The 25 most underrated film scores of the 2000s

The 2000s have lots of very good film scores - but here are some treats that went off the radar a little...

The noughties were a tough decade for film music fans. Not only was there the unprecedented loss of four great masters in the form of Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Michael Kamen and Basil Poledouris; the nature of the industry itself began to go through some seismic changes, not all of them for the better.

With the art of film scoring becoming ever more processed, driven increasingly by ghost writers, electronic augmentation and temp tracks, prospects looked bleak. However, this shouldn’t shield the fact that there were some blindingly brilliant scores composed during this period. Here’s but a small sampling of them.

25. The Departed (Howard Shore, 2006)

When it came to the sound of his Oscar-winning crime thriller, director Martin Scorsese hit on the inspired notion of having composer Howard Shore base it around a tango, essentially reflecting the nature of the film’s characters as they circle around one another in a deadly struggle. It was a truly inspired decision, Shore coming up with a dynamic and catchy score (with the noted Marc Ribot on guitar) that gives way to moments that are alternately brooding and beautifully melancholic. It’s a seemingly incongruous approach that ultimately meshes brilliantly with Scorsese’s vision.

24. Unbreakable (James Newton Howard, 2000)

James Newton Howard’s collaboration with director M. Night Shyamalan has traversed boundaries and genres, generally eliciting outstanding scores even when the movies themselves fail to hit the mark. Their most underrated collaboration is surely this one, a cool and intellectual dissection of the comic book genre starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, one featuring a superbly atmospheric and brittle score from Howard (a brilliant move when one considers the nature of Jackson’s character). Possessed of an atmosphere that fuses glacial strings with modernistic beats, the score expertly mirrors the movie’s unpredictable narrative.

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23. The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, 2007)

Throughout the history of film music, there’s been a rich tradition of rock and pop musicians crossing over into the medium. One of the greatest transitions of recent years came from Bad Seeds frontman Nick Cave for Andrew Dominick’s superb revisionist Western. Teaming with fellow Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis, Cave conjures a score that is at once authentic yet out of time, a slice of lyrical Americana that carries intriguing, contemporary overtones of his rock albums. With its elegiac yet genre-defying approach, the score is the perfect fit for the tone of Dominick’s sprawling epic.

22. Donnie Darko (Michael Andrews, 2002)

The head-scrambling impact of Richard Kelly’s cult classic would be considerably lessened without the churning, offbeat score from Michael Andrews, a trippy mixture of lyrical piano and brooding, Angelo Badalamenti-style ambience that keeps the listener on their toes. Just as the movie itself is the perfect distillation of the confusing teenage experience, so too does Andrews brilliantly represent the agony of adolescence in all its unpredictable glory, his acclaimed take on Tears for Fears’ Mad World with Gary Jules hitting number one in the UK charts. It feels almost compulsory to put on a demonic bunny suit whilst listening.

21. The Nativity Story (Mychael Danna, 2006)

Catherine Hardwicke’s earnest Biblical adaptation doesn’t tend to draw much attention nowadays and of course, when that happens to a movie the accompanying score tends to pass out of memory too. In the case of Mychael Danna’s superbly inspiring work that’s a crying shame, given it’s one of the most deeply felt, spiritually intriguing scores of the whole decade. Resplendent in the Middle Eastern textures at which Danna is so adept, yet also featuring stunning moments of divine beauty that take the breath away, this score demands more attention than it currently receives.

20. Hannibal (Hans Zimmer, 2001)

Deliciously capturing the Gothic atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s cannibalistic sequel, Hans Zimmer’s score is as darkly enticing as a Florentine square at midnight, as mysterious as the ancient hallways of the city’s Palazzo Vecchio. Poles apart from Howard Shore’s intense work on The Silence Of The Lambs, this score unexpectedly showcases Zimmer at his most fulsome and beautiful, the composer emphasising the twisted relationship between Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and Julianne Moore’s Clarice Starling. The presence of additional writers remains a thorny issue but the orchestral prowess feels uniquely Zimmer; a richly atmospheric delight.

19. Apocalypto (James Horner, 2006)

It’s tempting to think of James Horner both in terms of the lush epics that he scored and also his undeniable tendency to self-plagiarise. That’s why his work on Mel Gibson’s brutal Mayan adventure is such a bracing pleasure: brooding, angry and downright dark, it showcases a far more creative, original and experimental side to this great composer, often leaving melody in the background whilst emphasising rhythm and texture. With special emphasis going on pan flutes, metallic percussion and the growling vocals of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it lays the groundwork for Horner’s infinitely more derivative Avatar.

18. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004)

Legendary movie icon and director though he is, Clint Eastwood the composer is clearly not the equal of the other figures on this list. But what he demonstrates with Million Dollar Baby is a quietly perceptive dramatic intuition that many great composers would do well to observe. Clad in Eastwood’s usual intimate arrangements for piano, strings and guitar, the score hangs back until the moment where it can lend the most impact, adding additional emotional punch to this devastating boxing drama starring Hilary Swank.

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17. Fateless (Ennio Morricone, 2005)

Ennio Morricone’s extraordinary ability to compose soul-inspiring music has yielded numerous masterpieces, and more than a few obscure gems. This mid-2000s Holocaust drama, adapted from Hungarian author Imre Kersetz’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, elicited one of the most powerful scores from Morricone’s late period, a combination of Lisa Gerrard’s piercing vocals and a sumptuous orchestral accompaniment including pan flute and organ. Playing in strikingly gorgeous juxtaposition to the story’s more brutal aspects, it’s an overlooked masterwork from the maestro.

16. Wah-Wah (Patrick Doyle, 2005)

Always one of the most sensitive and tuneful of film composers, Patrick Doyle has worked his magic on everything from Henry V to Sense And Sensibility and Harry Potter. However, he’s at his best when he dials everything back to an intimate ensemble, eliciting the maximum emotional impact from carefully restrained melody that’s sentimental without being histrionic. His score for Richard E. Grant’s wistful directorial debut, an account of the director’s Swaziland childhood, is classic Doyle: brimming with nostalgia, hope and occasional moments of darkness, it’s a real charmer.

15. Little Children (Thomas Newman, 2006)

Thomas Newman cemented his reputation in the noughties with a string of masterful scores, Finding Nemo, Angels In America and Wall-E among them. It’s therefore a challenge to find one that can be classed as underrated, but this quirky oddity seems to have slipped between the cracks, despite being attached to an Oscar-nominated film. Newman’s spiky sense of offbeat rhythm is well-matched to the movie’s dark humour, yet the composer is able to infuse these percussive, American Beauty-style mannerisms with the more accessibly emotional aspects of Meet Joe Black and others. A typically singular work from one of the finest storytellers of our time.

14. Punch-Drunk Love (Jon Brion, 2002)

Almost certainly the most abstract and bizarre score on this list, Jon Brion’s work is nevertheless the heart and soul of Paul Thomas Anderson’s terrifically offbeat movie. Jumping from off-kilter percussion to harmonium to sweetly syrupy strings to seeming 8-bit samples, the music is fantastically effective in the way it depicts Adam Sandler’s central character: innocent yet more than a little crazed and unsettling. Anderson may have gathered more acclaim from film score aficionados in recent years by partnering with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, but the effectiveness of Brion’s work isn’t to be underestimated.

13. Island Of Lost Souls (Jane Antonia Cornish, 2007)

Perhaps the very definition of a rollicking noughties score, this fabulously swashbuckling effort from Jane Antonia Cornish is also one of the decade’s most neglected. With its spirited woodwind and brass runs calling to mind Golden Age masters like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, it’s the sort of unashamedly bold and boisterous effort that we don’t get enough of nowadays. The Danish movie to which it’s attached, directed by The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s Nikolaj Arcel, hasn’t lingered in anyone’s memories but the score deserves a second lease of life.

12. Zodiac (David Shire, 2007)

Not just an impeccably researched, grippingly mounted dramatization of the notorious real-life Zodiac murders; David Fincher’s movie also scored a major coup in attracting composer David Shire to write the music. A veteran of 1970s thrillers, having scored the likes of All The President’s Men and several others, Shire was therefore the perfect fit for Zodiac’s claustrophobic, engrossing atmosphere, utilising distinct textures including solo trumpet, bluesy piano and discordant strings to represent each of the characters caught up in the terrifying case.

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11. The Bourne Supremacy (John Powell, 2004)

The riveting Bourne trilogy reinvented the action thriller for the 21st century, yet they owe much of their impact to underrated composer John Powell who provided the series with its musical heartbeat. Out of the three scores, Supremacy is certainly the best: less harshly electronic than Identity and more tonally diverse than Ultimatum, it dynamically integrates the orchestra with pulsating synth samples and percussion to give the movie a heart-pounding sense of energy. Yet it’s also surprisingly emotional, Powell granting Matt Damon’s amnesiac hero a lonely bassoon theme that is far more haunting than this genre usually allows for.

10. The Luzhin Defence (Alexandre Desplat, 2000)

In the noughties Alexandre Desplat established himself as one of film music’s freshest and most exciting voices, possessing a highly classical and polished style that could be applied to comedy, fantasy, drama and thriller alike. The seeds of his acclaimed works on the likes of Birth, the Harry Potter movies and The Painted Veil can be found in the elegant score for The Luzhin Defence, a chess drama starring John Turturro that features one of Desplat’s most shimmeringly beautiful love themes alongside the composer’s usual metronomic and engrossing orchestrations.

9. Sideways (Rolfe Kent, 2004)

Memorable director/composer pairings come in all forms; in the case of Alexander Payne and Britain’s very own Rolfe Kent, they’ve carved out a niche in offbeat yet appealing scores, ones with a prickly personality that nevertheless contain a great deal of heart. The music for the Oscar-winning Sideways is a perfect example, adding a stylish dash of saxophone-led jazz to the California wine odyssey undertaken by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church.

8. Standard Operating Procedure (Danny Elfman, 2008)

Danny Elfman is so much more than the go-to-guy for Tim Burton oddities and superhero epics. And his atypically minimalist score for this acclaimed Errol Morris Abu Ghraib documentary is one of his finest overlooked scores, a triumph of dramatic maturity that utilises rhythmic cells in the manner of Philip Glass in order to present a chilly yet engrossing atmosphere. In that sense the score is perfectly attuned to the movie’s shocking subject matter, accentuating its horrifying revelations whilst being reserved enough to allow breathing room for the viewing audience.

7. Arsene Lupin (Debbie Wiseman, 2004)

In recent years Debbie Wiseman has largely focused on TV work, gathering deserved acclaim for the likes of Wolf Hall. Upon listening to the Gothic powerhouse that is Arsene Lupin, her absence from the movie scoring scene becomes all the more apparent: a richly intoxicating blend of memorable themes and dark action music that’s easily the equal of Wiseman’s big name contemporaries, it’s an outstanding score for a long-forgotten movie. One of Britain’s most underrated composers, this is a shining example of Wiseman’s film score prowess – frankly, we need her back on the scene, pronto.

6. Knowing (Marco Beltrami, 2009)

A former student of the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, the versatile Marco Beltrami appears to have inherited his mentor’s ability to write terrific scores for some truly risible movies. In all fairness apocalyptic thriller Knowing isn’t too bad, bar a bit of Nicolas Cage hamming and some creaky CGI, but it’s made much better by Beltrami’s dynamic score, one that steadily builds Scream levels of tension and terror before erupting in astonishingly profound choral majesty in its final third, even incorporating a bit of Beethoven for kicks. By turns terrifying and heavenly, the reputation of Beltrami’s score deserves to transcend that of the movie.

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5. The Core (Christopher Young, 2003)

Talking of composers writing incredible scores for dreadful movies, Christopher Young’s bombastic opus for this derided end-of-the-world epic really ought to be heard out of context, all the better for appreciating the scale of his achievement. Mixing the lavishly powerful choirs from his classic Hellraiser scores with some of the most hair-raisingly complex action music heard in a noughties action soundtrack, it’s a crying shame that a work of such complexity and skill was wasted on a movie that barely rivals those broadcast on SFX. That Young found enough inspiration to come up with music of this magnitude in the first place reinforces how good a composer he is.

4. War Of The Worlds (John Williams, 2005)

John Williams has always been underrated for his ability to write dark, threatening material; the likes of Jaws, Close Encounters, Jurassic Park and numerous others demonstrate he can scare with the best of them. Even so, the relentlessly bleak and chilling atmosphere he conjured for Steven Spielberg’s invasion movie is startling, a rare Williams score that emphasises motifs over clear themes, tone over memorability, and one that mixes electronics with the orchestra in formidably sophisticated fashion. It doesn’t always play nice but it’s one of Williams’ most creative works in the last 20 years, and enormously effective within the movie itself.

3. The Matrix Revolutions (Don Davis, 2003)

It’s very difficult to find people who honestly love the Matrix sequels but arguably their greatest asset is the music of composer Don Davis. As the series approached its pompous, incoherent conclusion, ironically Davis’ music reached its astonishing pinnacle, for the most part forgoing the electronica of the first two movies in favour of gargantuan orchestral and choral forces that are quite stupendous in nature. As with so many movies on this list, the music had the misfortune to be attached to a misfiring film – if anything deserves to be reclaimed from the wreckage of Revolutions, it’s the score. Woah, dude.

2. Mission To Mars (Ennio Morricone, 2000)

Brian De Palma’s Mars flop was Ennio Morricone’s last major Hollywood score prior to The Hateful Eight. It remains one of his most divisive, many viewers complaining upon the film’s release that the music came across as obnoxious and intrusive when heard in context. Substitute those criticisms for operatic and you have what is a typical Morricone score, one that refuses to merely support the visuals when it can instead float on top of them and add a whole extra layer of dialogue. In fact, it does what a score should do: make a bad film watchable through the sheer power of the music. It admittedly does get a bit much a times, particularly during that infamous organ passage, but it proves that the collaboration between Morricone and his Untouchables director De Palma makes for striking results.

1. The Cooler (Mark Isham, 2003)

Mark Isham’s background as a jazz trumpeter has resulted in a number of superb scores, Quiz Show, Mrs Parker And The Vicious Circle and The Black Dahlia among them. However, none of them have the knockout impact of this sorely underrated noughties masterpiece, not only the sexiest and most stylish of Isham’s career but also the entire decade. Wayne Kramer’s movie is a darkly comic thriller revolving around a Las Vegas casino’s bad luck charm, or ‘cooler’, as brilliantly played by William H. Macy, and it provides extensive opportunity for Isham to open up his box of jazzy treasures. Composed for an alluring ensemble of strings, piano, percussion, saxophone, trumpet and harp, it’s both attractive and wistful, a score that captures both the seedy feel of Sin City and also the melancholy lives that pass beneath its neon lights. Isham, and indeed noughties film music, simply doesn’t get better than this.

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