As seems to be the case every awards season, this year’s Oscar nominations for Best Original Score overlooked a veritable symphony of rich and adventurous movie music, from the medieval hum of Daniel Hart’s work on “The Green Knight” to the organ partitas that Jonny Greenwood leant to “Spencer.” And yet, despite the usual array of inexplicable snubs, all five of the scores nominated for the Academy Award this year are absolutely excellent — a dramatic (and very welcome) change of pace from recent editions of this category.
“Dune” marks a return to form for an ultra-prolific legend who reliably does his best work on movies capable of matching the bombast he always brings to them. “Don’t Look Up” offers another chance to celebrate a rising star in this field, his latest score bringing a sense of elegance and cohesion to a satire that falls a bit short on both. “Parallel Mothers” finds a virtuoso at the top of his game, “Encanto” makes it clear that we need to talk about Franco (as in Germaine, not “Rock Me Amadeus”), and “The Power of the Dog” confirms that a generational talent is becoming one of the greatest to ever do it.
All five of the nominated composers would be worthy Oscar winners, even if one of them is significantly worthier than the rest — at least this year. Here are 2022’s outstanding nominees for Best Original Score, ranked from “worst” to best.
5. “Don’t Look Up” (Nicholas Britell)
“Don’t Look Up” marks Nicholas Britell’s third Oscar nomination (the gifted young composer having previously earned nods for his extraordinary work on the Barry Jenkins films “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”), and the fact that he will inevitably land a zillion more over the course of his career makes it a bit easier to root against him here. But whatever your opinion about “Don’t Look Up,” there’s no denying that Britell’s virtuosically busy score does everything in its power to keep this leaden climate change satire feeling light on its toes; if the film itself had managed to so elegantly thread the needle between wonder and despair at the end of the world, perhaps critics wouldn’t have been quite as hard on it.
Britell and Adam McKay have worked together several times before, and while none of the music in “Don’t Look Up” makes your brain fire all of its neurons and fritz out like the opening theme of “Succession,” their latest collaboration palpably benefits from whatever mutual understanding these collaborators have developed over the years. To that end, Britell’s score is most impressive on a conceptual level. It doesn’t just work because the delicate twinkle of “Discovery” reflects the awe of the cosmos, or because the main title theme — deployed at several different junctures and speeds with expert precision — so feverishly bottles the film’s tragicomic anxiety into a maelstrom of celestas, bass sax, and toy pianos that suggest Mardi Gras on the bridge of the Titanic.
No, the most impressive thing about Britell’s score can be heard in how it connects the dots between such disparate sounds, his compositions shifting from denial to despair and back again with enough grace for those wildly different emotions to sound like they’re harmonizing with all of the keys between them. “Don’t Look Up” may aim at too many targets to hit any of them squarely, but the music that Britell contributes to McKay’s film helps it to crystallize one of the grim truths that our fight against climate change has already borne out: The end of the world isn’t just going to panicked or preventable, angry or bittersweet, but rather a restless mix of everything all at once.
4. “Dune” (Hans Zimmer)
Über-composer Hans Zimmer is at his best when scoring material that’s big enough to support his natural bombast, particularly when that material is otherworldly (or “Interstellar”) enough to push the movie veteran out of the generic confines of his comfort zone. In that light, it’s no surprise that “Dune” inspired Zimmer to bring his A-game, even if his music for it also found him falling back on some of his worst tics (e.g. textureless rumbles, electric cheese guitars, and a wailing chorus of female voices that sound like shorthand for “exoticism”).
Striving to create alien sounds that were untethered from their earthly cultural origins, Zimmer disguised his instruments with a virtual synthesizer and pushed the notes past recognition in a resonating chamber until everything from cellos and bagpipes to Tibetan long horns were crushed together into a foreboding symphony of organized chaos. Paul Atreides’ colonialist dislocation vibrates off the screen from the moment he steps foot onto the sands of Arrakis, and Zimmer’s bone-shaking score never lets you forget how the film’s messianic hero is cast as the savior of a world that’s as foreboding to him as it is to us.
3. “Encanto” (Germaine Franco)
The songs of “Encanto” have been hogging all of the attention (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is the sensation, but the Oscar-nominated “Dos Orugitas” goes harder every time), but the film is ultimately carried by the rhythms of Germaine Franco’s vibrant score, which isn’t a character in the film so much as it’s the glue that holds them all together. The 60th film by Walt Disney Animation — and the first ever scored by a woman — tells the story of a Colombian girl named Mirabel who feels left out of her family because she’s the only one who doesn’t have a magic gift of some kind. Even their house is enchanted. But Franco’s score establishes Mirabel’s connection to both the people she lives with and the loved ones who’ve come before, her instrumental music illustrating those ties just as lucidly as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song lyrics spell them out.
The film’s sonic texture is suffused with bouncy Colombian rhythms that seamlessly blend the likes of cumbia and joropo into a recognizable Disney vibe without sacrificing their sense of history. The occasional track (e.g. “I Need You,” “The Cracks Emerge”) might cleave a bit closer to a conventional Hollywood sound, but others (e.g. the percussive stunner “Meet La Familia”) so vividly reanimate local tradition flavor that they allow you to hear Mirabel’s house turning into a home.
2. “Parallel Mothers” (Alberto Iglesias)
Alberto Iglesias has been nominated in this category three times before (for “The Constant Gardener, “The Kite Runner,” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), but none of those scores punched quite as hard as the one he’s written for Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” a lavish melodrama that Iglesias’ music wills into a fraught historical thriller from its opening notes. There’s an air of classic Hitchcock to the way the wind instruments trouble the waters on tracks like “Las visitas,” and the palpable tenderness of a tragedy can be heard in the lilting pianos of “Fotos a la niña” (anyone who’s seen this stirring and unpredictable film will be able to trace those sounds back to their roots, and understand how they eventually knot together).
But it’s the sharp churn of violins that launch “Sesión de fotos” and recur throughout the film — whipping around a shimmer of tambourines like a sudden gust of wind — that lend “Parallel Mothers” its deep sense of life-and-death urgency. At this point, it’s hard to imagine an Almodóvar film without Iglesias’ music (if it would even be an Almodóvar film without Iglesias’ music), but not since 2011’s “The Skin I Live in” has one of his scores felt so crucial.
1. “The Power of the Dog” (Jonny Greenwood)
Radiohead-obsessed cinephiles have spent the past 16 years or so foaming at the mouth about how their favorite band’s virtuosic multi-instrumentalist has casually developed a side gig as one of the most essential film composers of the 21st century, but Jonny Greenwood’s natural modesty, his loyalty to a small handful of directors (Paul Thomas Anderson and Lynne Ramsay chief among them), and his lack of Oscar recognition have made it difficult for less dedicated fans to appreciate his contributions to the cinema. That began to change with the one-two punch of “Phantom Thread” and “You Were Never Really Here” in 2018, but it’s with “Spencer” and “The Power of the Dog” — Greenwood’s first collaborations with Pablo Larraín and Jane Campion, respectively — that a broader coalition of people have finally started to appreciate how the same guy who shredded apart the chorus of “Creep” has emerged as a legitimate heir to the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Tōru Takemitsu.
Both of Greenwood’s latest scores are spectacular (even the two seconds of original material he contributed to “Licorice Pizza” stands out from the rest of PTA’s killer soundtrack), but the intimately expressive music he wrote for “The Power of the Dog” proved more appealing to the Academy than the funereal acid jazz and corrupted organ partitas that Greenwood fashioned into the bars of Princess Diana’s gilded cage. Campion has a long history of getting the best out of world-class composers like Michael Nyman and Mark Bradshaw, and she does so again in her dagger-like frontier drama by encouraging Greenwood to create his own syntax of menace — seductive but threatening.
The work that resulted from that free rein falls somewhere between “Phantom Thread” and “There Will Be Blood,” combining repressed French horns, a mechanically detuned piano that plays along with Kirsten Dunst’s performance in broken time, and a cello masquerading as a banjo in order to sew together a Western soundscape that’s constricting tighter in the middle while fraying along the edges. And then, in the transcendent “Psalm 22,” that tension resolves into a new and delightfully violent lightness that lingers under the skin long after the movie is over.
This is inventive and grippingly atonal score is an extraordinary suite of music, and it’s impossible to think of Campion’s film without hearing Greenwood’s strings pluck away inside your head. Even in such a competitive field, Academy members would be making a grave mistake to vote for anyone else.