Oscars 2020: Best Original Score Shortlist

Our second easiest category for me to go over: Original Score. Because I listen to 100 scores every year to list my favorite ones and find good ones to keep in my personal collection. So I’ve listened to the majority of what’s gonna get shortlisted, if not all of it. Not that having listened to them matters in terms of guessing, but at least I feel like I know as much as I possibly can for the moment.

There were 136 scores eligible this year, they’ve pared that list down to 15, of which 5 will be nominated. Here’s the Original Song shortlist:

Ammonite (Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka)
Blizzard of Souls (Lolita Ritmanis)
Da 5 Bloods (Terence Blanchard)
The Invisible Man (Benjamin Wallfisch)
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (John Debney)
The Life Ahead (Gabriel Yared)
The Little Things (Thomas Newman)
Mank (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
The Midnight Sky (Alexandre Desplat)
Minari (Emile Mosseri)
Mulan (Harry Gregson-Williams)
News of the World (James Newton Howard)
Soul (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross & Jon Batiste)
Tenet (Ludwig Göransson)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Daniel Pemberton)

The one that immediately jumped out to me is Blizzard of Souls. I had no fucking clue what that movie is and had to look it up. Otherwise, I had listened to 12 of the 15 scores before this list came out just on my own. Blizzard of Souls obviously was one of the three (I have since listened to it). The Little Things was another, just because it was a 2021 film and that score’s not gonna count for my 2020 list (I’m going to listen to that one before nominations time, but have not as of now). And then the third was Minari just because they haven’t released it yet and I had no opportunity two outside of in the context of the film (hopefully I can hear it before then). So, currently I have listened to 13/15 of these scores and have seen Minari (though admittedly I don’t really remember a lot of score in that movie, so I will need to listen to it if and when I get the chance). Which I guess gives me like a 5% leg up on just looking at this regularly? I don’t know. But it is a nice plug for my eventual Favorite Film Scores of 2020 article, which will be coming to you at some point over the next two weeks (I’m not sure how the days are working out with all the scheduling. But it’s in the pipeline). As a tease, I will say that seven of these 15 scores currently feature somewhere on that list (and there’s still the potential for one more!).

I put the composers up there because far too often do people not think about that in this category and only look at the films. But it’s helpful to know who composed stuff because that does influence how they vote. Not always, but a lot of the time.

I’m gonna run down the list of composers just to give you an idea of how they’ve fared at the Oscars:

  • Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka have been nominated before, for Lion.
  • Lolita Ritmanis is a complete newcomer. A lot of her previous credits have come from TV and animation, scoring stuff like Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Teen Titans and Ben 10. She scores all those Batman animated movies that come out, but this is her first major film credit.
  • Terence Blanchard is Spike’s longtime composer and (much like Carter Burwell with the Coens) only got nominated for the first time recently. His BlacKkKlansman score was nominated.
  • Benjamin Wallfisch has never been nominated (though he got a BFCA nomination for co-writing the Blade Runner score with Hans Zimmer and the Globes nominated him for Hidden Figures).
  • John Debney has only been nominated once for an Oscar, for The Passion of the Christ.
  • Gabriel Yared has been nominated three times, winning once. He won for The English Patient and was also nominated for The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain (all three Anthony Minghella films).
  • Thomas Newman has been nominated 15 times and somehow never won. He’s also been nominated five times this past decade: for Skyfall (2012), Saving Mr. Banks (2013), Bridge of Spies (2015), Passengers (2016) and 1917 (2019).
  • Reznor and Ross have been nominated only once, for Social Network, and they won for it. Their Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl scores were looked at as relative snubs in their respective years, which is maybe something to keep in mind (or not).
  • Alexandre Desplat has been nominated 11 times, winning twice, and is probably the most nominated composer of the past decade. Ten of his eleven nominations have come since 2008, which means ten nominations in thirteen years, including one year where he was nominated twice. This decade, he’s been nominated for The King’s Speech, Argo, Philomena, The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Shape of Water, Isle of Dogs and Little Women. He won for Grand Budapest and Shape of Water.
  • Mosseri has never been nominated, but has come on real strong, as Last Black Man in San Francisco was his first film score and was very well-regarded. Minari is only his third film score (after Kajillionaire, which was also this year).
  • Harry Gregson-Williams has never been nominated. The closest he came was a Globe nomination for Chronicles of Narnia and a nomination with John Powell at the BAFTAs for Shrek.
  • James Newton Howard has been nominated eight times (with zero wins). Two of his eight nominations are for Song and not Score, and five of his eight nominations were in the 90s (including the two Song ones). His most recent nomination was in 2008 for Defiance, but he was shortlisted two years ago for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
  • Ludwig Göransson was only nominated once, for Black Panther. And he won. Also of note is that all of Christopher Noland’s original films this decade (so, not Dark Knight Rises) were nominated for their scores.
  • Daniel Pemberton has yet to be nominated, but has been recognized three times by the Globes, twice for Score and once for Song. The first Score nomination was for Steve Jobs and the second was for Motherless Brooklyn, for which he was shortlisted last year. He also wrote the score for Into the Spider-Verse, which I think might put him in some good graces with this branch going forward.

So that’s all your composers. Between knowing that information and looking at the films themselves, don’t you feel like you have a pretty solid footing in this category?

Oh, and I guess I should mention:

The Globes nominated Midnight Sky, Tenet, News of the World, Mank and Soul. BFCA nominated all five of those plus Minari. And BAFTA’s still in the longlist stage but ten of these fifteen scores are shortlisted there. The five that aren’t: Blizzard of Souls, Invisible Man, Jingle Jangle, The Life Ahead and Mulan. Not surprisingly, those would be the exact five I’d tell you have the least likely chance of actually getting nominated off the top of my head. Go figure!

– – – – –

We’re gonna do this like I did Song yesterday — I’m just gonna run down from 15 to 1 the likelihood of each score getting nominated. It’s not a hard and fast list at all. I’m openly wrong all the time. I’m just going on precursors (which are almost all in — once BAFTA nominates it’ll be a lot easier, but their longlist basically eliminates a couple anyway), history and my general experience with this stuff.

So here’s what I’m thinking with this category:

15. Blizzard of Souls (Lolita Ritmanis)

I truly don’t know where this came from. I listened to the score, and it’s quite lovely and definitely deserves a spot on this shortlist as much as anything else, but I’m just thinking in terms of — where did she get the votes? This branch has always been about voting for the same respected composers and the handful of scores each year that are generally acknowledged as being very good. Sometimes a score is both, acknowledged as good and by one of the same respected composers. But Ritmanis is basically an unknown here. Never been shortlisted, never really had any major film credits. So to me, the most interesting thing about her being here is how she got here.

I’ve been around people who vote for awards… most people don’t watch much of anything and a lot of time just go with, “Oh, who’s supposed to win this? Yeah, okay, I’ll vote for them.” Or it’s, “Who’s gonna win? Oh, right, fuck him. I don’t want him to win. I’m voting for this person. They were nice to me after a screening once.” As dumb as they are, you’ve seen the brutally honest Oscar ballots. A lot of these people’s opinions are ridiculous a lot of the time. Not because they have bad taste, but because their opinions are usually based on the craziest things. Most of the time the campaigns are there to tell most of them how to vote, because so little actually take the time to see and consider everything before casting a well-informed vote.

So my point here is… I’m curious how enough people listened to this score and voted for this score to make her one of the top 15 vote-getters in the category over 121 other scores. Because it’s just surprising to me that… what is the music branch, something like 375 people (assuming they all vote)? So if 375 people are picking five scores out of 136 and the top 15 are getting shortlisted, that means that (barring vote weighting and all that, which I’m not sure if they do or need to do at this point) 125 people needed to have voted for this score. And for such a complete unknown in terms of both film and composer, that’s more intriguing to me than anything else.

I don’t ever want to assume anything underhanded (illegal campaigning and all that, which I can’t imagine happened here. Who’s going out of their way to try to push for a score from the Latvian submission for Best International Feature?) And I’m certainly not going to make the case that they simply voted for her because she’s a woman, because there were many female composers eligible this year (I have something like five female composers on my list of favorite scores this year). So they had options. They chose this score. They didn’t just randomly pick the female composer, so nobody start with that shit.

Mostly in this case I’m thinking that at least 125 members of the branch actually listened beyond the, I don’t know, 50-80 scores from top level films (since there’s always gonna be the 20-30 scores from films like Sonic the Hedgehog or Adam Sandler movies that will never get on that most people will never take seriously and probably don’t get listened to all that much, especially if they’re not by people they know and respect) and actually listened to the score of a foreign film from an unknown composer and actually considered, “You know… I do want to vote for this.” That’s… it’s shocking to me when Oscars voting actually works as intended.

I should also say, since this is really supposed to be about likelihood of nomination — it’s hard for me to think enough people have heard this and will vote for it enough for it to get on in the end, though. At a certain point, you just have to determine that something won’t get on, because you physically can’t vote for everything. 2/3 of this list you’re gonna have to ultimately say won’t make it. This one, being from a foreign film most people won’t have heard of from a composer who’s never been nominated, makes it real easy to say, “This won’t happen.” And if it does, then okay, you’re wrong. Oh well. You’re guessing nominees in Best Original fucking Song, not defusing a bomb in an orphanage.

14. Mulan (Harry Gregson-Williams)

Gregson-Williams has never been nominated. His only precursor nominations came between 16-20 years ago and were for Narnia and Shrek. And, not to be dismissive, but… it’s live-action Mulan. Aside from being the usual big epic family-style score and having some ‘ethnic’ (trying to be nice) flair, what makes you think this feels like it’ll get on? The animated film got on, but that’s when the Score category was broken up into Dramatic and Comedy categories. None of the Disney live action remakes have been nominated here, it has no precursor nominations and I can’t think of a single case to make why this would actually get on.

13. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (John Debney)

Debney’s only been nominated once, and it was in 2004. His closest shot came for Jungle Book in 2016, but… to continue on a point I made for #14… Disney remakes don’t get on here. This is a family movie, and these types of scores also don’t get on here, Disney or no Disney. Mary Poppins got on, but that’s a special case. That’s Boomers feeling nostalgic. Otherwise to find a comparable nominee to this, you have to go back as far as… maybe How to Train Your Dragon? But even that’s animated. You have to go back before 2005, and at that point, I don’t need to keep going to find it. This is extremely unlikely and the only reason this made it this high is because I give the other two zero chance. This maybe gets 2%? Maybe. Just assume no and let them go there. At a certain point, without any evidence to support something, there’s no point in wracking your brain on something that ultimately matters very little.

12. The Life Ahead (Gabriel Yared)

So the film is gonna get a Song nomination, and it has Sophia Loren as its figurehead, so people will know about it, and that will ultimately help it. I couldn’t make the case for putting it any higher than this. Maybe I could’ve swapped it with #11 (or maybe #10), but that’s as high as I could go for it. This seems extremely unlikely. Yared is a three time nominee, but all those nominations came between 1996 and 2003 and were all for Anthony Minghella films, which makes me wonder if maybe it had something to do with that. But, no precursor nominations, a composer who hasn’t been nominated in 17 years… hard to see this happening.

11. The Invisible Man (Benjamin Wallfisch)

Wallfisch has never been nominated (and the closest he came was for a score you associate with the other composer who was on it and not him), and his style, to me, has struck me as a bit more… heavy-handed than this branch typically goes for. A lot of current film music is very forced in terms of emotion and is very open about what it’s trying to do (I was trying to be nice, how’d I do?). And that’s not really what they go for in this category. This has nice moments in it, but with a never-nominated composer, no precursor nominations anywhere and the film not really having all that much going for it except people thinking, “Oh yeah, that was pretty good,” I can’t see this happening. This is like when the Quiet Place score got shortlisted a few years ago. And that was from a multiple time nominee. This — aside from the film having gone over well, I don’t really see anything in the plus column for this getting nominated. You’d have to jump through a lot of hoops to make the case that this is gonna happen, and no matter what you do, I don’t think it’s possible to make the case for this without it being, “I liked this, so I’m saying it gets on.” Because that’s the only justification you have.

10. Ammonite (Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka)

They’ve been nominated before and the film has a pedigree. That’s the only reason it’s gotten this far. And, not that Score is the category where it matters how things do elsewhere, but the film’s not even found a foothold with Winslet or Ronan in the precursors, and that’s where you’d have expected it to do something. The pair got on for Lion, which was a lovely film and had a very nice score. But without this film having more of a nominations foothold, I can’t really see them giving this that extra look it needs to pick up votes to get on.

9. The Little Things (Thomas Newman)

I feel like I should be taking Thomas Newman more seriously here, and I will by the time we get to nominations guessing. This starts the ‘scores that can easily be nominated’ section. I’m not seriously considering anything below this (unless Ammonite gets on the BAFTA list). This is where I take everything seriously. But this has no precursor nominations to this point and he’s clearly on because he’s Thomas Newman first and foremost. BAFTA did shortlist him, but that might just be a stature situation. The film hasn’t been overly well-received, and we’re not even sure if Jared Leto is gonna make it on. Now, the obvious pushback here is — well, Passengers wasn’t particularly well-received and Newman got on for that. And that is 100% a valid point and 100% why I’m not at all thinking he can’t or won’t be nominated. Just, right now, based on the Venn Diagram I’m using to gauge how likely things feel to be nominated, which includes precursor nominations, film stature, composer stature and general feel of the film… all Newman has going for him is stature. I can make better cases for everyone else, which is why he goes ninth. I’ll have him in consideration all the way to the end. That Passengers nomination in 2016 taught me to never count someone like him out. So he’ll be right there all the way to the end for me. But I have to give preference to most, if not all, of the people ranked above him on this list for the moment. I will also point out (since 1917 and Skyfall were higher profile films and Sam Mendes films, and Bridge of Spies was obviously Spielberg and his films almost always get nominated for Score), aside from Passengers, Newman’s other nomination this decade was for Saving Mr. Banks, which, like this film, was also directed by John Lee Hancock. Just saying. It can happen.

8. Da 5 Bloods (Terence Blanchard)

Blanchard was nominated for BlacKkKlansman, the last Spike Lee joint, and it feels a bit like the Carter Burwell situation, where he mainly scored Coen brothers movies for years (with some truly memorable scores, like Fargo and True Grit) and never got any recognition. Then he finally got nominated for Carol and within two years got a second nomination (for Three Billboards). I didn’t expect them to nominate him the first time, so I’m not gonna underestimate him the second time. He feels firmly in that ‘very much could happen’ space, though without any precursor nominations (thus far BAFTA could happen, which would immediately put him in top five contention), you have to leave him in this lower section of ‘could happen’.

7. Minari (Emile Mosseri)

The film is gonna get big nominations. But it’s not gonna get sweep level nominations. Parasite was nominated for 6 Oscars, but one was International Feature. So 5 nominations. Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Production Design. This film — Picture, maybe Director, maybe Supporting Actress, Screenplay, maybe Editing. That’s five. 5-6 feels like the usual tally for something like this, regardless of its chances of winning Picture. It does not need this. Not to say it couldn’t still get it, but don’t assume because it’s gonna do well at the top that it’ll bring along categories like this. There’s another film coming up that’s more likely to have that happen. This is not that movie. If it gets on, it’s because they’re finally ready to embrace Mosseri, who has come on real strong out of the gate. It could happen, though with just the BFCA nomination at the moment (which is easy enough to dismiss, even though you have to respect it), I can’t put it higher than this. I mean, I could put it sixth, since technically it’s the only film outside the top five with a precursor nomination, but I think 7 is the right spot for this if and until it gets nominated for the BAFTA. I don’t think this is a gimme by any stretch and I don’t think you need to have this in your top five just because the film is a critical darling likely to get a lot of big nominations. Respect it, but don’t jump all over it because you’re confusing this category with other ones. Thomas Newman is arguably more likely to get on than this is.

6. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Daniel Pemberton)

It’s only a matter of time before the branch embraces Pemberton. I worry that he’s gonna get squeezed out, ultimately, this year, because there are more established names/more locked-in scores that’ll get on instead. This is his best chance so far to get nominated, since the film is fixing to get a fuck ton of nominations. Picture, maybe director, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, probably Editing, potentially Cinematography (though unlikely), and for the moment possibly in play for Costumes and Production Design, if not Sound (because of all the dialogue). Oh, and Song too. So this puts Pemberton firmly in a spot for a first nomination. Will it happen? Dunno. Feels unlikely, but possible. No precursors tells me it’s more unlikely than likely, but the stature of the film and his upward trending with the branch tells me to not rule it out. Do not be surprised if you see him ultimately get on, even though logic dictates that he’s unlikely to in the end.

5. News of the World (James Newton Howard)

This is the spot in the top five that feels iffy. We can quibble about another spot later (and by later I mean, guess time, not now. You’re never gonna convince me that the top four spots aren’t the four most likely nominees in this category at this very moment). This hit both precursors thus far, which isn’t gospel, but helps. And it’s longlisted at BAFTA and if it makes it on there, you’re gonna have a hard time being certain it gets left off. So, for now, you have to consider this a strong contender for the fifth spot, because when everyone agrees, typically most of the votes end up going that way (especially since one of the three precursors contains people who actually vote for this category). So, on numbers alone, this is for sure top five to get on. But is it a guaranteed nominee? Absolutely not. Though… western score in a high profile film that’s probably gonna underperform everywhere else by an eight-time nominee? Lotta credentials for inclusion there. The knock against it is that he hasn’t been nominated since 2008. There are cases to be made on both sides for this making it vs. not making it. But for now, you have to put this here and show it the respect it deserves based on what we’ve seen thus far.

4. The Midnight Sky (Alexandre Desplat)

He’s been nominated TEN times in thirteen years! And eight times this decade! OF COURSE HE’S A MAJOR CONTENDER. Also, two out of three precursors thus far and a solid bet to hit the third when they announce. He’s becoming almost automatic in this one, and I don’t see any reason why one would bet against him here. Sure, the film maybe wasn’t the juggernaut some may have expected (though I’d be curious to know who those people were). I think some people really liked this film a lot and I think it being him and Clooney and a big, epic, emotional movie fits perfectly with what they usually go for. I think you’d be insane not to guess him here (unless for some reason he gets left off BAFTA and two people in the 5-9 spots make it on instead. Then we can talk).

3. Tenet (Ludwig Göransson)

Göransson won this category two years ago and Nolan’s original scores get on. Now, it’s not Hans Zimmer, but Göransson is now firmly in the warm embrace of this branch (I believe). Now, it’s possible they didn’t give a shit who scored Black Panther and were just gonna go for it on principle because of what it was, but I like to think that they respect the composer enough to vote for him again. Can’t see him winning, but we don’t need to worry about winning now, we need to look at nominated. And, with this having hit the Globes and BFCA and likely to hit BAFTA as well, you have to consider this a solid contender for one of those final five spots. Easily replaceable, by the way. This is Nolan’s most mixed film, so I can see them leaving it off. But right now it feels like one of the safest plays you can make in this category.

2. Soul (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross & Jon Batiste)

Pixar scores are hit and miss here. The last one to be nominated was Up, which won in 2009. Inside Out wasn’t even nominated, and that was the best score of its year. Animated films have gotten on, but Pixar hasn’t all decade. So that’s a knock against it. However, this is generally acknowledged as having a great score and it’s basically two scores in one — the jazz stuff on earth and the electronic stuff in The Great Beyond. I think that helps it. The big downsides, of course, are the lack of Pixar love over the past decade, the fact that Reznor and Ross have only ever been nominated once, and the fact that they could be nominated twice in this same category. Now… didn’t stop them from nominating Alexandre Desplat twice in 2014 (and he won with one of those) or John Williams in 2011 (though… John Williams). It’s tough to say they’re gonna get on twice, but seeing as how this score has hit both precursors and is likely to hit the third and is one of the most lauded scores of the year, it’s hard to say this isn’t one of the most likely to make it on.

1. Mank (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)

I feel bad having Reznor and Ross on here twice, especially given the fact that they’ve only been nominated once before. But they did win that one time. And while that was for a David Fincher film, their other in contention scores (Gone Girl and Dragon Tattoo) were also for David Fincher films. However, they currently were nominated in 2/3 precursors and are very likely to be nominated at BAFTA as well. This film is clearly all about score and it’s one of the ones that seems like an obvious add-on to the list. Will they get two scores on? I don’t know. But both scores are among the most lauded and most liked. So unless people make a definite choice to leave one off because either ‘fuck them’ or ‘we gave them one and let’s spread the wealth’ and it happens to be the same one, it’s hard to think they aren’t favorites to get two scores on here. How do you choose which one gets left off? At that point, you have to make your decision and stick with it if you’re gonna, knowing it can bite you in the ass (it’s like splitting the Sound categories — RIP. You know it can end badly but you decide you’re gonna take your shot and go for it). There’s a case to be made they’ll only get on once, but at this point there’s no reason not to call them the favorites twice based on everything we’ve seen.

– – – – –

So, all that being said, it should be pretty obvious what my (current) category guess would look like. But we’ll put it here anyway, since it’ll make my life easier when it’s time for nominations guesses. It’s easier to tweak than to figure it all out again from scratch. But, until we get the BAFTA nominations and until I see how the rest of the categories are shaping up, your most likely category is currently:

Mank

The Midnight Sky

News of the World

Soul

Tenet

Alternate: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Dark Horse: Minari

Surprise: Da 5 Bloods, The Little Things

Shocker: Ammonite, The Invisible Man, The Life Ahead

Don’t guess: Jingle Jangle, Mulan, Blizzard of Souls

And then, if BAFTA goes as I expect it to, then we’ll have five scores that hit everything and the only discussions to have are ‘will Reznor and Ross get both scores on and if not, what replaces them and which one doesn’t make it?’ and, ‘If anything comes off, which is most likely and what gets on instead?’ Those are the hard conversations that happen at the last minute and drive you nuts. But, on the other hand, we might have a situation where all five precursors agree, which usually leads to a pretty stress-free category unless you decide to make it stressful.

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