Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Original Score - Arcade Fire aiming to defy 'Gravity'
In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!
Year after year, Best Original Score is probably the technical category where I'd most like to see a significantly different slate to the one the Academy has put together -- a certain cronyism and conservatism often keeps them from recognizing standout work in the category. This year, two films scored by relative newcomers face off again three established Academy favorites (two of them due an award by now, the third amply recognized), and it's the freshman nominees' work that is generating more discussion in the category than the others. Personally, I'd suggest that there's only one truly great score in the race this year, but it's a lineup that makes for an interesting old-guard-versus-new narrative.
The nominees are...
"The Book Thief" (John Williams)
Okay, let's get this out of the way: John Williams is one of the greatest film composers of all time, and the level of craft and clarity he brings to even his lesser works is exemplary. But at this point, the Academy's music branch would hand him an Oscar nod if he essentially interpolated "Chopsticks" on a triangle, and his nomination for this dreary WWII drama -- his 49th -- is among the more desultory-feeling of his career. His stamp is unmistakable on "Thief," the first non-Spielberg-directed feature he's scored since 2005's "Memoirs of a Geisha": those refined piano solos, the classy interjections of harp and woodwind. But "unmistakable" can lean heavily into "derivative" -- and while I know exactly which commenters are about to chime in to opine that this score's in another league, not even a genius brings his A-game to every project. A token nod for a film few members will have bothered to see.
"Gravity" (Steven Price)
There aren't many relevant precursor awards in this category -- essentially the Globe and the BAFTA, only the latter of which went to "Gravity" -- to Price's long-presumed frontrunner status comes down more than anything to the film's general heft in the technical categories, and the relative resistibility of the opposition. Of course, the score itself is pretty imposing, with Price (a relative newcomer to film scoring who broke out with his Basement Jaxx collaboration on "Attack the Block") employing both electronic and orchestral elements, as well as a hefty dose of atmospheric female vocal to accompany the film's wild shifts in energy and emotion. Given the essential silence of its setting, the film is an ideal canvas for a composer -- though I must admit that the music is its one element on which I'm not fully sold. (As much as I like its overwhelming synthetic surges, it sometimes goes for bombast where I'd prefer Michael Nyman-style glassiness.) It's unlikely, however, that many voters will agree with me.