The 120 Best Film Soundtracks

Going to the trouble of making a list such as this may seem trivial to some, but, in fact, the tradition of musical scoring for cinema should be considered the ‘classical music’ you’ve liked but didn’t know it was ‘classical.’

Let me explain. I will assume you, like I, enjoy an immediately rapport with great film music, that the main themes to movies like ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ I will assume you find them ‘beautiful’ and that, if you have given it any thought, that you know they are composed for and played by a full symphony orchestra. In other words, the same orchestra that plays Beethoven at Carnegie Hall on Friday night may be in the studio the next day recording the next John Williams soundtrack.

Let’s go even further: Not only does the film composer employ all the potencies of the modern symphony orchestra, and often vocal soloists and a chorus, the composer draws upon the entire development of Western music (and sometimes non-Western) in creating a 90 to 120 minute musical narrative to accompany the action and dialogue on the screen.

But here there’s an even more important point to make: At the very time that film music was emerging as a developed art form, the mainstream of classical music took a wrong turn towards atonal and twelve-tone compositions. The late Romantic musical tradition, as represented by Mahler, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss, was carried forward by film composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, and Bernard Herrmann. Both Korngold and Rozsa had been established classical composers before arriving in Hollywood, so they literally embodied the bridge I am describing.

As chronicled superbly in Robert R. Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (Ignatius, 2016), the rejection of traditional tonality dominated the concert hall well into the 1980s before composers like George Rochberg and David Del Tredici began to realize the mistake.

If my argument holds, the list below represents a classical music tradition that never broke with the development of tonality in the Western music tradition. In other words, an appreciation for film music is, necessarily, an appreciation for ‘classical music,’ that is, music reflecting the legacy of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, and Strauss.

Many American composers who never took that atonal turn, such as David Diamond, Paul Creston, Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello, but for decades their compositions were rarely played or even mentioned in surveys of contemporary music. Conductors like Gerard Schwartz and Leonard Slatkin have been at the forefront of rediscovering their music as well as other composers who refused the break with tonality.

It’s not too far-fetched to say that film music has been the ‘classical music’ for far more listeners than the music played symphony halls around the world for the past fifty years. The time has come to claim to not merely admit it, but to celebrate the music and musicians who have continued to minister to the human ear, and the human heart.

-1. City Lights, Charles Chaplin (1931)
-2. King Kong, Max Steiner (1933)
-3. She, Max Steiner (1935)
-4. Modern Times, Charles Chaplin (1936)
-5. The Charge of the Light Brigade, Max Steiner (1936)
-6. Anthony Adverse, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1936)
-7. Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Prokofiev (1938)
-8. Gone With the Wind, Max Steiner (1939)
-9. Sea Hawk, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1940)
-10. Thief of Bagdad, Miklos Rozsa (1940)
-11. 49th Parallel, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1941)
-12. Citizen Kane, Bernard Herrmann (1941)
-13. The Uninvited, Victor Young (1941)
-14. That Hamilton Woman, Miklos Rozsa (1941)
-15. Now, Voyager, Max Steiner (1942)
-16. Kings Row, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1942)
-17. The Song of Bernadette, Alfred Newman (1943)
-18. Mr. Skeffington, Franz Waxman (1944)
-19. Henry V, William Walton (1944)
-20. Laura, David Raksin (1944)
-21. Spellbound, Miklos Rozsa (1945)
-22. Forever Amber, David Raksin (1947)
-23. Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Bernard Herrmann (1947)
-24. Red River, Dimitri Tiomkin (1948)
-25. Scott of the Antarctic, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1948)
-26. The Red Pony, Aaron Copland (1949)
-27. The Heiress, Aaron Copland (1949)
-28. All About Eve, Alfred Newman (1950)
-29. Quo Vadis, Miklos Rozsa (1951)
-30. A Christmas Carol, Richard Addinsell (1951)
-31. A Place in the Sun, Franz Waxman (1951)
-32. Scaramouche, Victor Young (1952)
-33. The Bad and the Beautiful, David Raksin (1952)
-34. High Noon, Dimitri Tiomkin (1952)
-35. The Quiet Man, Victor Young (1952)
-36. Shane, Victor Young (1953)
-37. I Vitelloni, Nino Rota (1953)
-38. Around the World in 80 Days, Victor Young (1954)
-39. Prince Valiant, Franz Waxman (1954)
-40. On the Waterfront, Leonard Bernstein (1954)
-41. Richard lll, William Walton (1955)
-42. Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, Alfred Newman (1955)
-43. Night of the Hunter, Walter Schumann (1955)
-44. Diane, Miklos Rozsa (1956)
-45. Peyton Place, Franz Waxman (1957)
-46. Raintree County, Johnny Green (1957)
-47. The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Malcolm Arnold (1957)
-48. Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann (1958)
-49. Ben Hur, Miklos Rozsa (1959)
-50. North by Northwest, Bernard Herrmann (1959)
-51. Journey to the Center of the Earth, Bernard Herrmann (1959)
-52. The Nun’s Story, Franz Waxman (1959)
-53. The Magnificent Seven, Elmer Bernstein (1960)
-54. Exodus, Ernest Gold (1960)
-55. Psycho, Bernard Herrmann. (1960)
-56. The Alamo, Dimitri Tiomkin (1960)
-57. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Henry Mancini (1961)
-58. King of Kings, Miklos Rozsa (1961)
-59. El Cid, Miklos Rozsa (1961)
-60. Lawrence of Arabia, Maurice Jarre (1962)
-61. To Kill a Mockingbird, Elmer Bernstein (1962)
-62. Taras Bulba, Franz Waxman (1962)
-63. The Pink Panther, Henry Mancini (1963)
-64. Charade, Henry Mancini (1963)
-65. The Leopard, Nino Rota (1963)
-66. Goldfinger, John Barry (1964)
-67. The Fall of the Roman Empire, Dimitri Tiomkin (1964)
-68. Doctor Zhivago, Maurice Jarre (1965)
-69. Sylvia, David Raksin (1965)
-70. The Greatest Story Ever Told, Alfred Newman (1965)
-71. A Man and a Woman, Francis Lai (1966)
-72. Sand Pebbles, Jerry Goldsmith (1966)
-73. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Ennio Morricone (1966)
-74. Casino Royale, Burt Bacharach (1967)
-75. Two for the Road, Henry Mancini (1967)
-76. Far from the Madding Crowd, Richard Rodney Bennett (1967)
-77. The Lion in Winter, John Barry (1968)
-78. Romeo and Juliet, Nino Rota (1968)
-79. David Copperfield, Malcolm Arnold (1969)
-80. Anne of a Thousand Days, Georges Delerue (1969)
-81. True Grit, Elmer Bernstein (1969)
-82. Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Miklos Rozsa (1970)
-83. The Last Valley, John Barry (1971)
-84. The Godfather, Nino Rota (1972)
-85. Lady Caroline Lamb, Richard Rodney Bennett (1972)
-86. Antony and Cleopatra, John Scott (1972)
-87. The Wind and the Lion, Jerry Goldsmith (1975)
-88. Jaws, John Williams (1975)
-89. Superman, John Williams (1978)
-90. Death on the Nile, Nino Rota (1978)
-91. A Little Romance, Georges Delerue (1979)
-92. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, John Williams (1980)
-93. Somewhere in Time, John Barry (1980)
-94. Body Heat, John Barry (1981)
-95. Krull, James Horner (1983)
-96. Once Upon a Time in America, Ennio Morricone (1984)
-97. Splash, Lee Holdridge (1984)
-98. Out of Africa, John Barry (1985)
-99. The Mission, Ennio Morricone (1986)
-100. Untouchables, Ennio Morricone (1987)
-101. Cinema Paradiso, Ennio Morricone (1988)
-102. Time of Destiny, Ennio Morricone (1988)
-103. A Summer Story, Georges Delerue (1988)
-104. Born on the Fourth of July, John Williams (1989)
-105. Henry V, Patrick Doyle (1989)
-106. Glory, James Horner (1989)
-107. Dances With Wolves, John Barry (1990)
-108. Dracula, Wojciech Kilar (1992)
-109. Gettysburg, Randy Edelman (1993)
-110. Jurassic Park, John Williams (1993)
-111. The Age of Innocence, Elmer Bernstein (1993)
-112. Sense and Sensibility, Patrick Doyle (1995)
-113. Apollo 13, James Horner (1995)
-114. Far From Heaven, Elmer Bernstein (2002)
-115. Love Affair, Ennio Morricone (1994).
-116. Hamlet, Patrick Doyle (2009)
-117. Kingdom of Heaven, Harry Gregson-Williams (2005)
-118. Patton, Jerry Goldsmith (1970)
-119. Midnight Cowboy, John Barry (1969)
-120. The Lives of Others, Gabriel Yared (2006)

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