The Academy Award for Best Original Score is one of the categories I find most interesting and most frustrating. First, the good: I love the awarding of film music, which can immeasurably improve the experience of a film and can become iconic in its own right. There is also much about the music branch that I love, particularly its international flavor, both in terms of the composers cited and the types of music rewarded. Moreover, while the category tends to favor Best Picture nominees and epic movies, it is not excessively exclusionary in this respect.
But that love of epics can sometimes lead to simply rewarding “most music.” More importantly, this branch is infamously insular. Unless a composer is aboard a major Best Picture contender or has otherwise composed a simply iconic score, it is unusual to earn a first nomination. And even those features are not always enough for first-timers. To the branch's credit, it has improved slightly in this respect compared to where it was a decade ago (when a new composer tended to get nominated on average about once every other year), but the fact remains that if two of the five nominees are first-timers, that's a lot.
This is not to suggest that many of the branch's favorite composers are not enormously talented and deserving of praise. Let's start this analysis with one such person. The composing world these days simply seems to be Alexandre Desplat's oyster, doesn't it? The great Frenchman has a shot at pulling off an unusual feat for this, or any, category: earning multiple nominations in a single year. He actually has three contenders for which one could make a strong case.
The strongest is for “The Imitation Game.” Desplat's suspenseful, meticulous score for a leading Best Picture contender is the one I'm very confident will make the final five. And maybe, just maybe, it will lead to his first statuette after six nominations.
But then there is the tear-jerking epic “Unbroken,” which may not be setting the critical world on fire, but few people have disputed its production values. An epic war movie has all the makings of a nominee in this category, so we'll see whether it can lead Desplat into the final five twice. It just might.
One more. Desplat has already been to the Oscars for a fun Wes Anderson score once. That was for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a similarly fun comedic score, and it also has an Eastern European flavor. While comedies tend to take second seat to drama in this category, one never knows. It would be highly unusual to land three nominations here, but I honestly wouldn't rule it out.
Elsewhere, “Interstellar” is the sort of classic, epic score that is typically rewarded in this category. Hans Zimmer did earn a well-deserved nomination for Christopher Nolan's last major non-“Batman” film (“Inception”) and he may well return to the fold under similar circumstances this year. I'm not sure how many nods this film will ultimately garner, however, and Zimmer's recognition for “Interstellar” and “Sherlock Holmes” remain his only two citations this side of “Gladiator.”
Thomas Newman has a track record of being nominated for films otherwise discarded: see “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Good German,” and “Unstrung Heroes” among his 12 Oscar mentions to date. “The Judge” is fairly reviled in critical circles but there were a lot of Oscar nominees involved in making it. And Newman is a survivor. This could be lucky nomination 13 for him.
Danny Elfman has written many classic scores for Tim Burton. Think of “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” to name just a few. His four Oscar nominations have come for “Good Will Hunting,” “Milk,” Big Fish,” and “Men in Black.” With “Big Eyes,” he is once again working with Burton, and in a less overtly “Elfman” vein like with “Big Fish.” I don't think this film will rack up many nods, but I wouldn't count Elfman out for a title like this.
If Tommy Lee Jones' “The Homesman” finds a home anywhere, expect it to be here. Not only did the score complement what was seen on screen, but Marco Beltrami has earned somewhat surprising nominations for “3:10 to Yuma” (another western) and “The Hurt Locker” (an effective but minimal score). Keep an eye on him.
Trent Renzor and Atticus Ross won this category four years ago for genius work on “The Social Network.” Many thought they'd follow through the following year for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” but it was not to be. With “Gone Girl,” they are once again composing novel suspense and atmosphere for David Fincher. The two aren't the most typical “classical” composers who tend to regularly find a home in this category, but in an open field, their music may do the trick. And certainly “The Social Network” was no stereotypical example.
Steven Price is another non-classical film composer who is fresh off a win, in his case, last year for “Gravity.” And he's already back in the race for “Fury.” The film has largely faded but a push for its superb production features may help Price earn an “afterglow” nomination.
Clint Mansell is sorely due for his first nomination. (I'm still distressed over the fact that he wasn't nominated for “Requiem for a Dream” 14 years after the fact.) His epic score for “Noah” may be forgotten, but it is indeed epic, and could benefit from a below-the-line push for the film.
As we keep saying, that's not the only biblical epic in contention. Alberto Iglesias has supplied the music for Ridley Scott's “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” The film's reception seems to be underwhelming but Iglesias has earned somewhat unexpected nominations for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Constant Gardener,” and the only nomination for “The Kite Runner.” So his fellow composers clearly respect him.
Veteran composer John Powell finally earned his first nomination in this category for “How to Train Your Dragon.” Returning this year for the sequel, his work soars just as high. But will the novelty still be there?
“Birdman” should be getting many nominations in many categories and Antonio Sanchez's score was pitch-perfect. A drum is not the typical key to open this category's door but sometimes for an iconic score, the musicians will branch out. We'll see.
Ultimately, however, I think the first-timer with the best chance is “The Theory of Everything's” Jóhann Jóhannsson. The Icelandic composer made waves last year with “Prisoners” and now with this Stephen Hawking tale, he composed a very elegant score, with an emphasis on piano. It's a classicly Oscar score in a classicly Oscar film – seems like a good bet to me
So those are the top 15 contenders as I see them. How do you handicap this race?