There’s a new wrinkle for Academy members voting in the music categories this year. For the first time in nearly 40 years, music-branch members are returning to the “shortlist” procedure, choosing 15 scores and songs that will ultimately be whittled down to a final five in each category.
The problem for voters is, can they possibly see and evaluate the music of dozens of films prior to the voting deadline of Dec. 11? Results of that first-round balloting will be announced Dec. 17.
The work of past Oscar winners tends to be on most members’ must-see list. This year that crop includes the quirky score for Wes Anderson’s animated “Isle of Dogs,” by last year’s winner Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”); the stirring music for the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic “On the Basis of Sex” by Mychael Danna (“Life of Pi”); the orchestra-plus-theremin sounds of the moon-landing saga “First Man” by Justin Hurwitz (“La La Land”); the propulsive score for the heist thriller “Widows” by Hans Zimmer (“The Lion King”); and the lively music of “The Incredibles 2” by Michael Giacchino (“Up”).
The wild card in this batch is 86-year-old, three-time Oscar winner Michel Legrand, who composed the jazz score for “The Other Side of the Wind,” the long-awaited final film by Orson Welles.
“Incredibles 2” isn’t the only Disney film in the running; an even bigger favorite is likely to be the tuneful “Mary Poppins Returns” by Marc Shaiman. The lavish, Tchaikovsky-inspired symphonic score for “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” by James Newton Howard may also figure in the mix — although a nom for the 12-minute, original ballet Howard composed for a Fox film, the Jennifer Lawrence spy thriller “Red Sparrow,” could be a better bet.
Scores for period films have historically had an advantage with music-branch members, as they often require more research and generally more work to accomplish. A pair of London-based composers, both better-known for their classical music, are likely to figure in the race: Max Richter, who composed “Mary Queen of Scots” with its 16th-century setting and use of both orchestra and choir, and Thomas Adès, who did the honors for “Colette,” with its warmly melodic, small-ensemble pieces true to the 1890-1910 period.
Period scores of a different sort are represented by Carter Burwell’s classic-Western sounds for the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and by Rolfe Kent’s lighthearted musical romp for the Laurel & Hardy story “Stan & Ollie.”
Several 2018 releases contributed greatly to cultural conversations about race and gender. Topping the list is Marvel’s “Black Panther,” for which Ludwig Göransson spent a month recording music in Africa.
Terence Blanchard, in his 14th feature score for Spike Lee, reflected the 1970s period of “BlacKkKlansman,” while Nicholas Britell collaborated again with his “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins on a melancholy, string-based score for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the James Baldwin book.
Kris Bowers (“Dear White People”) contributed a jazzy backdrop for “Green Book,” the story of a black pianist’s travels through the 1960s South. And “Boy Erased,” which is generating a lot of buzz for its frank depiction of gay-conversion therapy, earned a sensitive piano-driven score by the composing duo of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.
Horror-film scores are rarely cited, but “A Quiet Place” by Marco Beltrami (“The Hurt Locker”) could be an exception for its unique storyline: a terrorized family needs to remain silent to remain alive, and Beltrami’s scary detuned-piano approach may attract notice.
Not to be forgotten: John Powell’s fast-moving, orchestral “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (with, incidentally, a theme by John Williams, his only contribution to the movies this year).
Longshots include offbeat work by a pair of veterans who have never been nominated: composer Brian Tyler’s jazz-inflected score for the box-office hit “Crazy Rich Asians” and Theodore Shapiro’s dark and edgy music for the Nicole Kidman crime thriller “Destroyer.”
Still to come, with no inkling of whether the branch will see or seriously consider them, are the Peter Jackson-produced “Mortal Engines,” with score by Tom Holkenborg (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), and Robert Zemeckis’ “Welcome to Marwen,” with music by his longtime collaborator Alan Silvestri (“Forrest Gump”).
(Pictured above: Composer Michael Giacchino, right, with director Brad Bird during a scoring session for “Incredibles 2”)