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Filmmaker Selects 25 Essential Movie Soundtracks

By Scott Macaulay | February 16, 2010
Slide 1: Introduction

Independent filmmakers looking for film-music inspiration should check out the 25 scores Filmmaker magazine has selected as some of the coolest film music around. The following scores are all in some ways seminal and speak to complex and innovative relationships between music and screen storytelling.

Slide 2: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

For his story of a love affair between two ranchers in the American West, director Ang Lee looked to Argentina’s Gustavo Santaolalla, who composed a simple yet poignant series of melodies for strings and guitar.

Slide 3: Once (2007)
Real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Inglova composed all the music for John Carney’s tale of Dublin buskers who fall in love over street performance and song. The two perform the music in the movie with a real sincerity and heart, and they scored an Oscar for one of the pieces, “Falling Slowly.”
Slide 4: Blade Runner (1994)

Greek synthesizer pioneer Vangelis composed this score to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film noir–tinged adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Containing moments of proto-techno — Paul Oakenfold would score a remix club hit of the main theme years later — and a lush electronic romanticism, Vangelis’s Blade Runner score captures both the romance and the foreboding of Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece. The soundtrack album is also that rare disc that includes dialogue samples from the movie to great effect.

Slide 5: Contempt (1963)

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 drama concerns a marriage breaking up on the set of a Hollywood movie — an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey — being shot in Europe. And adding a level of epic grandeur is Georges Delerue’s haunting score, with seesawing strings that perfectly capture the central lovers’ doomed romance. Years later, Martin Scorsese would reuse the theme to detail the breakup of Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone in Casino, and John Zorn’s band Naked City has a great punk saxophone cover on their first record.

Slide 6: Suspiria (1977)

The Italian rock group Goblin composed this score for Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film, and it’s a bitches’ brew of banshee shrieking, psychedelic guitars and chanting vocals that escalate to cries of “Witch, witch!” It’s often said that movie scores should sublimate themselves to the action, but the score for Suspiria chucks this advice out the window, going mano a mano with Argento’s extreme imagery.

Slide 7: Coraline (2009)

French composer Bruno Coulais, best known for his work scoring documentaries, mixed an orchestra with children’s choir, African percussion and toy piano to create a spookily seductive soundtrack to Henry Selick’s stop-motion modern classic.

Slide 8: Paris, Texas (1983)

Solo electric guitar is a staple of indie film soundtracks, but for his soundtrack to this 1984 Wim Wenders film, Ry Cooder updated a 1927 Blind Willie Johnson song to create a plaintive and evocative underpinning for this Sam Shepard–penned tale of lost fathers and sons.

Slide 9: Naked Lunch (1991)

The collaboration between composer Howard Shore and director David Cronenberg is one of the longest and richest in current movie history, with Shore adding dark undercurrents to Cronenberg’s troubling dramas. For this adaptation of William Burroughs’s cult novel, Shore came up with an orchestral film noir bed for jazz great Ornette Coleman’s mysterious alto sax lines.

Slide 10: Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Carter Burwell and Karen O. (of the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs) created an emotionally complex yet joyful musical ode to childhood for Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book. O’s songs are jubilant, and Burwell brought his usual sophistication to Jonze’s personal vision of a children’s classic.
Slide 11: Mysterious Skin (2004)

When Gregg Araki wrote the script for this adaptation of Scott Heim’s tale of child abuse, he listened to the Cocteau Twins and other music from the 4AD label, including The Moon and the Melodies, a collaboration between Twins songwriter Robin Guthrie and minimalist composer Harold Budd. When it came time to score his film, Araki implored the two to get together again, and the result is an ethereal, unexpected soundtrack that adds whole other dimensions to the tale it accompanies.

Slide 12: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)

Composer and arranger Jon Brion, who has produced both Fiona Apple and Kanye West, has done great work for Paul Thomas Anderson, and here he provides a series of short, idiosyncratic pieces, full of melody and odd instrumentation, for Michel Gondry’s ode to forgotten and remembered love. Keyboards, percussion, guitar loops and various instrumental flourishes give Brion’s work a unique and original voice.

Slide 13: There Will Be Blood (2007)

Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood wrote compositions for a dread-filled and sometimes discordant string section for Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of frontier capitalism. Also blending in were a Brahms concerto and an Arvo Pärt piece.

Slide 14: Traffic (2000)

Composer Cliff Martinez brought a moody, ambient electronic sensibility to Steven Soderbergh’s tale of drug trafficking, with deep bass lines and warm keyboards working to perfectly counterpoint what could have been a much more conventional “thriller” score. Still, as good as Martinez’s score is, the final moments of the film belong to Brian Eno, whose “Ascent” concludes the movie as it also does Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

Slide 15: Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

The Italian film composer Ennio Morricone has composed so many great scores that it’s hard to pick just one, but the music for Sergio Leone’s 1968 epic Western, a tale of injustice, revenge and the birth of the railroad is indisputably one of his best, a grand mixture of gorgeous melody, unusual instrumentation (harmonica, electric guitar, banjo and a haunting wordless female vocal) and sometimes offbeat arranging. Morricone created separate melodic themes for each character, introducing them in perfect harmony with Leone’s widescreen visuals.

Slide 16: Trouble Every Day (2001)

The U.K. band Tindersticks, who create off-center ballads around singer Stuart Staples’s Ferry-esque vocal stylings, have an air of smoky drama even when they’re not scoring a film. For this second collaboration with French director Claire Denis — a pairing that has continued through the director’s more recent works — the band created intimate miniatures consisting of mournful horns and sweeping string arrangements.

Slide 17: Requiem For A Dream (2000)

For his second feature, an adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel, Darren Aronofsky invited back his Pi composer Clint Mansell, the former singer for the U.K. pop group Pop Will Eat Itself. This time, however, Mansell expanded his palette, blending his trademark electronica with driving strings from the Kronos Quartet. The result is a highly original score with a memorably paranoiac main theme that has been employed for the trailer of many movies since.

Slide 18: Sorcerer (1977)

The first soundtrack by the German electronic group Tangerine Dream, the compositions on the Sorcerer soundtrack were written solely around a reading of the screenplay, a remake of the classic French thriller The Wages of Fear. The members of the band did the score before the film had finished production, delivering director William Friedkin 90 minutes of music while he was still shooting. Tangerine Dream’s eerie melodies and electronic soundscapes take Friedkin’s film from the jungle to the inside of the mind, and got them work on a number of subsequent films, including Thief and Risky Business.

Slide 19: American Beauty (1999)

Thomas Newman is one of the great soundtrack composers of our day, and this soundtrack to Sam Mendes’s Oscar-winning film is one of his best, a score that, with its marimba, mandolin, banjo and other instruments, enables the film’s transcendentalist aspirations. Together with Newman’s equally strong work on The Shawshank Redemption, these cues have, perhaps to the detriment of the composers who came later, underscored rough-cut screenings everywhere.

Slide 20: Vertigo (1958)

Bernard Hermann is another composer whom it’s next to impossible to pick out a single soundtrack to highlight, but most would agree that his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of romantic obsession is one of the great achievements in film music. An orchestral score with dark chords, spiraling strings and a lush, almost psychotic romanticism, Hermann’s music is inextricable from the psychology underlying the director’s most personal film.

Slide 21: Fargo (1996)

Carter Burwell’s innovatively arranged, small-scale and minor-keyed orchestra treats the Coen brothers’ tale of a small-town murder with an American air of simple dignity. It’s one of many distinctive soundtracks that Burwell has composed for the Coens’ films.

Slide 22: La Dolce Vita (1960)

There is film music that hangs on a character’s every emotion, adding crucial bits of underscoring to support a character’s actions and motivations. And then there’s this classic score by the great Italian composer Nino Rota, a suite of carnival-like European jazz which drapes an affectionate irony over the entirety of Federico Fellini’s 1960 depiction of the Italian jet set.

Slide 23: Spartacus (1960)

Big, passionate and complex orchestral scores drawing upon modern classical music, including the use of dissonant harmonies and atonalities, were the province of Alex North. His score for Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire was one of the first to mix jazz elements with a symphonic underpinning. Spartacus is perhaps his masterpiece, an overpowering work with bold, muscular melodies.

Slide 24: The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

The minimalist music of Michael Nyman owes some debt to Philip Glass, but his rousing chamber music, performed with a small ensemble, has a character all its own. His scores for Peter Greenaway’s films are perfectly in keeping with the director’s precise sensibility while adding real energy and spirit.

Slide 25: The Hours (2002)

Philip Glass’s controversial score for Stephen Daldry’s adaptation is another one that breaks with the “film music should be unobtrusive” credo. Harvey Weinstein reportedly battled with producer Scott Rudin over the insistence of Glass’s score, which courses through the entire film and connects the film’s three time periods. Closer to Glass’s compositions for Robert Wilson’s theater works than a traditional film score, Glass’s The Hours, written for orchestra, string quartet and piano, creates an aural bed that keeps the emotion front and center.

Slide 26: The Insider (1999)

Michael Mann always has the hippest soundtracks, and for this tale of a journalist investigating the tobacco industry he turned to composers Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard, the latter of Dead Can Dance. Bits of electronica, trip-hop and world music all echo through the score, which creates a complex interior space for the film’s moral conundrums.

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