Movie Music 2010: Oscar-Nominated Scores

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Sherlock Holmes i

Elementary: Andy Trudeau predicts that Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock, will win the Oscar for Best Film Score. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros. Pictures
Sherlock Holmes

Elementary: Andy Trudeau predicts that Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock, will win the Oscar for Best Film Score.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Last year, the voters for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided that a song-based soundtrack should win the Oscar for Best Film Score. The award went to A.R. Rahman, a performer, producer and composer whose music for Slumdog Millionaire brought together Western and South Asian influences in dramatic fashion.

It's a year later, and there are five new scores hoping to draw that golden statuette.

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Avatar
Film composers typically write fast and on short deadlines. According to James Horner, he was working on this piece for more than a year, so clearly this is music he's thought about a lot. Horner established himself by writing for action films, so there's also impressive battle music in this score, written for large symphony orchestra. But the score also features many small touches instead of broad strokes. The various cues on the soundtrack are well supplied with brief, delicate vignettes.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Twice previously nominated for a film score Oscar, composer Alexandre Desplat said that the director of this stop-motion animated film originally wanted a big symphonic sound. But after seeing some early test segments, the composer convinced him to go with leaner, more transparent instrumentation. It's impressive how he chooses and blends his instruments, channeling Ennio Morricone at one point and even whistling at another. There's less than 25 minutes of score on the soundtrack, but it's clear throughout that the composer was having a real good time.

The Hurt Locker
Everything transforms radically for the next nominee. Nominees, actually: Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. Theirs is a non-traditional soundtrack intended to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Electronics, a small group of instruments, real sounds recorded on site — often all layered together — make for as much a soundscape as score. This soundtrack chronicles the experiences of a three-man bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Again and again, the music conjures up a deadly, hostile environment. What humanity that does exist here is grim, and strangely detached: It's a bold choice by the Oscar selection committee.

Hans Zimmer i

Film composer Hans Zimmer is hoping to take home an actual trophy this year at the Academy Awards. Kevin Winter/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Hans Zimmer

Film composer Hans Zimmer is hoping to take home an actual trophy this year at the Academy Awards.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Sherlock Holmes
The scoring assignment for director Guy Richie's reimagining of Sherlock Holmes went to Hans Zimmer, a composer whose trademarks are loud and hard. Here, it was the director who urged the composer to change his persona. Zimmer obliged — sort of. Early cuts of Sherlock Holmes were temporarily tracked with Zimmer's music for The Dark Knight. Rather than trying to match the continuous, pounding energy of that score, Zimmer often went the other way. But this is an action film after all, and the action sequences are where Zimmer is most effective. At one point, with the hero in harm's way, he has fun with the Westminster Chimes melody — you'll hear it in the low strings.

Up
The last of this year's nominees for best score is Michael Giacchino, whose busy 2009 schedule included the Star Trek reboot. This nomination is for the Disney/Pixar animated film Up. Previously nominated for his work on Ratatouille, Giacchino said that he wasn't scoring animation here, but rather writing for characters. For one of the principal figures, he created a motif that's first heard as a sad waltz; it's a theme heard throughout this score. With wonderfully uncluttered orchestration, Giacchino follows wherever his character goes and adapts the theme to the circumstances.

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Prediction: These are all fine scores, but this year, there's no real standout for me. So this time around, I'm going with fun, loud and over-the-top, casting my vote for Hans Zimmer's work on Sherlock Holmes.

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