I’ve learned two things from my friend Kris Tapley (who has, incidentally, just announced he’s going to be a father!) about the tech categories in the Oscars. One thing is that much of the time Visual Effects or Costume Design, Production Design and Cinematography can be tied to the same film because their visuals are so impressive voters pick “everything that looks pretty” all together. Lately, that has gone along with Best Director, as Best Picture and Director are more easily separated than they used to be.
This is more true as there are more tech heavy, effects driven films heading into the Best Picture race, as Life of Pi or Gravity recently prove. Tapley’s proposition, which is right much of the time, but can be wrong, posits that these three visual elements are most often part of the whole visual impact of the film. In a year like this one, where you have, say, Carol competing with Mad Max, you have one that could take the big three visual Oscars, where Carol might take Production Design, Cinematography and Costumes. In either case, and almost always, they are tied to a popular Best Picture contender — take The Grand Budapest Hotel for example — even if it’s not the eventual winner (though broad-based category support is the stuff that sweeps are made of).
The second factor to consider in the tech categories, generally speaking, is the more famous and well respected the name, the better the chance for a nomination. That’s true especially for costumes, cinematography, production design sometimes, visual effects sometimes, and of course, original score. Just as you can almost always count on a Roger Deakins nomination for cinematography, you can bet John Williams is mostly a sure bet for a nomination in original score. This is true for I’d say 60% of the nominees. The other 40% is divided between that one exceptional work that can’t ignored, and if the nomination is somehow tied to Best Picture. Being tied to Best Picture will almost always help guarantee the win for Original Score. Exceptional works can sometimes win stand-alone Oscars, especially if they’re tied to a well known professional.
In the past 15 years, only one film has won Original Score that wasn’t either a Best Picture winner or nominee. You have to go all the way back to 2002 with Elliot Goldenthal’s score for Frida. The only nominee that year that had a Best Picture nomination was Philip Glass for The Hours. The other 4 nominees were not, and those included the legendary Elmer Bernstein’s score for Far From Heaven. Every year since then, the Original Score winners have all been Best Pic nominees or Best Picture winners. Usually, though, a Best Picture winner will only win Score if a sweep is afoot, and hardly ever does the rest of the time because in years when the Academy spreads the wealth, they seem to divide the films they like along the lines of tech, craft and major categories. The year’s second-most popular film will very often win Score (and whatever else besides Best Picture) — films like Life of Pi, Gravity, Grand Budapest, Brokeback Mountain.
When you see a score winning along with Best Picture you’re almost always looking at a sweep year — The Artist, Return of the King and Slumdog Millionaire. So to predict what will win in Score you have to think two ways. 1) what could be the big winner in terms of a sweep, and what could be the winner as a “second favorite” best picture contender.
When we look at Best Score, we don’t usually think about the Best Picture race. We think: oh how beautiful that sounds. But remember, the individual branches vote for the nominees but the whole membership votes on the winner. For the most part, they’re almost always more willing to vote for a movie they like rather than separate the tech award on its own merit. This is almost always the case and the only reason Roger Deakins has never won Best Cinematography, which he should have by now, many times over.
Let’s look at our Top Eleven strongest contenders right now for a nomination for Original Score:
1. “Carol,” Carter Burwell, composer
One has to wonder, and really think hard on, the reasons Carter Burwell has never been nominated for an Oscar. Seriously, WTF? He’s worked with the Coen brothers, Bill Condon and Todd Haynes, and yet he’s never been nominated. He’s been working as a composer since 1990. Does anyone have a really good explanation for this because I don’t. Either way, Carol has such a pretty score it can makes you cry when you listen to it. All elements of Carol are so carnal in that you can smell them, feel them, almost touch them. The cinematography, production design, costumes and score are holy shit great.
Whether he wins or not for this, he’s absolutely looking at his first long, long overdue nomination for Carol.
2. Spotlight, Howard Shore Composer
The Best Picture frontrunner, Spotlight, has an amazing score. If Spotlight wins Best Picture, it’s conceivable it could take Original Score with it. It would be odd but not unheard of. Spotlight could be one of those films like Argo that takes just three Oscars – one of those could be original score. That’s certainly possible. Picture, Original Screenplay, maybe Director, maybe Score. Big maybe: Supporting Actor. Score is actually the only craft category it could win, although Editing would not be out of the ordinary. If you think of Spotlight as being an Ordinary People type of winner (somber, understated, actor-driven), remember that it won only Picture, Supporting Actor, Director and Screenplay. It wasn’t even nominated for Score, which is crazy, right? Fame won Original Score that year, lol. The big craft movie was Tess, which won — per the Tapley rule — the three visuals: Costumes, Production Design and Cinematography.
Howard Shore, who composed Spotlight, is already a three-time Oscar winner. He won for the Score for Fellowship of the Ring (which took two of the three: Visual Effects and Cinematography – Moulin Rouge took Production Design and Costume), then Song and Score for Return of the King, which swept. He was also nominated for Hugo. Howard Shore easily gets in because 1) he’s Howard Shore, and 2) Spotlight is the Best Picture frontrunner. This is a no-brainer.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road, Tom Holkenborg, composer
Mad Max is the one movie that could really take the Tapley three: Visual Effects/Production Design/Cinematography but it also might take Score. Whether it wins Score or not, it should probably see a nomination there. Mad Max, though, is kind of a strange thing so far in this race. We all think it will do well with the Academy but we can’t be 100% certain how well. Is it going to land a massive total in nearly every category — even Best Actress? It’s possible. Holkenborg also goes by the nickname Junkie XL and has not yet been nominated for an Oscar.
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, John Williams, composer
All the way on the other end of the spectrum is the Chairman of the Board (not literally) of the Oscar race. John Williams has won five Oscars and has been nominated, I kid you not, 49 times. 49 times! This makes him the second most nominated after Walt Disney. He effing won for Star Wars the same year he was nominated for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We are not worthy, John Williams. We are not worthy! I don’t know if he’ll get nominated for this — it isn’t particularly a standout compared to the original score for Star Wars. BUT he’s John Williams and so you can’t bet against him. He’ll be potentially looking at his big 50th nomination this year.
5. Inside Out, Michael Giacchino, composer
The popularity of Inside Out overall could possibly get it in here, but one has to wonder how many Oscars The Force Awakens will trump Inside Out on. Either way, Giacchino has already won an Oscar for Up and was nominated for Ratatouille. He composed three other films this year, Jupiter Ascending, Tomorrowland, and Jurassic World. Animated films often can crack the Original Score category but it might be tricky this year, given the competition.
6. “The Martian,” Harry Gregson-Williams, composer
The score of The Martian is my second favorite after Carol. It drives the film’s dramatic impulses so beautifully. But I don’t know if it can crack the top five and will only do so if the Academy likes the film overall. Name recognition alone will not get him in as it will with some others. Also, so many will remember the disco music perhaps over the score, but if you listen to it — it’s just glorious.
7. The Hateful Eight, Ennio Morricone, composer
One of two good things about The Hateful Eight is Ennio Morricone’s score. Morricone has never won an Oscar (honorary only), and has been been nominated five times in 1979. His last nomination was in 2001. The fate of The Hateful Eight and Oscar is not yet known, but I suspect if it gets in here it gets in for Morricone’s stature and not Best Picture heat, but you never know.
8. The Big Short, Nicholas Britell, composer
This is another one of the best scores of the year that, like The Martian’s, will have to get in on love for the film as opposed to the lesser-known name. Britell is incredibly new on the scene and has only been composing since 2004. He is best known for 12 Years a Slave, which might be how he was brought on board here, via Brad Pitt and Plan B. Either way, you hardly notice the score until the beautiful piano riff that marks the story’s poignant moments, which you can hear around the 13 minute mark.
9. Bridge of Spies, Thomas Newman, composer
So, check it out. Thomas Newman has never won an Oscar for Composing. He’s gotten 11 Oscar nominations and never won one. How hasn’t he won? I don’t know. The year he might have won for a strong Best Picture contender was 1999 for American Beauty but of course The Red Violin won that year.
10. Brooklyn, Michael Brook, composer
Michael Brook is not really so well known yet in the composing world to the point where his name alone could bring in a nomination. He hasn’t yet gotten one. Brooklyn’s score will only get in if the movie has some broad strength with Academy voters — the jury is still out on that. From the looks of it now, the film is not going to get in (though it should). But the Academy might trump the critics and it will get in anyway. Hard to say. The music in Brooklyn is among the year’s most beautiful.
11. Beasts of No Nation, Dan Romer, composer
Would you believe that Beasts of No Nation’s composer also composed Beasts of the Southern Wild? He co-composed it with Benh Zeitlin. He has never been nominated for an Oscar. It’s kind of weird that two movies with “beasts” in the title were composed by the same person. Either way, the scores are wildly different. I would love to see this movie get any recognition at all in the Academy but of course, I remain doubtful that it will. Either way, it’s a contender.
Here are the eligible scores that are in contention for this year’s Oscars. I’ve cut it way down to the contenders I think have the best chance and bolded the ones among these I think have the best chance.
“Anomalisa,” Carter Burwell, composer
“Black Mass,” Tom Holkenborg, composer
“By the Sea,” Gabriel Yared, composer
“Cartel Land,” H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg, composers
“Chi-Raq,” Terence Blanchard, composer
“Concussion,” James Newton Howard, composer
“Creed,” Ludwig Goransson, composer
“The Danish Girl,” Alexandre Desplat, composer
“The End of the Tour,” Danny Elfman, composer
“Ex Machina,” Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, composers
“Fifty Shades of Grey,” Danny Elfman, composer
“The Good Dinosaur,” Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna, composers
“He Named Me Malala,” Thomas Newman, composer
“Jurassic World,” Michael Giacchino, composer
“Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet,” Gabriel Yared, composer
“Mad Max: Fury Road,” Tom Holkenborg, composer
“Mr. Holmes,” Carter Burwell, composer
“The Peanuts Movie,” Christophe Beck, composer
“Shaun the Sheep Movie,” Ilan Eshkeri, composer
“Sicario,” Jóhann Jóhannsson, composer
“Spectre,” Thomas Newman, composer
“Steve Jobs,” Daniel Pemberton, composer
“Suffragette,” Alexandre Desplat, composer
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