Tuesday, March 08, 2016

OVP: Original Score (2014)

OVP: Best Original Score (2014)

The Nominees Were...

Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game
Hans Zimmer, Interstellar
Gary Yershon, Mr. Turner
Johann Johannsson, The Theory of Everything

My Thoughts: The 2014 nominations were a strange bill for Original Score.  Gone were the favored sons like John Williams, Thomas Newman, and James Newton Howard, and while Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat are hardly first-timers, the former was coming off of a bit of a drought with the category (Zimmer hadn't been nominated in four years despite having scored a Best Picture winner) and the latter scoring dual nominations, theoretically limiting his shot at an actual win after so many years of being a bridesmaid.  Perhaps more surprising were the inclusions of Gary Yershon and Johann Johannsson, both first-timers in a category that usually has room for one (at most) person being welcomed to the party for the first-time.  Since then, Johansson has already graduated to a second nomination just a year later, so we'll begin with him in the write-up, because why not?

I will admit up front that I kind of hated the score to The Theory of Everything.  Johansson's Icelandic sensibilities feel like something that I wouldn't mind on its own, but when accompanying the film, it jars like it is a bit out-of-place and for a score this omnipresent and gushing, it plays like it was written more for something you'd buy from a kiosk at a mall than one you'd give an Oscar nomination.  The reliance on acoustic and electronic music makes the strings sound overtly-stylized and takes away from the movie.  There's also no recurrent theme-there's no moment in the music where you know, quite clearly, that you're listening to The Theory of Everything.  It's showy music, let's be honest, and was in a Best Picture nominee so I get how it was nominated, but that's still no excuse as to why something so simplistic was nominated, and I leave a little bit flummoxed if Johansson, who has already gotten a follow-up spot for Sicario, becomes a regular in this category.

One would think I'd have the same objections to The Imitation Game, the other movie about a troubled scientist up for Oscars, but you would be wrong as this is that Alexandre Desplat score that genuinely works and doesn't flush out too much of the movie.  While it does occasionally have Desplat's indulgences as a composer (he occasionally enters Hans Zimmer-territory in the "too much-I want to hear the actors!" sort of handicap), the film probably needed some emotional boost considering how much the writers are underselling Alan Turing.  Desplat's repetitive, instantly recognizable score mirrors his main character's obsession with pattern and discipline, and the music is probably the best of any of the scores nominated in terms of playing it separate from the movie (this isn't a strong metric as the use of the score is just as, if not more, important than what is happening onscreen but it's worth noting).  Desplat's double nomination was expected, but it's nice to know that the Academy highlighted one of the few attributes in The Imitation Game worth celebrating.

Desplat was of course also nominated for a different Best Picture nominee, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and here again you have an instantly recognizable score.  Few film composers rely upon the balalaika in their music, and while the instrument oftentimes evokes a certain-type of Russian cliche, the chase music in particular is an instant classic, and something I expect you'll see mimicked and copied for years to come from the film.  This nomination also feels a bit like a tip of the hat to Desplat's long history with Wes Anderson, as so many of Anderson's most frequent players got their due during this ceremony as a result of Grand Budapest being that rare film that actually takes a perennial snubee to a nominee.  I will say that Desplat should lose points for relying pretty heavily on music he didn't compose (several classic Russian pieces provide buffer in the film and are more reliant upon that than you usually see allowed in a nominee in this category), but overall this is playful fun.

The biggest surprise nominee of this bunch was surely Gary Yershon.  Yershon, like Desplat, got nominated for many years of collaborations with the same director, though in this case Mike Leigh is an Academy favorite whose films were usually just relegated to the acting and writing categories.  For an English period film, the music in the movie relies pretty heavily on the unusual instrument of the saxophone, and pushes the harp as a grounding force in the music rather than as an added flourish.  As a result, while it is hardly an instantly-evoked "this is Mr. Turner" sort of theme to the film, the music is distinctive and sharp, something that I find more compelling even outside the film.  It has to be said that Mr. Turner probably best uses its score in terms of not overpowering the film but simply finding its way in the background.  This occasionally takes away Yershon's big moments, but it lends itself well to the actual goal of making a great movie.

The final nomination is yet another frequent director/composer combo, except here they've already been honored before.  Hans Zimmer is one of those composers I run deeply hot-and-cold with, and the reason for that is that, on occasion, his scores run the line into bombast.  That isn't to say they aren't memorable, and Interstellar definitely is.  The film's score instantly elicits images of the film, particularly the great work with solo pianos and the mounting vocals/strings whenever we're headed into space.  One of the beautiful things about Nolan's film is how close and yet how far the movie seems; we aren't encountering aliens, just giant slabs of rock light years away from our own little blue orb, and Zimmer's musical trills aids that majesty and the wonder that is space travel.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Grammys eligibility window for the best film score nomination occasionally leaves different nominees from opposing years, but The Grand Budapest did pick up a trophy, while Gone Girl, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Whiplash, Birdman, and The Theory of Everything all won nominations, though not necessarily against each other.  It's worth noting, however, that Birdman became only the fifth film ever to win the Grammy Award for Best Movie Composition and not be nominated for an Oscar, in this case because the Academy deemed it "unoriginal" enough, a questionable verdict considering that Grand Budapest featured scores not original to the film as well.  The Golden Globes decided to include Birdman and Gone Girl alongside Academy nominees Interstellar and The Imitation Game (the victor was The Theory of Everything).  The Grand Budapest took center stage at the BAFTA's, beating out The Theory of Everything, Under the Skin, Birdman, and Interstellar.  In terms of sixth place, my hunch is that with Birdman out of the running recent winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross probably could have eked out a nomination, though their miss for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after Grammy/Globe love may indicate they were a one-and-done situation with the Oscars, in which case I'd go with perennial favorite Thomas Newman for The Judge, who has proven he can come out of nowhere and score a citation here.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I definitely would have made room for Mica Levi's creepy, alien-noir in Under the Skin, a massively underrated film and one that should live a healthy life going forward amidst cult cinema fans.  I know that some people may eye-roll, but I actually still quite enjoyed the places Howard Shore took an admittedly familiar theme in The Hobbit 3, which I think could have scored at least one music nomination in its three-year run considering how central it is to the films.  Finally, Steven Price, who won the Oscar the previous year for Gravity, made an equally good film composition with Fury, and though the film was totally dismissed by Oscar, I think it should have made a play for the nominations at least here.
Oscar’s Choice: Desplat finally ended his long losing streak with the mad love-in for Grand Budapest Hotel.
My Choice: I'm going with Desplat as well, but for the different film of The Imitation Game, as I found it a more intriguing score and slightly more central to the whole of its film than second place Interstellar.  I'll follow that up with Mr. Turner, Grand Budapest, and Theory of Everything way in the back.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Do you prefer your Desplat in the mountains of Asia or the offices of Britain?  What do you think caused Gary Yershon's shock nomination?  And why the love/hate relationship for Hans Zimmer with the Academy?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Past Best Score Contests: 20082009, 2010201120122013

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