A Conditional List of Great Film Scores, As Told By Sundance Lab Fellows

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In contemplating your favorite films of all time, chances are that most of the relevant works exhibit an exceptional – or at least serviceable ­– film score. At the same time, many of us would be hard-pressed to allude to a favorite score without first mentioning our predilection for the film itself. If that’s you, think of this list as a handy resource for the film score-illiterate.

As the Sundance Institute and Skywalker Sound Music and Sound Design Lab wraps up this week in northern California, we asked our Composer Fellows – all burgeoning composers talents in their own right – which film scores and soundtracks most inform, inspire, and drive their own work.

The Music and Sound Design Lab takes place at the Skywalker Ranch and pairs composers with directors as they explore the collaborative process of writing music for film under the guidance of leading film composers and film music professionals (the likes of Harry Gregson-Williams, James Newton Howard, Blake Neely, Alan Silvestri, Alex Wurman, and many others). Take a look at their favorite scores below, and next time someone inquires about your favorite score, go ahead and recite this list – or share your picks below!

KT TurnstallGrammy-nominated singer-songwriter from Scotland

“My favorite score is The Life Aquatic by Mark Mothersbaugh. It was the first time I had felt a connection between the lo-fi, DIY music-making I relate to, alongside full orchestrated arrangement. It's so emotional and fun.”

Josh Moshier, composer and pianist from Chicago

“It’s very hard to pick a single favorite film score, but one that I adore is Ennio Morricone’s score for A Fistful of Dollars

“The melodic themes are soulful but never sentimental. Its sonic imagination is dynamic and rascally (whips, whistles, and anvil clanks) and its sound is as simultaneously majestic and scrappy as the picture itself. I love the warble of the trumpet during the final showdown. Whether the choice to leave it in was out of budgetary restrictions or to the taste of the filmmakers, it remains a perfect imperfection. This was the first time I was introduced to the idea of scaling music to the scope and resources of the film itself. My first viewing of the film was on my laptop on a long train ride. I remember watching it again on the train ride back, and loving it even more.”

Ryan Cohan, pianist/composer and Guggenheim Fellow 

“One of my all-time favorite movie soundtracks is Bernard Herrman's score to Taxi Driver. I am always moved by Herrman's incredible orchestration and poignant thematic material on his final work. It vividly propels the film's dark setting of New York City in the 1970's and the main character's descent into madness. The love theme is unforgettable as well.”

Timo Chen, composer and music director for film and television 

“I have many, many favorite soundtracks and my all-time favorite(s) change all the time, but the one that I have come back to most recently as my current favorite soundtrack is Alexandre Deplat's score to Lust, Caution

Lust Caution as a film completely exhibits what I believe is Ang Lee's greatest talent, and that is the magnification and amplification of a short story (that could probably be finished in less time than watching his films), into an epic universe of a production so rich with emotion and narrative. The score does the same with such attention and amplification of minutiae and how the themes evolve and interact with each other. Some of my favorite themes in that score have the slightest twist in melody at the least expected yet most subtle moments.”

Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, composer whose films have played at Sundance, Tribeca, IDFA, and Telluride

“I love: 

  • Gabriel Yared’s score for The English Patient. It is simultaneously epic, nostalgic, nuanced, and emotional. 
  • John William’s jazz score for Catch Me If You Can. He perfectly captures the ‘60s and the writing is perfection.
  • Bernard Herrmann’s score for North by Northwest. Between Thornhill’s inebriated drive and the Mount Rushmore chase, never has a hemiola so perfectly served a case of mistaken identity. 
  • Laura Karpman’s score for Spielberg’s Taken. Fifty years of three families and their interactions with aliens through magnificent imaginative orchestral writing. 
  • Alexandre Desplat’s score for Birth. Great writing for the orchestra. 
  • Dario Marianelli’s score for Atonement. A totally creative approach to musical storytelling.”

Katy Jarzebowski, Los Angeles-based composer and vocalist

“While it's difficult to pick a single favorite film score, I can say without hesitation that Danny Elfman's music for Edward Scissorhands serves as constant inspiration for me. His waltzing theme repeats constantly in the film in several variations without tiring; masterful changes in the orchestration flip the tone from the romantic to the macabre. Moreover, Elfman's use of vocals weaved within the instrumentation and jumping from theme to countermelody and, at times, simply serving to thicken the lush harmonies, highlight a major repeating element in his fruitful collaborations with Tim Burton. I have always considered this aspect of his composition to serve as proof that a film composer can be dubbed as an auteur in the same sense as a filmmaker – leaving a mark of unique vision and style on every score.”

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