Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Music and Sound

Hey, a grouping of categories that actually makes sense! Admittedly, I only really care about one of the following four fields, but we at the Manifesto are nothing if not thorough.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

NOMINEES
Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli
Argo – Alexandre Desplat
Life of Pi – Mychael Danna
Lincoln – John Williams
Skyfall – Thomas Newman

WILL WIN
I've had a tough time getting a handle on this category, as none of the scores really stands out overall, and more importantly, none features a dominant musical theme that captured voters' hearts over the course of the season (as was the case with the "Married Life" theme from Up in 2009). That means, rather than culling information from industry buzz, I need to resort to strategic guesswork. First up is to eliminate those contenders that lack a corresponding Best Picture nod, as no film has won here without a nomination for the top prize since Frida in 2002. That means we can say goodbye to both Anna Karenina and Skyfall; I'm a bit hesitant about omitting the latter so casually, especially as it just won at the BAFTAs, but I don't think Newman's hard-charging score features enough lyrical moments to curry favor with the Academy.

That leaves three, and my choice of winner hinges on my (rather esoteric) musings regarding how voters view this category as a whole. In the past, the Academy tended to reward soothing, stately music, leading to victories for Finding Neverland, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Red Violin. However, recent wins for Slumdog Millionaire and, more notably, The Social Network – whose ambient stylings topped the more staid compositions of presumed frontrunner The King's Speech – suggest that voters are skewing toward more ambitious offerings. It's a transition that mirrors the sea change taking place in the Best Cinematography field, where the Academy is recognizing innovation and technical bravura rather than painterly, picturesque framing. (And yes, this means I'm doubly nervous about omitting Skyfall here. Grr.)

The irony is that the one nominee here that actually features this sort of imaginative daring, Dario Marianelli's brilliant work on Anna Karenina, is the least likely to win, simply due to the film's overall stature, or lack thereof (remember the caveat about Best Picture). Life of Pi, however, has the trappings of a technical tour de force – not coincidentally, I'm predicting it to win for Best Cinematography as well – and I suspect that reputation will trickle down to the film's music, regardless of how ordinary and inoffensive it may be. It's hardly ironclad reasoning, but when the nominees themselves do little to separate from each other, we're left to wade into the murky machinations of the voters' minds, and I think those voters have somehow convinced themselves that Danna's score is technically superior simply because it's housed within a technically superior film. Life of Pi takes it.





SHOULD WIN
Blech. The Academy may have submitted some inspired choices in this category over the past few years, but voters this year seem to have gone out of their way to pay homage to the most pleasant, least troubling music available. Danna's score for Life of Pi is so sleepy that it barely registers, and it does little to deepen the title character's existential plight. Williams' main theme for Lincoln is typically resonant, but otherwise it similarly fails to energize or elevate the material. As an action score, Newman's work for Skyfall is at least a bit of a curveball, but it's highly mundane genre work, noisy and fast-paced but offering little variation or sonic wit. Desplat, who authored no fewer than seven scores in 2012, continues to showcase himself as a musical jack-of-all-trades, but while his work on Argo is suitably restrained, it's more effective than inspiring.

Only Marianelli's stunning score for Anna Karenina distinguishes itself, both as independently exhilarating music and also as a quietly insistent voice in the film as a whole. Adding a decidedly Russian flavor to his usual British elegance, Marianelli mingles barking trumpets with restless violins, evoking the opulent but chaotic universe in which his characters reside. He also introduces an element of coy playfulness – witness the scene in which rhythmic percussion is synchronized with bureaucrats mindlessly stamping papers – that breathes life into a movie already bustling with activity. Marianelli already has an Oscar to his credit (for his staggeringly great score for Atonement), but if he keeps this up, he'll be forced to find more room in his trophy case before long.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin, Dan Romer
Brave – Patrick Doyle
Cloud Atlas – Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Howard Shore

With all of the attention the Academy lavished upon Beasts of the Southern Wild, I remain baffled that it failed to recognize the film's score, a collection of stirring, vital compositions that helps channel the occasionally rudderless picture and supply it with the proper focus. I'm a sucker for Celtic music, and Doyle's lilting work on Brave is buoyant and wondrous but never saccharine. The score for Cloud Atlas, as befits the film's premise, is a marvel of variety and ceaselessly changing tones, and its delicate piano-based themes provide some of 2012's most haunting music. Shore is a full-on epic mode with The Hobbit, and he reminds audiences just how flat-out powerful an orchestral brass section can be.

My ideal winner: Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin, Dan Romer.





BEST SOUND EDITING

NOMINEES
Argo
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Skyfall
Zero Dark Thirty

WILL WIN
Uh oh. And you thought I was clueless in the Best Original Score section. Look, I could spend five paragraphs developing an extraordinarily complicated rubric that analyzes patterns of past winners, correlates films' success here to their presence in other categories, and ultimately yields an algorithm so sophisticated that it would make Deep Blue weep with envy. Or I could just rely solely on one piece of quasi-conventional wisdom: that the winner of this category is invariably the Tech Heavy, i.e., the movie generally regarded as the superlative example of technical achievement. Last year, that was Hugo. The year before, it was Inception. This year, it's Life of Pi. Done.

(Just don't be surprised if Skyfall pulls the upset, as you could make the argument that ... screw it, let's move on.)


SHOULD WIN
Zero Dark Thirty. Put aside my halcyon days when I routinely spent 14 straight hours playing "Metal Gear Solid", and I can safely say that I've never felt that close to actually participating in a raid on a terrorist's compound as during the film's final sequence. With those helicopter blades and bullets whirring all around you, it's all you can do not to duck.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
The Impossible
The Three Stooges
Wreck-It Ralph
Zero Dark Thirty

The aural component of The Impossible enhances the film's terrifying atmosphere, as you can almost feel the impact of those waves crashing down around you. The sound design of The Three Stooges is about as terrifying as a sonorous Morgan Freeman voiceover, but its array of wacky sound effects is critical to advancing the movie's madcap tone. No movie's sound scheme, however, is more crucial to its success – nor more endlessly innovative – than the remarkable wizardry on display in Wreck-It Ralph, which bolsters its fully realized videogame universe with a marvelously subtle barrage of sound effects, wielding new-age gadgetry with superb effect while also delivering many a wink to the classic arcade games of the distant past.

My ideal winner: Wreck-It Ralph.





BEST SOUND MIXING

NOMINEES
Argo
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Les Misérables
Skyfall

WILL WIN
Aha! You thought I'd just echo my lament about how difficult this would be from the Best Sound Editing category, didn't you? But Best Sound Mixing is different, especially when there's a musical involved, as recent winners include Dreamgirls, Ray, and Chicago. Throw in the fact that it received considerable attention for its decision to record its songs live on set rather than looping them beforehand, and Les Misérables should take this one.





SHOULD WIN
Zero Dark Thirty. Wait, what?


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Les Misérables
Pitch Perfect
The Woman in Black
Wreck-It Ralph
Zero Dark Thirty

Les Misérables grabbed the headlines, but Pitch Perfect's mix perfectly synthesizes the many voices belting out a cappella covers with perfect clarity. The rattling, whispery sound of The Woman in Black confirms that this particular house is very haunted indeed.

My ideal winner: Wreck-It Ralph.





BEST ORIGINAL SONG

NOMINEES
Chasing Ice – "Before My Time" (J. Ralph)
Life of Pi – "Pi's Lullaby" (Mychael Danna, Bombay Jayashri)
Les Misérables – "Suddenly" (Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer, Alain Boublil)
Skyfall – "Skyfall" (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth)
Ted – "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" (Walter Murphy, Seth MacFarlane)

WILL WIN
God what a waste this category is. At least after last year's travesty in which only two songs landed on the ballot, the Academy tweaked its rules so that five songs received nominations this time around. Anyway, "Skyfall" is winning here. Like the Academy would pass up a chance to bring Adele up on stage? Please.

SHOULD WIN
"Before My Time" has a lot in time with Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia – namely, it's an insufferable bore, as well as proof that art featuring Scarlett Johansson isn't automatically sexy or even interesting. Les Misérables is obviously loaded with timeless music, but its creation of "Suddenly" smacks of writing a song for the sole purpose of cracking this category; it isn't a terrible song, and it's sung with feeling by Hugh Jackman, but it's in no way memorable, and its instrumentation is muted to the point of irrelevance. "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" trots out Norah Jones for some jazzy soul, but it's less exciting than merely adequate.

"Pi's Lullaby" nicely bottles the ethereal spirit of Life of Pi, and if it meanders a bit, that sort of woozy daydreaming is at least in keeping with the movie. Still, I'll go with "Skyfall". It's an atypical James Bond theme, but then Skyfall is a atypical James Bond film, and Adele's voluptuous, full-bodied voice is well-suited to establishing the stakes of such a grand and ambitious entry into the 007 oeuvre.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Brave – "Touch the Sky" (Julie Fowlis)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – "Misty Mountains" (Howard Shore)
The Hunger Games – "Abraham's Daughter" (Arcade Fire)
The Secret World of Arrietty – "Arrietty's Song" (Cecile Corbel)
Snow White and the Huntsman – "Breath of Life" (Florence + the Machine)

"Touch the Sky" captures Brave's tone of free-wheeling adventure and matches it with a giddy, thoroughly appealing tune. Richard Armitage brings his deep, rich bass to "Misty Mountains", a hypnotic piece of music that has the added benefit of yanking The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey from its bout of bizarre playfulness and lasering its focus, if only briefly. On "Abraham's Daughter" modern rock legends Arcade Fire tap into the dystopian unease surrounding The Hunger Games, as a cruel, merciless snare counters Régine Chassagne's delicate vocals. "Arrietty's Song" is whimsical and touching, much like the film. "Breath of Life" is by Florence + the Machine.

My ideal winner: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – "Misty Mountains" (Howard Shore).

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