The brouhaha over The Dark Knight’s eligibility has been settled and found irrelevant. Clearly, the Academy music branch prefers their James Newton Howard scores to sit down, shut up, and give the timpani a rest. Thus, he gets his nomination for his collaboration with director Edward Zwick, resulting in a music score with all the potency and dynamic range that particular combination of cinematic personalities would imply. As far as composers who are starting to rack up stacks of nominations without toppling over into a win, Danny Elfman (Milk) and Thomas Newman (WALL-E) undoubtedly stand better shots than Newton Howard. But neither are solid bets, in part because the ghosts of previous compositions overshadow them. Like the movie that surrounds it, Newman’s understated work in the earlier portion of WALL-E eventually slips into a slightly disappointing techno-satire, and even though the “Define Dancing” cue is gorgeous, the movie’s most enduring musical legacy is the hat routine WALL-E performs to his VHS copy of Hello, Dolly. And Elfman’s score almost deliberately avoids the sort of emotional gut-punch that Mark Isham provided in his muted, icy requiem for The Times of Harvey Milk. Flip that equation and you have Alexandre Desplat’s conundrum. His luxuriantly legato cues are like an entire movie’s worth (make that movie-and-a-half’s worth) of John Williams’s elegiac coda from A.I., but no matter how pliantly his orchestra bends their bows to forge an emotional connection, Fincher’s film retains its calculated distance from the material. Not that I’m saying every last voter got weepy over AR Rahman’s tranced-out interpolation of the theme from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but it may be the one piece of music whose pulse most closely matches that of its respective film.
Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button