TECH SUPPORT: Best Original Score — Volume II

Posted by · 12:35 pm · November 12th, 2010

A great score can take a film from memorable to unforgettable.  Whether it be Vangelis’s synthesizer on the beach in “Chariots of Fire,” Nino Rota’s haunting waltz from “The Godfather” or John Williams’s blaring, adventurous march from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” scores can elevate amazing images to bring the director’s vision to even greater fruition.

The last time I discussed this category, I noted how it is very hard to predict in advance without having heard the scores.  Synopses and stills give clues in other categories to an extent frequently not seen here.  That said, most contenders have screened, if not opened, now, so we can make safe assumptions.

But I still think this can be one of the most difficult categories to predict. But in the way of patterns, films that feature noticeable, loud, memorable and often exotic music are usually contenders.  And being in a Best Picture frontrunner never hurts matters, as always.

This branch certainly has its favorites, and I expect to see past nominees and winners prominent in the race this year.  The composers don’t frequently embrace new nominees.  Usually only one newcomer is welcomed per year.

Leading the way this year, at least in terms of likelihood of nomination, would seem to be Hans Zimmer for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” While Zimmer had a drought of nominations between “Gladiator” and “Sherlock Holmes” last year, he is now back in the running and there is no doubt that this film’s sense of awe was tremendously improved by its score.  I think Zimmer is back.

Alexandre Desplat, one of the great composers of the past decade, is also busy again this year.  On “The King’s Speech,” he will once more be visiting the British royalty, a world that brought him his first nomination for “The Queen” four years ago.  The film is a frontrunner through and through, which leads me to believe that Desplat is looking good for nomination number four.

Desplat will also have a chance to try his hand on a proven franchise this year on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.” While I continue to believe Tom Hooper’s film is his best chance, and next year will be this particular series’s real opportunity to shine, it would be foolish to rule him out for this, given the erratic but fairly constant Oscar success of the films.

A.R. Rahman won this category two years ago for “Slumdog Millionaire.” While his compositions for “127 Hours” may not be as memorable or as exotic as those on his last Boyle collaboration, he nevertheless had a tremendously important role in building the mood of this very likely Best Picture nominee.  His chances to return are considerable.

When I first began watching the Oscars in depth, Randy Newman was a perennial nominee.  But after his original song win for “Monsters, Inc.,” he has only returned to the game once, for “Cars.” While “Toy Story 3” was a massive hit, and I am hesitant to rule out Newman altogether, I think that, like “Cars,” he is only looking at a nomination for the film’s central tune.

Rather, the most memorable compositions for an animated film this year would certainly have to be those of John Powell on “How to Train Your Dragon.” The film will get a good push, and his score would have to be top among its list of potential nominations.  Powell is also a long-standing figure in the industry and one would assume that he will eventually be nominated.  My only hesitation goes back to my point at the beginning of this column: this category rarely makes a place for newcomers.

Another veteran without his first nomination is Carter Burwell.  The Coen brothers’ long-standing composer is behind “True Grit” this year.  While the film seems like the sort that would cry out for memorable music (many westerns do), the Coens rarely play things by the rules.  But if the score does feature prominently, then this may be Burwell’s best shot at a nod.

Then there are the past winners who are on board questionable films.  Rachel Portman seemed like she could be the first female staple in this category a decade ago, after winning for “Emma” and being nominated for “The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat.” With “Never Let Me Go,” she showed her considerable talent on a film that looked like it could have been a big contender. While this category is willing to nominate its favorites as sole nominees (Thomas Newman for “The Good German” jumps to mind, as does James Newton Howard for “Defiance” and “The Village”), Portman could have problems.

In a similar boat is Elliot Goldenthal for “The Tempest.” Goldenthal won this category for “Frida,” another Julie Taymor movie, eight years ago.  His compositions will be prominently on display again but the film is receiving a mixed, at best, response.  I suspect it will ultimately end up like “Across the Universe” and “Titus,” confined to a nomination for its revered costume designer.

Yet another past winner who I would not rule out is Jan A.P. Kaczmarek for “Get Low.” While the film’s potential is increasingly looking like “Duvall or nothing,” I found Kaczmarek’s tunes to be appropriately minimalistic and memorable.  Depending on the strength of the film’s campaign, I could see him finding a home in this still rather open category.

I’ll end by discussing co-composers.  Last year, Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders became the first co-nominees in this category in over a decade.  Their compositions on “The Hurt Locker”were eerily minimalistic in building the mood of the Best Picture winner.  Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor are in a remarkably similar boat this year for “The Social Network.” Depending on how Fincher’s film catches on overall, the duo could easily slide into the final five.

So that’s what I’m thinking now.  I’m curious what the precursors will nominate.  Next week, we’ll skip Best Original Song (which we’re saving until the end) and move onto the sound categories – a very different way of perfecting a film’s aural landscape.

[Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Columbia Pictures]

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41 responses so far

  • 1 11-12-2010 at 12:53 pm

    Mr. F said...

    I’m hoping Desplat gets nominated for The Ghost Writer. It’s still my favorite score of the year.

  • 2 11-12-2010 at 1:00 pm

    Yogsss said...

    I hope Desplat gets the award this season :D

  • 3 11-12-2010 at 1:03 pm

    A Webb said...

    I’d love to see Daft Punk get a nomination for Tron Legacy (if only to see them show up in costume at the awards).

  • 4 11-12-2010 at 1:13 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    While I was a fan of scores and soundtracks in middle school and high school, I haven’t really followed them since. However, I was very upset a couple of years back when the score for The Assassination of Jesse James failed to land an Oscar nomination. That score has to be one of the best of the past decade. I could listen to it everyday. In fact, I think I will. Good day, gentlemen.

  • 5 11-12-2010 at 1:31 pm

    Graysmith said...

    Inception and The King’s Speech are the only ones I feel fairly confident about predicting, but not even they seem like sure bets. Inception isn’t your typical score, and Desplat has so much great work that you never know what might make it. The King’s Speech, on paper, seems like his best bet though, like you said.

    Other than that, who the hell knows? I’d love to see Carter Burwell finally recognized by the Academy, but his music style quite obviously has never caught on with them.. This might be his best shot in a long time though.. One can hope.

    A real longshot would be James Newton Howard for The Last Airbender. People praised the score to high heavens, and we all remember his shocker nominations for The Village and Michael Clayton. The question is if even he can escape the critical lashing the film got. It’d be a good bet for a real curveball nomination though, the branch clearly love him.

  • 6 11-12-2010 at 1:35 pm

    Graysmith said...

    Oh, and about Randy Newman and Toy Story 3, would it even be eligible?

  • 7 11-12-2010 at 1:38 pm

    Maxim said...

    Inception had very good sound design. That’s about it.

  • 8 11-12-2010 at 1:40 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Odd that the two most talked-about (at least on the internet) scores of the year – Tron Legacy and The Social Network – were barely mentioned in your piece. Is it because you think AMPAS won’t respond to the electronic compositions or because the people behind them aren’t major figures in the industry?

  • 9 11-12-2010 at 1:46 pm

    Graysmith said...


    Not to answer for Guy, but I’d say both of those, their outsider status and non-traditional scores pretty much guarantees that they won’t be nominated. Outsiders can’t even get nominated for traditional scores.. If it happened it’d be a huge surprise, but probably not one even worth talking about beforehand because the odds are so astronomical.

  • 10 11-12-2010 at 2:03 pm

    Paul S said...

    Powell should win for How to Train Your Dragon.

  • 11 11-12-2010 at 2:30 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Graysmith: Gerard writes Tech Support, not me.

    As long a shot as it probably is, would have loved to see a mention of Sylvain Chomet’s score for “The Illusionist” — surely one of the year’s best.

    Also surprised (if pleased) no one is talking about Michael Giacchino’s “Let Me In” score — which I thought was dreadful, but I know has its fans.

  • 12 11-12-2010 at 3:32 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Probably because the film was DOA at the box office.

  • 13 11-12-2010 at 3:50 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    The musicians are more forgiving of flops than most Academy branches, though — providing the composer in question is in the club. The Good German and Defiance are two recent examples.

  • 14 11-12-2010 at 4:04 pm

    Graysmith said...

    D’oh! Sorry Guy, and Gerrard.

    As for Giacchino and Let Me In, I don’t think it’d be that much of a longshot. Giacchino is definitely in the club now, and like Guy (really) says, the music branch is generally all about the music, regardless of how the film is or did. I probably wouldn’t bet on this particular score, but then again the category is still very wide open.

  • 15 11-12-2010 at 4:22 pm

    Cameron said...

    I don’t know if the score is eligible, but what about Clint Mansell for Black Swan? Even if it’s built around the already-renowned Swan Lake, could Mansell have a shot at a nomination?

  • 16 11-12-2010 at 4:36 pm

    James said...

    Glad to say Zimmer’s a lock and its some of his best work. Desplat will be returning again probably for his work in The King’s Speech, wish I’m sure is good, though I personally love his work for The Ghost Writer. And of course I’m a big supporter of Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor getting nominated for The Social Network.

  • 17 11-12-2010 at 4:44 pm

    Jake G. said...

    I really liked the Inception score and hope that wins! I liked Clint Eastwoods score also for Hereafter!

  • 18 11-12-2010 at 4:47 pm

    Georgia said...

    The score that I’ve liked best – so far- this year is Alexandre Desplat’s for Ghost Writer (like Mr. F.) Desplat’s certainly been busy with other films (incredibly prolific guy) but I agree that The King’s Speech has the highest awards potential of the films he’s done. Then next year, we have his score for Malick’s Tree of Life.

    I also was surprised by how much I liked Hereafter’s score. I thought it was just right for the movie. But neither score or film have had much of a following.

  • 19 11-12-2010 at 5:50 pm

    ann said...

    im not a huge social network fan, but i really liked that score and hopefully they get nominated, but i’m rooting for hans Zimmer for inception i love that score. I think that score is his best in years. My favourite of hans Zimmer score is still the thin red line, that score was just epic and the most natural from him.

  • 20 11-12-2010 at 6:01 pm

    Graysmith said...

    I just re-listened to John Powell’s score for How To Train Your Dragon and I do believe it’s going to be a good bet for a nomination. The only problem is that he has yet to be nominated for an Oscar, but on the other hand he is and has been a big name in Hollywood for a long time now, and the films he score generally haven’t been the kind that get Oscar nominations for scores (action movies).

  • 21 11-12-2010 at 7:50 pm

    Glenn said...

    Vale “The Illusionist” it would seem. Such a shame. Best score of ’10 (although Daft Punk could have something to say about that).

  • 22 11-12-2010 at 8:24 pm

    Lucas said...

    Eugh, I hated Desplat’s work on Ghost Writer – it was headache inducing to me. I really think The Social Network’s score is in a stronger position than this column, and other prognosticators, might have us believe; considering The Hurt Locker’s bogus nomination here, really the branch’s way of getting on on the hype of the movie, surely they’ll be able to find room for Reznor and Finch. The score was mentioned is basically every review I read, which is really quite rare for a score. I think it’s on more peoples’ radars than we think… but maybe I’m all wronggg.

  • 23 11-12-2010 at 9:46 pm

    Ben M. said...

    Pretty much everything on here seems like possible nominees to me, but I wonder if 127 Hours could potentially not qualify since I noticed pre-existing music used at a number of points.

    Personally, I feel the best scores of the year are Let Me In, Never Let Me Go, and The Ghost Writer. Though aside from Inception (where I found the score too loud and obtrusive, even drowning out dialogue a couple of times), I would have no complaints about the contenders mentioned here that I’ve seen.

  • 24 11-12-2010 at 11:03 pm

    Free said...

    I’d say NEVER LET ME GO and HARRY POTTER are definitely in (both of which you can listen to on YouTube). I’ve only listened to bits of Desplat’s piece for HP, but what I’ve heard is fantastic.
    INCEPTION is probably in, too. Right now, I have LET ME IN and SECRETARIAT rounding the category out.

  • 25 11-13-2010 at 12:49 am

    red_wine said...

    I am so disappointed Inception’s score is in contention. I liked The Ghost Writer’s score a lot too. I’ve heard samples of the new Harry Potter score and it sounds very good.

    And let me just say it, I’m not a fan of this kind of music but the Tron Legacy score, from the bits I have heard, sounds amazing. Powell I still think can pull of a win for his glorious unforgettable themes in How To Train Your Dragon. I can almost hear the second part of Romantic Flight blared out in all its might on Oscar night when they say and the Oscar goes to…

    Howl also had a good score I thought by Carter Burwell. And of course Alice In Wonderland, Elfman’s best score in years. I love Giacchino but the bits that I heard on youtube of Let Me In sounded very dissonant rather than his usual melodic grace. The Social Network’ score was nothing extra-ordinary. I don’t think that just because its an unusual score its merits consideration.

  • 26 11-13-2010 at 4:04 am

    Glenn said...

    Lucas, I tend to think the branch that votes for original score have a thing about pop musicians. Just a hunch, however.

  • 27 11-13-2010 at 4:19 am

    daveylow said...

    Is there a chance Desplat could be nominated twice this year? His best work often gets unrecognized–Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Painted Veil, Birth and Lust, Caution were all wonderful scores and were ignored by the Academy. Last year though I liked his work for Fantastic Mr. Fox, his score for Twilight was haunting. I do hope he gets the Oscar someday.

  • 28 11-13-2010 at 5:24 am

    JJ1 said...

    My 3 faves for the so far are:

    Inception, How to Train Your Dragon, and Ghost Writer.

    I’d like to think that at least 2 of those make it in; I hope.

    To any who’ve seen The King’s Speech, do you think it gets in simply because it’s Desplat and a BP contender … or is it just very good?

  • 29 11-13-2010 at 9:51 am

    Bill_the_Bear said...

    Count me in as thinking that Desplat should get a nomination for The Ghost Writer. My favourite score of the year so far!

  • 30 11-13-2010 at 11:50 am

    Kevin Klawitter said...

    I’m not sure “True Grit” will be eligible. I remember reading an interview with Burwell where he mentioned that he and the Coens decided that the score for the movie would be based around protestant hymns. Now, that might mean he’s basing the tunes around them melodically or it might mean he’s assembling a series of them for the movie. If it’s the latter, he won’t be eligible.

    I’ve also heard rumors that “The Social Network” score is ineligible for similar reason to “There Will Be Blood”.

    For all intents and purposes, though, I give the win to “How to Train Your Dragon”.

  • 31 11-13-2010 at 11:56 am

    Jeremy said...

    My longshot bid here would be John Adams for “I Am Love”. Grand stuff.

    Failing that, I’ll back Portman for “Never Let Me Go”, although I also really like Powell’s score for “How to Train Your Dragon”. Zimmer’s “Inception” music is a bruising experience on album, but it definitely serves the film well.

  • 32 11-13-2010 at 10:22 pm

    Andrew F said...

    Jeremy: John Adams’ score for “I Am Love” is entirely made up of prior works… so count him out.

    That being said, I simply adored it. The use of “Shaker Loops”, one of my all-time favourites, was especially brilliant.

  • 33 11-13-2010 at 10:24 pm

    Jeremy said...

    Thanks Andrew, my mistake.

  • 34 11-13-2010 at 11:54 pm

    paul said...

    127 hours will easily win if it gets nominated. Social network score is some B grade computer sounds..hans zimmer is over rated piece of crap

  • 35 11-14-2010 at 12:16 am

    Tipu said...

    I have heard 127 Hours soundtrack.. haven’t watched the movie… and it is easily the better to listen standalone compared to ‘Social Network’ and ‘Inception’.

    However within the movie framework, Inception was great… although the musical template was similar to ‘The Dark Knight’… The music for ‘Social Network’ also worked quite well, it is very electronic but it works really well with the context of the movie.. i loved a lot of it as i watched the movie. Eagerly waiting to watch ‘127 Hours’.. the word out there looks to be promising as far as the context for the movie is concerned… However i think the odds may fall towards whichever movie (than music) the members slant towards liking more..

  • 36 11-14-2010 at 6:59 am

    mikhael said...

    If I could pick:
    1. How To Train Your Dragon
    2.Never Let Me Go
    3.The Social Network
    I have listened to those 4 albums, and they’re great.

    5th slot would probably go to a Best Picture nominee like The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, or Black Swan.

    The Tempest and Tron Legacy are taken into consideration also.

  • 37 11-14-2010 at 7:44 pm

    Hardy said...

    While, the film itself is dreck, James Newton Howard’s score for The Last Airbender is nothing short of amazing. I’d say Airbender Suite is my favorite track of the year.

  • 38 11-15-2010 at 7:07 pm

    Randy said...

    127 hours is going to be a strong candidate….

  • 39 11-16-2010 at 3:09 am

    Kylee said...

    127 Hours looks to be the best among the contenders, though the rather unconventional score based on guitars might not entice few old time academy members.

  • 40 11-17-2010 at 12:28 pm

    DylanS said...

    I think if Reznor and Ross make the uphill climb and actually get in with their unconventional score, then they will be a lock to win. It’s difficult work to deny and it certainly stands out against the crowd.

  • 41 12-22-2010 at 7:05 pm

    Sean Stangland said...

    I just saw “The Ghost Writer” this morning, and I am honestly shocked that Desplat’s score is being mentioned as a contender. I found it completely inappropriate and distracting — it may even have been the main reason I didn’t like the film. (Although I sure loved that final shot.) I just can’t seem to warm up to Desplat, whose only memorable cue from this year’s HP entry, “Obliviate,” sounds like it could have come from the Zimmer factory.

    Speaking of the Zimmer factory … on the opposite end of the spectrum is “TRON: Legacy,” where the Daft Punk-meets-Disney score is unquestionably the star of the film. Without that music, you have no movie. I’ve been listening to that score nonstop for weeks, and seeing the film felt a bit like seeing my favorite band live on stage for the first time. Love it.