Oscar's Music Race: Looking Back on 2011's Best Film Scores

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This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Unharmoniously put, it hasn't been a stellar year for motion picture scores. While many of the major films of 2011 have been backed up by perfectly capable, supportive musical accompaniment, few soundtracks have popped out as exceptional or memorable, either from a strictly musical or culturally evocative point of view. Regrettably, this is in keeping with the general trend of late, where a handful of well-known composers get most of the plum assignments and do mostly solid work. But there have been just a few scores in recent years that have jumped well out from the pack and stayed in the mind after the film is over.

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Certainly the busiest and quite possibly the best film composer in the business right now is Alexandre Desplat, who created no fewer than six scores to major films this year. It would be hard to argue that the French composer's supple, many-flavored musical contribution to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is not the best score for any of the now-concluded series' eight entries. Desplat slips in momentary echoes of John Williams' original themes so as to not completely cut the franchise's ending off from its beginnings, but his work here is more far-ranging and evocative than anything that has come before, an important component to the fully satisfying final episode.

Desplat also had a hand in one of the most richly complex soundtracks of the year, that of The Tree of Life. But it has been calculated that Desplat wrote only between five and 10 minutes of music for a film otherwise decked out with selections from a wide and eclectic range of composers, much as Ennio Morricone was the credited composer on Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven even though the film is musically remembered for the contribution of Saint-Saens.(For the record, Desplat's other 2011 scores are for A Better Life, The Ides of March, Carnage and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.)

For my money, the most entertaining score of the year was the one Hans Zimmer whipped up for the animated Western comedy Rango. A brawny and breezy mish-mash of Morricone spaghetti Western motifs, vibes from Zimmer's previous work and goofy songs from Los Lobos, the score propelled the manic, homage-filled film with excitement and comic energy.

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Two other soundtracks also stood out a bit from the rest. Ludovic Bource took on the unusual challenge of creating a full-length score for a silent movie, The Artist, a French film about the days before sound that was made mostly in Los Angeles. Bource, a relative newcomer to the profession, produced an active score that vigorously and imaginatively amplified the comedy and melodrama of the story, just as the music traditionally played by live orchestras at silent film performances was meant to do. Complicating things somewhat is the decision, either by Bource or director Michel Hazanavicius, to incorporate actual sections of Bernard Herrmann's famous love theme from Vertigo as well as a portion of Franz Waxman's score for Sunset Boulevard, a questionable move in my book, as they lift you out of the film at hand and place you in the mindset of others.

Then there is Dario Marianelli's distinctive score for the new version of Jane Eyre, which does just what such a score for a period romantic melodrama is supposed to do -- provide the story with a strong and constant pulse, without cliches.

Among the reliable, even inspired, composers who did good work this year were Alberto Iglesias for The Skin I Live In (and the upcoming Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), Howard Shore for Hugo and A Dangerous Method, Mark Isham for Warrior, Mychael Danna for Moneyball, Cliff Martinez for Contagion and Drive, Michael Giacchino for Super 8, Cars 2, 50/50 and Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol still to come, and John Williams for two Steven Spielberg films, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin.

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No one's seen the film in question yet, but seven or eight minutes of the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the forthcoming The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have been put online, the under-your-skin creepiness of which leaves little doubt that the team that scored so incisively with The Social Network last year may have done it again.

BY THE NUMBERS

  • 24: Number of best score winners that also won best picture.
  • 23.4: The odds -- almost one in four -- that if an animated feature gets an Oscar nomination, it's for best score.
  • 1: Number of Oscar score nominations John Williams needs to equal record holder Alfred Newman's 41
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