In December, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed the 15 film scores that would be moving forward in the 2019 Oscar race. The shortlist runs the gamut from mega-blockbusters like “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” to prestige holiday season releases like “First Man” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and mixes some of Hollywood’s most revered composers (Alan Silvestri, Alexandre Desplat) with major talents who are just starting to assert themselves in the movie world (Nicholas Britell, Ben Salisbury). On the morning of January 22, five of the 15 remaining suites will be nominated for Best Original Score, but some of the shortlisted efforts — it goes without saying — are more worthy of the honor than others.
Now that Oscar voting is open and the battle lines are being drawn, here are all 15 shortlisted scores ranked from worst to best.
15. “Avengers: Infinity War” (Alan Silvestri)
Alan Silvestri deserves real credit for sewing palpable signs of life into one of the busiest and most banal superhero movies ever made. While his score is muddled by the standard-issue Marvel bombast whenever Thanos enters the fray, many of the tracks in the first half of this mega-blockbuster feel like they’re genuinely attuned to some recognizable kind of human emotion. The tender flutes that float beneath “No More Surprises” capture what’s at stake better than any of the dialogue, while the sharp violin that cuts through “Undying Fidelity” grounds the imminent Infinity War in a palpable sense of love and longing.
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And then, as usual, the grumbling horns arrive to swallow those nice things in a thick shadow of noise, as Silvestri hopelessly scrambles to keep pace with the film’s orgiastic special effects. “Forge” is the sound of a talented composer trying to harmonize between 389 different heroes at once, and there isn’t a single note that stands out with any personality of its own. In a year when Marvel upped its game with “Black Panther” and finally recognized that music doesn’t have to be treated like a necessary evil, it would be inexcusable to nominate Silvestri’s tired “Infinity War” score.
14. “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” (James Newton Howard)
James Newton Howard could have re-used the score for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” note-for-note and no one would have noticed. Given how similar “The Crimes of Grindelwald” sounds, he might have been wise to save himself the trouble. No disrespect to Howard (a titan of his field who currently has eight Oscar nominations to his name), but every single one of the “Harry Potter” scores was more enchanted and memorable than this.
13. “Mary Poppins Returns” (Marc Shaiman)
On the one hand, Marc Shaiman’s tingling, full-bodied score is one of the biggest reasons why “Mary Poppins Returns” is able to channel the magic of the original movie. On the other hand, Marc Shaiman’s prefab, slavishly nostalgic score is one of the biggest reasons why “Mary Poppins Returns” isn’t able to create any magic of its own. Shaiman is a skilled and deserving veteran with five Oscar nominations to his name, but his sixth would come at the expense of some far more interesting work.
12. “A Quiet Place” (Marco Beltrami)
No score worked harder this year, or was more instrumental to the effectiveness of the movie for which it was written. And while Marco Beltrami’s music really just needed to be loud in order to get the job done, it was also tender, and provided “A Quiet Place” with the bedrock of human feeling that it needed to anchor its many, many, many sudden jolts; a pro like Beltrami (nominated for “The 3:10 to Yuma” and “The Hurt Locker”) knows how to do the job without getting in his own way, and he knows how to make it look easy.
In this case, it’s entirely possible that stronger melodies and more commanding music may have unbalanced the film’s silence, and discouraged audiences from paying such close attention to every little noise. Nevertheless, he may have overcompensated, as his score doesn’t leave much of an impression at all. In a film where every sound is profoundly important, it’s hard to get excited about such forgettable tunes.
11. “Ready Player One” (Alan Silvestri)
There are moments in Alan Silvestri’s “Ready Player One” score where you can hear what he was going for — where it sounds like the composer was up for the challenge of a movie that folds oodles of pop nostalgia into a digital future where everyone gets a chance to be their favorite heroes. A track like “‘Hold Onto Something’” is a perfect example, as an Arthurian sense of purpose and adventure suddenly gives way to the crumbling metal percussiveness of a computer world reformatting itself on the fly. The synth melody of “‘Get Me Out of This’” gently evokes the ’80s blockbusters that “Ready Player One” is regurgitating here, and the off-kilter beat of “Orb of Osuvox” hints at the bolder entertainment that Steven Spielberg could have made with this thin material. But most of the music here sounds like a generic mishmash of familiar movie sounds. And while that might be perversely appropriate for a movie about a world that has lost its desire to create any new art, it also adds to the feeling that “Ready Player One” is part of the problem.
10. “Crazy Rich Asians” (Brian Tyler)
Most of the conversation about the music in “Crazy Rich Asians” centered on the soundtrack’s delightful Chinese-language covers of Western pop/rock songs like “Yellow” and “Material Girl,” but composer Brian Tyler provided much of the film’s breezy magic. Tyler — who tends to write serviceable, bombastic music for serviceable, bombastic films (“Furious 7,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” etc.) — stepped a tiny bit out of his wheelhouse for this spirited rom-com, and he did so with the kind of poise that might earn Michelle Yeoh’s approval. His traditional score emphasizes broad energy over cultural specificity, creating a familiar but fittingly lush vibe for this modern fairy tale about a woman who learns that she’s engaged to the Singaporean Prince Charming. The music isn’t all that memorable, even in its more propulsive moments, but it does an effective job of sustaining the movie’s careful balance between fantasy and reality. Tyler will surely nab a nomination one day, but the competition might be a bit too strong for “Crazy Rich Asians” to land him his first.
9. “The Death of Stalin” (Christopher Willis)
Scoring a comedy is never easy, especially not an Armando Iannucci comedy where the dialogue flows like a poisoned, staccato score unto itself. But Christopher Willis was up to the task. Eschewing mid-century Soviet music in favor of a riotous classical sound (think Stravinsky with a pained smile on his face), Willis’s score is at its best when channeling the script’s perverted sense of decorum. Boisterous, theatrical tracks like “We Cry for You” get the job done, and create the sense of a power vacuum being switched from “blow” to “suck.” But it’s chipper, manic pieces like the hilariously upbeat “Back from the Gulags” that crystallize the madness of politics without morals.
8. “Vice” (Nicholas Britell)
How do you score a film that lacks any sense of rhythm, and can’t sustain a tone to save its life? How do you find a melody in a satire that has no center of gravity, and trips over itself every time it reaches for meaning? These are tough questions, but Nicholas Britell could very well earn an Oscar nomination for his virtuosic attempt to answer them. Listening to his score for “Vice,” you can almost hear the movie that Adam McKay was trying to make — a scorched earth biopic about Dick Cheney’s empty pursuit of power — and forget about the smug and sketchy history lesson that audiences were forced to sit through instead.
Britell’s tumbling, dissonant piano theme pushes forward like a tragedy in the making, while the casino jazz of “Flipping Cards” feels like the music Danny Ocean might hear if he were robbing the White House. “The Wyoming Campaign” is a blast of empty bluster, and the virtuosity of “The Iraq War Symphony” flips one of America’s most insidious cock-ups into a crusade worthy of its own “Ride of the Valkyries.” Britell’s score is as scattered as the movie for which it was written, but his music doesn’t wink at us like McKay’s writing does; on the contrary, it’s as serious as a heart attack — layered and urgent and always getting stronger whenever it seems to be speeding towards a dead end. No matter how banal true evil might be, it probably sounds like a symphony to the person conducting it.
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