Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Original Score – Arcade Fire aiming to defy ‘Gravity’

02.25.14 3 years ago 9 Comments

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

Year after year, Best Original Score is probably the technical category where I'd most like to see a significantly different slate to the one the Academy has put together — a certain cronyism and conservatism often keeps them from recognizing standout work in the category. This year, two films scored by relative newcomers face off again three established Academy favorites (two of them due an award by now, the third amply recognized), and it's the freshman nominees' work that is generating more discussion in the category than the others. Personally, I'd suggest that there's only one truly great score in the race this year, but it's a lineup that makes for an interesting old-guard-versus-new narrative.

The nominees are…

“The Book Thief” (John Williams)
Okay, let's get this out of the way: John Williams is one of the greatest film composers of all time, and the level of craft and clarity he brings to even his lesser works is exemplary. But at this point, the Academy's music branch would hand him an Oscar nod if he essentially interpolated “Chopsticks” on a triangle, and his nomination for this dreary WWII drama — his 49th — is among the more desultory-feeling of his career. His stamp is unmistakable on “Thief,” the first non-Spielberg-directed feature he's scored since 2005's “Memoirs of a Geisha”: those refined piano solos, the classy interjections of harp and woodwind. But “unmistakable” can lean heavily into “derivative” — and while I know exactly which commenters are about to chime in to opine that this score's in another league, not even a genius brings his A-game to every project. A token nod for a film few members will have bothered to see.

“Gravity” (Steven Price)
There aren't many relevant precursor awards in this category — essentially the Globe and the BAFTA, only the latter of which went to “Gravity” — to Price's long-presumed frontrunner status comes down more than anything to the film's general heft in the technical categories, and the relative resistibility of the opposition. Of course, the score itself is pretty imposing, with Price (a relative newcomer to film scoring who broke out with his Basement Jaxx collaboration on “Attack the Block”) employing both electronic and orchestral elements, as well as a hefty dose of atmospheric female vocal to accompany the film's wild shifts in energy and emotion. Given the essential silence of its setting, the film is an ideal canvas for a composer — though I must admit that the music is its one element on which I'm not fully sold. (As much as I like its overwhelming synthetic surges, it sometimes goes for bombast where I'd prefer Michael Nyman-style glassiness.) It's unlikely, however, that many voters will agree with me.

“Her” (William Butler and Owen Pallett)
Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist Butler (brother of frontman Win) and indie collaborator Pallett joins Price as the only first-time nominees in this group; ty're also the two most non-traditional scores of the bunch, with “Her” a particularly forward-thinking choice for this frequently fusty branch. The Arcade Fire sound — as demonstrated, at least, on their electro-inflected 2013 album “Reflektor” — is all over this intimate, sonically rangy score, which incorporates delicate acoustic elements alongside unexpectedly warm walls of synthesizers, perfectly in tune with Spike Jonze's strangely nostalgic vision of the future. It was a surprising nominee, partly because the score isn't to the branch's usual taste, and partly because they can be selective about which industry outsiders they let in. But with the vote now handed over to the general membership, could this score seem just trendy enough to pull off the upset? Probably not, but it'd be a thrill to see Butler become this year's Trent Reznor.

“Philomena” (Alexandre Desplat)
While watching “Philomena” back in August, two related thoughts popped into my head: first, that Desplat's typically ornate, arpeggio-laden score was massively irritating, and second, that it was a dead cert for an Oscar nomination. Needless to say, the branch did not agree with my assessment of Desplat's, with its lilting Celtic flourishes and instructive emotional underscoring, and duly handed the French his sixth nomination in just eight years — his second for a Stephen Frears film. Among the most elegant composers at work today, Desplat is deservedly a new fixture in this category, and is due his first win — voters feeling uninspired by selection may acquiesce this year, if only to give a token win to a well-liked Best Picture nominee. (Individual names don't appear on the ballots in the technical categories, so they may or may not remember who the composer actually is.) Still, while the man's day will come, it's hard to believe it'll be for this particular work.

“Saving Mr. Banks” (Thomas Newman)
Also on the overdue list is Newman, who notched up his 12th career nomination — and his second consecutive appearance in this category, after “Skyfall” — for what was surely the year's most red-faced Best Picture hopeful on nomination morning. Remember those pundits who told us that Disney's self-mythologizing ode to “Mary Poppins” was the year's surefire middlebrow sweeper? Well, that certainly didn't pan out, as the Academy blanked it in every category but this one. Without wishing to be overly harsh, I think they may as well have gone for the full shut-out: Newman's score is appropriately twinkly and treacly for the material, occasionally playing on motifs from the Shermans' beloved “Poppins” compositions, but it's not especially inspired or memorable. If Academy members have already forgotten the film to the extent that the nomination count suggests they had, it's doubtful they'll remember it here.

Will win: “Gravity”
Could win: “Her”
Should win: “Her”
Should have been here: “Ain't Them Bodies Saints”

Not a strong category this year, in my opinion — though at least the winner looks likely to be one of the more inventive scores in the race. It didn't have to be that way, though: Hans Zimmer's delirious score for “The Lone Ranger” was blissful Hollywood excess, while on the other end of the scale, Daniel Hart's organic, handclap-heavy score for “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” was a wholly original achievement. In a more classical vein, Ilan Eshkeri's “The Invisible Woman” score was mournfully gorgeous; Shane Carruth's work on the ineligible “Upstream Color” something else entirely. Oh well.

What do you think deserves to win Best Original Score this year? Vote in our poll below.

How do you think this race will pan out, and what contender do you wish were here? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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