We rank the best original film scores of 2023, another stunning year for music in movies! Take a look at our top 10 in our list below.
As another year draws to a close, it’s time for those ranked lists to start emerging. Despite some delays caused by studio inaction in the face of strikes, 2023 has still seen a wonderful and varied array of films released. We delve deeper into these movies, ranking the best original film scores, which range from the playful to the moving. There are some legends of the film composer world in there, but also numerous others making their feature film debuts. Each original score adds its own something to their respective film, highlighting a widely known and indisputable fact: music is as important to a film as any other aspect. You can see our list of best original film scores of 2023 below, with some close runner-ups too!
10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
It is a fact of life: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have never composed a bad original score. In fact, the former Nine Inch Nails duo have had a particularly fruitful year even by their standards, with two of their original scores making it onto our list. At number ten is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, a wonderful animation that takes a little sprinkling of inspiration from the revolutionary Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but still manages to be its own unique entity.
Reznor and Ross’ score has their recognisable electronic-driven base, instantly noticeable in opening tracks “The Man in the Basement” and “New Form of Life Itself”, which pulsate with sharp drumbeats and warped effects. However, as they showed with their Oscar-winning score for Soul, they have real range in their scoring abilities. Songs such as “Maybe One Day” take a more emotional approach, whilst the film-closing “Happy Ending / Sewer Home” is one of the most gorgeously laidback beats to grace a film this year.
9. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Film review: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Review
Daniel Pemberton’s original score for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is as pulsating, dynamic and downright restless as the film itself. He matches his musical achievements with those of Into the Spider-Verse, whilst also injecting new forms and energy into the sequel. There are still the bopping drums and crunching electric guitar work, but the original score of Across the Spider-Verse feels even more vibrant than its predecessor.
The film’s opening song, “Across the Spider-Verse (Intro)”, sums Pemberton’s album up in a nutshell: building with electronic effects and deep, droning sounds, it surges ominously until the drums come in, slowly at first and accompanied by bass, until it erupts into an electrifying cacophony of riotous guitars and breathless drumming. This process of control and nuance even in glorious chaos is a constant throughout Pemberton’s original score. He finds time for more restrained, emotional compositions, such as in “Spider-Woman (Gwen Stacy)”, but it is the dynamism of his other tracks, like the film’s closer “Across the Spider-Verse (Start a Band)”, that really reverberate and resonate.
8. Past Lives
Take a deep breath: we’re about to discuss one of the most emotional films of the year. Past Lives is arguably the best release of 2023, and whilst its original score only sits eighth in our musical ranking, Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s collaboration is a big reason why Celine Song’s debut film is so devastating.
Bear and Rossen’s original score doesn’t exactly break the mould of romantic drama trappings, especially one from A24; it is a twinkling, minimalist score that almost feels the same as many others from the past, but somehow, it manages to sit apart. Only occasionally falling into melodrama, Past Lives’ original score manages to be a perfect companion to the raw storytelling on show. It is unintrusive and graceful, delicate piano and acoustic guitar working in tandem with synthesisers.
The crowning glory on this warm and glowing original score is “See You”, a slow, piano-driven piece that builds as one with the film’s emotional climax. As the camera follows our characters for one final time, Bear and Rossen’s original score takes flight, propelling the emotions to an even higher level.
7. The Killer
Film review: The Killer: Netflix Film Review
The next Reznor and Ross score in our list is their work for David Fincher’s curious assassin thriller The Killer. Both score and film blend minimalism with chaos to fascinating effect. Reznor and Ross’ music has been such a large part of Fincher’s filmography since their first collaboration on The Social Network in 2010, and this trend continues with The Killer.
Ranging from spiky beats and electronic distortion in songs such as “Stick to the Plan” to more reserved, weirdly melancholic numbers like “One of the Many”, and even to neo noir-inflected, ethereal soundscapes such as “F**k.., the duo’s original score for The Killer is as entrancing as the film itself. The latter song is a highlight, a mesmerising accompaniment to Michael Fassbender’s titular Killer as he sleekly and stealthily peels through the city of Paris at night time after a botched assassination job.
6. The Boy and the Heron
Next in the list is one of the more predictable entries, such is Joe Hisaishi’s spectacular reputation for scoring Studio Ghibli films. However, in many ways, this detracts from Hisaishi’s ability as a composer. We might be guilty of taking him for granted because of his staggeringly consistent output. His latest Ghibli collaboration is for Hayao Miyazaki’s final film (maybe), the fantastical and epic The Boy and the Heron.
As he does in films like Spirited Away (2001), Hisaishi quickly establishes short piano-driven leitmotifs in his original score for The Boy and the Heron. The first time we hear it in “Ask Me Why (Evacuation)” is enough to catch the breath in your throat, even more so as it swells with sparkling background strings.
Hisaishi injects other seemingly simple melodies across his swooning, gorgeous score, as well as bouncy, lighter moments to go with the more comedic aspects of the film, but it’s the album’s penultimate song, “The Great Collapse”, that coincides so beautifully with The Boy and the Heron’s narrative finale. Steady piano quickly becomes accompanied by operatic strings, climaxing into one of the most glorious cinematic moments of 2023.
5. Poor Things
Film review: Poor Things Film Review
Read also: Cinematographer Robbie Ryan on Poor Things: Interview
Last year, in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ original score for Bones and All, one pluck of a string was all it took to set the scene. The same can be said for Jerskin Fendrix’s wickedly weird, spectacularly aloof score for Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things.
In “Bella”, one of the score’s title tracks, it’s the first note and subsequent distorted strings that help inform the film’s overall charm and oddness; this wonderful song is reused and rearranged throughout Poor Things, bolstered by sustained violin notes. The original score for Poor Things is Fendrix’s first time scoring for a film, but in Lanthimos, he seems to have found a surreal soulmate.
Not only is Fendrix’s original score a thoroughly unique cacophony of strings and twinkling, playful piano, it is also a curiously melancholic piece of work. As Poor Things rumbles through its heavy surrealism and comedy at an unrelenting pace, it still finds small moments of pause, drawing out a more emotional core to both the film and its main character Bella. Fendrix’s original score is no different.
4. The Zone of Interest
Film review: The Zone of Interest Film Review
The Killer might have moments of musical minimalism, but it feels full throttle in comparison to the bulk of Mica Levi’s sensational, unforgettable original score for The Zone of Interest. Jonathan Glazer’s groundbreaking holocaust drama is constantly unexpected and unconventional in every aspect, from its compositions, camerawork, right down to its music.
Levi has been a shining light in the film industry throughout the 2010s, and they look set to continue this reputation as a singular composer throughout the current decade, if The Zone of Interest is anything to go by. Levi resists the urge for melodramatic strings or emotionally forceful piano—this is not what The Zone of Interest is—instead opting for stripped-back and measured electronic pulses at select moments. Most notably, Levi strikes with this unerring efficiency and frightening danger in the film’s startling night vision scenes.
Bookending the film and this chilling original score are two choral pieces that sweep through to our ears as the screen either sits in darkness or rolls the credits. The original score for The Zone of Interest is proof of two people, in Glazer and Levi, working to their fullest individual potential and with the greatest understanding of each other’s intentions.
3. Earth Mama
Film review: Earth Mama Film Review
In comparison to other films in this list, Savanah Leaf’s Earth Mama is one of the lesser seen releases of 2023. However, it is most certainly a must watch film, and a big reason behind that is singer and cellist Kelsey Lu’s haunting, melancholic, experimental original score. It is a revitalising addition to a film that feels refreshing in its treatment of Black women and their experience of motherhood.
Lu’s original score ranks as one of the best of 2023, a consistent presence in this nuanced A24 drama that never collapses into a film of suffering or melodrama. Both film and score are always restrained and careful, but constantly impactful. There are hints of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) in its gentler, more wavering brass sections—the elegant glide of the camera also harkens back to Barry Jenkins’ film—but Lu’s score also strikes out on its own as a singular, indefinable presence.
In Earth Mama’s more experimental sections, such as when main character Gia wanders through wooded dreamscapes, Lu’s original score becomes at one with the natural surroundings, with a delicate form and ambient instrumentation reinforcing the film’s earthly connotations. This nature-infused original score is an exquisite piece of work, one that floats with the same grace as the film it accompanies and also maximises the story’s emotional aspects.
2. Asteroid City
Film review: Asteroid City Film Review
How does Alexandre Desplat do it? Every original score he composes for Wes Anderson’s is indisputably his, in style, form, instrumentation, but each one is significantly unique and special. They are the same, but different. Desplat wows us with so many original scores each year, but it is his work with Anderson that really solidifies his standing as one of the greatest film composers working today. Their latest collaboration on Asteroid City is another gem.
Desplat’s score for Asteroid City is perhaps less varied than his previous; there are no big shifts such as The Grand Budapest Hotel (2012). In the score’s opening song, “WXYZ-TV Channel 8”, we are instantly treated to the score’s musical themes: sustained strings, light percussion, and booming brass. Throughout the film, these wonderful aspects pop up consistently, always arranged in slightly new or subversive ways, working with Anderson’s onscreen world and the stories he is telling.
Whether Desplat’s score is being used playfully to accompany a breathless Jeffrey Wright monologue or to otherworldly affect when an alien-clad Jeff Goldblum descends from space, it is always perfectly entwined with Asteroid City as a whole. Yes, this composition from Desplat is one of his more restrained, but it’s also one of his best original scores yet, an imaginative, mournful, knowing, twinkling work that ranks only behind one other film in our list.
Film review: Oppenheimer Film Review
It’s a testament to Ludwig Göransson’s original score for Oppenheimer that despite being 24 songs long, it would be possible to write about each one in detail. Don’t worry, we won’t do that, but it should give you some indication about the strength of Göransson’s abilities (if we weren’t already aware).
Göransson’s score gets under your skin and stays there. It is a twisted piece of art that, just like the titular historical figure, makes you feel sick to your core. Whether it’s the sustained strings appearing in songs such as “Fission” that never seem to stop distorting or the gently haunting instrumentation in climactic numbers such as “Destroyer of Worlds”, there are countless elements of Göransson’s score that will stick with you for months afterwards. Special mention has to go to “Can You Hear the Music”, an astounding musical achievement that, despite being just short of two minutes in length, has a staggering 21 tempo changes.
On the whole, Göransson’s original score, which is used extremely frequently by Christopher Nolan, is a fluctuating, cohesive epic, ranging from singular instruments to whole ensembles in the blink of an eye. At times historically sweeping and at others completely harrowing, Göransson’s original score is such an important player in Nolan’s ferocious and horrifying film.
It feels fitting that the best original score accompanies the best film of 2023. Oppenheimer is a colossal achievement with so many top-tier aspects, and one of the leading parts of it is its score. Göransson won numerous awards for his work on Black Panther, including an Oscar; it wouldn’t be a surprise if he repeated the same success with Oppenheimer.