Every Best Original Score Winner from the Past Decade, Ranked

Every Best Original Score Winner from the Past Decade, Ranked

May 4, 2024 in DJ Picks

by Matty G

A crucial aspect of a film is its score, which is often subtle, but can make or break the tone a filmmaker is trying to convey to audiences. In the last decade, many great original scores have won Oscars, distinguished by their individuality and ability to guide the atmosphere that the films encompass. I have decided to rank them based on how well they do this – and also based on how captivating I personally find them.

#10 All Quiet on the Western Front – Volker Bertelmann

If there is a “war is hell” subgenre among films, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is one of the most prolific films within it. It is nothing short of bleak, brutal, and hopeless as it focuses on a German soldier who quickly becomes disillusioned with his life after enlisting in the army during World War I. Volker Bertelmann has channeled a central theme of the film, that nationalism is futile, through his minimalistic score. It features a motif of three notes that frequently pass through the muffled synths and scratches intended to mimic the sound of the war’s atmosphere. It is accomplished in many ways but unfortunately doesn’t linger with me like other scores on this list.

#9 Soul – Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross

“Soul” is one of the more polarizing Best Original Score wins of the past decade because the score is entirely twofold. Batiste’s boisterous jazzy scoring is implemented as Joe Gardner, the protagonist, spends his days in New York City, and Reznor and Ross’ ambient scoring is heard in “The Great Before,” the “pre-existing” world where souls go to gain their personalities. I believe that both scores do what they are intended to do, juxtaposing hectic New York City, which we are all aware of, with the mysterious “The Great Before,” a dimension unlike anything on Earth. At the same time, though, this juxtaposition diminishes the listenability of the score as a whole; sometimes I’m only in the mood for Batiste’s jazzy compositions, and other times I gravitate toward Reznor and Ross’ ambient compositions. This score would compel me more if it had a central, consistent sound.

#8 Dune: Part One – Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer is a household name as far as film composers go. If you don’t think you know him, you do; he’s composed works from “Gladiator” to Nolan’s Batman films to “Kung Fu Panda 4.” The score for “Dune” is nothing short of demonstrating Zimmer’s deliberate work, as he intricately laced strange instrumental tunings together to create futuristic sounds, like placing the sound of a Tibetan war horn over a cello, for instance. When it comes to capturing the vastness of the desert through music, I will always prefer something along the lines of Maurice Jarre’s grandiose “Lawrence of Arabia” score, but Zimmer has proven with “Dune” that he is consistently innovative and intentional in his craft.

#7 Black Panther – Ludwig Goransson

Ludwig Goransson’s “Black Panther” score is incredibly true to the film, encapsulating one of its central themes: tradition vs. modernity. Elements of both traditional African music and modern hip-hop sounds are vigorously fused together in the score, reflecting the dilemma that the nation of Wakanda faces as it tries to preserve its traditions amid a technologically advanced world. It is also an incredibly dense score, perfectly fitting for an action film, with a blend of percussion and orchestral elements that uplift the characters as well as the fictional world of Wakanda itself. It might not be my favorite Goransson work – it’s not even my favorite Goransson work on this list – but it is absolutely one of his most inventive.

#6 Joker – Hilder Guonadottir

If there is anything I took away from “Joker,” a film I did not particularly like, it’s the dark, depressing atmosphere that Arthur Fleck inhabits, and Hilder Guonadottir’s score was perfect in encompassing that. It’s eerily unsettling, causing the grimy visuals in the film to feel more tangible than they already are. The deep strings and bass are consistent with Arthur’s insanity, escalating as his insanity escalates, causing chills to go down my spine as I listen. “Ballroom Dance” is a favorite of mine because it is incredibly dissonant throughout, but there is a hint of echoing ambiance in the middle of the song that sounds angelic, almost hopeful, like Arthur’s transformation into the Joker is his destiny. But it is a hopeless destiny, which causes the bass to quickly loom in and diminish any optimism that may have once existed. If I thought the film was more well-crafted, I would revel in this score.

#5 The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat

I love how whimsy Alexandre Desplat’s scores are, which might be a generalization because they are also full of depth, but I ultimately feel like I am floating in the clouds while listening to his work. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is painted with vibrantly pink visuals, and the score sounds like those visuals. Wes Anderson is deliberate when it comes to framing, relishing in structure and symmetry, and Desplat’s score welcomes this, allowing the technical elements of the film to flow with fullness while also providing them enough space to breathe. But the worlds that Anderson builds are never completely serious, and Desplat embraces this through the bright strings and harps that he includes, which are playful and invoke freedom. There is also such a warmth to the film despite how wintry it is (a much different type of wintry than "The Hateful Eight," also featured in this list), which is understood through the score, which, taking on classical elements, feels like a return to familiarity.

#4 The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone

Seldom any composers have gained legendary status like Ennio Morricone, and Tarantino recognized that by allowing him to do practically whatever he wanted with “The Hateful Eight” score. In doing so, he even reused sounds that never made it into “The Thing,” which contrasts greatly with the Western-themed film, but it somehow works! “L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock” is a feast of a song, symphonic and exciting, enhancing the thrilling nature of the film. Its grandiose strings and horns protrude over wintry Wyoming, indicating loud and clear that there is impending doom that even you, the viewer, will feel like you can’t escape. The rest of the film is accompanied by Morricone’s rich, full symphonies, amplifying the suspense as the eight main characters fight each other. I believe “The Hateful Eight” is quite underrated, Morricone’s score included; it’s no “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” but it is an earnest later-life triumph.

#3 The Shape of Water – Alexandre Desplat

Full disclosure, I believe “Phantom Thread” easily should’ve won Best Original Score. It is my favorite film score of all time, and Jonny Greenwood’s magnum opus, in my opinion. Reservations aside, Alexandre Desplat did fantastic work with “The Shape of Water.” A film that features a wondrous world drenched in warm turquoise hues deserves a score with as much tenderness and care as Desplat’s. While composing the opening scene, he created a melody of arpeggios that mimic waves to capture the fragile buoyancy of the film’s atmosphere. “The Shape of Water” is a peculiarly beautiful film, with a centralized love story that still captivates me, as perplexing as it is. Desplat made me realize that there is some beauty in its perplexity, though; it causes the film to feel more remarkable. As I listen to “Elisa’s Theme,” I feel like I’m embarking on a dream, entering a gateway I could only imagine before.

#2 Oppenheimer – Ludwig Goransson

It admittedly took a rewatch of “Oppenheimer,” this year’s best picture, for me to realize what a triumph Ludwig Goransson’s score is, but I now recognize how it brilliantly matches the stages of Oppenheimer’s life. Vibrant string instruments, like violins and harps, accompany his exploration of physics at the beginning of the film. “Can You Hear the Music” is undeniably a standout, an equally melodic and electric tune, engrossing audiences into the film. As the film continues, Oppenheimer’s much more intense, dangerous creation of the bomb features looming synths and bass, demonstrating the detrimental consequences of his life’s work, particularly the persistent anxieties of it. The score is subtle, too, not necessarily overpowering the already immensely powerful film, but instead augmenting the emotional toll of it. I will continue to marvel at Gorannson’s score every time I contemplate the film.

#1 La La Land – Justin Hurwitz

It took no hesitation for me to rank this #1. This score has been in my life for years, and I’m not even sure I can imagine my life without it at this point. “La La Land” is not without its flaws, but Justin Hurwitz’s score is what makes it feel complete, and, ultimately, magical. Fusing classical and jazz sounds together, it captures the complexity of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship, a culmination of romance and dread that aren’t completely separate from one another. Their titular tune, “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme,” accomplishes this most clearly, sounding reminiscent and sorrowful. However, “Planetarium” will always be my favorite song, which sounds like it’s building a new world for the two characters, literally and figuratively sweeping them off their feet. It feels like they are going to another time and place where they can joyfully waltz into their dreams together, even though they end up not being able to in reality. I believe “La La Land” is Hurwitz’s most inspired work; I also love the “Whiplash” score, but I feel like “La La Land” succeeds in its cohesion, making what could’ve been an otherwise disgruntled score whole.

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