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A Query of Everything: 5 Takeaways from 2015’s Best Original Score Nominees

The Theory of Everything

Why should I care about the Oscars?

No, that’s a serious question. Because as much as I hate to admit it, I do. At their very best, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets it right by tripping and falling into a “Market Irglova & Glen Hansard” here or a “12 minute standing ovation” there. At their very worst, AMPAS indulges in the most regressive, ass-backwards impulses of the industry. Whether enforcing asinine restrictions on eligibility or blacklisting via internal politics, Academy voters can be inept, close-minded and utterly humorless about their annual pat-on-the-back. Too old, too white, and too male, AMPAS is like a closet mob comprised solely of Bud Selig clones, perpetually fumbling in the dark for their reading glasses.

And yet despite all this, I’m still going to throw the remote through the television if Alexandre Desplat’s The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t bring home Best Original Score this Sunday. The four other nominees Desplat’s up against — Gary Yershon’s Mr. Turner, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Theory of Everything, Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar, and Desplat’s The Imitation Game — all raise interesting questions about this year. So while we already know the best film scores from 2014, let’s indulge the Academy’s prune-faced blowhards just this once:

1. The Academy really likes that French guy

Yes, you can be nominated more than once in the same category. Alexandre Desplat has two scores up this year which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since he’s in just about everything these days. But The Imitation Game? Desplat had a better score in the same year than the one he wrote for a middling biopic about computer scientist Alan Turing.

Then again, a double nomination can’t hurt his chances. This isn’t the first time someone’s been nominated twice in the one category either. Michael Curtiz (1938) and Steven Soderbergh (2001) both received two Best Director nods — and Soderbergh won in his. 2015 won’t even be the first time someone’s been nominated twice for Best Original Score. John Williams received Oscar nominations in 1978 for both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, and in news that bodes well for Grand Budapest, the better score took home the award.

2. Form over function

Good movie scores can make for fantastic easy listening, but the best ones are always functional. Always. Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans’s The One I Love razed the romantic comedy to the ground, while Joe Hisaishi’s music sent the enchanting grandeur of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya skyward. Between The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, the Academy has ignored genuinely effective movie music for fluffy odes to wistfulness, breezy compositions so threadbare and frail they weaken the human cores in their respective stories. On the plus side, if you’re looking for a new playlist to fold laundry to, AMPAS has done half the work for you.

3. Guys are in, Ladies are (still) out

Rachel Portman produced a winding, dynamic score for Emma Asante’s period drama Belle — one that was virtually ignored by everyone. Surely, Portman didn’t think much of the snub. As a composing veteran, she already has a Best Original Score Oscar for 1996’s Emma, a fact that would be less significant if it were not the first time a woman had ever won in that category. Ever.

Film composition is (unfortunately) still a man’s world, even more so than other parts of the industry, so it’s especially frustrating when AMPAS gets served a spectacular movie score on a silver platter and voters choose to ignore it. Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin is an incomprehensible black hole of screeches and sighs, with the Micachu & the Shapes bandleader crafting something both callous and endlessly inviting. Scarlett Jóhansson trawling the streets of Scotland literally hunting for man meat got people excited in ways no other arthouse film has in recent memory. For an organization so easily swayed by industry buzz and publicity, omitting Levi’s phenomenal work seems like an oversight. You had one job, Academy.

mica levi

4. Some things change

There’s still something to celebrate this year. Interstellar‘s inclusion is particularly remarkable, and not just because it’s a consolation prize for what little attention Christopher Nolan’s “A.I. meets The Lakehouse” space odyssey has received. When he wants to be, Hans Zimmer can be as surprising and progressive as the best of them — or when he’s specifically being guided to. In Interstellar, Nolan deliberately shied away from the booming brass and percussion that defined his vision of Gotham City, restricting from relying on those old crutches. Instead, we got a gorgeous cosmic organ, one that refracts the vast emptiness of space and turns it into a ballad of universal empathy.

AMPAS hasn’t nominated Zimmer since 2010’s Inception utter bullshit for Kung Fu Panda 2 true believers — but he did take home an Oscar decades ago for The Lion King. Zimmer’s been plenty vocal about the ridiculous handicaps Academy rules place on the category, and it’s not like voters don’t know how to hold grudges for years at a time. It’s a low bar, but the Academy still recognized someone who has no qualms about pointing out stupidity when he sees it.

5. Some things stay the same

The Academy goes ape shit for historical adaptations. If you include The Social Network, their Best Original Score nominations alone have averaged at least one historical drama or biopic per year since 2000. That’s a lot, and this year we’ve got three of them. In Mr. Turner, Gary Yershon uses slinking strings to keep plenty of distance between us and the cantankerous 19th century painter, muting the gruffness of Timothy Spall’s performance in the process. Beyond its inexplicable darling status, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Theory of Everything treats the inspiration and intellect of Stephen Hawking like a magical light switch, and The Imitation Game‘s effervescence feels like stalling, its flurries of piano and strings covering up gaps in intellectual territory the movie knows it’s not covering. Between them, these scores all approach their complicated subjects with caution, revering eccentric thinkers from a distance but ultimately maintaining a “hands off” approach to their respective geniuses.

A win for The Grand Budapest Hotel (or even Interstellar for that matter) isn’t going to induce a sea change in AMPAS voters, but it would bookmark a moment in awards history in which a win wasn’t dictated by status quo or campaign buzz. The last time that happened, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were on the receiving end of the golden statue for a moment so significant, it was an outright reinvention. No pressure.


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