically panned sequel to “The Exorcist.” Music can make or break the cinematic experience, and those composers who’ve mastered art of elevating a film are underappreciated and deserve celebration.

Based on their brilliant execution of storytelling, mood setting, and emotion through music, here are the best film scores of the last 20 years.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”: Tan Dun, 2000
Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma canonized East Asian music in this stunning soundtrack for Ang Lee’s 2000 movie, “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” The erhu percussion and supporting operatic vocalizations offer a fresh and entrancing effect that harmonize perfectly with the tender detache of Yo-Yo Ma’s romantic cello solos. Dun’s swelling composition is not only a great work of music, but narrates the collision between East and West by marrying traditions from Chinese opera, Asian theater, and ancient ritual to supplement this film.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”: Howard Shore, 2001
Howard Shore’s score for director Peter Jackson's “Lord of the Rings'' is nothing short of grand. The clashes of cymbals are very loud and in your face at the climax of "Bridge of Khazad Dum," while the flute rings quiet and introspective at the denouements in Enya’s "May It Be.” The imaginative mood that comes from that storytelling plays as much of a role in setting the scene as do the pictures on the screen.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: John Williams, 2001
Of course, only the most prolific composer of our time could possess the magic required to pull this score off. Like the popularity of the world-building theme in his earlier work “Star Wars,” the overarching theme in this soundtrack has become universally synonymous with J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world. Variations on “Hedwig’s Theme” are prevalent throughout some of the most defining moments of the entire series from start to finish. In true Williams fashion, the leitmotif effectively joins the score into a cohesive — and unforgettable — musical universe.

“The Hours”: Philip Glass, 2002
Philip Glass is at the forefront of contemporary composition, and his unique style is perhaps best encapsulated by the ingenuity that went into the soundtrack of Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours.” Just like the pacing of the movie waxes and wanes, the piano solo ebbs with the mercurial metronome set by composers Michael Riesman and Nico Muhly. The persistent and ceaseless melody replaying throughout this score in different variations, keys, and tempos glues the complex facets of each scene into one bigger picture. The overall effect that results from that parallelism is truly an emotional, intricate, and timeless work from Glass.

“Anna Karenina”: Dario Marianelli, 2012
Although he was overshadowed by Mychael Danna’s “Life of Pi” for Best Original Score at the 85th Academy Awards, Dario Marianelli’s “Anna Karenina” deserved to win the ‘score that outperformed the movie’ Oscar. Although director Joe Wright’s depiction of the romance between Karenina and Vronsky was subpar at best, the score went above and beyond to encapsulate the scandalous illicitness and irrevocable passion of such an affair. The accompanying accordion to whistling Russian folk songs fits the historical setting while the swelling of the violin crescendos with the sound mixed train hoots that foreshadow the imminent death of the heroine.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: Alexandre Desplat, 2014
Alexandre Desplat’s earlier work for the film “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was a precursor to the eccentric yet captivating style we see him fully develop in this score. Wes Anderson’s film is an immersive cultural experience that is filled with comedic idiosyncrasies and fascist undertones. Similarly, Desplat’s Russian folk-influenced symphonic compositions highlight the distinct drone of the balalaika and give the soundtrack its eastern European feel. The use of strings for cacophony and discordant tones of the lute in “Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings I. Moderato,” are a perfect example of the role of music in setting the mood for this quirky movie.

“The Exception”: Ilan Eshkeri, 2016
The only non-Oscar nominated movie that is mentioned in this list comes for director David Levreaux’s “The Exception,” with its original film score composed by Ilan Eshkeri. The passionate wartime romance between a Nazi and a Dutch maid is intensified by Eshkeri’s neoclassical writing for violin, cello, and piano with orchestra parts. What makes it particularly noteworthy is the symbolism between the daunting and dreadful tension of death and war that is entrenched in the deep treble of the bass lines, as well as the discordant yet paradoxically harmonious falsetto trills of the higher strings that represent a blooming — yet entirely taboo — romance.

“Black Panther”: Ludwig Göransson, 2018
The fictional Wakandan world of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” comes to life in Ludwig Göransson’s score. Although Göransson had worked with Coogler prior to this film, the artistic diversity of this score distinguishes it from his earlier work on “Fruitvale Station and “Creed.” This fictional utopian world had an equally imaginative sound rooted in choral singing, talking drums, and other traditional African elements untainted by the imperialism of Christianity.

“Joker”: Hildur Guðnadóttir, 2019
The best — and the only — female composer in this list is Hildur Guðnadóttir. The director, Todd Phillips, tasked Guðnadóttir with writing some music based on her feelings on the “Joker” screenplay, which resulted in a score filled with the swings of her subjective interpretation. There is nothing traditional about a creative process so dependent on the composer’s portrayal of the protagonist's emotions. Every turn in the music is a twist in a new direction, complex and completely unpredictable just like the action packed movie — and the title character himself. That dedication to building character development brings this score to life.

— Staff writer Alisa S. Regassa can be reached at alisa.regassa@thecrimson.com.

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