The 2000s were a fine decade for film, and correspondingly a great decade for musical scores. Certain trends in film soundtracks became quite popular, notably Zach Braff’s indie mixtape formula so perfected in the music for Garden State and The Last Kiss (though most tout the former as his best, I prefer the latter). While mixtape soundtracks grew in prominence, certain composers rose to legendary status, notably Hans Zimmer, who by the decade’s conclusion had a prodigious body of work. In a world of increasing musical diversity, much is available to filmmakers in creating sonic backgrounds to their moving pictures.
The following list represents what I found to be the best in cinematic scores over the past decade. I’ve decided to narrow down my list specifically to scores, as comparing a soundtrack comprised of multiple songs by various artists to a body of music composed by one artist specifically for a film wouldn’t make for a fair list. Some of these soundtracks do feature a song that wasn’t written specifically for the movie, but all of the scores represented here are analyzed for their merit as pieces of music composed specifically for film.
Corpse Bride (2005)
As one of Tim Burton’s go-to collaborators, Danny Elfman has demonstrated his skill in the macabre. Elfman, along with Burton, had a great decade, but his best moment came in the minor masterpiece Corpse Bride, which for my money is Burton’s best foray into stop-motion animation. The soundtrack does feature original songs, such as the jazz-lounge ditty “Remains of the Day”, but the film’s instrumental score is equally good, and a further testament to the excellence of the Burton/Elfman collaboration. Elfman remains one of the most consistent composers in film music today, and Corpse Bride is but one of many reasons why directors have such an affinity for his talent.
Runner-Up: Big Fish (2003)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro’s magical realism masterpiece is well-known for its scenes of shocking brutality, but one of the most memorable things about the film is not its horrific violence, but instead its delicate score. The hummed melody that becomes the main motif of the film (“A Long, Long Time Ago”) is both haunting and gorgeous, its soft quality serving as a sharp contrast to the darker elements of the film. One of the central conflicts of Pan’s Labyrinth is Ofelia’s innocence being pitted against the evils of war and the darkness of the underworld from which she came, and Navarrete captures that struggle with the grace of a studied composer. The score to Pan’s Labyrinth is a subtle yet powerful evocation of the tenderness of youth as it faces the harsh realities of a world that has come to dismiss the value of childhood naïveté.
Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
Philip Glass’ most lauded score came in 2006’s Notes on a Scandal, but I maintain that his overlooked contribution to Woody Allen’s equally overlooked 2007 film Cassandra’s Dream was where he truly shined. Though Glass has yet to clear the bar set by his 1980s masterpiece Koyaanisqatsi, Cassandra’s Dream still reveals Glass as a master of his craft. While not as minimalistic as most of his other work, Cassandra’s Dream does find the composer at his most thrilling; “The Pursuit & Murder in the Park”, which serves as background to one of the film’s most important moments, is a masterclass in building tension, just as “Death on the Boat” is a masterclass in capturing anguish. It’s amazing how brilliant scores by legendary composers can slip through the cracks of the critical gaze, but hopefully Cassandra’s Dream won’t succumb to that fate. Not everyone can handle Glass’ repetitive minimalism, but for those looking for a good introduction to the director that doesn’t have that many arpeggios, this score does the trick.
King Arthur (2004)
Because of Zimmer’s vast output over the 2000s, any one of his excellent soundtracks could stand in here. Most would point to Gladiator as the director’s shining moment, but for me King Arthur’s soundtrack stands even above that exemplary score. Despite being critically derided, I enjoyed Antoine Fuqua’s take on the Arthurian legend, due in large part to how the film turned the tale into a moody, contemplative exploration of destiny and freedom. Zimmer’s brilliant score captured that mood throughout, particularly on the ethereal “Tell Me Now (What You See)”, a collaboration with Irish singer Moya Brennan. Given the breadth of scores in Zimmer’s oeuvre from the last decade alone, it’s hard to pick a favorite, so this one is winning out by a slim margin. That fact alone is a testament to Zimmer’s skill as a composer and his importance to cinema as a whole.
Runners-Up: Gladiator (2000) and Sherlock Holmes (2009)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Zimmer and Howard crafted a moody, atmospheric score to the first of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films (2005’s Batman Begins), and they pulled something of a 180 in the score for the 2008 sequel The Dark Knight. The score’s opening track, “Why So Serious?”, sets not just the overall tone for the soundtrack, but for the film as well. Beginning tensely with the sound of an atonal, shrill cello, the song then builds into bursts of frenetic electronics, capturing the mood of escalation that pervades the movie. The soundtrack varies from there, ranging from dramatic strings (“Harvey Two-Face”) to brooding, dark pieces (“Always a Catch”). With The Dark Knight, Zimmer and Howard proved that sometimes two heads are better than one, as they crafted one of the decade’s most jarring soundtrack experiences.