What makes a truly great film? Is it the script? The actors or the director? The cinematography or the editing? The special effects or the makeup? Or is it just down to luck and timing? In an overpopulated medium where films are created with the latest technology or by the man on the street who can just pull out his phone and start filming, what is the secret to having your movie considered one of the classics? The Shawshank Redemption (1994) failed miserably at the box office, and yet it is now viewed as one of the most beloved films of all time. Prometheus (2012) had the director in Sir Ridley Scott and the promise of a deep rich story which would delve into our place in the universe and the origins of Alien (1979), yet somehow it managed to leave some people cold and confused. Even one of my all time favourite films, Southland Tales (2006), was a critical and commercial failure and now considered more of a curious mess than anything else.
So, what makes a truly great film depends on what you and I consider makes a truly great film. For me, one of the most important ingredients is the soundtrack and/or score. Having the right music play out during a scene can send it soaring. It can give it an energy so powerful it burns through your soul. It becomes a character in itself, begins to live and breath; a part of the film and not just an addition put in during the editing process. It can make you laugh or it can make you cry. It can make you jump out of your seat or it can sooth you into your bed. It can draw out pure fear or send you off in waves of happiness. If done correctly it can, and will, provoke some sort of reaction which will live with you forever and make the link between vision and sound inseparable.
But what are the greatest soundtracks/scores currently out there? Below is my top 10 from the albums I own and they are from stand-alone films only, simply because if I included franchises e.g. Star Wars (1977-) Star Trek (1979-) Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit (2001-2014) and Batman (1989-2012) then there would be no room left for anything else. I have based my selection on my own personal opinions but they are also included because they add an extra layer to the film they are weaved into and should be enjoyed as much away from the film as part of it. Agree? Disagree? Did I miss something horrendously obvious? Lets see:
10: Southland Tales (2006) – Moby/various. Richard Kelly’s strange (yet incredible) mess of a movie bombed when it was shown at Cannes Film Festival so much so that Kelly re-cut and re-edited it before general release. The new cut didn’t fair much better but it did retain its glorious soundtrack. Primarily composed of previously released (and some unreleased) tracks by Moby adding to the odd mood and dark atmosphere of the film, it also had some rocking tunes from the likes of Elbow and Pixies. An almost twisted (yet heavenly) cover of The Star Spangled Banner by Rebekah del Rio & The Section Quartet and star Sarah Michelle Gellar singing Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime adds a wildness and unpredictability parallel with the film itself. A pity some tracks in the movie are missing from the soundtrack though.
9: Bronson (2008) – various. Bronson charts notorious criminal Charles Bronson‘s life through the penal system and is an acting tour de force from Tom Hardy full of black comedy, insanely brutal outbursts and directed with an almost Avant-garde style which blends very successfully into a surreal soundtrack. Kicking off with The Walker Brothers incredibly haunting song The Electrician before giving us some classical pieces written by Verdi and Wagner, Bronson’s soundtrack is a perfect example of; a story of its time, Pet Shop Boys and New Order, the wondrous fantastical element, Puccini and Glass Candy, and the straight up insane, Santa Please (come early this Christmas) by Eva Abraham & The Nat Franklin Trio for example.
8: Sucker Punch (2011) – various. Rammed in-between Watchmen and Man Of Steel, director Zack Snyder created Sucker Punch. A story about a girl who is institutionalised by her step father causing her to retreat within herself where she encounters dragons, orcs and robots. Accompanying this medley of madness is a soundtrack composed mainly of covers. Lead actress Emily Browning purrs along to a gorgeous Sweet Dreams (Eurythmics), Emiliana Torrini soars to a psychedelic White Rabbit (Grace Slick) and Alison Mosshart & Carla Azar float along in Tomorrow Never Knows (John Lennon & Paul McCartney) which includes a beautiful orchestral middle section. Elsewhere there is a strange Queen mash up and a powerhouse snarl fest of a song, Army Of Me, performed by Bjork & Skunk Anansie. A truly original soundtrack (weirdly considering its a bunch of covers) for a truly original film.
7: Natural Born Killers (1994) – Trent Reznor/various. Written by Quentin Tarantino, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey JR and Tommy Lee Jones, NBK is a road trip serial killer movie crammed with odd moments and bizarre imagery. It’s soundtrack was produced, conceived and assembled by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor (yes the same Trent Reznor who won an Oscar for the score to The Social Network (2010)) and is a perfect example of music, dialogue and energy. Legends such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith rub shoulders with L7, Jane’s Addiction and Dr Dre as Mr Reznor takes us on a hellish journey filled with punk, country, industrial, rap, classical and rock; an endless horizon walking hand in hand with dialogue from the film courtesy of all the main cast (and then some). Highlights include a string heavy History Repeats Itself by a.o.s. humming away gorgeously before bleeding into Nine Inch Nails heart-breaking Something I Can Never Have (complete with some disturbing dialogue from Harrelson and Lewis) whilst the song Hungry Ants, featuring song excerpts by Barry Adamson, just has to be heard to be believed…absolutely outstanding.
6: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) – Ennio Morricone. Sergio Leone‘s film is a story about three men pitted against, and with, each other as they search for lost gold buried in a remote cemetery. Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef star in what is widely considered the greatest western ever made accompanied by a classic score from music master Ennio Morricone. If just one piece of music sums up the western, then it is the main title Il Buono, Il Cattivo, Il Brutto; distant drums, whistles, disembodies voices, that twangy guitar and soaring strings make it as iconic as can be. This theme is continued throughout and becomes creepy and alien-like in Sentenza, sad and hopeless in Il Forte, glorious and heavenly in La Carrozza Dei Fantasmi, choral and cold in Marcetta Senza Speranza and triumphant and overblown in L’estasi Dell’oro. How good is this score? Not only has Quentin Tarantino used tracks on his films but Metallica use L’estasi Dell’oro (The Ecstasy Of Gold) as an intro piece in their live concerts…a truly inspirational and admired score.
So, that is the first half of my feature done. Look out for the second part as I deliver my top five soundtracks/scores of all time.