Sunday, August 03, 2014

OVP: Original Score (2013)

OVP: Best Original Score (2013)

The Nominees Were...

John Williams, The Book Thief
Steven Price, Gravity
William Butler and Owen Pallett, Her
Alexandre Desplat, Philomena
Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks

My Thoughts: The Original Score category seems to function in a similar fashion to your high school social hierarchy.  There's always a lot of interesting music out there, each year getting layered within almost every movie (it's rare that a film functions without a score, and you notice when it doesn't have one), but this category frequently keeps picking the same few nominees each year (just like how the same girls got on Student Council, Homecoming Court, the guy you had a crush on, etc).  While it does mean that frequently the winner is fairly worthy (if you managed a nomination without a previous one, you're probably at the top of your game, and most likely to win), it also results in some truly lackluster nominations.

I'll start with one of them: Thomas Newman's Saving Mr. Banks.  This film is one of the great mysteries of the 2013 Oscar season-it started off as a potential middle-of-the-road shot at taking down the Best Picture trophy (biopic, likable, major Oscar stars) and ended up with almost nothing to show for it.  If the film was going to get a solo nomination I figured Art Direction or Best Actress, but not Best Score.  And in particular, not for this score, which is not Thomas Newman at his finest.  Newman is a great composer, and works well with a little playfulness and adventure, so he was the right choice here, but I felt like this was totally uninspired.  Everything borrows heavily from Newman's previous scores (particularly Lemony Snickett) and the music shifts too much for a film that is about, well, making music.  It's too broad, and doesn't even function particularly well when you isolate it from the film.  Overall a disappointment.

A slightly better improvement, but still not worthy of this category, would be another constant Oscar bridesmaid, Alexandre Desplat for Philomena.  Desplat relies quite well on winds in this film, but like the movie itself, his music is haunted by weird tonal shifts.  The score may reflect the film, but as a larger collective it doesn't quite work.  I liked that it has a definite theme, but almost every single piece of the film hearkens back to it too often; you become way too aware of that persistent swing in the score, almost as if you are watching a television show.  Desplat has made some marvelous scores in the past, but would probably learn well to follow John Williams' lead and limit the number he's doing each year, as they are starting to blend and seem too rushed and similar.

Williams of course was nominated this year, as he is almost every year.  Like Saving Mr. Banks, this is The Book Thief's only nomination (for the record, as you can see in the above reviews, I genuinely liked both of these films, which was not the critical consensus for the latter film in particular).  I remember listening to the credits of the film and having my aunt whisper to me, "this is beautiful music," and then see John Williams name pop up, and then she said, "oh, well that makes sense then."  Williams is a brand thanks to his many unforgettable scores, and while this is hardly Schindler's List or Star Wars, I will say that of the three repeat nominees, Williams is easily the best, and I feel deserved the citation.  There's a grandeur in the score thanks to the eloquent strings and the way that it seems to balance with the film-Williams has a theme, but he knows how to light the mood of the movie better than Desplat or Newman do with their scores.

The strangest of the nominations (Oscar rarely goes for the rock stars, particularly in this category) would have to be Her (particularly considering that Hans Zimmer was right there with 12 Years a Slave, a Best Picture nominee for god's sake), this is still a solid nomination, even if it isn't quite what I would have gone with.  The slow and deliberate piano makes a lot of sense in the atmosphere of a film that is haunted by loneliness and the way we cannot connect with other people, but I do feel that the score gets lost in the film sometimes, and not in a fade to the background way, but instead in a "there's a score?" sort of way.  The nomination should be applauded for its outside-the-box thinking, but I do feel that Zimmer (surely in sixth place) was probably doing more favors to his movie.

The final nomination is Steven Price for Gravity, a film that of course dominated the Oscars last year in a way none of these other films did.  This is also the easiest and most traditional score to love right away-it has gigantic dramatic swells, relies heavily on a central theme, and aids the movie (which has only two principle characters, so the aesthetics of the film, the music included, become more prominent).  The music itself is beautiful, frequently using solo instruments rather than an orchestra, and going with electronic-influenced pieces to aid the space-theme.  I do feel that, especially in the final third of the film, the movie relies too heavily on the score, but overall this is one of the stronger efforts of the year in terms of music.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Globes usually go a bit outside of the box with their score nominations in a way that AMPAS doesn't (though both have solid crushes on John Williams) so only Gravity and The Book Thief carry forward, with 12 Years a Slave, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and eventual winner All is Lost (written by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros front-man Alex Ebert) finishing out the lineup.  BAFTA was far more similar to AMPAS, with Gravity also winning there and Her/Philomena (oddly enough) getting ousted for 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips.  This is so odd because you would assume the more British-friendly BAFTA awards would have gone with Philomena and I still don't 100% get what Hans Zimmer did wrong.  You can check out my theories in the link I put above, but it's still a bit of a mystery.  Either way-the nine-time Oscar nominee was surely in sixth place.
Films I Would Have Nominated: Since it's become oddly central to this article, yes, I would have nominated Hans Zimmer.  The movie's got this wonderful theme that runs quietly through the film, and is some of Zimmer's stronger traditional composing in a while.  I also think it's a pity that the Academy doesn't find time for something completely new, like the playful and melancholy piano that pushes through Joel P. West's work in Short-Term 12, a crowning achievement in the film and easily my favorite score of the year.
Oscar’s Choice: Gravity was an unstoppable gravy train with AMPAS earlier this year, and it picked up yet another trophy.  It's definitely worth questioning who was in second place-I honestly think we would have seen Zimmer take the win had Gravity not existed, though of these four I suspect that Desplat's long drought with Oscar put him in silver.
My Choice: I was not particularly impressed with this lineup, all things considered (you can always tell that I am struggling with a category when there's a slight delay between write-ups), but I think the trophy was correctly given to Price.  I'd follow that with The Book Thief, Her, Philomena, and Saving Mr. Banks way in the back.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Do you go with the consensus on Gravity being the top pick, or were you cheering for someone else?  Which AMPAS-favored "pretty girl" do you wish would stop being a default nomination?  Can you explain Hans Zimmer's absence in this category?  And what was your favorite score of 2013?  Share in the comments!

Past Best Score Contests: 2009, 201020112012

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