By now, anyone who’s followed the Oscars with enthusiasm levels we’ll say match your best friend who tries to maybe catch four or five of the best picture nominees only after the nominations have been announced is now likely familiar with the sad case of Alexandre Desplat. An overachieving workhorse in the John Williams tradition, Desplat’s work, like Williams’s (or the protagonist of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which earned Desplat a nomination), has gradually with time streamlined many of the glorious, avant-garde wrinkles from his voice to the point that his scores often skirt self parody. But at least in Williams’s case, a lot of his idiosyncratic, exciting early scores were at least nominated; the films almost everyone agrees represented Desplat’s finest work to date (e.g. Birth; The Painted Veil; Lust, Caution; to say nothing of his compositions for French cinema) were all ignored by Oscar.
The Academy’s ever-mercurial music branch turned on to Desplat like a light switch starting with 2006’s The Queen, and in just 10 years, he’s racked up eight nominations. And though he has a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and a Grammy to his name, he hasn’t managed to put a song in Oscar’s heart. Desplat’s dual nominations this year represent two of the voting body’s clear favorites (The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game), so choosing between them would have already been difficult enough (though if push came to shove, we’re guessing his characteristically wintry ostinatos in The Imitation Game would have the edge over The Grand Budapest Hotel’s). But it’s with an extra dose of irony that his competitors this year are all expanding their horizons with scores that arguably pay tribute to a number of outside influences, as opposed to burrowing, Alan Turing-style, deeper into their own personal space.
Mike Leigh collaborator Gary Yershon’s alternately graceful and discordant work on Mr. Turner offers a moving aural counterpoint to the biopic’s central figure, though Leigh’s style forces Yershon to limit his contribution to mainly bite-sized, interstitial chunks. Hans Zimmer, the inverse of Desplat in that he becomes increasingly unpredictable with time, let out all the (pipe organ) stops for Interstellar, drawing from sources as obvious as Steven Price’s Oscar-winning work on last year’s Gravity and as unexpected as Philip Glass’s arpeggios or Keith Emerson’s dark overtures for Dario Argento. (You can hear all three of those influences and more playing off each other in his stunning overture to Matt Damon’s inability to parallel park in space.) And then there’s the never-nominated Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose perfectly respectable contributions to the not incredibly deserving The Theory of Everything do as much as anything else to enrich the emotional theater of Stephen Hawking’s life at the expense of his intellectual presence. Jóhannsson’s tastefully delicate but unabashedly melodramatic music, draped with copious harp and violin, won the Globe and seems assured for an Oscar win—for swiping more than just a page directly from latter-day Desplat, which will make that composer’s seventh and eight losses this year the most painful imitation game of all.
Will Win: The Theory of Everything
Could Win: The Imitation Game
Should Win: Interstellar