The music that matters as Academy Awards season looms


This year's contenders range from massive space epics ("Avatar," "Star Trek") to microscopic studies of the human heart ("A Single Man," "A Serious Man"), with contributions from veterans (Marvin Hamlisch, Thomas Newman, Randy Newman, James Horner) and newcomers (Clinton Shorter, Ilan Eshkeri, Abel Korzeniowski). The sound palette runs the gamut from an almost subconscious soundscape (Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders' "The Hurt Locker") to the classic Hollywood symphonic approach (Michael Giacchino's "Up"), from the austere romanticism of Eskheri's "The Young Victoria" to the jolting eccentricity of Hans Zimmer's "Sherlock Holmes." What follows is a look at some of the leading candidates for best score.

James Horner
Horner's first space epic since "Aliens" is both intimate and sprawling, brimming with ethereal textures, exotic instrumentation, sweeping musical vistas, and the voices of an alien culture flitting around the edges. It's all driven by a love theme that hints -- just a bit -- at the old "Titanic" magic.

"Broken Embraces"
Alberto Iglesias
With his seventh score for director Pedro Almodovar, Iglesias continues to develop an artistic partnership that rivals Nino Rota and Fellini and -- especially in this case -- Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. As Almodovar's film shifts back and forth in time, Iglesias' music alters its shape, sometimes throbbing with postmodern power, often shimmering with a shadowy noir sound as enigmatic as the mysteries of the film.

Thomas Newman
Newman finds the fragile hearts of this harrowing melodrama's characters with a deceptively simple, heartbreaking theme for solo guitar, while his scoring for scenes involving Jake Gyllenhaal's character has a contemporary rock vibe. It's the harrowing sequences in Afghanistan that allow Newman to unleash an explosive attack of war drums that rattle along the nerve endings of Tobey Maguire's damaged, haunted soldier.

Christopher Young
Young's consuming music for Jon Amiel's study of Charles Darwin manages to be both rigidly intellectual and grippingly emotional, befitting the story's conflict between the naturalist's studies, his wife's devotion to God and his grief over the loss of his daughter. As the film shifts back and forth in time, Young's music seems to celebrate and eulogize, while getting into one of the most influential heads in history.

"District 9"
Clinton Shorter
A wailing African vocalist provides the misdirection in this score for Neill Blomkamp's striking sci fi documentary-satire, making the seemingly found footage of an extraterrestrial ghetto in Johannesburg seem all the more real. That's until antihero Wikus mutates into the film's actual hero, when and Shorter's score becomes increasingly massive and epic.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox"
Alexandre Desplat
Desplat's accompaniment for Wes Anderson's idiosyncratic band of animated animal protagonists encapsulates the miniaturist charm of Anderson's films, with its chime-laden scene settings -- then bursts into a hilarious, kinetic fury of percussion with Mr. Fox's chicken-stealing plan. The climax is a rousing children's anthem, a scherzo for fox, motorcycle and side car.

"The Hurt Locker"
Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders
Beltrami and Sanders insinuate themselves so completely into the arid fabric of Kathryn Bigelow's Iraqi bomb-defusing procedural, they're almost invisible. But they also follow the rules of dramatic scoring more than the hazy milieu of sound design, sublimating melody but compounding emotional texture. The result is music you feel in your bones and your gut.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"
Jeff and Mychael Danna
Moving through a kaleidoscope of musical styles as dazzling as the unbridled imagery in Terry Gilliam's film, Jeff and Mychael Danna create a score that's part mystery, part panorama, part circus, inhabiting both the ancient mind of the title character and Gilliam's distinctive imagination.

"The Informant!"
Marvin Hamlisch
Hamlisch imagines the space inside agribusiness vp Mark Whitacre's head as a 1960s bachelor pad where Whitacre shuffles spy movies, TV detective shows and breezy feel-good lounge tunes on a mental jukebox, while real life is kept safely at bay. It's an audacious approach that allows music to play against the film in a way few scores have dared in recent years.

"The Princess and the Frog"
Randy Newman
Despite five acclaimed scores for Pixar films, starting with "Toy Story," Newman hadn't scored a traditional cel-animated film until Disney's "The Princess and the Frog." His music hasn't lost any depth in moving from three dimensions to two. With its New Orleans setting, Dixieland style and rambunctious songs, "Princess" seems tailor-made for Newman's sassy but classically American style.

"It's Complicated"
Hans Zimmer and Heitor Pereira
Zimmer and Pereira whip up a Latin-flavored lounge confection for the Nancy Meyers comedy that plays as an elegant counterpoint to the machinations of seasoned "rom-com" pros Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, mixing a touch of comic attitude with delicate, heartfelt passages for piano and Brazilian guitar.

"Julie & Julia"
Alexandre Desplat
For a movie that's split in two, Desplat provides dual melodies: A soothing wash of francophone nostalgia for Streep's Julia Child, and a busy piano tune for Amy Adams' Julie that suggests her ambitions and the vulnerability. Bouncing back and forth in time and between continents, Desplat's music is as comforting as a Child souffle.

"Public Enemies"
Elliot Goldenthal
While he's capable of writing wildly agitated, violent music, Goldenthal's score reflects the smooth, burgeoning nobility of Johnny Depp's gangster with a brooding theme for low brass, horns and strings that both celebrates and mourns the famed bank robber.

"A Serious Man"
Carter Burwell
With just four notes played variously by piano, harp and flute, Burwell constructs the spiritual mountain that Michael Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik must climb in the Coen brothers' enigmatic black comedy. As always, Burwell's music can make the trivial seem momentous and find the humor in stark tragedy.

"Sherlock Holmes"
Hans Zimmer
With the offbeat rhythms of a Kurt Weill opera and a cimbalom motif every bit as perverse as Robert Downey Jr.'s interpretation of the Victorian detective, Zimmer's score handsomely brands Guy Ritchie's movie as smart, idiosyncratic fun. The signature Holmes solo violin plays like electric guitar -- much the way Downey acts.

"A Single Man"
Abel Korzeniowski
Korzeniowski chronicles Colin Firth's journey through sorrow, loneliness, despair and hope with the precision of a concert hall composer, weaving a melancholy theme through soulful string performances, building a piano motif of growing optimism, and pausing for drifting orchestral reveries when the film interpolates dream-like footage of Firth floating underwater.

"Star Trek"
Michael Giacchino
Giacchino pays homage to the theme music from the Gene Roddenberry TV series, and to space itself -- but only at the margins of this muscular sci-fi movie score. Where his predecessors focused on space opera, Giacchino targets the characters of this wildly successful reboot, writing a brooding theme for the rebellious young James T. Kirk and a surprisingly upbeat, warm melody for Spock.

"The Young Victoria"
Ilan Eshkeri
Trading off the concert and court music of the period, Eshkeri's music helps humanize the imposing historical figure, adding an inevitability and unity to her relationship with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) with a warm romantic theme and some inventive approaches to the film's political intrigue.

Michael Giacchino
Tackling another stellar assignment for Pixar, Giacchino deserves notice for the film's arresting life-in-miniature opening sequence alone, as he applies a wistful, beamingly nostalgic tune to define the life and death of an adventurous young girl. But the composer just as easily moves from that personal montage to a half surrealist, half genre-stuffed adventure with shades of "The Lost World" and Ray Harryhausen's "Mysterious Island" -- all while developing the same melodic material.

"Up in the Air"
Rolfe Kent
Kent remains the go-to guy for smart, engaging comedy and human interest, with a combination of offbeat instrumentation and a propulsive mix of percussion and plucked strings that provides a rhythmic drive to any picture he scores. His "Up in the Air" music matches the masculine confidence of George Clooney's performance, while hinting at the cold insecurity at its heart.
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