To complement the list of movies from the late 2010s that had great soundtrackshere is another list, this time for movies released in the first half of the decade that have used music to elevate their stories, to create particular moodsand to make us care about character arcs that might not have so clearly drawn our attention if not for the emotions the music added to them.
Soundtracks become tightly linked in our minds to the images and stories they accompany. They can inform the emotions present in a scene. They can even sometimes work against the content of the scene in strange ways, as was the case of Jonny Greenwood’s score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. But they always complement what’s on-screen and add to it.
Without further wait, let’s delve into this group of films that have stayed memorable thanks to their soundtracks. They might consist of an original score, original songs, a selection of pre-existing material, or a mix of these!
12 Begin Again
As he did before with Once in 2007, again, director John Carney finds in Begin Again two souls who meet at a crossroads in their lives and are united by music and feeling, before being on their way. The movie stars Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo and Adam Levine. The soundtrack includes some great songs performed by Knightley and Levine such as “Coming Up Roses”, “Lost Stars” and “Like a Fool”.
Alfonso Cuarón’s space tale, Gravity, is more than just a suspenseful survival flick. It’s a symbolism-rich movie about life, death, rebirth, and states of limbo in between. Steven Price’s score starts with the anxiety-inducing music that accompanies Sandra Bullock’s first-person perspective of a crash in outer space, with confusing orbiting dynamics and flying debris, and it ends with the rousing title track “Gravity” that brings the story full circle on a new shore.
10 The Imitation Game
The first of four Alexandre Desplat scores on this list (with two more, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdomhaving only just missed out), the music written by the French composer for The Imitation Game has a very recognizable theme. It gives this historical drama about scientist Alan Turing much of its power and aesthetic quality.
9 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 & Part 2
Following up on a musical identity established by the great John Williams in the first three films and expanded by strong work from Patrick Doyle and Nicholas Hooper was never going to be an easy task. But Alexandre Desplat filled those shoes rather beautifully in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. To bring Harry’s journey to a close, Desplat wrote both sensitive and sweeping epic music. Highlights include “Obliviate”, “The Deathly Hallows” and “Godric’s Hollow Graveyard” from the first of this two-part finale, and “Lily’s Theme”, “Severus and Lily” and “Courtyard Apocalypse” from the second.
8 Inside Llewyn Davis
“Well the success movies have been done, haven’t they?” co-director Joel Coen told RottenTomatoes when asked if failure makes for a more interesting subject. Failure is indeed what defines the folk singer of Inside Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Issac. He has such a purist attachment to his music’s authenticity that he’s almost disdainful of success itself, though he also knows all too well how much he needs it. The soundtrack, which includes songs like “Fare Thee Well”, is a great fit to the movie’s lyrical quality. It also has a catchy song named “Please Mr. Kennedy” that hilariously illustrates what selling out looks like to a horrified Llewyn.
7 The Social Network
The highly original Oscard-winning score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network conveys the quietly disturbing dissonance of a dissonant character. Mark Zuckerberg is defined both by his lack of empathy and his deep need for people. As is clear from the brilliant opening scene, he is out of tune with others around him. The score brilliantly expresses this theme. Tracks like “On We March” and “Intriguing Possibilities” also make it strangely engaging.
6 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The start of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a magical nostalgia trip back to Middle-earth. Gandalf and twelve dwarves assemble in Bilbo’s Hobbit house, and after a chaotic dinner party filled with silly songs and light merriment, the mood turns quieter and more contemplative as the dwarves discuss their quest. Then, they sing a song full of ache for a lost and far-away home, and Bilbo understands exactly what drives them. That song, “Misty Mountains Cold”, is the emotional core of the film, and Howard Shore bases on it his excellent score.
5 The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick heavily relies on selections of classical music in all his films, and The Tree of Life is no exception. It’s a sublime selection that accompanies this meditative film that contrasts, on one hand, a family’s life in Texas with its experiences and trials through childhood and parenthood, with, on the other hand, the grandeur of the universe. In the film’s most famous sequence, Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa” plays against the birth of the cosmos, creating an experience that can not be described in words.
Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a gigantic film, and Hans Zimmer wrote a score to match it. In this deep dive into the mind and world of dreams, Zimmer sometimes uses the electric guitar to match the slickness of these men in suits who are performing gravity-defying stunts. At other times, he underscores the film’s explosive nature with the full ensemble of instruments. He also writes softer, dreamy music in the scenes that feature Mal, the beach, and the world she and Cobb had created.
In Drive, Ryan Gosling’s character is living as the hero of his own story, driving through the nights of LA listening to pop songs and rescuing damsels in distress. “There’s something about you … It’s hard to explain,” goes the song “Nightcall”. The songs add a great layer of commentary to this meta-tale of coolness laced with ultra-violence. The lyrics of “A Real Hero” speak to the wishful thinking of Gosling’s character to be “a real human being and a real hero,” despite the movie brilliantly showing the incompatibility of the two.
2 The Ghost Writer
The fourth Alexandre Desplat score on this list, this one is for Roman Polanski’s brilliant neo-noir thriller The Ghost Writer. It’s another distinctive work from Desplat, different from all the others. It’s highly engaging, atmospheric and characterized by a quick rhythm. It nicely complements Polanski’s excellent story of intrigue and paranoia.
One of Hans Zimmer’s simplest scores in terms of melody is also among his greatest. Interstellar‘s score contains three themes. The first is first heard during the cornfield chase and is most memorably used while Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is inside the tesseract. Although it’s a repetitive pattern of few notes, it’s striking how the longer it goes, the more the listener is left with a feeling of yearning for something more, something ethereal and mysterious which the music merely wants to suggest but leaves out of reach. The second theme accompanies the separation of Cooper and his daughter. Finally, the more forceful, foreboding theme of “No Time For Caution” inspires just as much awe as the first one but in a different way. Zimmer’s choice of the organ as his principal instrument for Interstellar will certainly go down in the cinematic history books.
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