Recently I couldn’t decide if I wanted to write a scathing critique focusing on the banality of the painfully quirky (500) Days of Summer or pen a love letter to The “feel good” Final Destination where we gleefully watched ridiculously good-looking and stupid young people die in unfathomably moronic and elaborate stunt-deaths — in 3D no less! — but neither film really warrants such efforts or talk. In times like these when searching for things worthy of writing about, my thoughts turn to my blog’s old stand-by and most popular feature: The Greatest “Blank of All Time” Lists.
I’ve toyed for quite some time with doing a list of film’s greatest cinematographers — which, by the way would look something like this: Conrad L. Hall, Freddie Francis, Roger Deakins, Sven Nykvist, Caleb Deschanel (Zooey/Summer Finn’s accomplished father), Robert Elswit, Emmanuel Lubezki…but I digress —
— and then the random train of thought that surfing blogs engenders led me to a post on Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover over at Wonders in the Dark which in turn led me to google that film’s composer, Michael Nyman, which in turn led to the discovery of this:
This was taken from a website celebrating a 2007 art exhibition featuring the works of Arianne Douws and Ellen Vandepitte at a museum in the Sint-Amandsberg section of Ghent, Belgium. Nyman’s aptly named “Book Depository” piece from his score for The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is used to great effect over the slide show. Be sure to watch the whole thing — and get a load of those killer staircases and long Kubrickian hallways! This perfectly illustrates why Nyman is possibly the greatest living film composer. His music doesn’t need the context of film to hold meaning. It can exist outside of the world of film on its own or be used to compliment or enhance any number of other mediums and art forms.
This, of course, brings us to my list of…
The Greatest Living Film Composers:
1. Michael Nyman
- Best Known For: Coining the term “minimalism” in music and his theme to Jane Campion’s The Piano, which is world famous to people who haven’t even seen the film.
- Essential Works: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; The Piano; Gattaca; Ravenous; The End of the Affair; Man on Wire (which sampled much of his past work done for Peter Greenaway)
- Also be sure to check out his fascinating personal website, where more than just music in on display.
2. Alexandre Desplat
- Best Known For: His score for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and his ability to churn out beautiful music even when he’s just doing it for the obvious paycheck–see Hostage. Like Nyman, his music can be enjoyed completely free of film context as stand-alone modern classical music.
- Essential Works: Girl with a Pearl Earring, Birth, The Painted Veil, Lust Caution
3. Carter Burwell
- Best Known For: His frequent collaborations with the Coen Brothers.
- Essential Works: Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, In Bruges
4. Philip Glass
- Best Known For: His neurotic, repetitive, transcendent minimalist technique which has resulted in a style that is instantly recognizable and loved as much as it is loathed.
- Essential Works: Candyman, Kundun, The Hours, The Illusionist, Notes on a Scandal
5. Angelo Badalementi
- Best Know For: Being the Bernard Hermann to David Lynch’s Hitchcock,
- Essential Works: Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, The Straight Story, A Very Long Engagement
6. Wojciech Kilar
- Best Known For: His brooding, pulsing, frightfully undead score to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is another one of those works of music you know even if you don’t realize you know it because it has been sampled so many times in movie trailers, film and TV.
- Essential Works: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Portrait of a Lady, The Ninth Gate, We Own the Night
7. Ennio Morricone
- Best Known For: His prolific longevity and all those classic scores for Sergio Leone.
- Essential Works: Undoubtedly too long to list, though some of his unsung scores include The Untouchables and The Weather Man. Those uninitiated might find his sampled works used recently in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds a good place to start.
8. John Williams
- Best Known For: His endless hit parade of instantly recognizable themes to blockbuster films from the 1970’s to today. Unlike Michael Nyman or some of the others mentioned here, his scores are most potent and quite possibly inseparable from the context of the films for which they were composed.
- Essential Works: Jaws, the entire Star Wars film canon, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, the Harry Potter series
9. James Horner
- Best Known For: The score to a little film called Titanic. His music is often dismissed as melodramatic, derivative and too self-referential, but I think much of his work is as memorable as the best of John Williams.
- Essential Works: Willow, Glory, Field of Dreams, Braveheart, Titanic, The House of Sand and Fog, The New World, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
10. Howard Shore
- Best Known For: His signature score to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
- Essential Works: The Silence of the Lambs, Gangs of New York, Panic Room, Eastern Promises, Doubt
To the Dearly Departed:
- Max Steiner, you set the template for what film scores could and should be and no one will ever forget the work you did on Gone With the Wind.
- Bernard Hermann, for all those Hitchcock classics and from Welles’ Citizen Kane to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, whenever the words “psycho” or “thriller” are mentioned, your music floods our memories and sends our hearts racing.
- Elmer Bernstein, your laundry list of classic themes are too numerous to list, but for my money, your theme for To Kill a Mockingbird might be the greatest film score of all time.
The One Hit Wonders:
- Anton Karas for his zither-crazed score to The Third Man
- Ry Cooder for his haunting chords in Paris, Texas
- Jonny Greenwood for his conjuring of psychotic strings for There Will Be Blood
Written by David H. Schleicher
What’s your favorite film score or who is your favorite film composer? Speak your mind in the comment form and let the discussions begin.