Top 10 Film Scores of 2011

I wonder if I’ll look back ten years from now and see 2011 as a turning point in my film music development. This past year, I found myself listening in different ways, with my attention captured by details and intricacies beyond the surface effect of the music. And perhaps I was far more open and receptive to more composers and musical styles than in years past, or maybe it there were other reasons. Of course, the year offered joys and the inevitable disappointments, uninspired mediocrity, and total surprises. These are the scores I keep returning to again and again—my Top 10 film scores of 2011.

Moneyball soundtrack
Soul Surfer soundtrack

10. MONEYBALL (Mychael Danna)

Probably no other movie and score of 2011 surprised me more. Who knew a movie about baseball statistics could be so thrilling? I’ve never been particularly impressed by Mychael Danna’s music, but this score did anything but strike out. Danna leaves behind the rah-rah excitement of typical sports scores and instead uncovers layers of psychological depth that give further resonance to Brad Pitt’s conflicted manager. A combination of electronic and acoustic instruments, oscillating harmonies, and repeated notes and rhythms, Danna’s score churns with Steve Reich-like minimalism. It may not offer much to those fans who hunger for melody, but for those willing to dig a little deeper, you’ll find much more behind the plate.

9. SOUL SURFER (Marco Beltrami)

This score rides a wave of excellent scores by Marco Beltrami recently. With its inspiring main theme, lush exotic orchestrations, and a hint of Hawaiian flavor, Beltrami’s music never panders to the audience. The shark attack is even more harrowing thanks to the music and the highs and lows of Bethany Hamilton’s perilous journey are given emotional resonance in this rich score. While the movie is on the level of a Lifetime or Hallmark Channel movie-of-the-week, Beltrami’s music is strictly big screen.

8. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross)

Film music fans can be ruthlessly unforgiving toward film music and composers that don’t conform to accepted traditions. The latest recipients under community fire are Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Their Oscar win this past year for THE SOCIAL NETWORK only further fueled the flames, practically guaranteeing them a spot in the pantheon of continually bashed composers like Gustavo Santaolalla and Alan Menken. I for one thought their work on SOCIAL NETWORK gave that film an atmosphere and energy it might not have had otherwise. With DRAGON TATTOO, R&R have once again contributed a score that is every bit as essential to that film as their earlier work on TSN. If anything, the music this time around is even harsher and more distancing. The characters are dead (inside and outside), and R&R’s music reflects the cold (in every sense of the word), the harsh landscape of Stieg Larsson’s bleak, brutal story. It’s not pleasant music by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is the story. R&R’s well-crafted electronica keeps you tense and uncomfortable in the context of the film (as it is supposed to), and often on its own. Three hours of the CD can be a tough listen for listeners who don’t appreciate this kind of music, and I’m usually one of them. But this is one fascinating, nuanced score that continues to challenge and hypnotize me.

A Better Life soundtrack
Water for Elephants soundtrack
Hugo soundtrack

7. A BETTER LIFE (Alexandre Desplat)

Chris Weitz’s tale of immigration and gangs in East L.A. might have garnered more attention had it not been foolishly released during the summer. What also got lost was Alexandre Desplat’s moving score. Desplat adapts his signature orchestrations with a touch of South of the Border guitar, providing a moving voice to the plight of Mexican immigrants without veering into mariachi territory. Hope (and hopelessness) in the face of the American dream never sounded so beautiful.

6. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (James Newton Howard)

In this adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel, the elephant had more personality than either Robert Pattinson or Reese Witherspoon. What the film may have lacked in excitement or romantic chemistry, it made up for in period detail with lovely cinematography, art direction, and a typically fine performance by Christoph Waltz. James Newton Howard’s haunting score has a sepia-toned nostalgia to it. Americana strains raise the big top, while delicate strings, harp, and woodwind lines weave in and out of period songs. Howard downplays the circus oom-pah-pah, instead of dancing around memories and complementing the visual landscape with lush harmonies.

5. HUGO (Howard Shore)

Martin Scorcese’s shout out for film preservation offers a visual and aural treat for the eyes and ears. Howard Shore’s music wisely doesn’t try to compete with the visual splendor, instead content to waltz nimbly along, providing Gallic atmosphere and charm. While the score still rings true with Shore’s inimitable voice, this is a lighter, tenderer side of the composer that we seldom get to see. As magical as the film, the score also makes the perfect musical accompaniment to reading Brian Seltzer’s equally magical book.

Albert Nobbs soundtrack


Critics and audiences love or hate this film. Many people are annoyed by the young boy (the astonishing Thomas Horn) who travels around New York City trying to unlock the mystery of a key found in his dead father’s (Tom Hanks) closet. Others can’t accept a fictional story surrounding 9/11. But Stephen Daldry shows us the grey in between the black and white, directing the film with his customary light touch. The result is a moving, if not perfect, film that could have gone so wrong in less capable hands. Alexandre Desplat was a last-minute replace for Nico Muhly (who did such a beautiful job scoring Daldry’s THE READER) and the score caps yet another banner year for the composer. With its seesaw main theme, the music swings between light and dark, and everywhere in between, generating sincere emotion without capitalizing on the tragedy hanging over the film. Pure Desplat from beginning to end. A haunting meditation on life, death, and rebirth.

3. ALBERT NOBBS (Brian Byrne)

Glenn Close has been trying for decades to get this pet project made about a woman posing as a man in late-19th century Dublin. It paid off with a heartbreaking performance, equaled by co-poser Janet McTeer. Relative newcomer Brian Byrne gives the score the proper amount of Irish lilt without going overboard, and the delicate orchestrations for primarily piano, harp, harpsichord, and strings have a nimble quality that never telegraphs or overplays the emotion. Albert’s theme is particularly lovely, whether instrumentally or as sung by Sinead O’Connor in the touching lullaby at the end of the film. Byrne is a name to keep an eye out for. I hope film music fans and the powers-that-be open their eyes.

The Artist soundtrack

2. WAR HORSE (John Williams)

Lush, warm and brimming with beautiful, heartfelt melodies, the score proves that on the cusp of 80, Williams is still at the top of his game. With hints of NIXON, FAR AND AWAY, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and other scores, the music hearkens back to the past but doesn’t feel borrowed or second-rate. The score’s lush, elegiac quality has the feeling of Williams’ swan song, which I sincerely hope it’s not. I could do without the duck music (and the duck for that matter…shame on you, Spielberg) and the score is more than a bit too obvious within Spielberg’s glossy soap opera, often competing against distractingly (and deliberately) obvious cinematography. Still, whatever emotion I felt came strictly from the beauty and majesty of Williams’ music rather than Spielberg’s machinations with the much-ado-about-nothing plot. And why not? It’s hard to resist musical craft that is this strong. Top-tier Williams, at least away from the film.

1. THE ARTIST (Ludovic Bource)

No other score this year made me sit up and take notice more than THE ARTIST. As a card-carrying Golden Age lover, Ludovic Bource’s memorable score captures the tone of classic Hollywood film music while still sounding fresh. The score crackles with energy, emotion, musical wit, and pure joy. Call it pastiche, call it a spoof, call it what you will. I call it a winner and I hope Oscar does too. I can’t wait to hear what Bource does next.

So there you have it. Another year gone by. What were your top scores of 2011? And what are you looking forward to in 2012?

  1. Soul Surfer really surprised me. I’ve always loved Beltrami, but in SS he seems to be channeling Thomas Newman a bit…awesome score.

  2. Just watched Moneyball last night, and was transfixed by Danna’s score. I got turned on to his restrained, minimalist drama with Capote (you ought to check that out if you’re not familiar). The man does so much with very little.

    The scores that jump out for me this past year are: War Horse, Tintin, W.E., Extremely Loud, Tree of Life (my Desplat crush only grows with each new score), The Adjustment Bureau, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. A good year for film music overall, I’d say.

    1. A nice, broad selection of scores. By all rights TREE OF LIFE would have been on my list. But with only 5-10 minutes of score in the film, I couldn’t add it to the list in all good conscience. (Me and my stupid rules.) But it’s a lovely work, no doubt.

  3. While I may not agree with all of the selections, this is an excellent list, and representative of films in 2011.

  4. I’m surprised that Alberto Iglesias’ score for “The Skin I Live In” didn’t garner much mention. It was probably my favourite score of the year with its riveting, intense cello pieces.

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