TECH SUPPORT: Best Original Score — Volume I

Posted by · 4:31 pm · August 19th, 2010

I am marveled by the accomplishments of all the crafts artists who elevate our films, but this is particularly the case with respect to music composers. Composing equals genius as far as I am concerned.These musicians  join the film at the end, when usually only the director, editor and perhaps the sound mixers are still working.  But capturing the mood and feel of a film that has been created in your absence must be extraordinarily difficult.And  I do not need to count the ways in which a brilliant score can make a good film truly unforgettable.

The category of Best Original Score is one of the hardest to predict in my opinion, even shortly before the nominations are announced. So what sort of music is rewarded by this branch? Certainly being noticeable in the film helps. Loud music and/or music which plays for lengthy parts of the film with minimal dialogue can do well, too. Being an animated film or a Best Picture contender hardly hurts either.

For years, we could count on John Williams to take a spot among the nominees. But given that Williams is only composing for Steven Spielberg these days, his name has been absent from the nominees for five straight years now. (I suspect we’ll see him finally move past Alfred Newman on the all-time list next year.)

Nevertheless, while the branch is not quite as insular as it was in the earlier part of last decade, it remains a fairly exclusive club. Seldom do composers get first trips to the Kodak – usually only one a year. In fact, of the past 11 years, only three have seen two new nominees, and only one has seen three.

Hans Zimmer, a favorite in this category in the 1990s, couldn’t seem to catch a break after failing to win for his classic score for “Gladiator.” That said, he finally managed to return to the fray last year with his clever compositions for “Sherlock Holmes.” This year, he worked with Christopher Nolan, capturing the intense mood of “Inception.” I would hardly call Zimmer a slam-dunk nominee. But the notable, bombastic music in the film seems to be the sort that would get cited, especially as I expect it to do very well throughout the tech categories.

One of the great composers to have emerged in the past decade is Alexandre Desplat, doing wonderful work on titles such as “Birth,” “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “The Painted Veil,” in addition to Oscar nominated efforts like “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Queen.” Collaborating with Terrence Malick this year on “The Tree of Life” (if the film is released) should be a wonderful opportunity for Desplat to show his talents.

Then there is “The King’s Speech.” Desplat is also on duty here and it could well be another great shot at a nomination this year.  The always busy composer also has “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” and “The Ghost Writer” in play this year, increasing the attention coming his way.

Former perennial favorite, but now only occasional nominee, Randy Newman was nominated for his compositions for the first “Toy Story” film back when the category was split between drama and comedy. “Toy Story 3,” one of the year’s biggest hits, could put him back in contention yet again. For some reason, however, I cannot help but wonder if Best Original Song seems the more likely place to honor this film.

Also in the realm of animation this year is John Powell for “How to Train Your Dragon.” This strikes me as the sort of move which would allow a composer to shine. I am firm in my belief that Powell merely needs the right circumstances to bring him into the race, having done a great deal of work over the past dozen years.

Ten years ago, Rachel Portman, on her third nomination in five years, seemed poised to become a favorite in this category. Shows how quickly things can change as she has yet to return. That could very well change this year, courtesy of “Never Let Me Go.” This romantic drama strikes me as exactly the sort of title for which she previously had great success in this category.

Gustavo Santaolalla won back-to-back Oscars four and five years ago with his minimalistic but memorable scores for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel.” This year, he is again collaborating with Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu, on “Biutiful.” The film was well received at Cannes and Santaolalla’s work is always interesting so a third nomination is very possible.

Another winner from the past decade is Jan A. P. Kaczmarek, who won this category on his only nomination, for “Finding Neverland.” I must say that I found the music on “Get Low” to be very appropriate in capturing the very subtle film. I think the film will have difficulty surviving outside of Robert Duvall and Bill Murray (if that), but if it manages anywhere else, I’d say this is the place.

Elliot Goldenthal won this award eight years ago for “Frida.” He is once again working with frequent collaborator and real-life partner Julie Taymor this year on “The Tempest.” I have no idea what to make of this movie but the duo evidently have a good relationship – and a good idea of what they expect in music, as they have worked together on stage and film musicals as well. So Goldenthal might end up with his fifth nomination.

James Newton Howard is one of the most acclaimed composers working today yet to win an Oscar. This year, he will be composing the tunes for Edward Zwick’s “Love & Other Drugs.” While not necessarily a film that immediately jumps to mind as having huge potential for music, Zwick’s titles do have a good track record here. Moreover, there is Newton Howard himself. Five of his eight nominations come as his film’s only nominee so the branch evidently respects him.  He also has “Salt” and the critically ravaged “The Last Airbender” in play.

Another composer I suspect will eventually win an Oscar is Danny Elfman. Tim Burton’s long-time collaborator has only been nominated for one Burton collaboration (“Big Fish”) but nevertheless has four nods throughout his career.   On “Alice in Wonderland,” he composed the tunes to capture Burton’s insane but hugely popular (with the public, anyway) take on Lewis Carroll. It would be foolish to rule him out.

Another film I think could catch on – but I still don’t know the composer of it – is Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours.” Boyle’s last effort won this category, and this film will require a good score as large portions of it will (presumably) have minimal dialogue.

Another film that will largely take place outside, though surely with more dialogue, is Peter Weir’s “The Way Back.” Burker von Dallwitz will have a significant opportunity to capture the mood on this latest feature from an Academy favorite. That said, the film is still lacking a distributor. Also, somewhat surprisingly, only one of Weir’s movies (“Witness”) has managed a nomination in this category.

I’ll end with a composer who has to be wondering if he will ever receive a nomination in this category. I speak of long-time Coen brothers collaborator Carter Burwell, whose work on independent films has made him a favorite of that crowd, but much less popular with the Academy. He received his first Golden Globe nomination last year for “Where the Wild Things Are” only to be disqualified by the Academy. We’ll see what he can do this year on “True Grit.” It is difficult to say what mood the Coens will be going for until their films are actually released. Nevertheless, this seems like the sort of title that could give a composer many great opportunities to shine.

So that’s what I’m thinking now. I suspect a great deal of this will change once we have actually heard the scores for these films. Next week, we stick with aural considerations of films, but move to a very different way of improving them – Best Sound Editing.

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33 responses so far

  • 1 8-19-2010 at 4:37 pm

    Lucas said...

    Don’t count Clint Mansell out for Black Swan!

  • 2 8-19-2010 at 4:47 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...


  • 3 8-19-2010 at 4:47 pm

    Al said...

    I have high hopes for Burwell, but when it comes down to whats been heard so far, Zimmer’s got my vote.

  • 4 8-19-2010 at 5:07 pm

    Maxim said...

    My vote goes to Burwell. Small films or not, there’s simply no explaining why the man hasn’t been nominated yet.

  • 5 8-19-2010 at 5:37 pm

    Bryan said...

    In a just world Howard would get some recognition for his work on The Last Airbender; here’s hoping Love and Other Drugs is a reconciliation nom!

  • 6 8-19-2010 at 6:21 pm

    Estefan said...

    One of my favourite categories. I wonder if Tangled will get a nod for four-time original score winner Alan Menken.

    Then again, he hasn’t been nominated in the category since Hunchback of Notre Dame, which correct me, if I’m wrong was the last musical to be nominated for original score? Somebody correct me on that.

    That said, Enchanted and Princess & the Frog were both in-eligible for insane reason (even though both scores deserved recognition), so I’m not holding out hope for Tangled to get in.

    I also wonder if Def Punk can be nominated for Tron: Legacy.

  • 7 8-19-2010 at 6:50 pm

    Glenn said...

    One score that I think warrants very real consideration is that for THE ILLUSIONIST. The fact that it is by the film’s director Sylvain Chomet will probably hurt its chances, but it is also a) foreign/exotic, b) animated and c) really bloody brilliant. Probably the best score I’ve heard since BIRTH and considering that score is the best music in probably decades… well, that says a lot.

    Clint Mansell, yes, especially since BLACK SWAN looks so musically-based.

    Also, Christopher Gordon for MAO’S LAST DANCER. I doubt the film will make much of an impression, but it has fantastic orient-inspired music in a film about ballet (so I doubt we’d see two ballet films here, but ya never know). If you can get your hands (er, ears?) on the track “Madame’s Model Ballet” from the score, do yourself a favour and listen to it, it’s incredible (as if the rest of it, too).

  • 8 8-19-2010 at 7:23 pm

    Duncan Houst said...

    Wow! Congratulations on leaving out last year’s winner, Michael Giacchino, and his score for “Let Me In” this year. Brilliant oversight.

  • 9 8-19-2010 at 9:38 pm

    Cielo said...

    I really hope to see Jonny Greenwood snag a much-deserved nomination for Norwegian Wood. His disqualification several years ago for There Will Be Blood was arbitrary and bizarre. Though I think he might be more of a contender for next year? I don’t know if score nominations for foreign films have the same cutoff as the Foreign Language category (since the film is coming out in December in Japan, it won’t qualify until the 2012 Oscars).

    Either way, I hope to see a nomination for him soon.

  • 10 8-19-2010 at 9:45 pm

    Sean Stangland said...

    I am probably looking forward to Daft Punk’s score for “TRON Legacy” more than anything else this year, and that includes the movie itself. If it delivers on the promise of the trailer music, it could be something very special indeed. (And different, at least from the normal Oscar fare.)

    I was not aware that Desplat had taken the reins of “Harry Potter” from Nicholas Hooper. That intrigues me quite a bit. The second “Hallows” film has no scoring credit on IMDB; might John Williams return to the series for its last hurrah, or will “Tintin” and “War Horse” make him unavailable?

    I don’t know if Giacchino can win for a horror score, but I do know it will be highway robbery if he doesn’t win the Emmy for the final episode of “Lost.” Absolutely spectacular stuff.

  • 11 8-19-2010 at 9:59 pm

    MattD said...

    “How to Train Your Dragon” is currently my pick for best of the year, whether or not it manages a nomination. Zimmer’s work on “Inception” is wonderful, too, but “Dragon” is still getting tons of play in my car stereo. If you haven’t heard it yet, give it a whirl — it’s got a very classic adventure sound to it that’s really satisfying and fun.

    I actually spoke with the film’s director, Chris Sanders, at Comic-Con and we had a short conversation about how much he loves the score, and actually drew all the art for his booth posters while sitting out of the way in a balcony during the “Dragon” scoring sessions.

  • 12 8-19-2010 at 10:12 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Duncan: Wow! Don’t be a douche. There’s a reason we ultimately revisit all the categories a second time.

  • 13 8-19-2010 at 10:23 pm

    Jacob S. said...

    I would LOVE it if Trent Reznor gets a nod here for “The Social Network.” I’m a huge NIN fan and “Ghosts” proved that he has a knack for moody and instrumentally-complex work.

  • 14 8-19-2010 at 11:06 pm

    Leone said...

    I love Rachel Portman. SHOULD have been nominated for the totally sublime score for “The Duchess” but since Paramount didn’t do a campaign of any note for that movie I think Portman was unfairly overlooked. I hope she gets nominated. And have to agree with MattD that John Powell’s score for HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is special and a stand out of this year.

  • 15 8-20-2010 at 12:07 am

    Dooby said...

    Judging by the creepy atmospheric trailer – Clint Mansell BLACK SWAN FTW.

  • 16 8-20-2010 at 12:23 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Cielo: No, scores for foreign films don’t have the same cutoff as the Foreign Language category — they’re subject to the same rules as scores in any other film. So the film won’t be a factor in any category until next year’s race (assuming it gets a release next year).

    Anyway, this is a very thorough rundown. Though I’d like to the second the addition of “Black Swan” to the possibilities, part of me wonders whether Mansell is too outré a figure for that branch. (How else to explain their omission of “The Fountain?”) I’ll also co-sign Glenn’s mention of “The Illusionist,” which could also pop up in Best Original Song.

    My only raised eyebrows came over your comment about Zimmer “failing to win for his classic score for ‘Gladiator.'” Are you implying he was somehow slighted? I always thought the Academy made the correct, and more adventurous, call that year. (Tan Dun for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” for those who don’t recall.)

  • 17 8-20-2010 at 12:30 am

    red_wine said...

    I think How To Train Your Dragon will win if they mount a decent campaign. And I shall punch the air with joy if Zimmer’s second-rate “score” is not nominated or better, disqualified. I will also be pulling for Elfman to get a much desreved nomination for his wonderful score for Alice.

    Toy Story 3 is a possibility. The last 3 Pixar scores have been glorious and all would have been worthy winners but Randy Newman’s style is definitely different from Giacchino’s orchestral color and Thomas Newman’s quirky majesty. The last cue of the TS3 score for the memontous farewell sequence is indeed lovely and memorable. If the score does make it, it will simply because the immense love for the film might sweep it through.

  • 18 8-20-2010 at 12:42 am

    Alex said...

    Seconded. Black Swan to storm all craft categories.

  • 19 8-20-2010 at 1:38 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    John Powell for anything. Please.

  • 20 8-20-2010 at 6:58 am

    Cielo said...

    Guy, I am confused by your response. I am referring to the deadline for foreign film submission, which this year is October 1st. Are you saying that the score and the film could be considered separately, or that the score won’t be eligible until the film is also eligible?

  • 21 8-20-2010 at 7:08 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’ll break it down:

    Foreign Language Film: Will only be considered in next year’s race — if the Japanese decide to submit it as their official 2011 entry.

    Score: Will only be considered in the year the film receives a qualifying release in the United States — presumably 2011 too.

    Is that clearer?

  • 22 8-20-2010 at 7:09 am

    Cielo said...

    Yes, that makes much more sense. Thank you.

  • 23 8-20-2010 at 7:35 am

    Duncan Houst said...

    I just feel like it’s a huge oversight. Of all the scores releasing in the latter half of the year, Giacchino’s is one that I’m most looking forward to, and he’s rarely delivered a score that wasn’t spectacular. Well, sorry for snapping so judgementally at you guys. You did give a good summary of MOST of the contenders in the race.

  • 24 8-20-2010 at 8:50 am

    Gustavo said...

    I have my fingers crossed for Mr. Zimmer.

  • 25 8-20-2010 at 8:51 am

    Sawyer said...

    Mansell’s score, given it’s a film about the ballet Swan Lake, could get snubbed due to the incorporation of elements of Tchaikovsky’s music.

  • 26 8-20-2010 at 10:47 am

    Jim Lochner said...

    Kudos for an early discussion of Oscar film scores. God knows, they’re few and far between at any time, much less at this time of year.

    A few points to your article and other people’s comments:

    – Black Swan – as others have noted, depending on the level of incorporation of Tchaikovsky could disqualify it (same for the ballet stuff in MAO’S LAST DANCER)

    – Menken’s earlier disqualifications were due to the ratio of songs to instrumental score. If it’s the same this year (though the trailer sneakily doesn’t even clue you in that it’s a musical), I expect he’ll be out in the cold in this category. Though it didn’t seem to hurt FANTASTIC MR. FOX last year so maybe they’re easing up on that rule.

    As a longtime Oscar nerd (especially when it comes to music), there are a few things I think you have to keep in mind when predicting this category:

    – Popular movies do well (look for that to boost INCEPTION into the category)
    – Big, sweeping scores do well (AVATAR)
    – Unusual orchestrations (SHERLOCK HOLMES) and period pieces do well (PRIDE & PREJUDICE)
    – Animation does well (which gives me hope for Powell’s excellent HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON)
    – Then there are the flukes that get in strictly because they’re associated with a likely Best Picture nominee (MICHAEL CLAYTON, HURT LOCKER)
    – And of course having a name in the industry helps (Zimmer, Williams, Newman, Howard, et al)

    And to top it off, nothing is a hard and fast rule. The Music Branch is an odd bunch.

    Strongest candidates so far:

    – ALICE IN WONDERLAND (a likely nom)
    – THE GHOST WRITER (I expect Desplat will be up for something)
    – HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (keeping my fingers crossed)

    And because it’s so early in the year, that means probably at least half of these will be thrown out for later higher profile Oscar bait in the fall. So we’ll see.

    I love it that this post has gotten people talking. Thanks again!

  • 27 8-20-2010 at 11:01 am

    Leocdc said...

    Hanz Zimmer and Jhon Powell have impressed me this year. But, indeed I can’t erased the sentimental-factor for TS3 that almost everyone feel while watching that glorious movie.

    By the way, what about one of the greatest composers of the last decade: Thomas Newman?? What is he doing these days? And which are his optiones on this year’s race?

    Til now:
    – Mansell
    – Zimmer
    – Powell
    – R. Newman
    – Desplat (for A Tree of Life)

  • 28 8-20-2010 at 11:15 am

    John said...

    1. Hans Zimmer (Inception) He’s only won once (to my recollection), but he’s been doing great scores since the ’80’s. The score for this movie is highly noticeable, a huge asset to the film, and doesn;t feel like any other score in my memory.

    2, 3. Danny Elfman (Alice in Wonderland, The Wolfman) Here’s another guy who’s been livening up films since the ’80’s, he’s never won, and he really hasn’t been nominated as much as he should have. these are two of his best scores; unfortunately WOLFMAN was a dramatically inert film, so he’ll have to settle with the nod for ALICE.

  • 29 8-20-2010 at 2:37 pm

    Duncan Houst said...

    Alexandre Desplat is going to get a win at some point, but unless Tree of Life is released this year, I don’t think this is going to be the year. He will be nominated, though.

  • 30 8-21-2010 at 11:55 am

    The Dude said...

    I agree with what has already been said about Clint Mansell…he has been criminally overlooked in this category far too many times, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the score for “Black Swan” was deemed ineligible due to the incorporation of elements from “Swan Lake.” Which is a shame.

    I did not know Greenwood was doing the score for “Norwegian Wood.” I’m a huge Murakami fan, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting this one…adding Greenwood’s name to the mix just makes it that much sweeter.

    Two omissions from this article that I think are worth noting are Daft Punk’s work for “Tron: Legacy” and Phoenix’s work for Coppola’s “Somewhere.” I don’t know if these two will end up being in the Oscar discussion a few months from now or if they will go the way of James Murphy (who scored “Greenburg” and everyone sort of forgot about it), but these two scores are my most anticipated of the fall.

    I love this category.

  • 31 12-02-2010 at 7:35 am

    BenG said...

    Unfortunately I don’t think Black Swan will qualify for Best Original Score as 80-90% of the score is based on the work of Tchaikovsky. I think there’s a rule that 60% of the score needs to be completely original. it’s a shame since the score is amazingly in-tune with the film.

  • 32 12-04-2010 at 1:57 pm

    BulgingThrobbingShroom said...

    I think Elfman has a good shot to get in for Alice. It’s a successful well seen film and the score is really quite good.