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National Film Score Day: Celebrating Ryuichi Sakamoto and the best film scores since 2010

Celebrating National Film Score Day and the death of Ryuichi Sakamoto with the best film scores since 2010
Celebrating National Film Score Day and the death of Ryuichi Sakamoto with the best film scores since 2010 Copyright iStock
Copyright iStock
By David Mouriquand
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Today is National Film Score Day, which recognizes the musical masterpieces in cinema and, more specifically, the talented composers who create them.

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Today is National Film Score Day, which recognizes the musical masterpieces in cinema and, more specifically, the talented composers who create them.

One such talent was the recently deceased Japanese maestro Ryuichi Sakamoto, who composed nearly 50 film scores during his illustrious career. The loss of a titan like Sakamoto reminds us that our favourite films would not be as memorable or as treasured without the work of a composer, whose job it is to enhance emotion, elevate the intensity of the on-screen action, and complement themes by sharpening our senses.

The musical score is not only an integral part of cinema; it is the very soul of a film.

So, to celebrate both National Film Score Day and honour the work of Ryuichi Sakamoto, here is our list of the best film scores since 2010.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK - Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (2010)

Filmmaker David Fincher collaborated (and not for the last time) with Nine Inch Nails members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for his Facebook film in 2010. The two musicians agreed to try their hand at film scoring, and the result is truly one for the ages. By not conforming to traditional scoring approaches, they made an innovative, ominous and pulse-pounding selection of tracks consisting of piano melodies and synthesizer 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 criminally underrated The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which bagged a much-merited Grammy in 2012), Gone Girl and Mank.

TRON: LEGACY - Daft Punk (2010)

Another standout from the start of the 2010s 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, as the score outshines the film itself, keeping the movie alive rather than complementing it. The pair’s soundscapes made Disney’s belated sci-fi sequel to the cult 1982 film far more memorable than the film 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.

UNDER THE SKIN - Mica Levi (2013)

Mica Levi’s first film composition established the English songwriter, composer and producer as one of the most exciting new talents 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, a dark dive which isn’t for everyone. It imbues the film with a palpable sense of oppression, and pulls you in to unravel its mysteries. You won’t find a recent film soundscape as distressing or as unforgettable as this one, a score which will – rather fittingly – lodge itself under your skin.

THE REVENANT - Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, Bryce Dessner (2015)

We come to the late Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who composed the score for Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Oscar-winning film The Revenant alongside German electronic musician Alva Noto and The National’s Bryce Dessner. Iñárritu committed to keep CGI out of The Revenant and used natural light on set. The score mirrors this commitment to naturalism, as Sakamoto favours simplicity to conjure the vastness of nature and the harshness of the desolation felt by the film’s central protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio’s fur trapper left for dead). Throughout his career, Sakamoto brilliantly composed pristine and memorable scores, and this 2015 work is no different. He was battling throat cancer during the making of The Revenant – not that you could tell considering his focused work – and the score, rather unfairly, was ruled ineligible for the 2016 Oscars for Best Original Score, as it was deemed "assembled from the music of more than one composer". Their loss. It remains one of his greatest late-career achievements alongside his score for 2019’s underseen Proxima and 2020’s Minamata.

ARRIVAL - Jóhann Jóhannsson (2016)

Like Under The Skin, Arrival stands as one of the most groundbreaking sci-fi films of the last few years. Both have equally distinctive scores, ones which evoke the same sense of awe experienced by the protagonists and the viewers. Director Denis Villeneuve teamed up once more with late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, following 2013’s Prisoners and 2015’s Sicario scores, and his daring compositions feature piano loops and electronic elements. 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 21st century’s very best.

MOONLIGHT - Nicholas Britell (2016)

Nicholas Britell emerged as one of the breakout composers of this century, with his work on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, Adam McKay’s The Big Short, the score for HBO’s Succession, 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.

THE SHAPE OF WATER - Alexandre Desplat (2017)

French composer Alexandre Desplat has been no slouch these past few years, with a whopping eleven Academy Awards nominations to his name since 2007, walking away with two wins for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shape Of Water. His sumptuous music for Guillermo del Toro’s 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 del Toro’s magical touch, both in child-like fantasy and suspenseful darkness. Words do not do its beauty justice. Desplat teamed up with del Toro again last year for his Pinocchio, and his work will be heard this year in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City (having previously scored every one of his films since 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (having also scored the filmmaker’s brilliant Little Women). We can’t wait.

PHANTOM THREAD - Jonny Greenwood (2017)

Radiohead guitarist and musical polymath Jonny 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 Phantom Thread, Greenwood majestically captured 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 central 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. And if you’re yearning for more Greenwood, seek out his scores for Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2017), Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog

SUSPIRIA - Thom Yorke (2018)

While Jonny Greenwood made a name for himself as film composer extraordinaire over the years, his Radiohead bandmate Thom Yorke also decided to give it a try. He got his chance with Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Suspiria. No small task, as Goblin’s instantly iconic soundtrack to Dario Argento’s 1977 original was something of a game-changer. Much 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 was not only radically different but also richer and, dare we say it, superior.

TÁR - Hildur Guðnadóttir (2022)

For our final entry, it had to be Hildur Guðnadóttir, one of the greatest composers currently working. It could have been Guðnadóttir’s stunning work on 2019’s Joker, with the Icelandic master's eerie string arrangements and the use of the Halldorophone (an electro-acoustic cello) complementing the film’s uneasy feeling. But because Todd Phillips’ direction (and film as a whole) never managed to rise to Guðnadóttir’s darkly mournful and foreboding work, it’s all about another Todd’s film – Todd Field’s Tár. The score for the Oscar-nominated film was packaged as concept album, consisting of 20 tracks curated, composed and produced by Guðnadóttir. Featuring contributions from Cate Blanchett and cellist Sophie Kauer, and performances from Dresden Philharmonic, London Contemporary Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra, the score perfectly highlights the unnerving mood of what is essentially a ghost story – or at least the tale of a haunting. Not only is the character of Lydia Tár haunted by the ghosts of her past and the building shitstorm threatening her career and personal life, but she's also plagued by her self-obsessed nature. These multifaceted hauntings are elegantly mirrored through sounds that serve to give this film extra layers. It’s the perfect example of music buttressing a narrative’s thematical weight, showing that scores, when done right, work in total unison with the images they are not only complementing but enriching.

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