The ears know it! The Original Score race can be one of Oscar’s most befuddling, most confounding, with its inexhaustible supply of rules and requirements, some followed to baffling tees and others flouted with brutal ease. And much as the Academy’s music branch has streamlined its selection process for Original Song in recent years, the route to securing a nomination for Best Original Score is as rocky as predicting its outcome is unreliable.
This is why Aunty Paddy exists, hennies, this is why I had a whole womb set aside for myself for nine full months, this is the wisdom whose imparting was the premier purpose why I was squirted out into this unwholesome world. I will advise and you will absorb. And for all the times that I’ve done this before, this time I do it with real expertise – that very music branch betrays itself as a festering swamp of classically-trained, traditionalist-minded music snobs, and this very writer boasts the same extensive classical training, and knows those same music snobs all too well. They like what they know, and they know what they like… and I know what they like too.
I don’t think I like what I know, however. Every time someone so much as thinks the name ‘Gustavo Santaolalla,’ he wins another Oscar. It makes a grand total of 0% sense how, say, his score for Babel might be declared eligible, when it is so heavily diluted with pre-existing tracks and, additionally, when its own signature cut is a work of Santaolalla’s own back catalogue, when Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for Arrival is declared ineligible due to two incomplete uses of the same Max Richter track at the film’s very beginning and its very end, and nothing else in the way. It happens every year, that one title or another is given the heave-ho by the music branch’s arcane, indecipherable eligibility rules – they’re questionable indeed, but far less so than their scattershot application of them.
And yet these voters stand up for fine, intelligent craft in a soundtrack landscape that’s becoming ever more dominated by innovation. I do wish that they were better attuned to the qualities of these continually-advancing methods of film scoring, that they could embrace the same trends whose worth is so obvious to the rest of us. As one of us and as one of them, to an extent, I understand the arguments behind both outlooks: I love the forward-thinking approaches to composition employed by artists such as Jonny Greenwood, Mica Levi, Trent Reznor and Scott Walker, and I also love the upholding of the timeless standards of composition, and their ongoing enrichment, employed by artists such as Alexandre Desplat, Alberto Iglesias, Dario Marianelli and Ennio Morricone.
But if you want to predict what voters in the Academy’s music branch are likelier to love, take a look at their track record (better yet, take a listen). Since 2000, only 15 of the 83 individual nominees for this award have been once-only Oscar nominees. Everybody else has been a John Williams or a Thomas Newman or an Alexandre Desplat, aka a composer who has competed in this category more than once. That’s fewer than 1 person in every 5 here that has come and gone once and never again in Original Score. The average number of Original Score (or similar category, excluding Original Song) Oscar nominations for any composer nominated since 2000 is 4.4. You want to know how to predict this shit? I told you this is why I exist fs. Let’s get to it. Here’s what Aunty Paddy advises are the frontrunners for nominations, in this specific order:
1. JUSTIN HURWITZ (LA LA LAND)
I have a major gripe with this, and it’s not merely because Aunty Paddy thinks the film is rather overrated and overpraised. That’s just opinion, but these are the facts: the Academy has a Best Original Musical category, reserved for musical scores and excluding them from competition in Best Original Score. The idea is that a film’s musical numbers and its incidental score are regarded as separate entities, and that the former ought not to be considered when voting for a film’s score. It’s a silly delineation, imo, but one which ought to be taken seriously if it’s ever to be implemented or not – Academy members voting for award winners who are not members of the music branch may not be educated on the specific rules regarding musicals. You can trust that, should La La Land claim an Original Score nomination – and it’s virtually certain to do just that – there’ll be voters aplenty picking it as their favourite because they liked its songs – songs which are not intended to be represented by the nomination. And indeed, as La La Land’s incidental score is itself adapted from those songs, which were written first, it’s technically not even an original score, but an adapted one. Anyway, like The Artist five years ago, the music in this film is its meat and bones, and can hardly miss a nomination here, even if Justin Hurwitz has never been recognised by the music branch before.
2. JOHN WILLIAMS (THE BFG)
From here on down, this category becomes a tough one to predict. Many of the major Best Picture contenders this year are scored by composers with no track record with the Academy, indeed little track record with films that have been nominated in other categories. One thus looks elsewhere, to those closer to that aforementioned average of 4.4 nominations. Well, John Williams isn’t exactly closer, with 45 nods to date, and that’s before we even count Original Song. The BFG may have flopped hard this summer, but its tech specs are strong, and there’s no such thing anymore as a Steven Spielberg film that doesn’t receive at least some Oscar consideration. John Williams could record himself on the toilet and get an Oscar nod for it, and this is where my musical experience comes in handy for all of us – this isn’t John Williams sitting on the toilet, this isn’t even John Williams sitting on his strengths as a composer. The BFG may lack the kind of iconic theme so frequently found in his collaborations with Spielberg, but it’s one of his finest works in years. It’s distinctive, complimentary to the film, and more innovative than most of his recent output. And if I can hear that, it’s worth expecting the Academy’s music branch to hear it too.
3. DARIO MARIANELLI (KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS)
Previously, Dario Marianelli has received Oscar nominations only for his scores to Joe Wright films, though that’s not to say that he won’t be in the running for his work on Laika Animation’s Kubo and the Two Strings. Marianelli is an excellent composer, and underutilized by the industry; with Wright’s career quickly working its way down that toilet upon which John Williams is sitting, hooray for this most reliable production studio for taking this talented artist under their wing. I suspect that the music branch is looking for the right opportunity to reward him with a fourth nomination, and I can easily see Kubo provide several of its principal crew members with Oscar nods. As with La La Land, music plays a prominent role in Kubo, thus making it a likely choice for the Academy’s musicians.
4. ALEXANDRE DESPLAT (FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS)
It’s Alexandre Desplat! How could they not nominate him? They can hardly bear to leave him off their list normally! After year after year of picking Desplat for the wrong scores in the right films, the music branch gave the Academy as a whole two chances to bestow upon Desplat his long-awaited statuette two years ago; after winning for The Grand Budapest Hotel, they took a rare year off last year, which might just be a sign that they’re ready to return to form this year. As per, Desplat has several shots at the nomination here, but Florence Foster Jenkins is his best one – stop underestimating this film, folks, it’s en route to a potentially hefty haul, with chances at nominations across many categories.
5. MICHAEL GIACCHINO (ROGUE ONE)
Much as I’d have preferred ‘Rouge One: A Star Wars Story,’ this is what we got. The first Star Wars movie without John Williams providing the score, who better than Michael Giacchino, arguably the closest thing to Williams that the new generation of Spielberg-wannabes has to offer. Giacchino is currently being swallowed up by big-budget trash and it’s spitting back out some of the least-inspired work of his career. Luckily, Rogue One is among his… more-inspired works, if not on the same level as, say, The Incredibles or Inside Out, neither of which were nominated here. Who knows what these voters have against this brilliant talent, but they can’t hold it against him forever! With a thin field of probable nominees, he’s certainly among the safer bets for Rogue One.
6. NICHOLAS BRITELL (MOONLIGHT)
Here’s a Best Picture contender with a widely-praised score, so why isn’t it in my top five? You’ll know if you’ve been reading properly: Who even is Nicholas Britell? Voters in this category don’t particularly care about Best Picture buzz unless your name is Gustavo Santaolalla or your film is called La La Land. Fewer than 1 in 5 once-and-only nominees, remember! Anyway, this is a lovely, memorable score to a film that’ll undoubtedly compete for nominations across multiple categories, so Britell might just sneak in and bump one of the veterans. Any one of them, lbr. #2-#5 were ranked practically on a whim.
7. JOHN DEBNEY (THE JUNGLE BOOK)
You didn’t see this coming, but that’s because you’re an idiot! No rly, The Jungle Book is the kind of high-grossing, well-reviewed, sufficiently-unique blockbuster with commendable tech creds that could make a surprise surge with the Academy’s below-the-line categories. Debney is one of those once-and-only nominees, having shown up over a decade ago for The Passion of the Christ, but he’s a prolific and respected composer whose nomination then wasn’t that unexpected, despite his status as a first-time nominee and the film’s status as an Oscar wild card. Again, here’s a film whose music is an integral component to its success, and with a genuinely iconic inspiration in the Disney animated classic. Keep it in mind.
8. THOMAS NEWMAN (PASSENGERS)
Passengers would so have been happening across the Academy’s tech categories were it not for the fact that it’s pure creepy shite. Anyway, is Thomas Newman ever not in the conversation? The music branch is gonna do him like the cinematography branch does Roger Deakins – they’re gonna nominate him until he wins, and probably long thereafter. Newman also has Finding Dory this year, but after they snubbed Inside Out last year, they wouldn’t dare nominate his basic-ass work on that sequel. He was probably busy writing his score for Passengers, which is far and away the best thing about the film, and among Newman’s most interesting, imaginative work. It’s an uphill struggle given that just about nobody with any taste actually likes the film, but Thomas Newman is Thomas Newman and they adore him.
9. MICA LEVI (JACKIE)
If you’ve been following the critics awards like I have, you’ll know that the only film score that’s coming close to matching La La Land’s success is Mica Levi’s score for Jackie. And it’s coming remarkably close, given that this film’s Best Picture chances tanked as soon as awards season began and that it’s up against an original musical. Levi wasn’t nominated for her breakthrough soundtrack to Under the Skin two years back, but it wasn’t even eligible; Jackie is, but Levi’s not merely an unknown to voters, she’s an experimental musician with a modern sound, and they almost never get Original Score nominations, not least when their films look like shaky Best Picture contenders at best. But no score attracts this much attention and then doesn’t snag a few votes at minimum, surely.
10. HAUSCHKA AND DUSTIN O’HALLORAN (LION)
There’s a lot of love around for the score to Lion, which is high on the list of underperforming films likely to bounce back with Oscar. Shit, it’s TWC, there’s no way they won’t push this film to a better-than-expected performance. Just probably not in Original Score, contrary to popular opinion. Yes, this is a viable Best Picture contender with a buzzed-about score, but believe my educated ears – did I mention that I’ve been classically trained? – this totally isn’t their thing. Like Jackie, it’s modern, only it’s not even interestingly modern, it’s easy-listening modern, the kind of populist contemporary classical at which most classically-trained musicians turn their snooty snouts up.
Meanwhile, Mr. Turner hangs about, looking to turn up again here just for a laugh, and the above composers threaten to upset themselves with who knows how many other choices. Desplat has The Light Between Oceans, Giacchino has Zootopia and Newman has Finding Dory. Best Picture buzz could boost the chances of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for Hell or High Water (aye right), Rupert Gregson-Williams for Hacksaw Ridge, Benjamin Wallfisch and Pharrell Williams for Hidden Figures, David Wingo for Loving and Marcelo Zarvos for Fences. Former winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross could gain a second mention for Patriots Day, or Howard Shore for Denial (far from his second mention, though). And count out Abel Korzeniowski for Nocturnal Animals, Mark Mancina for Moana, James Newton Howard for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Fernando Velázquez for A Monster Calls and Laurent Perez del Mar for his essential work on The Red Turtle at your own risk!
Aunty Paddy might be back to dispense further ‘advice,’ probably pre-nominations since these are all gonna turn out to be a crock of shit and I’ll not be welcome here after the 24th, which would be a horrible shame since I’m not welcome like anywhere else so…