At 48 years old, Jóhann Jóhannsson tragically died last week. A still-flourishing talent in the field of movie scoring, Jóhannsson was nominated twice for an Oscar, and we predicted that he would take the trophy for his work on The Theory of Everything. But that he lost his second bid for his brilliant work on Sicario to Ennio Morricone, who at 87 years of age and on his sixth nomination was finally given his due, points to the tendency for this category to withhold making endorsements that only Rip Van Winkle would characterize as hasty. Which explains how John Williams earned a record-extending 51st nomination this year, and for now the fifth time lightly reworking his leitmotifs for the Star Wars franchise.
It also portends a pretty grim night for cultist fans of Carter Burwell or Jonny Greenwood. Burwell at least is now on his second nomination, following the one he received for Carol two years ago, but look at the list of movies he was passed over for leading up to that: Fargo, Gods and Monsters, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, No Country for Old Men, Where the Wild Things Are, The Kids Are All Right, hell, even The Blind Side. Burwell's fondness for supporting clean, spare melody lines against a backbone of American folk tradition is a solid fit within the borderline self-parodic milieu of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but we can't help but feel some might recoil from the score's most conspicously Walker, Texas Ranger cues.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Greenwood's florid work on Phantom Thread culminates what, for most Radiohead and Paul Thomas Anderson fans, has been the ultimate best-case scenario. Greenwood has been ignored from There Will Be Blood through Inherent Vice, and his stately but disquieting arrangements for the House of Woodcock may have gotten swept up by the Academy's enthusiasm for Phantom Thread in general, but they also mark one of the classiest nominations this category's seen since the glory days of Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa, and Max Steiner. Quincy Jones recently argued, before getting the nation to picture Marlon Brando and Richard Pryor going down on each other, most film composers today are lazy and are “not going back and listening to what Bernard Herrmann did.” Greenwood clearly has.
Then again, Jones also offered up the name of only one current film scorer he thought was good, and that person was Alexandre Desplat, an admittedly great composer who in his work for The Shape of Water sometimes sounds like he hasn't gone back to listen anything but Yann Tiersen's score for Amelie. And since Hans Zimmer's Dunkirk cues sound a lot less like Gladiator and a lot more like the Dolby equivalent of the “Finish him!” voice from Mortal Kombat, Desplat is the last viable traditionalist standing.
Will Win: The Shape of Water
Could Win: Phantom Thread
Should Win: Phantom Thread