Film music by decade: 2000-2009
1. Gladiator — The Wheat — Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (2000)
Hans Zimmer has been part of three significant film music trends: the mournful-brave martial trumpet melody from the late 1990s (The Rock); the film-music-as-overwhelming-noise of recent times (Inception); and this, with Lisa Gerrard, which established an emotional, wordless woman’s voice as one of the most popular strategies in film music. It was certainly never done better than by Gerrard in Gladiator. The rest of the score is one of Zimmer’s best, and also features beautiful Armenian Duduk and shameless extracts of Holst’s The Planets (for which he was sued) and Wagner’s The Ring (for which he was not).
2. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring — The Bridge of Khazad Dum — Howard Shore (2001)
I remember not liking the Lord of the Rings scores the first time I saw the film, and I’m not sure why—I think probably I thought the ‘Fellowship’ theme was too simplistic. I was basically as wrong as I’ve ever been. Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings music is one of the most complex popular musical works since Wagner, with incredible, granular detail in terms of melody, harmony, and texture. This cue illustrates that fairly well, with both some of the heroic music and the guttural musical language for the demonic Balrog doing some good things. But it’s the simplest moment here that means I’ve selected this track over all others from the three films: the mournful voices that accompany the death of Gandalf (from 4:40 onwards) is, I think, the most beautiful music ever recorded for film.
3. Amelie — Le Moulin — Yann Tiersen (2001)
This music is twee, absurdly French, cutesy, and affected. That’s why it’s brilliant, jeez. Tiersen also has an acute ear for melody; these pieces of music would be terrific even if the aural tone was shifted completely.
4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — Hagrid the Professor — John Williams (2004)
Imagine the most successful film composer in history, at the peak of his career, being tasked with writing music for the then-most popular blockbuster franchise in the world, and turning round and writing a score mostly for medieval and renaissance instruments and forms. That’s just how strange and unique Williams’ Prisoner of Azkaban is. Built around the ‘Double Trouble’ motif from Macbeth, Azkaban is far and away Williams’ most imaginative score. ‘Hagrid the Professor’ is the most medieval of the film’s cues: other highlights include the La Gazza Ladra-influenced ‘Aunt Marge’s Waltz’; the eccentric big band of ‘The Knight Bus’; an an E.T.-like flying theme in ‘Buckbeak’s Flight’.
5. The Painted Veil — River Waltz — Alexandre Desplat (2006)
Desplat is easily the most consistent composer to emerge in the last decade. Though his music can at times be similar and predictable (an off-kilter piano waltz, you say?), it’s reliably high quality and usually has something to offer, however negligible. He has turned in some surprisingly interesting action scores of late, for example (in the form of the Twilight, Harry Potter, and Argo scores). The Painted Veil is Desplat at his most Satie-like, and probably, at his best.
6. Babel — Deportation/Iguazu — Gustavo Santaolalla (2006)
It feels odd to put ‘Iguazu’ down as being from Babel, given it was originally written for Santaolalla’s (excellent) 1998 solo album Ronroco, and has since been used in The Insider, Yes, Fast Food Nation, and Deadwood. But he apparently adapted it for Babel (there’s some string work in there too), and he won his second Oscar on the back of this piece. It’s certainly an amazing piece of music, wherever its progenitor may be.
7. Casino Royale — Vesper — David Arnold (2006)
Like John Williams, David Arnold is a superb practitioner of pastiche. His style perfectly emulates the lush, melodic style of John Barry’s classic Bond scores (and a few touches of his non-Bond work, like Born Free and Dances With Wolves) while adding a contemporary action edge. Barry’s action music, while great (see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s ‘Ski Chase’) wouldn’t stand up in a modern context, but Arnold somehow uses Barry’s musical language to create something that does (‘Target Terminated’ from Quantum Of Solaceis a masterclass in action music). But it’s his lyrical romantic theme for Vesper that I think probably best incapsulates his achievements as a composer here (that, and Quantum of Solace isn’t on Spotify).
8. There Will Be Blood — Open Spaces — Jonny Greenwood (2007)
There Will Be Blood, is, I think, probably the best film score for the last few decades at least (it’s closest competition is Greenwood’s Norwegian Wood from 2010). Greenwood is a rock musician (from Radiohead) turned film composer, but he barely deserves to be in the same category as other pop musicians Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer. Greenwood’s music here is singularly desolate and emotionally complex. It sounds like a composer who had listened to nothing but Messiaen and Penderecki and Lutoslawski and Xenakis and Ligeti suddenly was allowed to write a film score and do whatever he wanted with it. Impossibly good stuff.
9. The Bourne Ultimatum — Tangiers — John Powell (2007)
Probably the culmination of what Hollywood composers have learnt about writing for action over many decades. Relentlessly masculine polyrhythm.
10. Up — Married Life — Michael Giacchino (2009)
There’s a cacophony of writing on how good this sequence is, and I don’t need to add much to it. This is great music. Taking it away from the film illustrates just how much of the heavy lifting is being done by Giacchino here.