Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The 10 Most Influential Film Composers Of The Decade

Music, it’s what breathes life into a film. Music lets us into the inner workings of the character, it transports us to places we’ve never been and it paints a sonic landscape for our emotions. The composer holds this power and responsibility. As a filmmaker myself this is where I find all my inspiration. In the music.

Over the past decade we saw some amazing films, and in retrospect it was the composers that made them amazing. With 2010 here I wanted to look back at who I thought were the 10 most influential film composers of the decade. This is in my mind a measure of the impact they made with their music in the past decade (2000 - 2010).

10. John Powell: John Powell’s first film score was Face/Off, which he did under the supervision of Hans Zimmer. The British composer slowly found his voice and today is one of the most prolific talents working in the industry. His sound is unmistakable. Rythmic percussion pulses through his scores with a signature descending note progression. In the past 10 years he brought Jason Bourne his memory back, he showed us the terror of what it felt like to be on flight United 93, and he worked hard for 4 years to show us that penguins can not only sing but dance too. He is also without a doubt the king of animation. He helped Hans take us on The Road To El Dorado and showed us that a Panda can learn Kung Fu. He helped Harry introduce us to a green ogre who lives Far Far Away and showed us that chickens don’t want to be pies. He brought to life a Wooly Mammoth that sounded a lot like Ray Romano, helped Horton when he heard a Who, and took us on a journey that just reinforced that Robin Williams is just as loud when he’s an animated robot. John Powell has made his mark and with a huge slate for 2010 (Green Zone, Knight And Day, How To Train Your Dragon, Jonah Hex) here’s looking forward to the decade to come.

9. Nick Cave (and Warren Ellis): Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are two co-composers who emerged late in the decade. Cave and Ellis obviously had prior fame with the band Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. However it was with The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford that the two musicians left an unforgettable mark in cinema. Their score is as heart wrenching as it is beautiful. It shows us that we don’t need lush orchestras and loud music. Small and simple melodies echo powerful emotions very similarly to their scores for The Proposition and The Road. The future will hold great things for these brilliant composers.

8. Akira Yamaoka: If you don’t play video games then you won’t know who this unique Japanese composer is. Yamaoka is single handedly responsible for scoring some of the most disturbing and hair raising atmospheric scores of the past decade, and they can all be found in the games of the Silent Hill franchise. He’ll contrast guitar based tunes in some tracks with bizarre sounds in others. Electronic tones working in horrendous harmony will give you nightmares for quite some time. The scores are a stronger experience in the game as they lose any structure when listened to as a standalone experience. However, Yamaoka started a genre and started an unmistakable sound that has riveted gamers over the past decade. The games are horror masterpieces and are never to be judged based off the terrible film adaptation.

7. Alexandre Desplat: A French composer who is now one of the most sought after talents in Hollywood. Desplat’s sound is unique and he approaches each score with a sensibility and gentleness that is hard to describe in words. I wasn’t a fan of his earlier American scores but in the past couple of years his music has won me over. His score for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is a wonder to be heard. His score for Fantastic Mr. Fox is brilliance. Desplat replaced James Newton Howard on Terrence Malick’s next film so that’s something to take notice of.

6. James Horner: With John Williams doing less and less work James Horner is becoming one of the last great orchestral composers working today. His scores for The Perfect Storm, A Beautiful Mind and The New World (what was left of it in the film anyway) are brilliant. His sound continues to be a trademark and is unmistakable. Very few composers can do what he can. It’s true that until Avatar the past couple of years have been subpar for him. However, his score for The Perfect Storm alone puts him on this list because of how iconic the sound is with the film.

5. Harry Gregson-Williams: Before Harry met Hans Zimmer he had never used a computer. Today Harry is THE best electronic composer working today. His versatility allows him to switch from his hardcore electronic sounds to lush and grand orchestrations to quiet piano based themes. He has an ongoing collaboration with Tony Scott and Harry’s sound has become synonymous with Tony’s chaotic and fast paced visuals. In 2005 he composed the score to Kingdom Of Heaven, which is undoubtedly his best work to date. Gone Baby Gone is another small masterpiece that is as beautiful as it is tragic. Harry is responsible for all the Shrek films as well as the first two Narnia films. Unfortunately since a new director has taken over that franchise Harry won’t be back for the third film. Harry is also responsible for scoring the Metal Gear Solid video game franchise (2, 3 & 4), which is a brilliant demonstration of how his sound has affected that genre of storytelling. The man had enough of a sense of humor to spoof his (and Hans Zimmer’s) style with his score for Team America: World Police. Harry also oversaw the score for Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with his collaborator Stephen Barton, which is one of the best selling games of all time.

4. John Williams: John Williams. King among kings. The man has left us a legacy like no other. Unarguably the best thematic composer of all time. His sound is solely his and no one else’s. While his workload is slowly tapering off he did compose some amazing work this decade. Munich is a masterpiece and I believe to be one of his best works. He also gave us Harry Potter, which is a theme that has echoed through the franchise long after he left it. We got to hear 2 more Star Wars scores this decade as well, which is something grand to behold. We also got another Indiana Jones score! While, he may not be THE definitive influential composer anymore his work is still something to behold and his contributions to the films we watch is unmatched.

3. Howard Shore: One composer to rule them all. His scores for all three Lord Of The Rings films will go down in history as some of the best scores ever composed. The themes are now iconic amongst our everyday lives. When you hear those 5 notes there is no mistaking it for anything else. He not only created a score he created a world. He brought Middle Earth to life. He gave the shire a history, he defined evil, he made us cry and hope that our heroes complete their journey. His work over the past decade is just as iconic. With films like High Fidelity, Panic Room, Gangs Of New York, The Departed, A History Of Violence, Eastern Promises and Doubt Shore had made his presence known. He is Scorsese’s go to composer if that means anything.

2. Michael Giacchino: I remember playing the first Medal Of Honor game in 1999 for Playstation. I remember holding the soundtrack and not knowing who he was but I remember liking the music. Giacchino got his start in video game music. His scores for the Medal Of Honor franchise are brilliant. He even composed the first Call Of Duty score. He forayed into television with J.J. Abrams and started off the series Alias. In 2004 Brad Bird hired him to score The Incredibles, and boy what an incredible score that turned out to be. A fusion of 60’s lounge music with that John Barry feel yet it felt completely original. It was that year that Giacchino did another TV show merely because J.J. Abrams asked him to. LOST exploded into a huge success. With the show Giacchino has given us the best television series score you will ever hear. The score is the life of the show and is iconic. In fact, it’s really because of his commitment to LOST that he has such limited time to do films. Yet he was still able to compose amazing scores like Ratatouille, Up, Speed Racer, Mission Impossible 3 and Star Trek. Oh yeah and he’s already been nominated for an Oscar. Giacchino’s unmistakable sound defined my generation’s childhood of video gaming and he is now defining our entertainment both on TV and in theaters.

1. Hans Zimmer: Before you say “big surprise” just continue reading before you think this is a biased opinion. In the past 10 years Hans Zimmer has composed 39 scores. Yes, that is correct. 39 scores! That’s 39 films over the past 10 years that you have probably seen. He took us to Rome and showed us how a general won his freedom, he showed us Hannibal Lecter’s cooking skills, took us to Hawaii on December 7, 1941, threw us in the heart of modern warfare where no man is left behind, helped start the Japanese horror remake phenomenon and showed us what a shitty week you can have just from wanting to watch a video. He took us to Africa once more and brought inspiration to a suffering people, he ticked and twitched his music to bring us into the life of an obsessive compulsive con man, he took us to Japan where an American soldier helped the Samurai win their freedom, he brought back medieval warfare as Arthur became a king, helped a bunch of animals escape their zoo and go back to Africa. He gave a dark knight his wings, he made pirates swash and buckle on the open sea, he brought America’s favorite yellow family to the big screen, made us believe that Frank Langella could in fact be Richard Nixon. He helped Tom Hanks crack some codes, showed us that sleeping with your ex can be complicated and had some fun with a certain British detective that has a knack for solving grand mysteries. Hans Zimmer not only defined certain genres this past decade but he also reinforced his way of composing through collaboration. He took a stand against his critics and gave a big middle finger to the Academy. He is currently housing the next generation of composers as they work together to learn and give us some of the best music heard in films today. Cheers, Hans. Can’t wait for the next 10.

So, it's been an incredible decade for films and scores especially. The music that defines the stories we love will echo through time. Filmmakers who realize what an emotional impact good music can have in their films will always make better films. Films that we as an audience will remember for the rest of our lives.

**Honorable Mention: Clint Mansell- While Clint has come into his own the past 10 years his work wasn't enough for me to place him on the list and bump off anyone else. However, his scores for The Fountain and Moon if placed on a "top 10 scores of the decade" list would be high up there.


  1. Excelent post, but you missed one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) composer working today: Thomas Newman. (Road to Perdition, Wall-e, American Beauty, Meet Joe Black, Little Children, Finding Nemo, etc)

  2. Excellent top 10. You've chosen some of my favourites - John Williams and James Horner to name two. How about Jerry Goldmsith. We've just posted a similar list here: http://www.top10films.co.uk/archives/3841/

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  4. The list is incomplete without 'Ennio Morricone'. For those of you don't know anything about him, Hans Zimmer refers his work for inspiration and is his best music composer.

  5. Tom Newman
    James Newton Howard

  6. One word for Zimmer: Overrated.

    Besides that I second Howard and Newman should be on that list.
    Other contestants (though arguably not in the Top 10) would be Christopher Young, Alan Silvestri and Carter Burwell.