Arts & Culture, Opinion, Music

6th February 2020

Best Original Score | 2020 Oscars Opinions and Predictions

Opinion pieces are the view of the author and in no way reflects the view of the Liverpool Guild Student Media or Liverpool Guild of Students.

Toxicity and vitriol dominate movie awards season every year, and this year has been a particularly toxic and vitriolic one. Debates around a shocking lack of diversity in the pool of nominees, not just for the Oscars, but the BAFTAs and Golden Globes, too, have piled on top of angry social media takes about the social politics of individual films like Joker, Jojo Rabbit, The Irishman, Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Ordinarily, the discussion around the accolade of Best Original Score manages to escape the noxiousness of awards politics, but even this normally uncontroversial category has been somewhat tinged by disagreements over who is and isn’t deserving of a nomination.

With that in mind, here is a rundown of the Academy Award nominees for Best Original Score, their merits and drawbacks, likelihood of awards success and some notable snubs.

Little Women (Score by Alexandre Desplat)

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic novel Little Women, is one of the films that has been rather unjustifiably overlooked this awards season. Gerwig was not nominated for Best Director, despite the film earning a Best Picture nomination.

Thankfully however, the Academy has acknowledged composer Alexandre Desplat’s stunning work on the film’s delicately intricate score. The music of Little Women is a reflection of the great working relationship between Gerwig and Desplat but beyond that, the deep love and appreciation the film has for its characters. Desplat’s individual character themes have as nuanced and emotional relationship with one another as the characters themselves. It’s not an innovative score, but it is a special one. Unfortunately, while I would be delighted to see Little Women receive this accolade, the awards momentum of films like Joker and 1917 make a victory for Desplat unlikely.

Joker (Score by Hildur Guðnadóttir)

Full disclosure: there are two films in this field that I haven’t seen, and this is the first. Joker, for a number of reasons both politically and artistically, is a film that never appealed to me enough to go and see it. I am not a fan of Todd Phillips as a director, supervillain origin films, or this new trend in prestige comic book movies.

That being said, the one thing that has caught my attention in and among the furore around Joker is the score. Hildur Guðnadóttir is an innovative composer and cellist who uses electronic production techniques to build scores from her cello playing. She is also one of very few women to be nominated in this category. It is vitally important that the Academy makes the effort to rectify the gender disparity in the Oscars as a whole, but particularly in categories like this, and that it recognises innovation where it can. Joker is the most nominated film in this year’s race, and there is a lot of buzz around Guðnadóttir, so it is safe to assume that she will walk away with this award.

Marriage Story (Score by Randy Newman)

Let’s get this out of the way: Marriage Story is my favourite of the films nominated at the Oscars this year, and my favourite score in this category. On top of that, the composer Randy Newman is one of my musical heroes both in his film work and his songwriting.

Marriage Story is a totally devasting emotional experience, and Newman’s score is an utterly delightful musical augmentation of the film’s ugly cry-inducing story and performances. I’m not going to hold my breath in anticipation of a victory in this category for Newman, particularly since he has received a lifetime achievement award from the New York Film Critics’ Circle following his two film releases in 2019, but I am glad he has been nominated.

1917 (Score by Thomas Newman)

Randy’s cousin Thomas is the composer for the second film in this category that I haven’t seen. I have no ideological opposition to 1917, I merely have not had the time to see it yet, but this film was worked on by two industry legends who have been largely unsuccessful at the Oscars despite a long list of nominations.

The first is legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner, Shawshank Redemption & just about every Coen Brothers film), and composer Thomas Newman, the latter of which is the most nominated composer never to have won an Oscar. That alone makes Newman’s case for victory this year a compelling one, made even more so by 1917’s high chances of winning best picture. If Guðnadóttir doesn’t win for Joker, Newman is the obvious second choice.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Score by John Williams)

In my view, this is the least deserved nomination in the Best Original Score field this year. John Williams is a legend, responsible for a large number of the most arresting and important scores in film history, but I am not alone in feeling as if the Academy is guaranteed to nominate him for every score he writes, regardless of quality, out of some kind of reverent obligation.

Williams’ recent work has been somewhat inconsistent, with scores for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Lincoln and The Adventures of Tintin representing some of his best writing ever, and scores for The Post, The BFG and War Horse feeling somewhat lazy and uninspired. The Rise of Skywalker’s score suffers from the film’s tight production schedule, with significant rewrites and re-shoots undoubtedly leaving Williams without sufficient time to put together a score that meets his usual standards. This score should have been left off the list to make room for something else.

Notable Snubs

There are three films (among many others) whose scores have been unjustly ignored by the Academy this year on which I would like to shine a light.

The first is the score for James Gray’s film Ad Astra (AKA Brad Pitt has daddy issues in space). James Gray is notorious for making critically acclaimed films about journeys, both figurative and literal, of self-discovery. Brad Pitt’s toxic masculinity-confronting journey through space is accompanied by the year’s most hauntingly atmospheric score by British-German contemporary classical composer Max Richter.

Also overlooked this year was the score to the third and final instalment of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy. Composer John Powell’s work for the series has produced some of the most iconic film music of the last decade, and his score for the story’s conclusion builds on all of the themes he’s previously established, resulting in the year’s most narratively satisfying score.

Arguably, 2019’s most snubbed film is the gritty, New York gambling thriller Uncut Gems. The movie tells the panic inducing story of Jewish Jeweller and sports betting addict, Howard Ratner, played to perfection by Adam Sandler, and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. The film’s score, by electronic composer Daniel Lopatin (AKA Oneohtrix Point Never), did a fantastic job amplifying its most artfully stressful moments and softening its few brief minutes of tender emotion, without ever resorting to cliché.

92nd Academy Awards is on Sunday, 9th February 2020. In the UK, the Oscars will be broadcast on Sky Cinema, with red carpet beginning at 10 pm and the ceremony itself starting around 1 am (GMT).

Featured Image Credit: Marius Masalar on Unsplash