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Living Legends John Williams and Ennio Morricone Compete for the Oscar for Best Original Score

The Hateful Eight 3 cast

The Academy Award for Best Original Score rewards those musicians who compose the original music for our films. It is without question one of the most recognized crafts categories. It is not difficult to think of examples of film scores that are simply iconic, from “Gone With the Wind” to “The Godfather” to “Once Upon a Time in the West” to “Jurassic Park.”

The nominees are chosen by the music branch (who also choose the nominees for Best Original Song, which, as we will analyze in December, is a very different category due to several different reasons).

Epic films, as well as best picture contenders and animated features, frequently find favor here. The music branch is also renowned for being an “insiders’ club.” It is rare that more than one of the five nominees is a first-timer, and there are certain stalwarts who we are used to seeing year after year.

Star Wars The Force Awakens celebration photos 3

Without question the branch’s favorite composer ever is 49-time nominee John Williams. This year he is once again providing the music from the galaxy far far away in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It is destined to be a hit, and Williams can never be ruled out. So I suspect that he is going to find himself joining Walt Disney as the second person to receive a fiftieth Oscar nomination.

Williams’s age (83) may be preventing him from being as prolific as he once was. In the result, he is not fulfilling composer duties for Steven Spielberg for the first time in 30 years. Instead, another Academy favorite – Thomas Newman – stepped into that role for “Bridge of Spies.” In addition to the fact that Newman has 12 nominations of his own, the score also featured many of the trademarks that have made Spielberg scores so successful in this category. Given that the film has already been released, I’d say Newman is even more assured of a spot than Williams. (One never knows how to analyze a score’s potential before hearing it.) Newman also has “Spectre” coming out this year but despite his nomination for “Skyfall,” I doubt Newman will become a double nominee, given the strength of the competition.

Alexandre Desplat won this category last year for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” capping off an extraordinary decade in which his European sensibilities have found favor on both sides of the Atlantic. “The Danish Girl” reunites him with Tom Hooper and gives him the chance to perform at his best on a film that is going to be a player overall. I would be surprised if he fails to make the cut.

The Hateful Eight 3 cast

On the note of legends, it is hard to top Ennio Morricone. The 86-year old has composed the score for “The Hateful Eight,” Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. One would think that the music branch would relish the opportunity to give him a sixth nomination (he has only won an honorary Oscar). Having said that, it is still uncertain how much original music there will be. Tarantino’s films are known for absolute excellence with respect to the use of pre-existing music, but that can be a problem for eligibility and nominations in this category.

Alan Silvestri and Patrick Doyle are two very good composers with two nominations each to their names. And on “The Walk” and “Cinderella,” their talents were ever so on display. However, I’m not sure these films will actually be pushed by their studios in this category, and there may be other films that are more “typical” nominees.

Howard Shore is a three-time winner for his work on the “Lord of the Rings” films. And “Spotlight” is a very good, albeit minimalist, score. He could well be nominated. His problems will be the facts the score is well, minimalist, and Shore doesn’t have a lot of success outside the “Lord of the Rings” movies (just a single nomination for “Hugo”).

“Concussion”’s Christmas release is evidently an attempt to play for awards while bringing an important topic to light. Whether the film will actually gain traction is still very much to be determined. But James Newton Howard has managed to earn nominations even for films that were out of contention elsewhere (“The Village,” “Defiance” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” are all examples). So I’d consider him here.

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson earned his first nomination last year for “The Theory of Everything,” and likely came close to winning. His “Sicario” score has also received many positive notices. But is the score more like “Theory of Everything” or more like his previous collaboration with Denis Villeneuve, “Prisoners”? I’m inclined to think the latter, which did not lead to Academy embrace.

“The Revenant”’s Ryûichi Sakamoto will be attempting a comeback, having won this category for “The Last Emperor” twenty-eight years ago. The great Japanese musician will have outstanding opportunities to highlight his work to a Hollywood audience. While the branch is somewhat skeptical of composers whose primary source of income is not film, it’s possible the score – and the film – will present too much to pass up.

Michael Giacchino won this category for “Up,” having been nominated for “Ratatouille.” His joyous “Inside Out” score may well bring him back to the game for a Pixar feature. I expect the film to do quite well this awards season.

So far, I’ve only mentioned composers who have previously been nominated. But there is usually, if by no means always, a first-time nominee. David Lang has the advantage of “Youth” being music-focused, though it seems a somewhat small player overall. “In the Heart of the Sea” will give Roque Baños many epic opportunities, though I still view the film as a major wild card. I expect Dan Romer to earn praise and awards for “Beasts of No Nation” but if he couldn’t score with “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” will he really manage a nod for this film? Michael Brook’s “Brooklyn” score may prove too subtle and Daniel Pemberton’s compositions for “Steve Jobs” seem unlikely to be what most will remember about the film. And then there is “Carol”’s Carter Burwell, doing great work yet again. But I can’t help but think that Burwell is simply not this branch’s cup of tea. Or else he’d have been nominated by now – many times over for that matter.

I’ll end by mentioning a composer who sadly will be composing no more. James Horner, Oscar winner for “Titanic,” passed away in a plane crash earlier this year. “Southpaw” is being pushed in other categories, but I’m not sure its music will be what people most remember. So I wonder if potentially inspiring music for “The 33” will prompt his fellow composers to give him a posthumous nomination.

Those are the top contenders as I see them. And I’d venture to say that “Bridge of Spies,” “The Danish Girl,” “The Hateful Eight,” “Inside Out,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will be the final five. But we’ll see. Or, perhaps more accurately, we’ll hear…

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