It’s a pretty good bet that if John Williams has an original score in play during a given Oscar season, he’s going to be Oscar-nominated for it. His 44 nods to date (plus five more for songs) don’t exactly lie. So how can you start a discussion of this year’s score contenders anywhere else but with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens?”
How much original music will be in the film, though, and how much will it distinguish itself from the iconic pre-existing themes? That’s the question. While all three original “Star Wars” films were nominated, none of the prequels made it. This will be just one more mystery held close to the vest until Disney decides to let the cat out of the bag next month. But it could yield a 50th Oscar nomination from the cinema legend.
From one legend to another, there’s Ennio Morricone, providing his first original score for a western — Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” — in 40 years. It was a different process on this one, as the maestro supplied music largely inspired by the screenplay (he still hasn’t seen the film). It’s not the jaunty spaghetti western material one might have expected, but rather, moody, tension-building work with music box nods to the Italian Giallo genre here and there. He’s a titan within the branch and this mixture is sure to be unique in the fray.
Howard Shore’s “Spotlight” score is deceptive. At first listen, it can feel quite minimalist. In reality, though, it’s very complex, a piano-heavy, classical-like composition that uncannily elevates the material. Shore has won three Oscars for his work on the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, very different from the delicacy of this, of course.
The reigning champ in the category, Alexandre Desplat, is a mainstay as of late: He has received eight nominations in nine years, culminating in a win earlier this year for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” His work on “The Danish Girl” is typically elegant, with a trickling theme that plays up the fragility of the film’s central character.
Another branch favorite is Thomas Newman, though he’s still searching for his first win after landing 11 nominations (plus one for best original song) over the years. He stepped in for Steven Spielberg regular Williams on “Bridge of Spies” and delivered something that features a lot of his hallmarks, but still feels at home in the Spielberg oeuvre, equal parts chilling Cold War and swelling Americana. (His work on “Spectre” is also rather good.)
Elsewhere, Carter Burwell still doesn’t have an Oscar nomination to his name. It’s sort of outrageous at this point. He breathes special life into Todd Haynes’ “Carol” — exemplary across the board in the crafts arenas — with lush piano and woodwinds. (His contributions to Bill Condon’s “Mr. Holmes” also deserve a serious look from the branch.)
“The Revenant,” meanwhile, could be a player across the board. Alejandro G. Iñárritu has tapped Ryûichi Sakamoto to help conjure a percussion-driven piece of work that works in tandem with an immersive sound mix.
In John Crowley’s “Brooklyn,” Michael Brook brings a subtle Irish vibe to the soundtrack. It’s not overwrought when it could have been, given the tale of an Irish immigrant finding her way in America. He hasn’t been recognized by the Academy yet, though his score for “Into the Wild” was nominated for a Golden Globe.
As for sweepers, if we’re to assume “The Martian” is a major Oscar player across the board, then the possibility is certainly there for some interesting coattails. Harry Gregson-Williams doesn’t bore with a standard blockbuster score and in fact it feels quite progressive within the category. He could be a sleeper.
Finally, the branch lost one of its most popular members this year, eight-time score nominee (and two-time song nominee) James Horner, who won in each of those categories for “Titanic.” Horner died in a Santa Barbara plane crash last June, and his swan song is the work he contributed to Patricia Riggen’s trapped coal miners drama “The 33.” It’s exceptional music with an international flare, which often goes over well with this lot. And it might just be too tempting in general to recognize the legend one more time.
There are so many others, though. Michael Giacchino won a Oscar for “Up” and could be back with another Pixar hit, “Inside Out”; Jóhann Jóhannsson borderline terrifies with the brooding of “Sicario”; James Newton Howard, a branch favorite, goes big (some might say too big) in “Concussion”; Patrick Doyle’s “Cinderella” score has a following; Dan Romer’s epic work on “Beasts of No Nation” is truly transcendent; and Tom Holkenborg’s grand compositions on “Black Mass” couldn’t differ more from the mania of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but both are worthy of being in the conversation.
Keep track of the best original score race all season long at the category’s dedicated Contenders page.