The Best Original Score category at the Academy Awards has often become one of the strangest in recent Oscar history. Bizarre rules often obstruct some fantastic scores from being nominated (There Will Be Blood), and it often seems more like a popularity contest than what was truly the Best Original Score. Still, this year proves to be a stand-out from recent Oscars memory.
Memorable scores have become less frequent to come by. Most scores act more as filler than individual themes audiences can instantly memorize à la Back to the Future or Fargo. This year, however, the Academy has two legends and three memorable veterans vying for the Academy Award. Regardless of who I want to win, all five scores are quite extraordinary.
Let's talk turkey and dissect what makes each score a true nomination.
Thomas Newman - 'Bridge of Spies'
Caught up with a movie we'll discuss later, Steven Spielberg was without his steady composer John Williams, and instead had to go to 13-time nominated Thomas Newman. Newman is best known for his scores on Sam Mendes's films American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Skyfall; as well as his work on the Pixar films Wall-E and Finding Nemo.
While avoiding the character forming and thrilling queues often shown in Williams's work, Newman goes for a subtler theme ripe with patriotism as well as fulfilling the movie's theme of "doing the right thing." Even at its most tense moments, Newman keeps the music as quiet as possible, still pulling off feelings of unease and tension.
Staying as calm and sedated as the towering performance of Mark Rylance, the score gets the job done, taking a step back in order to shed more light on the wonderful performances throughout this Spielberg gem.
Carter Burwell - 'Carol'
An absolute legend for his eclectic work with the Coen Brothers and Spike Jonze, this is, somehow, composer Carter Burwell's first Oscar Nomination.
The musical theme for Carol is another subdued score, that is fairly light in tone and attempts to capture moment of falling in love with someone new. It feels like a rush losing sight of what is socially acceptable during the time period the film is set in. Using the light theme and slowing it down (much like how Reznor utilized his main theme in Social Network), Burwell is able to perfectly portray the mood of the third act.
While it doesn't exactly come close to Burwell's work on films like True Grit or Barton Fink he still, as always, delivers the goods and scores a long overdue nomination.
Jóhann Jóhannsson - 'Sicario'
Upon his second collaboration with Denis Villenueve, Jóhannsson scored a second straight nomination. Jóhannsson was previously nominated last year for his work on The Theory of Everything.
Sicario's score, much like the film, goes right for the throat. Its main theme titled 'The Beast' is a dark descent into the criminal underworld of Mexico. It pulsates an ominous feeling as Emily Blunt is plunged further into the darkness. Tracks like 'Melancholia' sticks with the Mexican culture as well as one of the few toned down tracks of the score.
Sicario's unnerving and never-ending tension and violence makes the music an absolute fit. It's one of the rare original scores from this year that I still listen to over and over again.
John Williams - 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'
With his record 50th nomination, only behind Walt Disney for all-time nominations, John Williams delivers yet again. The man needs no introduction. His frequent collaborations with Steven Spielberg and his work on the Star Wars franchise make him one of the greatest composers who ever lived.
The Force Awakens in both story and score was a wonderful blend of old and new - mixing in both the classic themes from the original trilogy with some new themes that still stand out, especially 'Rey's Theme'. The track perfectly encapsulates the charm, resourcefulness, and naive attitude of Rey. It sets the stage for further variations and evolutions of it moving deeper into the new trilogy.
Other tracks such as 'The Falcon' are a literal blend of new and old; new for the chase and old for the Millennium Falcon music queues. Some may think it's overkill to nominate Williams yet again, but the work proves itself worthy of the original trilogy and of Williams's massive discography.
Ennio Morricone - 'The Hateful Eight'
With The Hateful Eight, Morricone captures a blend of styles between horror and western settings. The heavy string sections and eerie child-like xylophone emphasize the horror, while the horn sections provide a little reminder of the civil war-era setting. Constant variations of the theme continue to tighten the grip of pressure applied to both the characters and the audience. It's a score that continues to make you nervous.
Just to be biased for a moment, this score is an absolute lock for me for the Oscar. Morricone has become the master composer, the one who basically invented the classic Western theme. There's often a mischievousness to his work which often works to the advantages of the morally ambiguous characters his music plays against.
It's wholly original, while at the same time feels very familiar to Morricone's previous work; so much so that Tarantino also included outtake tracks from Morricone's work on The Exorcist 2: The Heretic and The Thing. It is far and away the best score of the new decade, and should be a must-win for Morricone, who's only Oscar was a lifetime achievement award bestowed upon him nearly ten years ago!