Essential Modern Film Composers

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With summer blockbusters barreling our way, Tribeca happening as we speak, and Cannes right around the corner, we have film on the brain more than usual — which is already quite a lot. While we wait with baited breath to find out what movies will win us over during cinema’s busiest season, we’re also wondering what films will deliver the most memorable scores. Last year, movies like Drive and The Artist boasted some of our favorite soundtracks, which got us thinking about other modern film composers who have been staples in our film diet over time. We’ve put most of the focus on musicians working today who may not be as widely known as folks like Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, or Danny Elfman. Our list includes a few established composers, as well as several names to keep an eye on. We’d love to hear your contributions, so let us know what other artists you would add after heading past the break for a closer look.

Clint Mansell

English composer — and former Pop Will Eat Itself member — Clint Mansell has been an integral part of director Darren Aronofsky’s success. Their collaboration grabbed everyone’s attention with Requiem for a Dream, in which the track “Lux Aeterna” has since been rearranged and appropriated for various other film trailers (including The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) and commercial work. Mansell’s work on Aronofsky’s Black Swan posed a challenge for the musician, given the story’s association with Tchaikovsky’s iconic Swan Lake composition, but the artist delivered an incredible score. His stripped down, darker reimagining complements the film’s fractured emotional drama. Apart from Mansell’s work with Aronofsky, our favorite score is the composer’s soundtrack for Duncan Jones’ Moon. It’s an absolutely haunting piece of work that captures the anguish and aching desperation of one man’s isolated journey through space and the devastating emotional breakdown that follows — and yet the score remains subtle, rhythmic, and sensitive.

Joe Hisaishi

Joe Hisaishi is known primarily for his work with Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano. The prolific Japanese composer’s ability to create stunning works that seem totally incongruous with the violence on screen in movies like Sonatine never ceases to amaze us. Although known primarily in the States for his longtime collaboration with Miyazaki, we’ve been hooked on his soundtracks for Kitano for some time. The director’s movies haven’t sounded quite as beautiful since the duo had a falling out after working on 2002’s Dolls. Whether enchanting us with the music to Spirited Away, or working on the latest Chow Yun-Fat action movie Let the Bullets Fly, Hisaishi is fascinatingly versatile — and far too underrated on North American shores.

Alexandre Desplat

Award winning composer Alexandre Desplat creates gorgeous, emotionally charged soundscapes that are powerful in their ethereal beauty. The critically acclaimed musician became known in Hollywood for his moving Girl with the Pearl Earring score and has been wowing us with work on films like The Painted Veil, The Ghost Writer, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life ever since. Intelligent, delicately layered, and always compelling, Desplat is one of the most impressive composers working today.

Angelo Badalamenti

Angelo Badalamenti has worked on numerous film projects, but the composer has a deeply resounding connection to director David Lynch. Badalamenti’s works are a vital part of the filmmaker’s dream logic, helping to craft Lynch’s surreal universe — whether it be in the small town of Twin Peaks or a smoky nightclub where Isabella Rossellini sways gently to the music. “My (musical) world is a little bit dark … a little bit off-center. I think of it as tragically beautiful. That is how I would describe what I love best: tragically beautiful,” the composer once shared. Badalamenti’s alluring, yet heartbreaking punctuations are incredibly nuanced and soulful.

Carter Burwell

From punk bands to The Big Lebowski and In Bruges, Carter Burwell’s pensive, understated compositions have been an important thread for the work of directors like the Coen brothers and Spike Jonze. Often a risk taker, Burwell has ventured into indie film territory, while moving effortlessly to big budget Hollywood features in the same year. We adore his evocative, stately score for 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, which truly helps set the tone for the brooding, stylish film.

Mychael Danna

Canadian composer Mychael Danna is a unique sound in the film world, first making people take notice with his award-winning soundtrack for frequent collaborator Atom Egoyan’s Family Viewing. His versatility and ability to sophisticatedly blend electronic arrangements, minimal solo pieces, and more has led him to working with equally dynamic directorial talents like Terry Gilliam (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) and Ang Lee (The Ice Storm).

Ennio Morricone

It’s impossible to deservedly sum up an amazing talent like Italian composer Ennio Morricone. The maestro has done it all, creating a wide range of exciting compositions in every genre, influencing numerous musicians, filmmakers, and artists the world over. He’ll always be remembered for his work on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, particularly his epic score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Lush, visceral, and energetic, Morricone’s work on the movie is impeccable, taking us on an unforgettable ride across the dusty desert. The composer is currently working on a soundtrack for upcoming film The Best Offer, starring Geoffrey Rush and Jim Sturges, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore of Cinema Paradiso fame.

Rachel Portman

Hollywood has long been a world dominated by men, which is something that also seems to extend to the pool of composers working in the industry today. That’s not to say female film composers are non-existent, and we’re optimistic that the number is growing steadily. Rachel Portman was the first female composer to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1996 for her work on Jane Austen adaptation, Emma. She was also the first female composer to receive the honorable Richard Kirk award at the BMI Film & TV Awards in 2010. Her sweeping, romantic scores for films like The Cider House Rules and The Legend of Bagger Vance are elegant and dramatic, with whimsical touches that speak to the emotional journeys of the films’ characters.

Christian Henson

Composer Christian Henson grew up in the UK drum & bass scene, eventually entering prime time to work on a variety of televisions shows, simultaneously programming for and assisting film composers like Atonement‘s Dario Marianelli. Henson broke into Hollywood with work on Spy Game and Dirty Pretty Things. His sinister and serpentine grooves for last year’s The Devil’s Double soundtrack were a standout, and we’re always excited to see what Henson’s working on with intelligent up-and-coming director Christopher Smith. Henson worked on the filmmaker’s soundtrack for Black Death and Triangle, two of our favorite recent mind-benders.

Ludovic Bource

It may be too early to tell if Ludovic Bource — who had absolutely no formal composition training — will be considered an essential artist, but we’re dialed into his work after last year’s Michel Hazanavicius movie, The Artist. There’s a reason Bource won Breakout Composer of the Year for the soundtrack. The film had no dialogue, but Bource’s score was a smashing success, full of personality and drama, sweeping us along the movie’s emotional tableau. Playful, engaging, graceful, and dark, Bource’s interpretation of the characters and theatrical scenes is beautifully impressionistic. The composer is also know for his work on Hazanavicius’ OSS 117 film series, but his score for The Artist makes him one to watch.