Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Original Score

Ennio Morricone's score for The Hateful Eight is the frontrunner at the Academy Awards for Best Original Score.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Original Score

The nominees are:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

So, I spent a lot of words yesterday tearing down the music branch for its uninspired nominations for Best Original Song. Last year, I used this space to gripe about the exclusion of the year’s best score due to the branch’s seemingly arbitrary rules. The entire system for determining eligibility and nominees in both music categories needs an overhaul.

However, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, and though these may not be the five nominees I would have chosen, the music nominated for Best Original Score this year is fantastic across the board. A few of the best composers working today are nominated alongside two of the best film composers of all time, and their work covers a broad spectrum from big and bombastic adventure music to subtle and subdued drama.

Unusually for this category, only one nominated film is also nominated for Best Picture. The last time that happened was in 2003 with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which went on to win the award. In fact, a Best Picture nominee has won this award every year since 2003, though interestingly only three Best Picture winners in that 12-year span have also won Best Original Score. Either way, the run of Best Picture dominance in this category seems set to end this year as the Academy may finally be ready to reward one of the giants of the craft.

The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone is among the most famous composers in the world, and his compositions have been repurposed in countless ways across a wide variety of mediums. The main title theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly might be one of the two or three most recognizable pieces of film score ever written. He has been nominated for six Oscars and received an honorary Academy Award in 2007 for his contributions to cinema.

Morricone had consciously avoided scoring westerns recently to avoid being thought of as only a western composer, and it took Quentin Tarantino to convince the Italian master to return to the genre that launched his career. The funny thing is – and Tarantino has acknowledged this in numerous interviews – Morricone pretty much avoided writing a western score. The music in The Hateful Eight sounds like it belongs in a horror movie more than a talky western.

Every element of the score oozes dread. From the sinister pounding of the drums to the whining and pulsing strings layered over it to the low-register lead, Morricone has perfectly tapped into the drawing-room mystery aspects of Tarantino’s script while bringing an unhinged energy that ultimately makes the music the best part of the film. The Hateful Eight is well liked enough by Academy members, and the season appears headed in the direction of awarding Morricone his first competitive Oscar. It would be a well-deserved and fitting honor.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – The man who could stand in Morricone’s way, though, has been here before – more times than almost anybody. John Williams’ 50 Academy Award nominations are second only to Walt Disney for most nominations for an individual. His compositions for Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are part of the cultural heritage, and the American Film Institute named the theme to Star Wars the greatest score of all time. It does not get much more iconic than that.

If Morricone returning to the western genre is exciting, then Williams returning to the Star Wars universe is on another level. The 84-year-old Williams has reduced his work load significantly in recent years, but there is only one man for the job of composing a Star Wars soundtrack. His music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is everything we have come to expect from Williams – big horns, driving strings, and dynamic tension between the quiet and the loud that signals adventure and mystery.

Williams has been nominated 19 times since his last win for Schindler’s List in 1993. Not among those 19 nominations are any of the Star Wars prequels, though he was nominated for each film in the original trilogy and won for A New Hope. Williams is a legend, and every single member of the Academy knows it, and it is possible that respect will carry him to a sixth Oscar.

Bridge of Spies – While Williams went off to compose the score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Thomas Newman stepped in to fill the musical void for director Steven Spielberg on the Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. This is the first Spielberg film in 30 years not conducted by Williams, but Newman does an admirable job of getting on Spielberg’s wavelength and finding the right tones for an old-school story of heroism in the face of insurmountable odds.

The horns and military-style drums immediately stand out, and some of the main themes feel like a throwback to some of James Horner’s early 1990s compositions for films such as Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and Apollo 13. Newman has been nominated 12 times for Best Original Score and once for Best Original Song, but he has never won.

Newman’s compositions throughout his career have tended to be more idiosyncratic than the Academy usually likes, and his more classical work on Bridge of Spies could be right up members’ alley. That, coupled with the Best Picture nomination for the film, would make him a threat for the win in most years, but with Williams and Morricone in the picture, Newman will likely be relegated to bridesmaid status once again.

Carol – A little more than six years ago on this site, I called Carter Burwell the best composer working in Hollywood. That feels even truer today than it did then. He is my personal favorite music composer of any kind, film or not. His scores for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, In Bruges, A Serious Man, and Where the Wild Things Are rank among my favorite albums of all time. He is best known probably for his work with the Coen Brothers – or perhaps among certain people for his Twilight scores – but his recent collaborations with director Todd Haynes on the Mildred Pierce miniseries and Carol have been equally fruitful.

For Carol, Burwell is working firmly within his favorite subgenre – off-kilter dramas about descent into darkness. The way his strings swirl around the listener while the piano holds the center together just spells gloom and madness, but it is never overbearing, which is key for a film as subtle and restrained as Carol. Burwell also introduces themes of romanticism into the score that he rarely uses but that perfectly complement the film’s thematic intent.

I am ecstatic that Burwell has received his first Oscar nomination. It is long overdue. He is unlikely to win and is probably running third or fourth in the category this year, but now that he is in the club, expect to see Burwell pop up as a perennial nominee. He will win one eventually, and when Burwell accepts his Oscar someday, that will be one of the happiest moments of my Oscar-watching life.

Sicario – Kudos to the music branch – how often do I say that? – for nominating something as strange and unsettling as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work on Sicario. Jóhannsson earned his first Oscar nomination last year for his far more traditional score for The Theory of Everything. I had him pegged for the win last year as well, but he lost out to the overwhelming popularity of The Grand Budapest Hotel. This time, I would be shocked if Jóhannsson found himself onstage, not because the work is not deserving but because the Academy rarely goes for something this unusual in the category.

The driving percussion and punishing strings remind of Hans Zimmer’s iconic work on Inception but set in a world without hope. Amid the brutality and carnage of the U.S.-Mexico border wars, the music makes the characters’ sense of dread palpable for the audience. Deep feelings of disquiet creep into viewers minds thanks in large part to the way Jóhannsson’s score penetrates the narrative. You do not so much hear the music as feel it in your gut. That does not make it a good bet to win an Oscar, but it does make it a great score.

The final analysis

Morricone has the inside track here. Along with a Golden Globe win and general industry love, he is overdue for this honor, and voters know it. Williams could get in on sentiment, but much of the same sentiment that would drive him to a victory also holds true for Morricone. The other nominated scores are great and would be deserving winners, but a win for Morricone would be history-making, and that temptation might be too much to pass up for the Academy.

Will win: The Hateful Eight
Should win: The Hateful Eight
Should have been here: It Follows

Tomorrow: Best Sound Mixing

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