As movie composing entered its third century, it seemed like the composers responsible for cinema's themes were becoming more ambitious than ever. Put it down to the ease at which tools have become available, or the demands of modern filmmakers, or boredom, perhaps, but film composers over the past 15 years have increasingly been firing off into new and more experimental territories.

Nothing manipulates the film viewer's emotions quite like a movie score. Often this manipulation is subtle, with the composer used as a crucial director's tool, almost subliminally telling you when to laugh, cry or cower. But sometimes, those scores can't help but stand out; and over the past 15 years, countless movie soundtracks have been good enough to be admired as works of art even when divorced from the picture.

Half of the scores listed here were created by persons for whom film scoring isn't even their day job, proof that performing artists often prove to be some of the best movie composers (honourable mentions for this century must also go to The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Mica Levi, for their work on Hanna, Tron Legacy and Under the Skin, respectively). The other half is comprised of old pros, strutting their stuff in a cinematic age which has so far welcomed their growing imagination.


10. Contagion (2011)

Director Steven Soderbergh essentially had Cliff Martinez score Contagion three times, in three distinctly different styles: classic thriller, Tangerine Dream-esque ambient, and rapid contemporary rhythmic. Martinez mashed these together for the final cut, and the result is a buzzy soup of electronica and freeform jazz. Horns wail in sardonic fury along with the plodding drum beat, while piano chords attempt to pierce the racket. It plays unlike any other score, the dissonant schizophrenia of Martinez's three-pronged approach upping the uncanny horror of Soderbergh's cerebral disaster movie.


9. Road to Perdition (2002)

His work on Sam Mendes' American Beauty brought Thomas Newman popular recognition, but Newman's subsequent collaboration with Mendes produced the richer fruit. For Road to Perdition, a Prohibition-set tale of Irish-American gangsters at war, Newman harks back to the old country with something as earthy and lyrical as the film's elemental cinematography. The string section soars, and occasional detours into swinging jazz make lively surprises, but Newman wields the piano most devastatingly, the tumbling keys of downbeat showstopper 'Ghosts' a lonely reminder of mortality's grim predictability.


8. The Social Network (2010)

Director David Fincher fired up what on paper sounded like a movie-of-the-week through technically immaculate execution, but The Social Network's soundtrack is where the film is at its most cinematic. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' contemporary support is the sound of a lost, all-instrumental Radiohead/My Bloody Valentine mash-up, soft, popping percussion and foreboding piano accompanied by the sound of guitar fuzz and robotic beeps. 'Hand Covers Bruise' is the highlight, a curious piano refrain played over a wall of strings and electronic hum that's morbid, unrelenting and unforgiving - the sound of the kind of sharkish ruthlessness that the film seeks to vilify.


7. The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012)

Arguably no one has utilised Hans Zimmer's predilection for scoring in widescreen better than Christopher Nolan. Zimmer created perhaps the first 'quotable' single-note in cinema history with the Inception "BRAHM", but it's in the Dark Knight trilogy that Zimmer's blockbuster sound reached its apotheosis: the triumphantly dark-hearted 'Molossus', the tortured razor-on-string wail of 'Why So Serious?', and the mob chanting of Gotham's Reckoning all suggest a composer at peace with his own big sound. Zimmer's somewhat over-egged score for 2000's Gladiator has become ubiquitous, but his music for The Dark Knight trilogy is delectably wicked, and all the more satisfying for it.


6. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

What's most magical about Harry Gregson-Williams' score for Ridley Scott's Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven is how it evolves as the film changes its geography. For medieval Europe there are choral hymnals, for the Mediterranean seaports it's an exotic blend of strings and woodwind, and for Jerusalem there's an exuberant, Middle-Eastern-flavoured full orchestra. It's a traditional epic score, punctuated by rousing tunes of battle, but one that restraints itself magnificently in moments of quiet. The film begins and ends with a man in near-solitude, and there we hear in Gregson-Williams' music the bittersweet sound of solace.


5. All is Lost (2013)

In 2013, two sublime survival dramas hit with crucial - and excellent - original scores. Whereas Steven Price's score for Gravity enveloped the viewer in the urgent strangeness of the astronomic experience, Alex Ebert's work on All is Lost whispered of the ocean. We hear the elements recreated in song, in Ebert's gentle humming, his echoed whistling, his by-turns shuddering and soothing instrumentation, the weeping woodwind, and the centrepiece horn of lead track 'Excelsior'. It's a menagerie of sounds that speaks of ancient times and the tranquillity of the deep blue.


4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis develop the searing sound of their previous western score, for nihilistic outback oater The Proposition, on Andrew Dominik's more elegiac cowboy tale, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. They add plaintive piano and doomy strings on top of Cave's hellfire guitar, as well as a spine-tingling combo of jingle bells and the celeste as twinkling percussion. It's a series of sad, chilling pieces making up a much bigger swansong, an elegy that romanticises the Old West as it simultaneously mourns the period's passing.


3. The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

An hours-long suite that stands tall with pride at its own grandiosity, Howard Shore's gargantuan score for Lord of the Rings aided director Peter Jackson enormously in encouraging a mass audience to sit up and take fantasy cinema seriously. Shore's Rings music is both syrupy and undeniably hummable, full of enduring melodic earworms telling tales of adventure. Far too infrequently mentioned, though, is how effectively Shore's score takes frightening turns, as heard in the malevolent thunder of 'The Shadow of the Past', or the apocalyptic despair of 'Foundations of Stone'.


2. Atonement (2007)

Film tragedy would feel neutered without appropriately tear-inducing musical accompaniment, and the weepie of the 2000s came with a shockingly affecting sound. Dario Marianelli's arrangements on doomed-lovers-in-war story Atonement were made to open the floodgates: reticent but desperately lonesome, Marianelli's buoyant sounds of summer soon give way to orchestral agony ('Elegy for Dunkirk' and 'Denouement' are in particular primed to choke the viewer up with their crying strings). There's also room made for weirdly effective experimentation; that's a typewriter you can hear underscoring some parts of the soundtrack.


1. There Will Be Blood (2007)

The droning opening din of There Will Be Blood - that screech of untuned violins - suggests a horror rather than a turn-of-the-century oil drama. There has rarely been a film score that vibrated with such threat, or that matched its lead character's personality so perfectly. Jonny Greenwood's themes are pained, full of rage, and laced with a black sense of humour, not unlike There Will Be Blood's vampiric protagonist. It's a score of full-frame scope that manages to be both familiar and disarmingly strange. To hear it is to hear classic American cinema, as well as the terror of something rare, raw and unknown.