Who Will Win the Oscar for Best Original Film Score and Why?

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As a musician, the Oscars might not seem as interesting as the award ceremonies that are more “up our alley,” like the Grammys, the VMAs, the BET Awards, the AMAs, etc. But there’s always something uselful to glean from the films that have been nominated in the Best Original Score category.

Whether you’re a producercomposersongwriter, or just thinking about getting into scoring for picture, it’s not difficult to recognize the impact that music has on the experience of watching a film. If you have any doubts, try playing around with a tonality-switching exercise using theme music, and you’ll quickly recognize how the mood and emotional underpinnings of a story can be turned upside-down, with even small changes to the key, chords, or timbre of the music.

Despite the power music has to set a scene, when it comes to Hollywood scores, so many end up sounding formulaic and inhuman, despite the composer’s best intentions; and they never really manage to leave their mark on the film, or on the viewer. This year, however, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has collected five nominees for Best Original Score that are all incredibly powerful, standout works of music and sound design in their own right — and are even more powerful and impressive in their ability to infuse their respective films with emotion, humanity, and storytelling. Who will win?

Here are this year’s contenders, read on to see what we think…

Dunkirk by Hans Zimmer

The spectacular and arresting score for Christopher Nolan’s latest was actually created by the trio of Zimmer, his protégé Benjamin Wallfisch, and Lorne Balfe. Since no more than two composers can be credited on an Oscar nomination, Zimmer has submitted by himself.

The creative genesis of the score came about when Nolan gave Zimmer his pocket watch. As he has done on past scores, including Interstellar, Zimmer became intent on rendering this “temporal geometry” in the film’s music. He eventually expanded the ambit of his mechanical inspirations to include other sounds, like the rattle of the film’s motorboat and the ominous “Shepard tone” device which, when employed by a string ensemble or synthesizer, gives the auditory illusion that the tones never stop rising.

The effect overall is a score that splits the difference between American blockbuster and experimental European film. It’s a strange, technical masterpiece of composition, impressive for its scale, polish, and experimentation alike — and it’s a strong contender for the award. Our friends over at Vox went into depth explaining of some of Zimmer’s mind-bending compositional techniques in this video.

Here’s “Supermarine.”

Phantom Thread by Jonny Greenwood

Radiohead’s younger Greenwood has been making a name for himself as a successful composer and arranger of late. His Oscar ambitions suffered a setback when his tremendous score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) was deemed ineligible for nomination, making this year’s recognition that much more deserved.

Complimenting the setting — the world of 1950s fashion — Greenwood’s score for Phantom Thread trades on elegant minimalism and classical instrumentation; but his even his sweet melodies seem to darkly foreshadow the anxiety and unhappiness that touches the film’s central romance. Like the film itself, Greenwood’s score is a tribute to a classic period in filmmaking, but is wise enough to balance homage with genuine emotional depth and musical storytelling.

Here’s “House of Woodcock.”

The Shape of Water by Alexandre Desplat

Desplat returns to the Oscars with his ninth nomination and the potential for his second win. His score is integral to the film’s execution of exploring a strange tryst between a mute woman and a fantastical, humanoid water-creature. Moreover, the breadth of the score is impressive, given that the director Guillermo del Toro’s film blends the fairytale elements of magical realism with the tense pacing of a thriller with disturbing horror tropes.

It’s possible that Desplat has created the most melodious score of this year’s nominations. For an example, look no further than the hauntingly hummable title theme that opens the film. With texture and rhythm often taking center stage in film composing, Desplat harks back to past masters like Hermann, Rota, and Elfman, with his unabashed and sensual melodies.

Here’s “The Shape of Water.”

Star Wars: The Last Jedi by John Williams

Speaking of film music’s big hitters, John Williams is back with his eighth original score for the Star Wars cycle. Like all of his work for the franchise, Williams’ score for The Last Jedi is an exemplar of gestural, sweeping film music. Inspired by Hollywood’s Golden Age greats like Korngold, Steiner, Newman, and Tiomkin, Star Wars’ scores are a tried-and-true blend of character driven themes (or “leitmotifs”) and an ever-present underscore that emotionally tracks the action on screen. (When there isn’t music playing, there’s either sound design or the film is over.)

Fans will find much comforting familiarity in Williams’ score for The Last Jedi, but close followers of his work will notice subtle innovations. Using his vast repertoire of Star Wars music, Williams employs techniques of pastiche and deconstruction of the series core musical DNA. Read a more in-depth John Williams analysis here.

Here’s “The Battle of Crait.”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Carter Burwell

Last, but not least, is the unassuming but secretly powerful score for this year’s standout politically-charged black comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Carter Burwell is a master of scoring ironic for idiosyncratic films, having cut his teeth working with the auteur duo of Joel and Ethan Coen. For Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards, he deftly plays both the jokes and the emotional moments with the same precision. At the same time, his use of rustic guitar licks and martial percussion among more conventional orchestral flourishes helps to convey the sense of dread and conflict that overcomes the film’s Southern community.

Here’s “Mildred Goes to War.”

Some Quick Predictions

The Oscars have a history of upsets, so take the following with a grain of salt.

Starting with the least likely to win, I’d say that while Burwell and Williams have created fantastic scores for excellent films, they haven’t received the same amount of attention and adulation as the other nominees have this year. Zimmer is a definite contender (when is he not?), but with his influence on the industry and long history of work, it’s not certain that the Academy will give him a statue for a score that is not as excellent nor as groundbreaking as his other work. While I personally think his score to Dunkirk is worthy of further study and wide appreciation, it doesn’t exactly see Zimmer stepping too far outside of his own comfort zone. I therefore find it hard to pick between Desplat and Greenwood as my top contenders, but if I had to choose, I’d give the Oscar to Greenwood.

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