James Horner’s Greatest Film Scores, Ranked

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James Horner tragically passed away in a single-person plane crash in 2015 at the age of 61, but his work has had an incredible impact on Hollywood and will likely retain a reputation of greatness for quite some time. For instance, Avatar: The Way of Water, a film released in 2022, was dedicated to Horner — and Bill Paxton — because he was supposed to score it.

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Getting his start with Roger Corman, as many great auteurs have, Horner quickly moved onto bigger and better productions, like 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and 48 Hrs. He even scored his first Oscar nomination in 1986 with Aliens. And that’s not all, as Horner accrued a whopping 10 Academy Award nominations throughout his career, winning two for one film.

And that one film is on this list, along with Horner’s other great works. What’s telling is that even listing 20 of his best works, there are stillseveral choices that could very easily fit alongside the entries you’re about to read.

20 The Pelican Brief (1993)

The Pelican Brief
The Pelican Brief

Release Date
September 17, 1993

Director
Alan J. Pakula

Rating
PG-13

Alan J. Pakula’s The Pelican Brief, an adaptation of John Grisham’s popular 1992 novel, follows Julia Roberts as law student Darby Shaw teaming up with Denzel Washington as a Washington Herald reporter, to uncover the motive behind the assassination of two Supreme Court justices. She already did some digging, which has put her in the bad guys’ crosshairs, making reporter Gray Grantham an ally who could very well save her life.

What Makes It Great?

Horner’s score does a great job of building the film’s tension. In fact, considering it’s a rather bloodless (but still creepy when it wants to be) thriller, the technical elements have to do some heavy lifting to convey the film’s massive stakes. And Horner was a big part of pulling that off. Stream The Pelican Brief on Pluto TV.

19 The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro isn’t just one of the more enjoyable films to come from the late ’90s, it also possesses one of the best soundtracks of its respective decade. The narrative follows Anthony Hopkins’ Zorro (AKA Don Diego de la Vega) as he trains a down-on-his-luck drunk to pick up the sword and take on a ruthless murderer who’s reared his ugly head.

What Makes It Great?

Not long after Titanic, Horner delivered an entirely different, swashbuckling score in his work for The Mask of Zorro. While not as pumping as Hans Zimmer’s work for the later Pirates of the Caribbean films, it’s suitably energetic and gives the necessary combined vibes of classic adventure and modern. Stream The Mask of Zorro on Paramount+.

18 House of Sand and Fog (2003)

A thematically and visually gorgeous, but ultimately difficult to watch film, House of Sand and Fog features standout leading work from Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley, both at the top of their game. Connelly portrays Kathy Nicolo, a recovering addict whose inherited home is taken from her due to a government goof-up regarding back taxes.

That home is then purchased by Kingsley’s Iranian immigrant Massoud Amir Behrani. Both feel they have a right to the property, and technically both do, but one of two things are going to happen: either their conflict will expand until it cruelly incorporates cultural differences, or the two can come to an understanding.

What Makes It Great?

The score for House of Sand and Fog is, naturally, one of Horner’s less bombastic works. But, the Oscar-nominated soundtrack is crucial in selling the film’s quiet tension, and anything more than Horner’s restrained contributions wouldn’t have gelled. Stream House of Sand and Fog on Max.

17 The Perfect Storm (2000)

Wolfgang Petersen’s star-studded The Perfect Storm tells the traumatic true story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel that fell victim to the titular storm of 1991. It is a tragic and incredible tale, and unfortunately, there were no survivors.

RELATED: Best Film Scores of the 2000s

What Makes It Great?

Horner’s score is a big part of what makes The Perfect Storm such an effectively harrowing experience. The acoustic guitar lulls the viewer into an elongated false sense of security before both the wave and the music’s increasing ambiance shake it all away. The Perfect Storm is available to stream on AMC.

16 How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

While reception was mixed at the time, there’s a solid argument for Ron Howard’s version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas as the best of the Grinch adaptations. The narrative follows the titular green curmudgeon as he plots to destroy Christmas for the residents of Whoville once and for all.

What Makes It Great?

While artists such as Faith Hill, Smash Mouth, NSYNC, and Busta Rhymes contributed to the soundtrack of Howard’s film, the vast majority came from Horner. It’s one of his most diverse scores, and he does a marvelous job of incorporating sound in a way that seems as if it genuinely could have come from some wacky Whoville musical instrument. Stream How the Grinch Stole Christmas on DIRECTV.

15 Field of Dreams (1989)

Starring Kevin Costner and the late Ray Liotta, Field of Dreams is one of the great all-American films. The narrative follows a farmer who builds a baseball field in his backyard and soon finds he has brought back deceased players at the top of their game. But they don’t go back out to pro games, they just play in the farmer’s yard, enjoying America’s favorite pastime.

What Makes It Great?

Horner’s Field of Dreams score sells the concept of hope just as well as the film’s script and performances. For the most part, the soundtrack is grounded in all-American vibes, with even Horner’s trusty strings and horns present and accounted for. But it also does what it can to sell the film’s otherworldly aspects. StreamField of Dreams on Netflix.

14 Balto (1995)

Set in the tiny town of Nome, Alaska, Balto follows the titular character (a half-wolf dog) as he deals with ostracization from his pure blood dog peers. But, when those peers get trapped in a storm, it’s up to Balto to save the day, and help them transfer medicine to a town in need.

What Makes It Great?

Horner didn’t score many animated films, but when he did (e.g. with An American Tail: Fievel Goes West) it was perfectly on-brand. And, when the film hits its most intense sequences, that’s when the score hits its pulse-pounding peak, allowing viewers to feel a little more tension than usual with an animated movie. Stream Balto on Peacock Premium.

13 Casper (1995)

Casper
Casper

Release Date
May 26, 1995

Director
Brad Silberling

Rating
PG

In the case of the Casper film franchise, the first is still the best. And it did well at the box office, making it more than a little surprising it’s never received a theatrical sequel. The narrative of Brad Silberling’s lovable film follows the widowed Dr. James Harvey (Bill Pullman), a ghost therapist who helps the deceased get to the other side, and his daughter, Kat (Christina Ricci). The former is enlisted to help a cruel, money-hungry woman and her companion clear some specters from her newly-inherited property. But, not all the ghosts are the haunting type.

What Makes It Great?

By the time Casper hit theaters, Horner was already well-versed in working with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. And, like his score for An American Tail, his work on Casper both evokes a sense of mystery, as well as the requisite spooky vibes (though not too spooky). The most lovely song to come out of the movie was the achingly beautiful “Casper’s Lullaby.” Stream Casper on Netflix.

12 Jumanji (1995)

Jumanji
Jumanji

Release Date
December 15, 1995

Rating
PG

Led by the late, great Robin Williams, Jumanji tells the tale of a man who becomes lost in a deadly game. 26 years ago, Alan Parrish became trapped in a “game” called Jumanji, and now that two kids have found it and begun playing, Parrish is brought back into the world. But, he’s not all that came out of Jumanji.

What Makes It Great?

Stephen Spielberg protégé Joe Johnston has directed quite a few widely-appealing and successful blockbusters throughout his career, and Jumanji is absolutely one of them. He understood the assignment of crafting a mile-a-minute adventure that never loses sight of pacing, and it’s one of his scores where it’s pretty obvious he was having fun making it. Stream Jumanji on Max.

11 Southpaw (2015)

Southpaw
Southpaw

Release Date
March 24, 2015

Rating
R

Southpaw, from The Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua, features one of 2015’s most shocking movie scenes, but that’s not all that makes it such a gut-punch of a film. The narrative follows professional boxer Billy “The Great” Hope as he loses his title to an ambitious and cruel new young fighter. And, worse yet, the new fighter’s brother has just murdered Hope’s wife in cold blood.

What Makes It Great?

Southpaw was the first of three films Horner worked on that were released after his death, with the other two being The 33 and The Magnificent Seven, which was also directed by Fuqua. And, while his work on Magnificent Seven is arguably more memorable, and certainly more energetic, it’s his understated work on Southpaw that ekes out the win.

Even in the quieter scenes, one has to focus to pick up on each musical cue, but that quiet nature has a way of selling the unsettled nature of the grieving Billy Hope’s mind. Stream Southpaw on Paramount+.

10 Aliens (1986)

aliens
aliens

Release Date
July 18, 1986

Rating
R

Aliens picks up 57 years where Alien left off. Ellen Ripley has survived the Xenomorph aboard the Nostromo, but now she’s being roped into guiding a platoon through the very planet she once visited. She’s told it’s a terraforming colony but, upon arrival, she and the troops are going to learn that the colonist population has been substantially diminished. The Xenomorph population, however….

What Makes It Great?

Most of Horner’s work has a soothing effect. That’s not the case for James Cameron’s Aliens, which is an adrenaline rush of a film if ever there was one, and the composer’s pulsing music (that’s utterly restrained when it needs to hint at an encroaching threat) is an asset in crafting that effect. Stream Aliens on Max.

9 Troy (2004)

Troy
Troy

Release Date
May 3, 2004

Rating
R

Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is more style than substance, but it’s an entertaining take on Homer’s “Iliad” nonetheless. The narrative covers the clash between the kingdoms of Troy and Sparta, whose shared animuss has arisen when Trojan prince Paris falls for and extracts the Spartan king’s wife from his country.

What Makes It Great?

The most impressive aspect of Troy and there are several — is Horner’s score. Throughout production, the task was up to The English Patient‘s Gabriel Yared, but after a mixed response to his work during test screenings, Horner was brought in. But, here’s the thing — he only had nine days to complete the score. So for it to be some of his best work from the aughts is no small feat indeed. Stream Troy on Prime Video.

8 Commando (1985)

Commando
Commando

Release Date
October 3, 1985

Rating
R

One of the best silly action movies to group watch, Commando is a top-tier Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. The action star plays retired Special Forces soldier John Matrix as he takes up arms to secure the freedom of his daughter, who has been kidnapped by some shady coworkers from Matrix’s past.

What Makes It Great?

Horner’s theme for Commando perfectly matches the cheese of the film itself. It’s in-your-face, consistently pumping, and gives one the sense they’re traversing a thick jungle. And, given how exotic some of the shooting locations are (particularly in act three), Horner’s use of steel drums couldn’t be any more perfect. Commando‘s score isn’t just one of the best when it comes to ’80s action films, it’s one of the ’80s best in general, and blessedly a product of its time. Stream Commando on Paramount+.

7 Apocalypto (2006)

Apocalypto
Apocalypto

Release Date
December 7, 2006

Cast
Rudy Youngblood , Dalia Hernández , Jonathan Brewer , Morris Birdyellowhead , Carlos Emilio Báez , Amilcar Ramírez

Rating
R

Frequent Horner collaborator Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto tells the story of the Mayan kingdom’s downfall. And, as the last scene hints, the Mayan peoples’ slaughter. And it’s all shown via the eyes of a single young hunter, who has been captured by these newfound colonizers.

What Makes It Great?

Horner was always a favorite for Gibson’s directorial ouevre. And it’s easy to see why, considering the exotic nature of Apocalypto‘s pulsing soundtrack works as well for the film as his Celtic overtones worked for Braveheart. Stream Apocalypto on Prime Video.

6 A Beautiful Mind (2001)

A Beautiful Mind tells the life story of troubled mathematical genius John Forbes Nash Jr. who reaches great success with his Nash equilibrium. But, as he and those around him soon learn, the complex innerworkings of his brain also house schizophrenia, the likes of which have become increasingly debilitating.

What Makes It Great?

Horner’s A Beautiful Mind score (which admittedly features a bit of his work on Bicentennial Man infused within) would be worthy of inclusion if only for “A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics.” Never has a theme better conveyed a racing, brilliant mind. Stream A Beautiful Mind on Netflix.

5 Glory (1989)

Glory
Glory

Release Date
December 15, 1989

Rating
R

Glory follows Matthew Broderick’s Col. Robert Gould Shaw as he’s offered what is, at the time, deemed a lesser position. He’s to command the first all-African-American regiment, and in the process he can develop his own mentality as well as, hopefully, the mentality of others. After all, if someone is willing to fight and die for you, the fact that they have a different skin color becomes irrelevant, as happens to Shaw.

What Makes It Great?

Horner was always great for a war film, and Glory may very well be his best work in that genre. His score for the film is flat-out haunting, never allowing the viewer to forget about the fallen bodies on the blood-soaked battlefield. Furthermore, given the film’s subject matter, it was incredibly wise for Horner to incorporate the Boys Choir of Harlem. In Glory, Horner’s work is a testament to the lives of history’s unsung heroes. Stream Glory on Pluto TV.

4 Avatar (2009)

avatar
Avatar

Release Date
December 18, 2009

Rating
PG-13

The second James Cameron movie to cross $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office, Avatar is one of the most visually stunning and well-crafted films of all time, even if some feel the plot is a little too reminiscent of other, earlier works. The narrative follows a Marine sent undercover in an alien world to make connections and ultimately facilitate the military’s resource excavation.

What Makes It Great?

James Cameron made a deal with Horner if he was to score Avatar: throughout the epic sci-fi film’s production, the composer was to accept no other gigs. And he didn’t, instead diving into helping to create the Na’vi language, which was more often than not peppered into the score. He’s crafted more sparkling, memorable compositions, but there’s so much detail in Avatar‘s score it ends up providing as much an engrossing effect as the film’s 3D IMAX visuals. Stream Avatar on Disney+.

3 Apollo 13 (1995)

Apollo 13
Apollo 13

Release Date
June 30, 1995

Rating
PG

A compelling, claustrophobic true story with award-caliber construction and performances, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 takes the viewer along for the ride of a doomed space mission to the Moon. Then, once trouble arises, it’s all hands on deck to get the astronauts back home.

What Makes It Great?

The score for Apollo 13 has to cover a lot of bases, and Horner’s work does so. It sells the cold isolation of space just as well as it sells the warmth of home that awaits the astronauts… should they successfully return. Stream Apollo 13 on The Roku Channel.

2 Titanic (1997)

Titanic
Titanic

Release Date
November 18, 1997

Rating
PG-13

Director James Cameron dominated late ’90s cinema with his fictionalized take (AKA incorporating a fictional romance within real-world events) on the sinking of the world’s most famous ship. Leading up to Titanic‘s release, people were expecting a flop, but it became the diametric opposite, holding the title of highest-grossing film of all time until 12 years later, when Cameron outdid himself with Avatar.

RELATED: James Cameron Confesses That Titanic’s Most Famous Scene has One Imperfection

What Makes It Great?

Like Avatar, Cameron’s gorgeous romance-tragedy is bolstered by a score from Horner. And, also like Avatar, it’s a score that’s eclectic enough to cover heartbreaking tragedy and heartwarming love scenes alike. Furthermore, the score was massive for Horner, earning him two Oscars and gargantuan sales of the film’s soundtrack. Stream Titanic on Paramount+.

1 Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart
Braveheart

Release Date
March 14, 1995
Cast
Mel Gibson , james robinson , Sean Lawlor , Sandy Nelson , James Cosmo , Sean McGinley

Rating
R

Sure, Braveheart is one of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made, but it’s a gorgeous and moving ride all along the way. The narrative follows Mel Gibson’s Scottish patriot William Wallace as he leads a revolt against the cruel King Edward I and his troops. Unfortunately for Wallace, he may lose his head in the process.

What Makes It Great?

Braveheart‘s Scotland-evoking woodwind instrument-provided romance theme is one of the most hum-worthy tunes ever crafted. That alone would at least give Horner’s work here a run for its money at the top spot, but as moving as his romance themes are in the film, his battle theme is arguably more so. It conveys heartbreak over loss and pride in victory in equal measure, allowing it to fully deserve its iconic status. Stream Braveheart on Prime Video.

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