The Best Movie Music of the Decade

Best Movie Music of the Decade

(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)

Film may have started as a visual medium, but from its earliest days music has been used as a fundamental aspect of its presentation. From tack piano and organs to sweeping orchestral suites, through to modern electronic soundscapes and hipster-approved needle-drops, the soundtracks to our favourite films play an indelible role in our appreciation of these remarkable movies. Some use music as a fundamental narrative point, while others dust it along with the other aspects of filmmaking to sway emotions and draw audiences along with the story. 

The only thing more futile than trying to make a consensus list of the best films of the decade is to make a definitive list of the best soundtrack elements, given that taste in music is even more personal and specific than the mass entertainment of movies, yet ‘tis the season for such futile attempts! Instead, think of this as a celebration of ten years of where the music is either brilliantly integral to the pleasures of the film, or where the exploration of musical ideas is key to the topic being covered, or finally where the entire narrative is structured around the performances of recorded songs.

Here’s is /Film’s list of best musical movie moments for the 2010s.

The Social Network (2010)

I admit being completely suspicious when it was announced that Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher were collaborating on a film about Mark Zuckerberg’s website, a URL I’d spent years performatively avoiding. Yet there are few films that helped define the decade more than this look into greed, hubris, relationships and regret, matched with exceptional performances and biting dialogue. The whole film was anchored by collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, two synth-happy musicians who manage to present both the menace and melancholy of the story in ways that startled as much as the rest of the film. Few moments of sound mixing in the history of cinema are as exceptional as the club scene, were dialogue is perfectly understandable despite the crunch of the beat in the background, yet it’s the more sanguine and somber elements that provide the film some of its moments of unabashed beauty and impact.

The Master (2002)

From Ella Fitzgerald to contemporary classical, Johnny Greenwood continued his sonic explorations away from Radiohead in fascinating ways. Drawing significantly from the Polish master Krzysztof Penderecki (who at 86 years old may be the greatest living composer), Greenwood’s sumptuous score bristles with emotion, often switching between syrupy, laconic lines and biting, morbid attacks. For a film of such complexity and shifts in tone and mood, the score rides atop like the boat at the center of the story, navigating the waves and rushes of emotion with seeming effortlessness. This is no pop star playing fun in the world of strings, this is a legit practitioner of the art drawing seamlessly from giants of the form to create nothing short of modern symphonic wonderment.

Arrival (2016)

Few events during this decade robbed the world of music more than the premature death of Jóhann Jóhannsson. The indie rocker from Reykjavik took aspects of electronica, punk, jazz and classical and emerged with a soundscape as varied and remarkable as the country he called home. His principle collaborator was Denis Villeneuve, and from Prisoners through Sicario and Arrival he firmly established a unique voice, where his scores would puncture at times like bullets and at other times feel like they’re emerging from within your body. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom – look at the lovely and delicate work he did for Marc Forster’s otherwise forgettable Christopher Robin – and this balance between light and dark is best exemplified in this score he did for Villeneuve’s exceptional extraterrestrial extravaganza.

The Last Five Years (2014) 

I doubt even the filmmakers love this film as much as I do, but I firmly believe that Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s masterpiece is the great movie musical of the age, presaging the themes of Marriage Story a half decade earlier. The casting is terrific, with Anna Kendrick absolutely nailing the role of “Shiksa Goddess” with abandon, her warm yet thin voice perfectly attuned to a performer who’s good enough for Ohio but might not make it under the bright lights of Broadway. Jeremy Jordan is one of the great voices of his generation, and while he may stumble on a few of the Yiddishism, their dynamic is absolutely believable as we watch the rise and fall of a relationship. Add in Brown himself tackling the tickling of the keys and you’ve got a mega score to a full-on, unapologetic musical that uses the craft of cinema to deftly crosscut between the emotional states of its leads. It’s a brilliant film desperate in need of discovery by more than those already rabid fans that adore this gem.

First Man (2018)

Of all the films this decade, this is one that likely deserved more love and attention than it got. It’s likely no surprise that a film about someone as insular and reserved as Neil Armstrong made for a surprise for those expecting something far more jingoistic, yet this perfectly attuned examination of the events around one man’s remarkable journey remains one of the true spectacles of the age. After the overtly musical Whiplash and La La Land, two other collaborations with Damien Chazelle that absolutely could have been on this list, I instead focus on Justin Horowitz’s score for orchestra, heremin and Moog synthesizer proved to be one of the more stellar aspects of this movie. This is a brilliant, emotional, at times mournful score, one that when it finally does tease at being triumphant raises the entire mood of the pic. It may be less showy or overt than his other scores, but few films managed so perfectly this marriage between sound and picture, and the film remains a triumph of sonic delights. 

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019)

I’ve spilled more than a few words on this remarkable collection of songs from Tarantino’s latest film, but months later I’m still enthralled every time I hear a clip of Los Bravos’ unbelievable should-have-been-a-hit “Bring a Little Lovin’”, or even the sensational Neil Diamond track “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” that was an inclusion by the film’s editor, one that QT fought against and (rightly) succumbed to. Like the rest of the film, this feels the most mature collection of tracks in a Tarantino film, perfectly evoking the time period and balancing esoterica and downright classics in equal measure. For a film of such ambition the music was always going to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and this supreme selection of songs is what elevates this to be what I stand is Quentin’s most accomplished film.

Amazing Grace (2018)

It maybe gauche, but the day I learned that the Queen passed away my heart was lifted not only secure in the immortality of her talent, but that this documentary might finally see light of day. Aretha Franklin refused the film’s presentation, suing the filmmakers and forcing organizers to pull it from Telluride and TIFF moments before its debut. Now, after her passing, this glorious celebration of her talent is freed from her own struggles and self-doubts, and we’re gifted by this heavenly presentation of her Gospel recording. Originally shot by Sydney Pollack for a TV special back in 1972, it was producer Alan Elliott who shephered the project, using modern technology to resync picture and sound. The end result, with her collaboration with the equally exeptional James Cleveland, is worthy film that celebrates one of the greatest albums of all time, where we get a unique glimpse at titanic talent digging as deep as she ever did into her soul and emitting a sound that will never be heard again. 

Frozen (2013)

I remember attending a press screening of this film, and knew I saw something truly extraordinary. I was surrounded by a bunch of underwhelmed critics who thought it passable at best, yet I knew from the first notes of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s soundtrack that this one got it right. I predicted it’d best Lion King, and even I underestimated what it would rain down.  It’s even easier now to be cynical about the film after the billions of dollars and incessant repetition, but it’s the music that makes Frozen so spectacular, constructed with a precision and exquisiteness that would make any Ice Queen melt. “Let It Go” is musical theatre perfection, a wondeous connection between word and tune, coupled with a belting performance by Idina Menzel that sent shivers. Robert Lopez is now a multiple EGOT recipient (!), yet it was these songs that truly took the words and songs of these collaborators to an entirely new audience. Moving from earlier Broadway success with Avenue Q (2003) and Book Of Mormon (2011) through to other fabulous animated soundtracks like with Coco (2017), this pair are the prime movers in musical collaboration, bringing their immaculately constructed songs to filmgoers around the world.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

It’s a Coen Brothers film about felines and pre-Dylan folk Greenwich Village folkies, and that’s already catnip for me. Yet the greatest pleasure of what maybe the greatest film of the decade is the way that Joel, Ethan and T Bone Burnett (along with contributions from the likes of Marcus Mumford) merged fact and fiction, twisting the quote that “if it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song” to portray an artist a different kind of crossroad, one that instead of gifting him with diabolical talent like the bluesmen instead traps him inside a temporal helix where he’ll always be struggling like Sisyphus on that smoky, dimly lit stage. Oscar Isaac is a triumph, and crafts what’s surely the defining character of his career. Members of the ensemble, from Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake to Adam Driver, all contribute beautifully to the sounds we hear, with pitch perfect representations based in part on real artists but never feeling anything less than organic to the world within. While John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham don’t sing, they provide a different facet of the musical landscape, a deep, brooding cynicism that marks all the murder ballads and message songs alike. This is a film that emerged as a classic and has aged even better, a work by masters of the medium that’s truly a gift to film and music fans alike.

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