Best Original Score Nominees (90th Academy Awards)
A catchy song with memorable lyrics can certainly do a great service to the movie it’s in, and since we’re all pretty familiar with most of the standard song forms we could expect to hear from such a thing, they’re also easier to talk about and judge from a layman’s perspective. But the overwhelming majority of music present in most films doesn’t usually have much on common with a typical pop song. It’s there to serve the tone, setting, and style of the film scene by scene and it’s there to enhance the filmgoing experience mostly without actually calling an inordinate amount of attention to itself. That doesn’t mean a great film score can’t have catchy hooks or melodies, many of the absolute classics certainly do, but if the entire score of a film was that kind of thing over and over it would probably come off as intrusive and detract from the point the filmmakers were actually trying to make. This more nuanced quality makes film scores a trickier topic. Hopefully I can do this year’s nominees some semblance of justice.
Dunkirk – Hans Zimmer
Here’s an example of a very effective score that isn’t particularly memorable of its own accord, but served the film extraordinarily well as just one part of a soundscape that helped make Dunkirk such a nerve-pounding experience. The film is not just nominated in this category, but also in both the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories where it is perhaps the front-runner due to the very memorably concussive 106 minutes of filmgoing they offered. This was one of the big impressions I was left with on my way out of the theater when I saw the film back in July, to the point that if you had asked me about the score I might have taken a moment to wonder if the film had much of one. It certainly is not tuneful, but is rather a complement sonically to the other elements of the movie and doubtless played its part quite expertly. I can’t imagine this score winning the Oscar.
Experts’ Rank: 3
My Rank: 3
Phantom Thread – Jonny Greenwood
I’m going to have to have to admit that the score from Phantom Thread came into this with a couple of definite advantages for me. Perhaps most notable is that it was composed by the guitarist of one of my favorite bands, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. Of course to simply call him a guitarist doesn’t do full justice to what Greenwood has traditionally done for the band. He also plays the bass, piano, viola, and drums and has functioned as the arranger of the songs lead singer Thom Yorke brings to him. It’s honestly not surprising at all to find Greenwood taking on film scoring, and if his work on Phantom Thread is any indication he has quite a fine future in it. The second advantage for this score is that I already knew it stood a great chance of being nominated when I sat down and saw the film for the first time, so I was sure to take note. But the quality of what I heard was undoubtedly stunning, as its strings and piano constructions reflect both the elegance and the fragility of the film’s subjects while also offering memorable melodic figures.
Experts’ Rank: 2
My Rank: 1
The Shape of Water – Alexandre Desplat
It’s easy to see why this score is a popular choice to take home the Oscar on the night of the ceremony. Desplat’s creation here is both idiosyncratic and romantic, offering sounds that call forward thoughts of the stylistic and thematic pastiche that is the film itself. We get bells with muffled distortions that reproduce what we imagine parts of the recording would sound like underwater, there are bursts of theremin which are appropriate considering the initial inspiration for the script was writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s sympathy for the gill man from the original Creature From the Black Lagoon. We also get touches that remind us both of the characters’ obsession with classic Hollywood musicals and that we are, in fact, watching a period piece set in the early 1960s. Flutes and piano and concertina join a full orchestra to lend a storybook quality to proceedings, veering between the innocent and the ominous. It will certainly be no surprise if The Shape of Water picks up momentum with a series of wins and brings Desplat along.
Experts’ Rank: 1
My Rank: 2
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – John Williams
Look, John Williams is an absolute legend in the world of music for his work scoring films. He may have the most recognizable splash reel in the history of the art form, boasting a long line of instantly recognizable scores from Jaws, Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Schindler’s List. Perhaps his very best known composition is his rousing work on the generation-defining sic-fi fantasy smash Star Wars back in 1977. That score won him an Oscar then, and appears to be the gift that keeps on giving, as he has been nominated four additional times for his work on other films in the popular series, helping his nomination total to pile up to an almost unbelievable fifty-one with five wins. But honestly, this particular nomination feels a little cheap. Throw on the soundtrack album for The Last Jedi and the first thing you’re greeted with is that same smash theme from way back in my childhood. I’m sure he’s done some fine work here, but it’s hard to believe he isn’t somehow being rewarded now for something he already won an Oscar for forty years ago.
Experts’ Rank: 5
My Rank: 4
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Carter Burwell
The soundtrack for one of this year’s favorites for Best Picture is kind of all over the place. A lot of the most memorable stuff on it, including a beautiful operatic performance by Renee Fleming and The Four Tops version of “Walk Away Renee,” wasn’t even written by Carter Burwell. The parts that are composed by Burwell sound like they’re supposed to be like something from a Sergio Leone western. Is it intended as satire? Sometimes films or composers just become generally popular with the voters, and work that’s just good instead of excellent gets dragged along into awards season. Burrell surely has an impressive resume, peppered with collaborations with top-notch filmmakers like the Coen brothers (Miller’s Crossing, No Country For Old Men), Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Carol), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), and Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) and if you remember, his work on Carol was my favorite for that year. But this looks like a placeholder sort of nomination. Honestly, there are only two really remarkable scores here on the ballot.
Experts’ Rank: 4
My Rank: 5
Let me know how you feel about these scores and whether I’m at all qualified to criticize them. Oh, and vote for your favorite.