Tech Support: John Williams, Arcade Fire and Hans Zimmer (x2) duke it out for Best Original Score

Posted by · 9:32 pm · December 12th, 2013

Earlier today the list of eligible original score Oscar contenders was revealed by the Academy, so consider it great timing as we focus on the category today in our final craft category analysis of the season.

Best Original Score is one of the best known crafts categories, and for good reason. When done well, film music can become iconic, transcendent, even. Such scores are frequently rewarded in this category, in fact. Having memorable themes, lots of instrumentation and being, for lack of a better term, noticeable in the feature are all characteristics of work that is often recognized by the branch.

The composers do tend to give a good number of nominations to Best Picture contenders, but there are typically films nominated – frequently of the action or animated sort – that get in despite coming nowhere near a nomination in the top category. Films with ethnic-influenced music also tend to do disproportionately well here.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of this branch is its insularity. I want to be very clear about the spirit in which I make this observation. First, once new composers are nominated, they frequently get nominated again and again. More than half of the new composers nominated over the past decade have received multiple nominations since. Second, once new composers are nominated, they very often win. However, the fact of the matter is that only 16 new composers have earned a nod here in the past 14 years. In only one year was a majority of the nominated composers first-time nominees. There is usually only one first-timer, two maximum.

Having said that, I have a suspicion we are headed for two first-time nominees this year.

We may have received some clarification on the state of the race earlier this morning with the announcement of the Golden Globe nominees, but who knows? While there are usually at least three crossovers, there are often only two, and sometimes only one. But I actually think the HFPA was likely pretty spot-on this year.

Leading the way, in my view, is Steven Price for “Gravity.” Though never nominated before (and hence not a “lock” in my view), everyone agreed that this music was integral in complementing what was seen on screen. I could not imagine the film without it. The Globes have agreed, and the film is probably heading to nominations across the board. I would say Price is looking very good indeed for his first nomination, and assuming nominated, he”s in outstanding position for the win.

His biggest competition for that win, and even more assured for a nomination, in my view, is Hans Zimmer for “12 Years a Slave.” This score was haunting, and after a spell between 2001 and 2008 where he had seemingly fallen out of favor with the branch, Zimmer earned nominations in 2009 and 2010. It”s remarkable to think that this great composer has not won since “The Lion King.” He could end up back on stage again this year, though it’s worth noting that the work has been criticized for being heavily reminiscent of the composer’s work on films like “The Thin Red Line” and “Inception.”

But this is not Zimmer”s only chance at a nomination this year. He also composed the music for Ron Howard”s “Rush.” This soaring work could score with the branch, but I still have a feeling the McQueen film is his better chance. And while the SAG and HFPA have breathed new life into “Rush,” I remain reluctant to start predicting it in too many categories.

A composer who has never fallen out of favor is John Williams. The 48-time Academy Award nominee seems to be firmly in the running yet again this year with “The Book Thief.” While this film did not become a critical darling, nor does it have the sort of memorable theme that has defined much of Williams” career, it is still lovely work. And Williams has certainly been nominated for much less. With a Golden Globe mention behind him, I think the legend will get Oscar nod #49. (I”m sure it”s just a coincidence but Williams managed Globe and Oscar nods for another disappointing adaptation of a beloved 1930s/1940s-set book starring Emily Watson – “Angela”s Ashes.”)

Williams is second in total career nominations only to the legendary Walt Disney. The world of that mogul was brought to screen this year in “Saving Mr. Banks,” and while the lack of Globe and SAG nods was undoubtedly disappointing for the studio, I think the Academy may have another take on this title. And in any event, Thomas Newman is one of the branch”s favorites, having earned 11 nominations…this despite only four Golden Globes nods. So I am not at all worried about his absence there this year, but does the music of “Mary Poppins” cloud his contribution?

Newman is waiting for his first Oscar win to date, and his cousin Randy certainly knows a thing or two about that. Randy Newman finally won an Oscar for Best Original Song for Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.” 12 years ago. He’s back for the prequel, “Monsters University,” and while this Sully-and-Mike adventure may not have been Pixar”s best-received entry, Newman”s work was typically colorful in the best way possible. But do people really remember it and like the film enough? We shall see.

Also waiting for his first win is Alexandre Desplat. This year, he displayed his considerable talents on Stephen Frears” “Philomena.” As discussed in our interview with the composer, Desplat wrote a lovely theme that was used tremendously well throughout the film. And he”s earned five nominations in the past seven years, the first one (“The Queen”) for another Frears film. “Philomena” was clearly well-received by the HFPA. We”ll see if AMPAS follows suit.

Elsewhere, Golden Globe nominee Alex Ebert had to complement what we saw on screen in great detail on “All is Lost.” The film”s lack of dialogue made his work absolutely key, in fact. The music branch may well recognize that.

But I cannot help but wonder if the Alex with the better chance is Alex Heffes for “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” Heffes went to Africa to do meticulous research for this score. That exotic element of music can, as evidenced by recent patterns in the category, be quite beneficial. And while it may sound cynical, I cannot help but wonder if recent events in South Africa could help this film”s chances at nominations.

Moving along, Henry Jackman’s compositions for “Captain Phillips” were appropriately constrained in true Paul Greengrass style. But the score was also quite noticeable and could be remembered. The film has been doing well this awards season.

I personally found Jóhan Jóhannsson”s “Prisoners” score to be eerie and memorable. The Icelandic composer is well known in music circles for his non-film work as much as his cinematic contributions. We”ll see if the branch was impressed with his work this year.

But perhaps the likelier (if still not likely) “cool” choice would be Arcade Fire for Spike Jonze”s “Her.” Though this branch is conservative, and often eschews the rock world, it is not totally opposed to novel work. If it were, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross would never have been nominated, much less have won, for “The Social Network.” And this film is finding its niche.

So there are the top dozen contenders in my view. Though I”ve got to say that I sure did not see “Skyfall” coming at this point last year. I”ll watch with interest for the BFCA nods on Monday, and the Oscar nominations in January.

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