For our first batch of categories for this year's Oscars, we're taking a look at the music and sound branches. So I suppose you could call this the Aural Edition. Whatever works.
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Country Strong – "Coming Home" (Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges)
127 Hours – "If I Rise" (A.R. Rahman, Rollo Armstrong, Dido)
Tangled – "I See the Light" (Alan Menken, Glenn Slater)
Toy Story 3 – "We Belong Together" (Randy Newman)
In eight years of detailed Oscar analysis, the Manifesto has predicted this category correctly exactly twice (ignoring one abstention in 2003). That's a worse rate than Baron Davis' three-point percentage. And given that the producers of this year's telecast apparently planned an entire segment around a song that wound up not even being nominated ("You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" from Burlesque – insert quip on the title here), it's not as if there's a frontrunner, so I'm in some trouble here.
Accordingly, I'll have to perform some more devious (i.e., desperate) analysis. Specifically, what's interesting about the modern Best Original Song category is how the nominees are presented to the voters. In the past, Academy members used to listen on audio; now, however, they receive DVD clips that show how the songs play in the context of the actual movies. Thus, songs that feature in closing credits are far less likely to win than those integrated into the film. As such, I'm willing to write off "If I Rise" despite the Best Picture nomination of 127 Hours, as I don't even remember that song playing in the movie. Similarly, "We Belong Together," despite originating from industry legend Randy Newman, plays over Toy Story 3's credits, and while it's nevertheless accompanied by cute visuals, I don't think the sequence carries much dramatic weight.
"I See the Light," however, is the musical centerpiece of Tangled (which isn't saying much, but still), and it plays on screen as a pleasant but emotionally resonant duet. (For the record, I can't comment on the context of "Coming Home" because I haven't seen Country Strong, but I'm guessing most voters haven't either.) An Alan Menken tag has never hurt a song's chances, and while Newman is no Oscar slouch himself (this represents his twentieth nomination across the two music categories), I think Menken adds a staggering ninth statuette to his mantel.
Technically I should abstain from weighing in on Country Strong, not having seen the movie and all. I did, however, zip through "Coming Home" on YouTube, and it's a reasonably sturdy number – well-produced, with a burgeoning second half that makes it a pleasant overall listen. That's more than I can say for "We Belong Together" – I know Randy Newman's had an impressive career, but that doesn't make his voice any less insufferable. "If I Rise" features a breathy Dido sighing her way through A.R. Rahman's delicate orchestrations; it's innocuous enough, but it's ultimately insubstantial.
I can't say I'm a huge fan of "I See the Light", but compared to its competition, it's the clear winner. Mandy Moore's and Zachary Levi's tentative vocals complement each other nicely, and the chorus, while not lyrically revolutionary, provides a catchy summation of the movie's general theme.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
How to Train Your Dragon – "Sticks & Stones" (Jon Thor Birgisson)
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – "I Remain" (Alanis Morissette)
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse – "Let's Get Lost" (Bat for Lashes/Beck)
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse – "Eclipse (All Yours)" (Metric)
Sigur Rós front man Jónsi takes a break from crafting haunting, atmospheric melodies and delivers a piece of perfectly modulated pop music, with Jónsi's trademark falsetto accompanied by a surprisingly insistent rhythm section. As for Twilight, perhaps no artist is better equipped to lend voice to the franchise's theme of unrestrained longing (or rather, desperately trying to restrain such longing) than Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan, with her trembling timbre and ghostly beauty. For that film's title track, Metric shrewdly tailor their alt-rock sensibilities to Howard Shore's score, resulting in a triumphant ballad that effortlessly conveys the movie's go-for-broke spirit. As for the Prince of Persia track, I'm not sure if you knew this, but Alanis Morissette can really fucking sing.
BEST SOUND MIXING
The King's Speech
The Social Network
If The King's Speech wins here, then its coattails are so long that Colin Firth could probably get elected as the next U.S. President while running on the Tea Party ticket. Still, despite the few scenes that involve some tricky calibration of 1930s radio, sound didn't exactly play a central role in this year's Best Picture favorite, so it's out. Also out are True Grit (because it's far more noteworthy for its visuals than its audio) and Salt (because it's Salt). A few weeks ago, I might have considered The Social Network as a player here as part of a sweep, but that was then. As it is, Inception takes this one comfortably, in the lamest attempt at a consolation prize since Xander asked Willow to Spring Fling after Buffy shot him down.
Inception, obviously. When my sister walks out of a movie gushing about its sound design, it probably deserves an Oscar.
But I want to briefly discuss the sound of The Social Network here. When I watched the movie recently with my parents on Blu-ray, my mother complained that the mix was poor because she couldn't make out the dialogue during the film's music-heavy scenes. I understood her complaint, but it wasn't the fault of the mix; the problem was that we were watching on a thoroughly shitty sound system. And given the current consumer trend toward home theatre (and away from the multiplex), it's important to point out that unless you're willing to pay for a truly kickass sound setup, you're going to have issues with this sort of thing, regardless of the audio quality of the Blu-ray disc.
My point isn't to encourage people to drop two grand on a Yamaha system but rather to encourage people to go to the theatre to watch movies. I had absolutely no difficulty discerning the dialogue when I watched The Social Network in the theatre – in fact, the sound mixing was pitch-perfect, which is why its nomination here is well-deserved – but the same wasn't quite true at home, meaning the latter constituted an inferior viewing experience. Obviously this is coming from the perspective of an obsessive filmgoer, but it's disheartening to me that more casual movie fans are unwittingly subjecting themselves to a rendition of a movie that's technically subpar. Just keep this in mind the next time you're complaining about the sound quality of that random Russian movie you rented off Netflix.
[Note that I'm omitting the "My Ideal Ballot" section for the sound categories. If you have a friend who considers himself qualified to evaluate the relative merits of the sound editing of The Wolfman and The Chronicles of Narnia, I'd love to meet him.]
BEST SOUND EDITING
Toy Story 3
Interesting to see just a two-film overlap across the two sound categories (both are Best Picture nominees), the lowest ever in the five years since this category expanded to five nominations. Given that I've already summarily dismissed the sound quality of True Grit, I have no hesitation about picking Inception here as well. The only potential challenger I see is Tron: Legacy, but given that movie's surprising omission in the Best Visual Effects field, it appears as though voters have marginalized it. (And it's hard to blame them.)
What's here isn't as important as what's missing, namely the extraordinary, wide-ranging sound design from How to Train Your Dragon. Animated films are traditionally a showcase for sound engineers to really strut their stuff, but while I'm a huge fan of Toy Story 3 in general, its rival from DreamWorks was clearly superior in the sound department. Pity.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
How to Train Your Dragon – John Powell
Inception – Hans Zimmer
The King's Speech – Alexandre Desplat
127 Hours – A.R. Rahman
The Social Network – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Yikes. First of all, it's worth noting that the Best Picture winner has doubled as the victor here only once in the last six years. In four of those years, however, the top dog didn't even earn a nomination for its score, so that negative correlation is a bit misleading. Still, the music branch has shown a willingness to diverge from the popular vote, with one-off titles such as Frida and The Red Violin taking trophies home in the recent past. And they've even paid homage to animation (last year with Up), meaning How to Train Your Dragon – the lone contender here that doesn't also find itself in the Best Picture field – can't entirely be written off either.
All of which is a convoluted way of me saying that I really have no idea. If we ignore the films' overall currency and just look at their music, then The Social Network seems like the logical first cut, as Reznor's and Ross' score is likely too chilly and ambient to find a home with most voters. Then again, this is the same branch that singled out current nominee Rahman's propulsive, highly percussive score two years ago for Slumdog Millionaire. But that movie had the added advantage of winning Best Picture ...
Alright, I need to stop. I could feasibly talk myself into any one of these contenders. So I'm just going to take a leap of faith and go with The Social Network. If they were ballsy enough to nominate it, they're ballsy enough to give it the win. (Maybe.)
One could make an engaging argument that a comparison of the musical scores of The King's Speech and The Social Network mirrors the debate over the two films as a whole. For the former, reliably polished composer Alexandre Desplat has crafted a stately, well-mannered, piano-centric score that complements but never inspires. The latter, in contrast, features an edgy, ultra-modern, electronic-based accompaniment by the guy from Nine Inch Nails. The dynamic of traditional versus new-age has rarely been so obvious. That's overly, reductive, of course, but it's an intriguing microcosm nevertheless. All the same, I'm not a huge fan of either score. Desplat's delicate keystrokes fail to conjure a memorable musical theme, while Reznor and Ross, though intermittently energetic (not least when they're boldly adapting Edvard Grieg's legendary "In the Hall of the Mountain King"), keep their sound in the background. It's an approach that serves the film well, but this listener requires a bit of bombast before doling out an Oscar.
There's bombast aplenty in Inception, as Hans Zimmer has never been one for restraint. Yet while Zimmer's electric (if not electronic) score adds yet another tool of impeccable craftsmanship to Inception's belt, I surprisingly find myself more partial to John Powell's soaring music for How to Train Your Dragon. Creating themes both towering and tender, Powell's varied compositions function almost as their own character, an impressive feat for the man who once made his living off the thumping theatrics of the Jason Bourne trilogy.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
How to Train Your Dragon – John Powell
Inception – Hans Zimmer
Never Let Me Go – Rachel Portman
Toy Story 3 – Randy Newman
Tron: Legacy – Daft Punk
Powell and Zimmer earned their nominations and then some. Portman remains the most effortlessly elegant composer working today, and the aching melancholy of her score for Never Let Me Go finds her at the top of her form. I may not be a fan of Newman's voice, but he's a talented composer, and the breadth of his score for Toy Story 3 is astonishing (he even brings in electric guitars), bouncing from playful action to quiet emotion with aplomb. Electronica outfit Daft Punk was the ideal choice for a project as effects-driven (and character-deficient) as Tron: Legacy, and they deliver with a giddily enjoyable romp through modern soundscapes; if I were being cynical, I'd argue that their music is the most fully developed character in the movie.