The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
Dare I say that it would be criminal to not include these soundtracks on the list. These soundtracks’ booming themes and airy moments of tranquility helped shape what will stand as one of the best examples of cinematic storytelling; one cannot talk about the importance of these films without mentioning the epic scale of Shore’s contributions to them. Trying to pick out an analyze certain themes or melodies wouldn’t be quite helpful in discussing the overall brilliance of the score: while it’s near impossible to sit through them in their entirety (the “Complete Collection” runs over ten hours), the expansive nature of the music is that it should be experienced not in fragments, but as a cohesive whole. Few motion picture events can match the grandeur of Peter Jackson’s masterful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary classic, and likewise few film scores can match what Shore did here.
Runner-Up: The Departed (2006)
Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
The soundtrack to any of the three Ocean’s films could really stand in here, but for me the Euro-tinged score to Twelve is the best of the lot. Holmes’ jazzy contributions are as sharp as ever, particularly the glamorous “7/29/04 (The Day Of)”. What makes this score stand apart from the others is its inclusions of beautiful instrumentals like Piero Umiliani’s “Crepuscolo Sul Mare”. which was a song that helped contribute to one of the movie’s most memorable shots. Soderbergh had many such shots over the trilogy, such as when Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” played as the elevator doors shut on Andy Garcia’s character in Eleven. In Twelve, Soderbergh expertly captures the backstory of Rusty (Brad Pitt) as he falls in love with the inimitable Isabel Lahiri (Catherine-Zeta Jones), all the while Umiliani’s acoustic guitar weaves a romantic sonic background. Though the Ocean’s trilogy may not have been the most philosophically deep of Soderbergh’s films, they were definitely the director’s most fun works. With music like this and a cast of Hollywood A-listers, what’s not to like?
Runners-Up: Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Thirteen
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Andrew Dominik’s vast, scenic Western was overlooked after its release, but fortunately the brilliance of its soundtrack has lived on. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis had collaborated once before on the music for the Australian western The Proposition, but with the soundtrack to Assassination (seriously, how did the studio get away with a name that long?) the two musicians crafted what might stand as their finest work. The soundtrack is very intimate and mournful; though the film’s expressionistic landscape shots are vast, the music here is rooted in a small but nonetheless powerful performance. The soundtrack deftly balances the minor-key laments (“What Must Be Done”) to sweet, lullaby-like melodies (“Mary’s Song”). Cave and Ellis have crafted a soundtrack that packs an emotive punch, but that also works as an accessible piece of music. One of these days, pop this in your car’s stereo and take a drive through the countryside. It’ll make for a rather lovely afternoon.
Danny Boyle’s 2007 science fiction masterpiece was, while critically praised at the time of its release, strangely forgotten by the decade’s conclusion. Yes, Slumdog Millionaire was the British director’s biggest moment, but in truth Sunshine is the better film. The scientific merits of the movie are no doubt ludicrous (one atom bomb having the ability to reignite the sun?), but its mix of philosophical exploration, theology, and—most controversially—horror is wholly memorable. The soundtrack by composer John Murphy and English electronic outfit Underworld serves as a captivating backdrop, providing an excellent balance of ambient, reflective pieces and powerful crescendos (the memorable theme “Adagio in D Minor”). Unlike many film soundtracks, this one incorporates dialogue from Sunshine to memorable effect, notably on the tense “Pinbacker Slashes Capa”. But the soundtrack’s (and film’s) greatest moment is the radiant “To Heal”, which is—for lack of a better word—transcendent. Music critics (myself included) overuse that word like no other, but here it’s the best description there is. Like the rest of the soundtrack, “To Heal” shines with the light of the beaming sun.
The Fountain (2006)
The objective critic in me could point out all of the great things about this score: the gorgeous, intimate nature of the recording, the minimalist motifs, the innovative mix of post-rock and chamber classical, and, most of all, the sheer emotive power of the music. The soundtrack’s performers, the Kronos Quartet and post-rock legendaries Mogwai, are in top form. But in my view, the score to The Fountain is more important experientially than analytically. This is a score that cuts to your emotional core, sometimes without you even noticing. I’ve never been able to casually listen to this record, for each time I’ve become immersed in its lush, golden beauty. (The movie, which featured a chiaroscuro of gold light and pitch-black darkness, is well-reflected by the score.) Though The Fountain remains one of my favorite films (and in my view Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece), I knew upon first viewing that it wasn’t one that everyone would love. Its Tomatometer is still split right down the middle, some calling it a masterpiece while others consider it confused. But one thing I knew for sure was incontestably great was Mansell’s hypnotic score that, while innately tied to Aronofsky’s film, stands alone as a masterwork of cinematic music. When the soundtrack reaches its climax in the finale of “Death is the Road to Awe”, it’s easy to see why I’ve placed it at number one. Its power is unparalleled, and its beauty unmatched.
Runners-Up: Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Moon (2009)