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We save the music categories to the end to analyze for two reasons. One is that it helps to have heard the music. While it obviously helps to have seen any contender before opining on its chances, I find that listening to the music is one that really cannot be compromised. It is easier to guess what the costumes or cinematography of a movie might be like. It's also nice to have the list of qualifying scores at the ready.
The second reason is that composers themselves are usually brought on to the films quite late. After the actors, writers, cinematographer, production designer and costume designer have all gone home, the composer is left by him or herself, watching a movie he or she had no part of shooting.
Bernard Herrmann‘s brief appearance in “Hitchcock” was, alongside the ending, my favorite scene in the movie. It also showed two very important aspects of film composing. First, it showed how composing is lonely, painstaking work with no one to keep you company save for the occasional appearance by the producer, editor, sound mixer or, most likely, the director. But second, when done well, film music can become iconic. From “Star Wars” to “Lawrence of Arabia” to “Gone with the Wind” to, yes, “Psycho,” many themes are simply unforgettable. They can also create mood and atmosphere.
The music branch is not immune to considering a film’s overall reputation when coming to its nominations. While true duds are occasionally nominated (“The Village,” “The Good German”), such nods are rare. While Best Picture nominees don’t tend to dominate to the extent seen in other crafts categories, they nonetheless usually garner at least two-to-three of the nominations.
Far more important is that the score be noticeable. Subtle music rarely does well in this category. The branch has somewhat of a flare for the exotic as well with scores that full of international life often doing well in this category, especially when that influence is Latin or Asian. In this vein, composers from different countries frequently find themselves in the final quintet, with last year’s four nominees (John Williams was double nominated) all hailing from different lands.
But most important of all, it is seemingly important to be something of an in-the-club type. This is a category with beloved nominees, and is very likely the most insular branch in the Academy. Only once in the last 13 years have three nominees in this category been newcomers. That is compared to four occasions when all the nominees had been nominated before. So there is usually room for only one newcomer, two tops.
Once someone is in, however, frequently they are “in” – names such as Alexandre Desplat and Alberto Iglesias have been semi-regular nominees after scoring for the first time. Moreover, first-time nominees frequently win this category. Again, looking at the past 13 winners (prior to that the category was divided into Drama and Musical/Comedy), Tan Dun, Howard Shore, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, Ludovic Bource, Gustavo Santaolalla, A.R. Rahman and Atticus Ross & Trent Reznor have won the award on their first nomination.
I’ll start with this category’s most beloved nominee of all-time – John Williams. The 47-time nominee (!) is lately working exclusively for Steven Spielberg. “Lincoln” is their latest collaboration. Williams is known to pull some nominations with no precursor attention, and is almost never snubbed when he has a film in contention (the atrocious “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” aside), so I’d be very surprised if he isn’t nominated this time. It may not be his most noticeable work, but it is an effective part of the arguable Best Picture frontrunner. He is also Globe- and BFCA-nominated and, well, he’s John Williams.
Though he won’t likely ever rival Williams in terms of nominations, Alexandre Desplat nonetheless seems the busiest and most ubiquitous composer working today. I am convinced he must never sleep, as he has composed “Argo,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Rust and Bone” and “Rise of the Guardians” this year. Alas, the beautiful BFCA-nominated “Moonrise Kingdom” ended up being ineligible, likely due to the use of preexisting music. “Rust and Bone” also failed to end up among the finalists. However, I suspect the suspenseful score of surefire Best Picture nominee “Argo” will place Desplat in the final five. The fact that it scored at the BFCA and Globes increases my confidence.
Could he become a double nominee? I haven’t seen “Zero Dark Thirty” yet but it appears that its score is not its most memorable aspect. That said, Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” earned a somewhat surprising nod here three years ago and Desplat rode “The Queen”’s Best Picture nomination to his first berth in the category. “Rise of the Guardians” seems to have underwhelmed in all aspects, though there is certainly a push to get him recognition for it. Regardless, I’m confident that this Frenchman will become a double nominee one of these years.
Danny Elfman's work on likely Best Picture nominee "Silver Linings Playbook" did not qualify, but he also has “Frankenweenie” this year. In many ways, this is the more Oscar-friendly score, coming from an animated film and being memorably zany. But Elfman’s nominations to date suggest memorable and zany is not when the music branch goes for him. The film performed also poorly at the box office. Similarly, “Hitchcock” is hardly beloved. Best Actress and Best Makeup are the most it can hope for, and even they seem doubtful.
Like Elfman, Howard Shore has four nominations to date. Three of these yielded wins for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (two for score, one for song). This year, he returns to Middle Earth with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Opportunities for epic music compositions will abound. (I find the complete “Lord of the Rings” symphony amazing.) If the branch is in a nostalgic mood, Shore could return to the fold. It doesn’t seem to be reaching the heights of the trilogy from a decade ago, however.
I feel I have to mention Thomas Newman. The branch loves him, giving him 10 nominations to date (despite only three Globe citations). He has "Skyfall" in the mix this year, as well as "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." The latter has a lot of Indian flavor that could resonate for reasons stated above.
Patrick Doyle hasn’t been nominated since his back-to-back nominations for “Hamlet” and “Sense & Sensibility” in the mid-1990s. With “Brave,” he joins the Pixar group of composers, which has previously led to nominations for Michael Giacchino, Randy Newman and Thomas Newman. As someone with an affinity for Celtic music, I loved this Scottish-influenced score. Though the movie is hardly Pixar’s greatest accomplishment, I still think Doyle could get a nomination akin to John Powell’s for “How to Train Your Dragon.” No precursor attention to date is worrying, however.
Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar themes for “On the Road” were not plentiful but were effective. That was enough to earn him wins for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel.” Alas, those two films were Best Picture nominees with much precursor attention. I’m doubtful he’s headed to the Dolby this time around.
The two-time nominee I’m most confident will join Williams and Desplat in the final five? Dario Marianelli. The Italian won this category for “Atonement” and was also nominated for “Pride & Prejudice.” He reunited with Joe Wright this year on “Anna Karenina.” Heavily Russian-influenced, the score is the sort of sweeping, but not overwhelming effort that has worked for Marianelli before. I loved this score. But will the somewhat mixed reception to the film cause him trouble? I don’t think so, especially as it earned a Globe nod despite being omitted in every other category.
I’ll end by looking at four possibilities among the never-nominated crowd. First there is Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klinek and Tom Twyker for “Cloud Atlas.” There is no disputing that this film’s crafts elements were extremely well-received, even among its many detractors. The score was noticeable and epic – what this branch likes. That having been said, I’m not sure if this is the sort of film that prompts the music branch to cite three musicians who have never been recognized in this category. Even so, the Globe nod shows people are remembering the score, which was very important to the film.
Twyker was not the only director who double-dutied this year as composer. Benh Zeitlin did the same for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” alongside Dan Romer. The undeniably lively and memorable score is among the film’s finest elements, with its own featurette making the rounds. But I still have reservations. Zeitlin and Romer are far from “in.” And where are the precursor citations?
Johnny Greenwood’s superb BFCA-nominated score for “The Master” was subtle and sparse but absolutely haunting. This was the sort of music that truly complemented what we saw on screen and brought the story to life. Greenwood was disqualified for “There Will Be Blood” despite that being, in my opinion, the best score of 2007. This film is divisive but strikes me as The Weinstein Company’s best shot in this category.
The person I’m most confident will become a first-time nominee this year is actually Mychael Danna. “Life of Pi” presents the Canadian’s best chance to finally become an Oscar nominee after all these years. The music was pivotal to the film’s success, complementing the lack of dialogue. That sure helped last year’s winner “The Artist.” Danna has never been nominated despite composing dozens of titles over the past quarter-century. Now with BFCA and Globe nods behind him, I’m guessing that the music branch will see this as the chance to finally reward him.
At the end of the day, I’m very confident we’ll see American Williams in the final quintet and reasonably confident Frenchman Desplat (for “Argo”), Italian Marianelli and Canadian Danna will join them. As for the final nominee? My uncertainty is what’s led me to name so many contenders so late in the game. So what do you think will fill out the category?
That’s the way I see the crafts races this year, as I have considered nine of the 10 categories. Next week, I hand the column off to Kris as we conclude the analyses with Best Original Song.
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