In compiling this list I was careful to avoid scores that, because they are so well known, are beyond memorable: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws, E.T., Chariots of Fire, Rocky, Braveheart, etc. Yet I wasn't simply wanting to be alternative. I tried to list film scores that are so tied to the images they were composed for, yet which stand on their own in some way; but scores that are for me personally memorable.
They are listed in a somewhat rough order (with an emphasis on rough) of lesser favourites to greater favourites, the lessers beginning with 10:
10. The Untouchables - Ennio Morricone
How about we just get this one out of the way? When I first heard the main theme for The Untouchables it was on tv and it kind of scared me. As the music played while the title of the film slowly began to appear on screen, the music felt somehow paranoid. But then, the theme music for the show Unsolved Mysteries scared me too. Strangely enough, the host of that show, Robert Stack, played Eliot Ness in the original tv series.
9. Predator - Alan Silvestri
I like how it segues from sounding sci-fi to sudden action flick mode. It's nothing special per se, but when people hear it they know what movie it is. Therefore it is special after all.
8. Yojimbo - Masaru Sato
I love the exuberance of this score. It sounds strident, swaggering; like the main character. This score plays during the opening shot where we see Yojimbo, his back to the camera, scratching his head before he sets off walking again. With that shot together with the score, Kurosawa has you. If memory serves, the same theme isn't heard again in the same way until Yojimbo slays the villians at the end - and at that point it's played faster.
7. The Straight Story - Angelo Badalamenti
It's jiggered enough to keep from being saccharine, and it takes its time, like Alvin on his ride-on mower.
6. Crocodile Dundee - Peter Best
Who would really say that Crocodile Dundee is a great film - and who would say it is forgettable? The answer: no one. Same goes for the score. This one is the theme from the ending of the movie. You can hear the Australian theme from the beginning meeting with the New York City theme.
5. Ravenous - Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman
Ravenous is probably well on its way to Cult Status if it isn't there already. What would a film about cannibalism (and about it with gusto) set in the 1840's of Sierra Nevada have as its score? Eerie synthetics? No, more along the lines of this:
4. The Goonies - Dave Grusin
Cyndi Lauper perhaps comes immediately to mind. And hearing her is enough to transport one back to the eighties faster than Doc Brown's Delorean. But the actual composed-to-the-image score for The Goonies is what many other scores in the 80's wished they were. It's totally non-intrusive but fully backs up the story, yet having its own character. The characters from the film are in it; the setting is in it; the adventure is in it.
3. Willow - James Horner
I have this hope, this dream, that someone in the future will make a truly great fantasy film and will get permission to lift the entire score from Willow for it, thus giving it the home it deserves. The opening is just gorgeous. Horner's score for Krull is perhaps better. Horner is the man. Or at least he was, until James Cameron laid hands on him. Here is a medley of the themes from Willow:
2. The Karate Kid - Bill Conti
You can watch Bill Conti talk about his Zamfir-inspired score for The Karate Kid right here.
1. Witness - Maurice Jarre
If I wasn't really playing favourites too much before, I am now. I think fans of this film know deeply that the barn-building scene is not just some happy montage sequence in the midst of a cop thriller. It is a metaphor for the entire film. When the same theme comes back again at the end of the film, like a double affirmation, while Book drives away, departing from Rachel, and Daniel makes his way down the road, one understands on a level other than the conscious: it is all about the matter - fraught with delicacy - of being alive to community, of building, and not tearing down. That a cop thriller, fused with its glorious score, would get this across is a kind of miracle.