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Editor’s tips: The best film scores of the 2010s

Whether electronic or orchestral, a great score can elevate a film to new heights. Here are the soundscapes that kept our film editor coming back for more.

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Whether electronic or orchestral, a great score can elevate a film to new heights. Here are the soundscapes that kept our film editor coming back for more. Photo: The Shape of Water | Fox

As we wait for June’s outdoor leg of the Berlinale, we’ve decided to focus on movie scores, an aspect of filmmaking you can embrace on the same level as your next online visual hit. The musical score is an integral part of cinema. It complements the images you see on screen, communicates tone, complements themes  and, in the best of cases, elevate the film to greatness by transporting you to another world.

Here’s our list of the best scores of the past decade.


One of the best scores of the decade comes from its start. Filmmaker David Fincher collaborated (and not for the last time) with Nine Inch Nails members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The two musicians agreed to try their hand at film scoring, and the result is truly a score for the ages. By not conforming to traditional film scoring approaches, they made an innovative, ominous and pulse-pounding selection of tracks consisting of piano melodies and synthesiser snaps that somehow perfectly complement the trajectory of the central protagonist, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who mercilessly bulldozes everyone on his way to perceived success. It won the 2011 Oscar for Best Original Score, and both Reznor and Ross went on to score Fincher’s underrated The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which bagged a much-merited Grammy in 2012), Gone Girl and Mank. More on them later in this list.


Another standout from the start of the decade came courtesy of the now-disbanded French house duo Daft Punk. Their score was so good that it stands as something of an anomaly on this list: much like the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby in 2013, it’s one of those cases when the score outshines the film itself, keeping the movie alive rather than complementing it.

The pair’s soundscapes make Disney’s belated sci-fi sequel to the cult 1982 film more memorable than it actually is. The catchy synth glitches and pulsating electro beats are brilliantly married with moody classical-inspired strings played by an 85-strong orchestra, with tracks like “Recognizer”, “Derezzed” and “Tron Legacy (End Titles)” standing out. Daft Punk proved that they were worthy film composers, successfully transporting audiences inside the world of the video game setting. It’s a shame they only scored one film.


Mica Levi’s first film composition established the artist as one of the most exciting composers in the business. For Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, Levi created something primal and profoundly uncomfortable, using synth sounds, percussion and swirling strings to mirror the mysterious and alien nature of the film’s central protagonist, played by Scarlett Johansson. By turns beautiful, abrasive and disjointed, this experimental score is a trip into the abyss, an oppressive and dark dive which isn’t for everyone. It captures your attention, imbues the film with a palpable atmosphere, and pulls you in to unravel its mysteries. You won’t find a soundscape in the last decade as distressing or as unforgettable as this one, a score which will – fittingly – get under your skin.

ARRIVAL (2016)

Like Under The Skin, Arrival stands as one of the most groundbreaking sci-fi films of the last decade. Both have equally distinctive scores, ones which evoke the same awe felt by the viewers and the characters in the film. Director Denis Villeneuve teamed up once more with late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The daring compositions feature piano loops and electronic elements, and the score duly sounds like it came down from the heavens with the alien spacecrafts. Jóhannsson passed away in 2018 in Berlin at the age of 48, and Arrival stands as some of his most enduring work. It was frustratingly deemed ineligible for an Oscar nomination because the film includes Max Richter’s pre-existing (and gorgeous) piece “On The Nature Of Daylight”, but there’s no doubt this soundtrack is one of the decade’s very best.


Nicholas Britell emerged as one of the breakout composers of the decade, with his work on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, Adam McKay’s The Big Short, and especially his collaboration with filmmaker Barry Jenkins. The two joined forces on both the Oscar-winning Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, and it’s no hyperbole to say that both artists create transportive beauty together. While the latter would have made a fine entry in this list, feeling like a warm hug from Miles Davis, Moonlight’s chillier, but no less poetic, score stands out. It’s open-hearted and cathartic, and has at its core the composition “The Middle Of The World”, a stunning piece whose sensitively drawn classical strings encompass the film’s evocation of love, acceptance and self-discovery. Britell is on scoring duties once more for Jenkins’ Underground Railroad series, and there’s every reason to get excited…


French composer Alexandre Desplat has been no slouch this last decade, with a whopping eight Academy Awards nominations to his name, walking away with two wins for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shape Of Water. His sumptuous music for the 2017 film has an old-school romantic feel, which at times recalls the Gallic flavour of Yann Tiersen’s score for Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. His work on The Shape Of Water perfectly captures the heart of Guillermo del Toro’s magical touch, both in child-like fantasy lightness and suspenseful darkness. Desplat also manages to achieve something extraordinary with this score: it is not only integral to the tone of the story, but also enhances the film’s themes by making your heart (and ears) swoon. Words do not do its beauty justice.


Radiohead guitarist and musical polymath Johnny Greenwood has made a name for himself as one of the most sought-after cinematic composers ever since his anxiety-triggering score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood in 2007. Their decades-long collaboration has yielded masterpieces, including The Master in 2012 and Inherent Vice in 2014. For PTA’s twisted romance, 2017’s Phantom Thread, Greenwood majestically captures the lush setting of the haute couture world of 1950s London: the pianos, cellos and strings all conspire to fashion something elegant and dreamlike. However, much like the film, it hides something much less comforting at its heart: like the protagonists’ relationship, Phantom Thread’s music is sweet, eccentric and worrying, a work of troubling beauty that’s the closest you’ll get to hearing Bernard Hermann score a classic romance with a perverse twist.


While Johnny Greenwood made a name for himself as film composer extraordinaire last decade, his Radiohead bandmate and frontman Thom Yorke also decided to give it a try. He got his chance with Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria reimagining. No small task, as Goblin’s instantly iconic soundtrack to Dario Argento’s 1977 original was something of a game-changer. Like the film, Yorke went in an opposite and more destabilising direction, conjuring a succession of eerie orchestral compositions and ballads that often (distractingly) feel like unreleased Radiohead tracks from their last album to date, 2016’s “A Moon Shaped Pool”. Ultimately, both the richly layered film and the unnerving soundtrack take some time to get used to, but with repeated watches and listens, it’s plain to see and hear that 2018’s vintage is not only radically different but also richer and, dare we say it, superior.


This third remake of William A. Wellman’s 1937 Technicolor melodrama benefits from a top-notch soundtrack. The tunes are written by several musicians including country rocker Lukas Nelson, and songs are performed by the film’s leads Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. They not only put their own contemporary spin on the film, but have updated the soundtrack accordingly. The end result is a rousing collection of perfectly formed songs that mash country, folk, blues and pop. Cooper holds his own throughout, singing his heart out and managing to keep up with Gaga’s goosebump-inducing vocal performances, with standout songs including the Cooper-led folk ballad “Maybe It’s Time”, Gaga’s heartstopping closer “I’ll Never Love Again”, and the Oscar-winning duet “Shallow”. Good luck to anyone who thinks they can play this score only once.

SOUL (2020)

We started this list Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and we’ll end with them, too. The duo have developed a reputation for delivering gold when they get to scoring, and they haven’t put a foot wrong since 2010. This year, their names were in the Oscar mix not once but twice – much like the aforementioned Alexandre Desplat, who was doubly nominated six years ago – with their original scores for David Fincher’s Mank and, in a slightly surreal twist, for Pixar’s Soul. Their desire to explore new ground with a lighter, more sentimental sound yielded results, as they bagged the 2021 Oscar for Soul, alongside Jon Batiste, the US musician and bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The score is delightful, and as much as Soul is a great film (Wolfwalkers was robbed of Best Animated feature), thanks to Reznor, Ross and Batiste’s efforts, it would still be great if you watched it with your peepers closed.

There we have it. Make sure to seek these out, and our honourable mentions include the scores for Only Lovers Left Alive, Moana, Black Panther, Inside Llewyn Davis, Victoria, Annihilation, Inception and Joker, in case you were already cursing their absences.

Happy listening, and in case you missed it, check out our picks of this month’s newest streaming titles.