Monthly Archives: February 2013

2012 Oscar Predictions and Reflections

Best-Picture-nominees-2013-Academy-Awards

Casual and obsessed moviegoers alike tend to have a love-hate relationship with the Academy Awards.  On the one hand, we feign to hate/not care about the Oscars and all the stupid decisions they make.  Yet much though we profess disgust, we obsess over this ceremony for weeks on end, and the outrage that we express every year only confirms how much power we’ve given the ceremony.  My own thoughts on the Academy Awards are mixed.  On the one hand, I of course get frustrated when middle-of-the-road dramas somehow take home all the major trophies while legitimately great films go unnoticed.  At the same time, I fully realize that to a large extent, this is inevitable.  Tempting though it may be to complain that the awards are political or biased, we should remember that those two adjectives also apply to just about every decision-making process run by humans.  It would be nice to think of some ideal scenario where a group of experts have managed to come to some objective consensus, but you’re always going to have individual voters swayed by their own baggage.  In the case of the Oscars, we also have to remember that these are the awards that Hollywood essentially gives itself while the rest of the world watches.  The members of the Academy don’t have that much in common with each other apart from a shared desire to make the whole ordeal look respectable without alienating their massive audience.  As a result, the films that generally end up winning usually have two things going for them – they look important on the surface, and they make their target audience members feel good about themselves.

This is why, even when I pull out my hair to see middling efforts like The King’s Speech or A Beautiful Mind walk away with statues, I understand why it happens. These are movies that seem to discuss serious subjects even when they only reduce those subjects to easy sentimentality.  The members of the Academy want to maintain the impression that they’re honoring respectable films (which is why you so rarely see genre films break into the race), but they’re rarely willing to give their prize to a film that might actually challenge or upset viewers.  Of course you’ll occasionally get an exception – 2007’s unabashedly nihilistic No Country for Old Men was a particularly welcome fluke – but more often than not you’re going to find strictly middle-of-the-road fare.  That doesn’t mean the Best Picture winner is always undeserving – after all, plenty of legitimately great films also happen to be uplifting.  But more often than not, the Best Picture Winners are simply fine – movies that you would happily watch on DVD but promptly forget two weeks later.

With that in mind, below is my analysis of this year’s nominations.  I’m not going to run through every category, because this post is long enough as it is, but I will cover the Best Picture and Best Score nominations (given the blog’s title, how could I not?).  We’ll start with the former: below are my thoughts on each of the nine films nominated for Best Picture this year.  I’ve divided each film into two sections – one discussing the film’s likelihood of winning the award, and the other discussing my own thoughts on the film’s merits.  Members of the Academy vote by assigning a ranking number to each film on the ballot, with 1 being their first choice and 9 being their last.  I will be doing the same here – in the “Will it Win” column, 1 represents the film with the best chance of winning, while 9 represents the film with the worst chance.  The same logic applies to the “Should it Win” column – 1 means the film is my personal pick of the lot, and 9 goes to the film I consider the least deserving of recognition.  I probably just made that sound way more complicated than it should, but you’ll get the gist as you read.  So without further ado:

The Best Picture Nominees (in Alphabetical Order)

Amour

Will it win:  I’d like to say it had an off-chance, but it seems extremely unlikely.  I don’t believe a foreign language film has ever managed to pick up the Best Picture Oscar, and the films that have probably come the closest (Cinema Paradiso and Life is Beautiful) have been far more uplifting than Haneke’s agonizing endurance test.  It’s a triumph of the film’s near-unquestionable quality that it managed to get a Best Picture nomination in the first place, but I have a hard time seeing such an uncompromisingly brutal film drawing the widespread appeal needed to win this (also, considering the Academy’s large majority of geriatric voters, I wonder how many people are actually going to want to celebrate a film that reminds them of getting old and dying).  Likelihood: 5

Should it win:  It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it would be a very deserving winner.  Michael Haneke’s famously merciless camera-eye forces us to look at death and old age straight in the face, without any of the sentimental mediation that film usually offers us.  No music, no cathartic monologues, and no closure – just bed pans, sponge baths, and malfunctioning motor skills.  My only reservation, as I mentioned in my piece last week, is that it’s hard not to wonder what a viewer can get out of Amour that can’t be had from two hours in a nursing home.  At the same time, most of us hesitate to visit nursing homes even when our own family members are there.  If Haneke achieves nothing else, he succeeds in forcing us to look at something that most of us pretend won’t happen, even though it very likely will happen to both our loved ones and ourselves.  My vote: 4

Argo

Will it Win:  Oddly enough, it’s looking like the favorite right now.  When Ben Affleck didn’t receive the directing nomination, most people assumed the film was out of the running, but Argo has picked up seemingly every other major award in the lead-up to the Oscars. Moreover, it looks like the biggest crowd-pleaser of the year – it’s managed to balance critical acclaim, strong box office, and a relative lack of controversy despite the fraught political ramifications of its subject.  As a film that flirts with realism and political import even as it does nothing but satisfy its audience’s desires for thrills and feel-good closure, Argo pretty much ticks off all the requisite boxes of past Best-Picture winners.  The fact that it’s a movie in which Hollywood literally saves the day certainly doesn’t hurt its chances with group of voters who are always eager for a little more self-congratulation.  My guess is that the Academy will give the directing award to Spielberg and give Argo Best Picture.  Likelihood: 1

Should it Win:  No.  Don’t get my wrong – taken as a popcorn thriller, Argo is more than effective.  For most of its running time, the film is gripping without going over the top, and funny without detracting from the seriousness of the subject.  And in the opening scenes, Affleck actually takes an admirably even-handed approach to the material.  The film incorporates real news footage to remind us why the kidnapping happened in the first place, and while the Iranian revolutionaries are certainly the villains in this story, Affleck at least has the respect to give their actions context.  But that carefully balanced approach goes out the window in the last act.  In a ridiculously contrived (and blatantly fictionalized) climax, Affleck’s protagonist turns into a lone wolf hero operating against both meddling government officials in Washington and cartoonishly evil Iranian security guards in Tehran.  Obviously no Hollywood movie can be expected to follow the reality of historical events completely, but there’s something supremely unsettling about turning still-living people from the recent past into snarling villains for the sheer sake of narrative momentum.  It might be more understandable if the film clearly presented this material as a stylized fiction, but Argo frames its ridiculous climax through the same docu-realist aesthetic that it uses for the actual real-life events.  The result is a film that sacrifices any deeper insight it might have offered for superficial thrills.  My vote: 8

Beasts of a Southern Wild

Will it Win:  I wouldn’t put it at the top, but I’d put it in the top 4.  The film does have a few major obstacles to overcome.  First, because Beasts went into relatively wide release earlier in the year, a lot of the initial acclaim has died down (this is why studios usually save their Oscar hopefuls until the end of December).  And while everybody loves an underdog, the fact that the entire cast and crew is made-up of unknowns might put off voters more inclined to vote for friends and peers they already know and respect.  At the same time, Beasts is one of the best-loved films of the year, and much like Slumdog Millionaire a few years ago, it pulls a neat trick of being a serious film about poverty (check) that nevertheless provides its audience with a big heaping serving of cathartic uplift at the end (check plus).  If the film starred, say, Will Smith as the father, it would be a shoe-in (though much weaker as a film).  As it stands, Beasts is a potential dark horse but I don’t see it unseating Argo.  Likelihood: 4

Should it Win:  Well … yeah!  As I’ve stated a few times at this sight already, this is my personal pick for the year’s best film. What makes Beasts so remarkable is that it does follow through with feel-good bursts of emotion, but it doesn’t compromise its gritty integrity to reach that point.  In an ideal world, all the Oscar-winning crowd-pleasers would be this excellent. My vote: 1

Django Unchained

Will it win:  I severely doubt it.  Even if Tarantino hadn’t been glossed over for the Best Director nomination, the idea that this controversial genre pastiche could garner enough widespread support necessary for a win is extremely unlikely – I’m surprised (albeit pleasantly) that the Academy nominated it at all.  As I mentioned earlier, the Academy tends to have a strong aversion to genre pictures, even when they’re as critically acclaimed as The Dark Knight or Skyfall.  Tarantino’s auteur signature and the historically sensitive subject may have been enough to let voters to feel ok nominating this one despite its roots in violent Spaghetti Western/blaxploitation thrillers, but I doubt those factors will be enough to net Django a win.  Add to that the (unfair) accusations of racism that have plagued the film from he start, and I suspect that most voters will stick with a film less likely to upset people.  Likelihood:  8

Should it win:  I certainly wouldn’t be upset to see it take home the statue – Django ranked high in my year-end list, and it sure would be deliciously ironic to see Hollywood award a film that so viciously attacks Hollywood’s own history of racial representation.  Plus if it wins, future Oscar ceremonies might feature clips from both Django Unchained and Gone with the Wind in the same “great moments in Oscar history” montages – how great would that be? My vote: 2

Les Miserables

Will it Win:  Almost certainly no.  By far the poorest reviewed entry in the best picture nominees, most people are surprised it even secured a nomination.  It did win a Best Musical/Comedy award from the Golden Globes, but internationally beloved musicals tend to have an edge with the foreign press, however poorly executed they may be (see Evita – or rather, don’t).  Hathaway will probably win the best supporting actress award for her acclaimed Fantine, but it’s hard to see the film securing anything else.  Likelihood:  9

Should it Win:  God no.  Les Miserables, to its credit, gets better in its second act, but the first half of the film rivals The Phantom of the Opera as the worst execution of a stage musical as a major motion picture. I appreciate the desire for realism, but Tom Hooper’s version of realism is antithetical to a rock-opera like Les Miserables.  Lead actors haltingly choke out melodies that need to be belted, big crowd number descend into chaos, and all the while the orchestra never seems fully in-synch with the singers.  Maybe this is more “real,” in that it’s probably closer to what it would actually sound like if starving peasants and factory workers started singing.  But as we’re already suspending disbelief enough to accept people randomly bursting into song, surely we can also suspend disbelief far enough to accept that they can also sound good when they sing.  And this is to say nothing of the constant barrage of unnecessary Dutch angles and extreme close-ups for actors who are already going into histrionics, or the editing choices that seem to flat-out ignore the rhythm of the music.  For whatever reason, a lot of these problems resolve themselves once the action moves to Paris in the second act, perhaps because so many of the young actors who appear here have actually had professional training in musical theater.  But it’s not enough to redeem an opening act that seems to do everything in its power to sabotage the material.  My vote: 9

Life of Pi

Will it Win: Rather unlikely.  The film is well-loved, but I don’t think anybody loves it enough to put it at the top.  In some ways the film checks off most of the Oscar boxes – literary prestige, feel-good ending, dazzling filmmaking – but it has the built-in liability of being based on a book that a lot of people have read and loved.  That sounds like a good thing, but often it means that voters attribute the film’s larger qualities to the novel rather than the filmmakers.  Lee did a rather spectacular job of making the film his own regardless of its source, but Yann Martel’s novel still casts a heavy shadow over the film, fair or not.  There’s an odd chance that this will get a director win for Lee, given that it’s such a virtuosic display of directorial vision, but even here I suspect voters will lean toward Spielberg or Haneke.  Likelihood: 6

Should it Win:  Again, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but I’d be happy if it happened.  It’s not a perfect film – Lee over-simplifies some of the book’s central questions in ways that result in some awkward scenarios (particularly with the tiger, who seems much more like a walking symbol here than he did in the book).  But it’s such a viscerally thrilling moviegoing experience, and it would be nice to see the director get some love that he should have received for Crouching Tiger and Brokeback Mountain (though he at least won a directing Oscar for that).   My vote: 3

Lincoln

Will it Win:  When the awards were first announced, this looked like the favorite, and it still has a lot of points in its favor.  To begin, Lincoln is leading by a wide margin in nominations and it has won widespread critical acclaim.  The fact that it’s a Spielberg drama, written by Tony Kushner, that stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln should make this a done deal.  Yet the qualities that have endeared the film to many of its critics – its general lack of grandstanding, a restrained tone, and willingness to look at ethical ambiguities –  might also hurt its chances.  The sublime burst of catharsis that Oscar voters generally favor isn’t here, leaving Lincoln as a film that a lot of people admire but few people seem to love.  It still has a strong fighting chance, but I’d be a little surprised if this won over Argo.  Likelihood: 2

Should it Win:  Lincoln is a movie with many strong, admirable qualities, and if it nets Spielberg another Oscar or two, I won’t be upset.  But while the film exercises admirable restraint for the bulk of its running time, Spielberg falters in significant ways that are hard to overlook.  Some of the flaws are forgivable – any subplot involving Lincoln’s family detracts from the more compelling story about the 13th Amendment, but I can understand the desire to humanize Lincoln as a character.  Less forgivable is the way that the film marginalizes the experiences of African-Americans even as it feigns to celebrate their emancipation.  It’s particularly egregious when the 13th Amendment finally does pass, and Spielberg devotes far more time to the white senators’ celebrations than he does to the actual African-Americans who are directly affected by the amendment (I won’t spoil it, but a final close-up on Tommy Lee Jones’ face is actually borderline offensive).  It’s still an intelligent, well-meaning film, and Day-Lewis is indeed phenomenal, but it’s hard not to be unsettled at yet another film about slavery that exclusively celebrates exceptional white people.  My vote: 6

 

Silver Linings Playbook

Will it Win:  This, Lincoln, and Beasts are the three most likely dark horses, and several months ago, I might have said Silver Linings Playbook had the best shot.  It has a lot going for it – it’s well-loved, it features serious subject matter, and it’s funny and uplifting enough to leave anyone happy at the end.  The fact that the Weinsteins are making such a strong push for it also helps its chances considerably.  But the movie doesn’t seem to be picking up much in the awards leading up to the Oscars, and the general consensus that the film sells itself short in its last act is a huge hurdle.  Ironically, the crowd-pleasing aspects of the film might actually be its undoing – if it loses, it will be proof that even the Academy has its limits when it comes to forced happy endings.  Likelihood: 4

Should it Win:  It’s a cute movie, but no.  I suppose I’m echoing the consensus here, but the first half of the film is such a real and raw look at mental illness that it feels like a cheat when the film shifts into lighthearted romantic comedy territory.  There are scenes in the film that are as brave and painful as any in David O Russell’s career, but seeing how good Russell can be only makes it that much more disappointing when he settles for Hollywood hokum in the end.  My vote: 7

Zero Dark Thirty

Will it Win:  Most likely no, though there’s a slim chance.  It’s one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and the film won a handful of major critics awards in late December.  But the negative campaigning done by people convinced the film is pro-torture seem to have backed Zero Dark Thirty into a corner.  It doesn’t help that the film has what is easily the bleakest worldview of all the nominees (and in a year where a Michael Haneke film was also nominated, that’s saying something). Where Bigelow’s Hurt Locker was at least able to sell itself as a tribute to the brave men fighting overseas, Zero Dark Thirty is quick to deny any such patriotism.  Americans soldiers aren’t vilified, but the film doesn’t shy away from their brutality, nor does it oblige us with a justification for that brutality.  Zero Dark Thirty is a film that denies catharsis, closure, and anything resembling an uplifting message.  Acclaimed though the film may be, that’s an awful lot for Academy voters to take.  Likelihood: 5

Should it Win:  No, unless the award could somehow only go to the last 30 minutes.  For all of its admirable qualities, much of Zero Dark Thirty embodies one of the lowest trends in contemporary moviemaking  – contrived Hollywood conventions masquerading as hard-biting realism.  Despite the intense attention to grim and gritty aesthetics, this is nevertheless a standard thriller about a lone wolf genius fighting against an incompetent system.  Everybody who isn’t Maya is a stupid bureaucrat who either makes reckless decisions or gets in the way of the one genius who knows how to find Bin Laden.  It’s also the sort of movie where people convey narrative information by getting into screaming matches in office hallways, and Jessica Chastain, so great in other roles, is frankly terrible when she has to yell.  But the film’s pivotal raid on Bin Laden’s headquarters and the aftermath is such a perfect piece of pure cinema that it’s almost enough to make up for everything else.  Far from the jingoistic spectacle audiences might crave, Bigelow instead maintains a tone of chilly anxiety, lingering on the terrified children and innocent casualties that result from the Navy Seals’ raid on Bin Laden’s compound.  It’s a powerful enough piece of filmmaking that it makes me inclined to forgive everything that precedes it, and it renders any claims that the film is pro-torture or pro-military ludicrous.  My vote: 5

 

Thoughts on the Best Original Music Nominees

The Oscar for Best Original Score is frankly, something of a joke.  I don’t meant that dismissively – plenty of legitimately great scores have won the award – but there’s a reason that winning a this award has almost zero impact on a composer’s standing in the industry (for proof, look at how many recent Oscar-winning composers’ careers dried up immediately after winning the statue).  The problem with the award stems from a problem that plagues every award from the non-major categories – it’s chosen by people who by and large have no idea what they’re voting for.  Most people who work in the film industry has some idea of what constitutes a great picture or a great director, but how many actors understand the difference between sound mixing and sound editing?  And more pertinently, how many costume designers, makeup artists, actors, writers, or production designers understand the difference between best original score and best song placement?  Few viewers actually pay attention to film music when they watch a film, and I doubt many voters bother to educate themselves before voting on this award.  This means that while the Music Branch itself is generally intelligent (and strategic) about the scores it nominates, the rest of the Academy often goes in with no memory of the music in question.

This means that the score that wins Best Original score almost always wins for one of five reasons.  Either:

A) The award is being used as a consolidation prize for a Best Picture nominee that isn’t going to win anything else.

B) The award is attached to a Best Picture nominee that’s sweeping every other major category.

C) The award goes to a score for a film full of memorable songs that voters mistake with original score (though in recent years the Music Branch has added new rules to prevent this from happening)

D) The award goes to a composer who is famous for something other than film music (i.e., an acclaimed concert composer or a former rock star)

E) The award goes to a score that is so prominent in the film, even laymen are inclined to remember it afterwards.

Of the three, only E actually has anything to do with the merits of the score in question, and even this has more to do with music’s prominence than its quality.  Sometimes it works out that legitimately great scores still win the award, but when it happens it’s almost more of a happy coincidence.  So with those qualifications in mind, here are my own thoughts on this year’s Best Original Score nominees.

Argo

Will it Win:  Unlikely.  If Argo sweeps all the awards there’s a chance that the score get carried along for the ride, but I’m guessing that the winners will be more spread out this year.  Moreover, the score in Argo is so minimal that few voters are likely to remember it even existed.  Likelihood:  5

Should it win:  No – in fact, of the five, I’d say it’s easily the weakest contender.  Desplat did some marginally interesting things with the score that didn’t make it into the film, but onscreen it’s generic mood music that only comes to life during a schmaltzy closing scene.  Ironically, Desplat delivered a much more intelligent and purposeful score for the other Oscar contender about conflict in the Middle East – Zero Dark ThirtyMy Vote: 5

Anna Karenina

Will it Win:  It has a decent chance just by virtue of the enormous role it plays in the film itself.  Due to the meta-theatrical nature of Joe Wright’s production, the Dario Marianelli’s score often features directly in the story itself.  Musicians walk onscreen playing the score during set changes, and elaborate dance sequences are painstakingly choreographed to the music.  But the score has two major obstacles – it isn’t particularly emotional, and the film itself isn’t very popular.  It’s rare for a score to win if its film hasn’t at least been nominated for Best Picture, and Anna Karenina wasn’t even a critical or commercial success.  Those factors will make it hard for Marianelli to take home another statue. Likelihood:  3

Should it win:  While it isn’t my favorite, the score is a deserving contender.  Marianelli is an accomplished composer, and his music for Karenina is appropriately detailed and authentic to the period.  But like the film itself, the score is also a bit too mannered and restrained for its own good.  While Marianelli writes an impeccable pastiche of late Romantic Russian music, he rarely allows the music to open up in ways that might actually make us feel something for the character.  This of course is no doubt an artistic decision of sorts, but it’s one of the many artistic decisions that keeps the film from working as more than a novelty project.  It’s hard to shake the sense that the score is treating the entire enterprise as an extremely elaborate joke, and while that’s fine to an extent, at some point you have to give us a reason to care about the characters.  My vote: 3

Life of Pi

Will it Win:  Odds certainly seem to be in its favor.  It won the Golden Globe equivalent and it seems to be sweeping every other film music award.  It’s also exactly the sort of film that voters tend to love – prominent but not overbearing, ethnic but not alien, intelligent but not inaccessible, emotional but not saccharine.  It helps that the music plays for long stretches without any competition from dialogue or sound effects, almost ensuring that voters will remember it after the fact.  Furthermore, the score is attached to a Best Picture Nominee that likely won’t win any major awards, which makes it prime material for a consolation prize.  The fact that it’s also the year’s best score almost seems like an afterthought.  Likelihood:  1

Should it Win:  Yes – didn’t you read what I just said?  I already raved about the score in my Best of 2012 post a few weeks ago, but Michael Danna’s exquisitely detailed music is both beautiful and profound.  Danna is one of Hollywood’s most underrated composers, and however meaningless the Oscar might be as a barometer of talent, he deserves the accolades all the same.  My Vote:  1

Lincoln

Will it win:  I doubt it.  Williams is a favorite within the music branch, but his enormous fame has backfired on him in popular circles.  Too many people see him as a square fuddy-duddy who writes the sort of old-fashioned music Hollywood music we’re supposed to turn our noses at.  This is of course a completely unfair characterization, but it seems to have stuck for Academy voters throughout the past decade and a half.  Moreover, his music for Lincoln plays a very muted role in the film, and on the few occasions where it is noticeable, it arguably does more harm than good.  Still there’s a chance that the Academy will realize they aren’t going to have John Williams forever, so Lincoln may end up winning out of deference to one of the last living film music masters.  Likelihood: 4

Should it win:  No, with a qualification that the music itself is beyond repute.  If this were a best composition award then … well I would still give it to Life of Pi, but Lincoln would be a worthy contender.  Williams has written a beautiful and intelligent piece of Americana, but the music functions poorly in the film itself – when it isn’t whispering inaudibly, it’s goosing up scenes that should speak for themselves with swelling sentimental strings.  I don’t blame Williams so much as I blame Spielberg for pushing him in this direction, but the result is nevertheless an unfortunate as film music.  My Vote:  4

Skyfall

Will it Win:  It’s a reasonably long shot, but not an implausible one.  Again, it’s rare for a film that wasn’t nominated for any of the major awards to pick this one up, especially when that film was a genre piece.  But Skyfall is an enormously popular film with both critics and audiences, and people who ordinarily don’t even mention music have singled out Thomas Newman’s score for its effectiveness (the fact that the music is so loud in the audio mix helps considerably).  While die-hard John Barry fans seem to want Newman’s head on a spike, general audiences seem to be won over, evidenced if nothing else by the enormous sales for the soundtrack album (especially impressive considering that Adele’s song isn’t even on the album).  Skyfall is also a film that many members of the Academy probably wish they had nominated, so I can easily see them showing the film some love through a Best Original Score Oscar.  Likelihood: 2

Should it Win:  I have my reservations about the score, mostly because I hear so many missed opportunities to dig deeper into the franchise’s rich musical legacy.  But the score does succeed in bringing something fresh to the table, and I’m impressed with the way Newman balances his own distinct personality with the classic Bond idioms.  And while my heart (and my bet) is on Life of Pi, it would be nice to see a score win, not because it is attached to a Best Picture nominee, but because people genuinely like the music.  My Vote: 2

And that, my chums and chumlettes, is Movie Music Musing’s last word on 2012.  Thank you all again for reading.  Expect more reviews of recent films in the weeks to come, along with other various odd thoughts that occur to me (and of course your suggestions are always welcome).  Here’s to 2013!

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The International Film Music Critics Association Announces Their 2012 Awards

ifmca-logo

As some of you may know, I’m a member of the International Film Music Critics Association.  As the name suggests, we’re a group of critics and journalists from around the world dedicated to promoting film music appreciation.  Every year we vote on various “bests” in film music, as a sort of movie score-exclusive version of the Oscars (without the ceremony, granted).  While I don’t always agree with the selections my fellow peers deem outstanding, I actually do think we’ve agreed on some excellent choices this year (and you’ll see some overlap with my own best of 2012 post from a few weeks ago).  I’m posting the press release below, and I strongly recommend giving it a look.  Also, if you would like to hear clips from some of the winners and nominees, click here for our annual podcast (you even get to hear my voice introducing one of the pieces).  And with no more ado:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

INTERNATIONAL FILM MUSIC CRITICS ASSOCIATION HONORS MULTIPLE FILMS; “LIFE OF PI” TAKES SCORE OF THE YEAR BUT DESPLAT, ELFMAN, GIACCHINO, NEWMAN, VELÁZQUEZ, WILLIAMS ALSO WIN

http://filmmusiccritics.org/2013/02/ifmca-winners-2012/

FEBRUARY 21, 2013 — The International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) announces its list of winners for excellence in musical scoring in 2012. Unlike in previous years, where one score has taken multiple victories, the main film prizes are split equally between 11 different movies and composers, the greatest spread in IFMCA history.

The award for Score of the Year goes to Canadian composer MYCHAEL DANNA for his score for director Ang Lee’s vivid shipwreck drama LIFE OF PI. Danna’s dramatic and beautiful score made use of a large number of Indian musical elements in addition to a traditional western orchestra, capturing through music one the film’s key ideas, the collision of different cultures to form the large, ethnic melting pot from which the lead character, Pi Patel, originates. This is the first Score of the Year award from the IFMCA for Golden Globe winner and double-Oscar nominee Danna, who had never previously been nominated in this category, although he did receive five previous nominations in genre categories for scores such as BEING JULIA, THE NATIVITY STORY and THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS.

Hollywood A-lister DANNY ELFMAN was named Film Composer of the Year for his outstanding body of work in 2012, during which he composed music for such popular and successful films as DARK SHADOWS, FRANKENWEENIE, HITCHCOCK. MEN IN BLACK III, PROMISED LAND and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Elfman’s music in 2012 ran the gamut of styles and genres, from the soft rock of Silver Linings Playbook to the Gothic atmospherics of Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie, to the subtle Bernard Herrmann echoes of Hitchcock, cementing his position as one of the most versatile and sought-after composers working today. This is the second Composer of the Year Award Elfman has received from the IFMCA, having previously been similarly honored for his work in 2008.

The IFMCA’s ongoing recognition of emerging talent in the film music world this year spotlights 37-year-old Colorado-born composer NATHAN JOHNSON, who was named Breakout Composer of the Year for his unconventionally percussive music for the acclaimed sci-fi thriller LOOPER. To create the film’s unique aural atmosphere Johnson took a standard small orchestra, featuring mainly strings and piano, and augmented them with a massive array of sampled sounds and processed percussion effects, ranging from trash can lids, an oscillating fan, and gunfire to hammered PVC tubes and fire alarms. The end result is cacophonous, unsettling, but weirdly fascinating music that somehow manages to bring together these seemingly random and incoherent musical collisions of sounds into a propulsive, exciting score.

Spanish composer FERNANDO VELÁZQUEZ wrote the IFMCA’s Film Music Composition of the Year – “The Impossible Main Title” from director Juan Antonio Bayona’s film THE IMPOSSIBLE, which tells the story of a family caught up in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Velázquez’s main title is an overwhelming emotional powerhouse, capturing both the tragedy of the situation and the sense of desperation felt by the family concerned. The score was recorded by the excellent string section of the London Metropolitan Orchestra at the historic Abbey Road Studios, and has been praised by numerous mainstream film critics as one of the outstanding elements of the film. This is the first IFMCA Award win for Velázquez, who was previously nominated for his scores EL ORFANATO (THE ORPHANAGE) in 2007 and GARBO: EL ESPÍA in 2009.

The various genre awards were won by JOHN WILLIAMS for director Steven Spieberg’s historical drama LINCOLN, WALTER MURPHY for the raucous comedy TED, THOMAS NEWMAN for his work on the near-universally lauded James Bond film SKYFALL, MICHAEL GIACCHINO for the epic Edgar Rice Burroughs space adventure JOHN CARTER, ALEXANDRE DESPLAT for the whimsical fantasy animation RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, and Finnish composer PANU AALTIO for his music for the beautiful nature documentary METSÄN TARINA.

In the non-film categories, British composer MURRAY GOLD won the award for Best Original Score for a Television Series for his outstanding work on the most recent season of the classic BBC science fiction show DOCTOR WHO, while composer AUSTIN WINTORY won the award for Best Original Score for a Video Game or Interactive Media for his score for the groundbreaking game JOURNEY, which earlier this year made history by being the first Video Game score nominated for a Grammy.

La-La Land Records won the Best Archival Release of an Existing Score award for their magnificent release of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic 1979 score STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, newly re-mastered and re-released in a lavish 3-CD set. They also continued their monopoly of the Film Music Record Label of the Year category, winning for the third straight year, and solidifying their position at the top of the list of labels specializing in lovingly restoring the greatest film music of the past.

Finally, conductor Nic Raine and producers James Fitzpatrick and Luc Van de Ven won the Best Archival Re-Recording of an Existing Score award for the monumental re-recording of Miklós Rózsa’s score for the epic 1951 film QUO VADIS?, which featured stellar performances from the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

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THE WINNERS

2012 Film Categories

FILM SCORE OF THE YEAR

• LIFE OF PI, music by Mychael Danna

FILM COMPOSER OF THE YEAR

• DANNY ELFMAN

BREAKOUT COMPOSER OF THE YEAR

• NATHAN JOHNSON

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A DRAMA FILM

• LINCOLN, music by John Williams

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A COMEDY FILM

• TED, music by Walter Murphy

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR AN ACTION/ADVENTURE/THRILLER FILM

• SKYFALL, music by Thomas Newman

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A FANTASY/SCIENCE FICTION/HORROR FILM

• JOHN CARTER, music by Michael Giacchino

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR AN ANIMATED FEATURE

• RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, music by Alexandre Desplat

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

• METSÄN TARINA, music by Panu Aaltio

FILM MUSIC COMPOSITION OF THE YEAR

• “The Impossible Main Title” from THE IMPOSSIBLE, music by Fernando Velázquez

Other 2012 Categories

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A TELEVISION SERIES

• DOCTOR WHO, music by Murray Gold

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A VIDEO GAME OR INTERACTIVE MEDIA

• JOURNEY, music by Austin Wintory

BEST ARCHIVAL RELEASE OF AN EXISTING SCORE

• STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, music by Jerry Goldsmith; album produced by Didier C. Deutsch, Mike Matessino, Bruce Botnick, MV Gerhard, Matt Verboys and David C. Fein; liner notes by Jeff Bond and Mike Matessino; album art direction by Jim Titus (La-La Land)

BEST ARCHIVAL RE-RECORDING OF AN EXISTING SCORE

• QUO VADIS?, music by Miklós Rózsa; conducted by Nic Raine; album produced by James Fitzpatrick and Luc Van de Ven; liner notes by Frank K. DeWald; album art direction by GINKO DIGI (Prometheus/Tadlow)

FILM MUSIC RECORD LABEL OF THE YEAR

• LA-LA LAND RECORDS, MV Gerhard, Matt Verboys

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The International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) is an association of online, print and radio journalists who specialize in writing about original film and television music.

Since its inception, the IFMCA has grown to comprise almost 60 members from countries as diverse as Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

Previous IFMCA Score of the Year Awards have been awarded to John Williams’ WAR HORSE in 2011, John Powell’s HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON in 2010, Michael Giacchino’s UP in 2009, Alexandre Desplat’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON in 2008, Dario Marianelli’s ATONEMENT in 2007, James Newton Howard’s LADY IN THE WATER in 2006, John Williams’ MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA in 2005 and Michael Giacchino’s THE INCREDIBLES in 2004.

For more information about the International Film Music Critics Association visit filmmusiccritics.org or facebook.com/ifmca, follow us at twitter.com/IFMCA, or contact us

Best Films of 2012

Was 2012 a good year for film?  It was certainly a good year for hype.  Last January, we were looking at a year that promised new films by Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Haneke, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Spielberg, in addition to widely anticipated entries in the Batman, James Bond, Avengers, Alien, and Lord of the Rings franchises.  How much did these widely disparate films live up to the hype?  By and large, extraordinarily well.  While there were always going to be disappointments, 2012 was largely a year of great filmmakers reminding us why we pay so much attention every time they make a new movie.  Some of them surprised, some of them fell short, and some simply managed to meet intimidating high expectations, but more than any year in recent memory, 2012 felt like a year when individual director’s voices dominated  both the blockbuster and the arthouse.  As much as the media would like to turn a “flop” like John Carter into a cautionary tale of too much directorial power, it’s telling that three of the hugest hits this year – The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Skyfall – are each clearly the product of a strong-willed director with a distinct voice.  That said, there were also many unexpected surprises, often from first-time directors who will hopefully go on to have long and fruitful careers in movies.  But for the present moment, the stars seem to have briefly aligned so that it’s possible to be an artist and still find enormous commercial success within the Hollywood system.  I’m not holding my breath for how long it will last, but 2012 was a nice reminder that quality and commercialism don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Below are 10 films that – for me – stood out amidst a remarkably strong year.  Motivated in part by this blog, I made an effort this year of seeing as much as possible, and as a result I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to condense my favorites into a top 10 list.  The picks below are by no means perfect – in fact, many are so heavily flawed that some of you may be flabbergasted that I’ve included them.  But every film below tried something ambitious, something memorable that attains greatness despite – and sometimes even because of – other perceived shortcomings.  Before I begin, I should acknowledge one caveat: I still have not seen Holy MotorsWuthering HeightsRust and Bone, Cloud Atlas, Flight, Killer Joe, and a handful of other titles that have made a lot of other critics top ten lists.  Others critical darlings like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are absent for a reasons that I will get to into in a later post.  With that out of the way, here are Movie Music Musing’s …

Top 10 Films of 2012:

10.  Prometheus

Remember that thing I said in the opening paragraph about some of these films being heavily flawed?  I know it was a long time ago, so I can wait while you go back to re-read it if you like….  Good?  Good.  Well, I was mostly thinking of Prometheus when I said that.  Ridley Scott’s film certainly has its weak spots, especially when it tries to be a traditional horror film and sends presumably brilliant researchers to do insanely stupid things.  Yet these moments are secondary to the film’s remarkable achievement – legitimate science fiction on a massive blockbuster budget.  For the first time in decades, the Ridley Scott who made thought-provoking, visually intricate films like The Duelists and Blade Runner seems to have returned.  Working with a script by Damian Lindelof, whose final season of Lost covered similar ground, Scott uses the epic platform to pose a provocative question – can we assume that any creator that made us had wise benevolent intentions in mind when we take such a reckless and cavalier attitude to our own creations?  The film doesn’t outright state this message so much as it allows the question to play out through various interlocking creator/creation relationships, whether from man to robot, father to daughter, or mother to an entirely new species of life.  Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the film is the way it weaves its origin story of the creature from Alien in as a thematic parallel to mankind’s own obsession with its own origin story – while the humans run around desperately searching for the secret of their creation, they themselves are inadvertently creating a brand new form of life that they’d just as soon destroy as abandon.  There are of course better films this year, but short of The Master, I can’t think of another film that prompted more interesting conversations.

9.  Antimetheus

A spin-off of Prometheus about a little-known god who runs around looking for people lighting fires, then angrily snatches the fires away and shouts “Hey – you can’t have that!”  It’s a stunning use of … ok fine, there is no movie called Antimetheus – that was a goof.  But if anybody’s interested in my spec script: “Antimetheus Decides He’s Fine Being Bound, Really Don’t Trouble Yourself,” please contact me.

9 (actual).  Skyfall

I reviewed this a few months ago, and since that time the film seems to have attracted equal measures of intense praise and criticism (the latter mostly from fans who can’t get over the film not looking precisely like their version of a Bond film).  As I stated then, it’s another flawed film, particularly clumsy during the action scenes that would normally be the Bond film’s reason for existence.  The thing is, in this particular film they aren’t – Mendes invests the film with so much emotional weight for both Bond as a character and Bond as a cultural institution that all the various plot holes and awkward fight scenes just seem like trivialities.  Remember that brief gasp of tragedy that closes the otherwise lighthearted On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?  Skyfall is that moment extended over two and half hours, resulting in installment for this franchise where the thrills come from the character relationships, not the explosions.

8.  Amour

Part of me feels guilty for placing this so low on this list, because it’s an objectively brilliant film and I completely understand why it’s received so much widespread critical adulation.  Michael Haneke is notorious for brutal portraits of human cruelty in films like Funny Games and Cache, but he’s often misunderstood as a cruel director as a result.  In truth, every Haeneke film invites compassion from its audience – he just uses cruelty to make us recognize how much damage we can do to each other when we aren’t careful.  Amour might be his first film that instead focuses squarely on humankind’s capacity for kindness, though Haneke being Haneke, the film does so in the most brutal fashion imaginable.  Without a trace of sentimentality, he shows us the last days of an elderly married couple (played by French New Wave icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva).  After a botched operation and stroke leaves Riva unable to tend to even her basic body functions, Trintignant’s role gradually shifts from husband to nurse as he struggles to take care of his wife even while her brain slowly leaves her.  In terms of achieving what it sets out to achieve, Haneke’s film is unimpeachable – the cold static shots, the absence of any musical score, and naturalistic performances of the actors create an approximation of reality so convincing it’s often easy to forget you aren’t in a nursing home (I know that people throw these statements around quite a bit, but it really will be an outrage if anybody but Riva wins the Best Actress Oscar).  Yet that same commitment to realism can make it hard to shake the feeling that I could have the same experience with a trip to the local nursing home.  That isn’t necessarily a problem with the film, but it makes for occasion where I can say a film was a masterpiece, yet I’m not entirely sure what I gained from seeing it.

7.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower

It’s probably not fair to call this the best representation of high school in any American film, but statements like that assume that everybody has the same memories of high school and their teenage years.  But I will say that it is the only film I have seen, to date, that actually resonated with my own memories of being a teenager.  The film does not exist in a reductive universe made up of broad character types (i.e.  The Breakfast Club) – it’s instead a sensitive and nuanced look at the makeshift communities we form when we’re just old enough to start developing our own identities.  Director Stephen Chbosky adapts the story from his novel, yet at no point does he fall to the traps of other novelist-turned-directors – he knows when to trust wordless audio-visual sequences to tell the story, and when to let the actors carry the emotions that aren’t explicitly spelled out in the dialogue.  The film captures the early point in adulthood where we’re mature enough to have profound feelings but not mature enough to know how to control them – if that doesn’t seem like big praise, think of how few American can films can genuinely make the same claim.

6.  Life of Pi

When word broke that Ang Lee would be adapting Yann Martel’s novel, I suspect that most expected Pi’s odyssey would be getting the somber treatment of the man who gave us The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain.  What a wonderful surprise then, to see that Lee has instead turned the material into his most whimsical and visually spectacular film to date.  Navigating around the problem of adapting a book that spends the bulk of its story on a lifeboat, the director turns the film’s potentially monotonous setting into a showcase for vivid, impressionistic fantasy sequences and 3D effects that put Avatar to shame.  These showstopping set-piece aren’t gratuitous, but rather extensions of the protagonist’s free-flowing spiritual imagination.  Granted, some of the film’s philosophical musings hit dead ends (the film stakes a lot of weight on whether or not the tiger has a soul, and its criteria for determining this question are questionable at best).  But the film’s viscerally thrilling combination of dazzling imagery and soulful music makes an extremely convincing case for the spiritual ecstasy that the Pi embraces.  It’s rare to see Ang Lee wearing his heart on his sleeve so shamelessly, and it’s a pleasure to discover that he’s actually very good at it.

5.  Django Unchained

Django Unchained is probably Tarantino’s most straightforward “movie” since Jackie Brown, and one of the few that functions just as well as a satisfying action film as it does a metacommentary on filmmaking.  Yet though it succeeds in telling a supremely satisfying story, it also doubles a sly rebuke against Hollywood’s frequently shameful history with racial representation.  Much controversy was caused by the film’s premise – a Spaghetti Western/exploitation pastiche about a slave who slaughters white Southerners – and if you take Tarantino’s highly stylized vision of the Antebellum South on strictly historical grounds, I’m sure you’ll find a great deal of fault.  But while the world that this film creates isn’t plausible as a real historical setting, it’s highly plausible as a slightly distorted reflection of the equally fictitious worlds we see in movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.  Tarantino sets up the icons from these films – the majestic Klan, the plantation, the southern belle, and the Uncle Tom/Mammy figure, and then proceeds to reveal how dangerous despicable all of these fantasies actually are.  Then Django blows them to smithereens (spoiler?).  After so many films that spend their time hand-wringing and falling over themselves to make sure that white audiences don’t have to feel too bad about slavery, there’s something cathartic about a film that’s willing to declare all-out war on the sentimental tropes that have somehow allowed white American culture to get nostalgic for its darkest shame.

4.  Moonrise Kingdom

Another film I’ve already reviewed, and I don’t have a lot to add other than to reiterate how moving it to see Anderson take the whimsical children’s storybook world that his disillusioned adult characters usually cling to, and firmly give that world back to the children who still have a chance to avoid their parents’ mistakes.  Wes Anderson will always make “Wes Anderson” films, but when they’re this charming and deeply felt, how could that be a bad thing?

3.  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

I know next to nothing about director Nuri Bilge Ceylan or Turkish cinema, but part of this chillingly beautiful crime drama’s brilliance is that it could have been made anywhere.  Perhaps that isn’t strictly fair – the simultaneously gorgeous and dreary rolling hills of rural Turkey have a distinct quality that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else on the planet  –  but the film’s mediation truth and morality extend far past its geographic and cultural setting.  Two brothers confess to a murder and proceed to lead a group of policeman and law officials to the body.  But because one brother is mentally handicapped and the other drunk when the murder took place, the search for the body ends up stretching long into the night.  The long monotonous scavenger hunt serves as a fodder for philosophical conversations with unsettling ramifications, but the film is the most affecting when it quietly hints at a heartbreaking truth that the confession conceals.  Not that truth is ever clear in this story – Ceylan keeps his central themes unresolved, resulting in a gut-wrenching film that’s all the more devastating for the closure it denies us.

2. The Master

Yet another film I’ve already reviewed, and while there are certainly many more things that I could say about it, let’s just suffice to say it’s a masterpiece, a film that we will be talking about for decades to come.  Nobody else is making movies like this – nobody who can build an entire film on character relationships that are painstakingly intimate yet ambiguous in nearly every respect.  I had to limit my reading to Joaquin Phoenix’s character just to keep my review from turning into a book, but I doubt that even a book-length analysis would do justice to the countless beguiling and contradictory layers that Anderson has woven together.  Part of me feels that this should be in my number one spot, and really at this point, the rankings are arbitrary.  But if, gun to my head, I have to pick one film from 2012, I have to go with:

1.  Beasts of the Southern Wild 

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who read my earlier rave.  This is a film that manages to burrow deep into squalor, yet with that filth it builds its own beautiful new universe.  In some ways, the film is the polar opposite of The Master – where that film buries any affect or meaning under countless contradictory layers, Beasts gives us direct, naked passion from the first frame.  Perhaps because it relies so much on its raw emotional appeal, the film does admittedly tend to either affect people enormously or not at all.  But I don’t necessarily see that as a shortcoming – any film that pierces so fiercely at the heart is going to miss a few viewers in the process.  Ultimately, while there may have been more intellectual or carefully crafted films released this year, none of them could claim such a startlingly unique and overwhelmingly moving vision.

Runners Up:

Martin McDonagh’s meta-dramedy Seven Psychopaths might seem like a Tarantino riff on the surface, but it’s much closer to his own play Pillowman – like that theater piece, the film is a dark examination of storytelling and its capacity to both mirror and influence traumatic violence in the real world.  The man against-wolves plot of The Grey might seem like a horror thriller on the surface, but the film itself is a surprisingly a sensitive and tender look at the different ways we face death, and it features Liam Neeson’s best performance in nearly a decade.  A dramatic event takes place midway through a couple’s backpacking trip in The Loneliest Planet, and your ability to accept the film will likely hinge on whether you can swallow the idea that the couple could go for days without so much as mentioning the event.  Yet it raises profoundly unsettling questions about gender roles in the 21st century, and deserves to be seen simply for the difficult conversation it prompts.  The last act of Spielberg’s Lincoln caves a bit too much to celebrating the brave rich white men who talked about ending slavery, but it’s otherwise a remarkably sober reflection on the way our political process forces even a national hero like Lincoln to make ethical compromises for the greater good.  Finally Looper operates on a brilliant high concept premise, and it manages to surprise even as it follows that premise to what, in retrospect, was always its natural conclusion.  That it also builds to a surprisingly moving critique of our modern-day culture of selfishness almost feels like a bonus.

Five Great Popcorn Films from 2012:

These films that ultimately didn’t have the substance to merit a place in the above lists, but they proved that quality and innovation aren’t always enemies to escapist entertainment.

The Avengers

Clever dialogue, great character chemistry, and a sense of scope that’s as gloriously ridiculous as the comic books themselves lead to one of the few modern-day action films that kids will still be watching in their basements decades into the future.  No other film this year was quite so successful at creating a giddy sense of fun, and it served as a reminder that in the right hands, a crossover can actually be thrilling.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

People expecting either the scope of the Lord of the Rings films or the quiet whimsy of the original novel are almost certain to be disappointed, but taken on its own terms, Jackson has created an enormously entertaining adventure yarn.  It’s best approached if you consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings appendices as raw material for a new story, rather than as a holy text that requires the film’s total fidelity.  While the frame story with Ian Holm is a bit much, in other respects Jackson and his writers actually improve on the novel – it’s clearer why Gandalf’s here and how he eventually evolves into the character we see in the later films, and the dwarfs’ quest has a meaningful justification here that never quite came across in Tolkien’s novel.  No it’s not as powerful as the first trilogy, but it makes up for epic scope with a more light-hearted and inventive approach to escapism.

The Cabin in the Woods

Drew Goddard’s film probably isn’t as profound as it seems on the surface, but he deserves kudos for delivering both a clever deconstruction of horror movie tropes and the biggest monster melee since House of Frankenstein.  It manages to satisfy both fans of slasher flicks and people who generally hate slasher flicks, and it closes with one of the most perversely satisfying closing sequences of any film this year.

Premium Rush 

This zippy action-comedy about a thrill-seeking bicycle messenger shows its cards from the start when it refers to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s hero as Wile E. Coyote.  Truth be told though, both the film and the hero are much closer to the Road Runner.  Like that cartoon bird, Levitt and the film are singular in purpose, and they make fast-paced adrenalin its own ethos.  The result is a compact speed-run that’s more electrifying than any live-action Looney Tunes cartoon has right to be.

Dark Knight Rises

Nolan’s big caper to his Dark Knightt trilogy was rife with plot holes and troubling thematic implications (this is not a film that handles class or gender conflict gracefully), but it’s hard to fault Rises for its entertainment value.  The film relies a lot on the audience’s built-in goodwill from the previous films, but by and large Nolan manages to draw his saga to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, even in the midst of significant shortcomings.

And that was 2012!  Tune in later next week when I talk about this year’s Oscar nominations, and thanks for reading!

The Ten Best Film Scores of 2012

It’s been awfully quiet at Movie Music Musings for the past few months, but that’s changing this February.  As people who follow the movie industry know, Hollywood’s year doesn’t end until the annual Academy Awards ceremony wraps in late February.  With that in mind, for the next several weeks I will be contributing my own “best of” lists for the year’s end, as well as my reflections on the Oscar Nominations themselves.  Because this would be a gargantuan blog post if I attempted to do this all in one go, I’ve elected to break the year-end reflections up into 4 separate posts:  Best scores of 2012, Best films of 2012, my rundown of the Best Picture nominees, and my rundown of the Best Film Score nominees.  If, by February 24 you aren’t sick of Movie Music Musings, it won’t be for lack of trying on my part.

With that in mind, here are my personal choices for the ten best film scores of 2012.  Picking this list was not easy.  Most film scores have two different lives – one in the film itself, and one on the soundtrack album.  In making my selections, I tend to favor the former and single out the scores that have significant impact in their respective films, regardless of any entertainment value on the standalone soundtrack albums.  This isn’t a hard and fast rule, however.  Sometimes music that was clearly had the potential to make a film shine gets either edited beyond recognition in post-production or mixed so poorly beneath the dialogue and sound effects that it might as well not exist.  In the occasions where it seems clear to me that great film music was given less than ideal treatment in a film, I often go with my gut instinct and include the score in my list anyway.  This list is of course always a work in progress, and I suspect that my thoughts on some of these scores will change years down the line.  But my below are my best guesses for the present, in reverse order:

The 10 Best Film Scores of 2012

10.  Zero Dark Thirty – Alexandre Desplat

At some point in the last half-decade, Desplat went from being a well-respected composer of European art scores to being the most prolific and in-demand composer in Hollywood .  In truth he’s probably too prolific, and his scores can often fall into listless monotony as a result.  But when he’s on, as he is in Zero Dark Thirty, his dramatic instincts perfectly compliment his sense of restraint.  This score is subtle and sparsely spotted throughout the film, but when it does appear – often under the dialogue – it always has a tangible psychological effect on the drama.  But it’s his music for the journey to Bin Laden’s compound is the real reason the score is on this list.  As the SEALS’ helicopters chug quietly over the mountains leading into Pakistan, Desplat’s  relentlessly grim strings churn with the helicopter blades while brass chords heave with mounting anxiety.  The music elevates the sequence to cinematic poetry, and serves as a chilling prelude to what is by far one of the greatest sequences in any Hollywood film of the past decade.  I have problems with Zero Dark Thirty as a film that I’ll elaborate on in a different post, but Desplat’s music is certainly not one of them.

9.  Prometheus – Marc Streitenfeld

Believe me, nobody is more surprised than me than this ended up making my cut.  Prior to Prometheus, Streitenfeld seemed like one of the single worst composers working in Hollywood, a musician capable of little more than generic keyboard noodlings whose best quality was that he knew how to stay out of the way.  Yet in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s provocative science-fiction epic/backdoor prequel to Alien, the composer reveals an imagination that he never even hinted at in his earlier scores.  This is bleak, probing orchestral music that very much in keeping with the best scores of the Alien franchise.   Streitenfeld strikes a perfect balance between grim, long-winded melodies and atmospheric probing that isn’t a million miles away from Goldsmith’s own experiments in the original Alien score.  Synthesizers play a role, but they’re treated like unique instruments rather than substitutes for the orchestra (their usage here actually reminds me of later Goldsmith scores like Legend and Total Recall).  A majestic choral piece by Harry Gregson-Williams ends up playing a much more obvious role in the film itself, but it’s Streitenfeld’s theme, heard most prominently during the climatic collision sequence, that cuts to the heart of the story.  Tragic and portentous, it carries the weight of the film’s futile theological inquiries. If this is what Streitenfeld is actually capable of when given free rein, I actually do look forward to seeing what he does next.

8.  Cosmopolis – Howard Shore and Metric

I don’t know if any contemporary composer’s range astounds me more than that of Howard Shore.  Much of his greatness, as both a film composer and an artist in general, comes from his constant willingness to throw himself into unfamiliar territory.  Here, the man most famous for his operatic Lord of the Rings scores abandons himself entirely to moody synth-pop, collaborating with Metric for an extremely rare thing – a contemporary electronica score that’s actually current with contemporary electronica.  This being a Shore score for  Cronenberg film, the music favors texture and rhythmic drive over melody, but it’s amazing how seamlessly Shore’s signature menacing mood music flows into Metric’s idiom.  And though that mood remains consistent, Shore and Metric do give the score a musical arc that mirrors that of the anti-hero’s rapid fall from non-grace.  What begins as a seemingly unbreakable tone of gloomy ennui gradually builds in intensity until the score explodes into raw despair in its final minutes.  Cronenberg never manages to turn Delillo’s oblique novel into a wholly successful piece of cinema, but Shore and Metric have found the story’s ideal musical corollary.

7.  Beasts of the Southern Wild – Behn Zeitlin and Dan Rohmer

I wrote about this score at length in my earlier review, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  Suffice to say though, this was one of the purest expressions of raw musical affect in any film this year.  True, the score is simple and rough around the edges.  But like the film itself, this music is emotionally direct in ways that, without resorting to sentiment whatsoever, are almost certain to reduce even the curmudgiest of curmudgeon to tears.

6.  Paranorman – Jon Brion

Brion’s jangly indie rock sensibility usually finds its home in projects from Charlie Kauffman, David O Russel, and Paul Thomas Anderson, so the idea of him scoring an animated children’s film was certainly a surprise.  Even more surprising, however, is the fact that Brion has managed to keep his signature sound more or less intact.  It’s one thing to hear Brion’s ambling melancholy guitars over a Charlie Kauffman monologue, but it’s quite another to hear them juxtaposed over a lonely animated boy’s interactions with cartoonish zombies.  Rather than water down his style, Brion uses it to provide unique insight into a genre usually dominated by madcap Mickey-Mousing.  Though the score has its moments of traditional orchestral mayhem, Brion ultimately treats his lonely child hero the same way he treats every damaged Emo hero in his indie films – with quirky charm that only barely holds back a core of nearly unbearable sadness.

5.  Brave – Patrick Doyle

Doyle is one of our best living film composers, but he disappointed a lot of his fans last year when he opted to adapt his signature orchestral style to the more contemporary language of power anthems and drum loops for films like Thor and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  While I personally thought those scores were just fine, it is nice to see him back in more traditional Doyle mode in Brave, the biggest showcase he’s had for his considerable musical gifts in some time.  A rare Celtic-flavored score that actually sounds like authentic Celtic music, Doyle manages to capture both the sweeping Scottish setting and the intimate character drama, all the while constantly keeping his finger precisely on the film’s emotional pulse.  His best contribution, however, is his song “Noble Maiden Fair,” a lullaby that features prominently both in the plot and in the non-diegetic underscore.  A duet sung by both mother and daughter that could easily be mistaken for an ancient Celtic air, the melody manages to wed the story’s dual concerns about the power of the mother-daughter bond and the value of ancient legends far more gracefully than the film does itself.  When the lullaby reappears at a pivotal moment during the film’s climax, it’s one of the most powerful moments in any movie this year.

4.  The Master – Johnny Greenwood

I reviewed this one a few months back, so there isn’t much need to go into it again, but in short:  this is brilliant, beguiling, and thoroughly challenging music from one of the most astonishing director/composer relationships of recent memory (though in fairness, the same could also be said for Anderson’s earlier work with Jon Brion).  I was reserved in my praise in the earlier review, but repeated listens continue to reveal more nuances in this multilayered work.  It doesn’t totally upend film music conventions the same composer did for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but Greenwood’s score for The Master is immensely intelligent and original film music.

3.  Dark Shadows – Danny Elfman

Another score I’ve already reviewed, so little more to say here other than that Danny Elfman had an incredible year, with six, SIX major scores, each strong in entirely different ways.  Dark Shadows is easily the best of the lot, however – it refines and perfects the gothic melodrama upon which Elfman made his name, but it also seamlessly reinvents long-forgotten cult horror music idioms from the ’60s and ’70s.  Like Burton’s film, Elfman’s score is a concentrated attempt at reanimating a long-forgotten pop cultural memory – unlike Burton’s film, the music is an unqualified success, virtually a conversation between Elfman and the ghosts of composers like Les Baxter and Robert Cobert.

2.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Howard Shore

For quite a few people in the film music community, no score from 2012 was more anticipated than The Hobbit.  With the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Howard Shore wrote what is frankly one of the greatest and most important works of film music, period.  It was going to be impossible to write anything that lived up to that, especially given that The Hobbit is far slighter material.  But Shore responded in the best manner possible, taking the lighter story as an opportunity to take a more playful approach to the action, all while subtly planting the seeds for his later scores in the saga.  While familiar themes return, what’s most impressive is the way he manages to build new motifs that somehow still develop directly into the later Rings films (listen, for example, to the way he builds the theme for the dwarfs from a brief chord progression that accompanied the reveal of the abandoned dwarf kingdom in Fellowship of the Ring).  In fairness, the score in the film itself was heavily edited and re-worked into something much less subtle and more melodically extroverted (Shore’s original conception can be heard undiluted on the Special Edition album).  A few strange thematic juxtapositions result, but honestly, the music is excellent in both its film and album forms.  The film version gives the picture the visceral kick of adventure it needs, while the album version provides rich fodder for countless hours of closer study for geeks such as myself.  The music technically falls short of the Lord of the Rings scores in that it isn’t one of the ten greatest scores ever written, but Howard Shore’s worst Middle Earth music is better than all but a few of his peers’ career high points.

1.  Life of Pi – Michael Danna

The biggest surprise this year, and thankfully one that other people seemed to notice as well.  Danna has always been one of the smartest composers working in the film industry, but in the past his intellect has sometimes been a mixed blessing – Danna can be SO intellectual in his music that he at times comes across as cold and clinical (qualities that ultimately resulted in his last score for an Ang Lee film – 2003’s Hulk – getting rejected by the studio).  This could not be further from the case with Life of Pi, which is quite simply the most moving and piercing beautiful score of 2012.  Though the East-Asian influences, subtle melodies, spiritual choral music, and delicate orchestration are very much hallmarks of the composer’s previous work, here all of those elements merge into a disarmingly innocent and vulnerable musical perspective.  Like the title character, the score quietly wears its heart squarely on its sleeve, and it guides us through both the charming whimsy and the devastating crises of faith that oscillate throughout the film .  This is a score that completely deserves all the accolades it’s been receiving, and it’s a high-water mark for one Hollywood’s most undervalued composers.

Ten more well worth your time:  The ImpossibleAnna Karenina, HitchcockPromised LandFrankenweenie, Les Souciens des SuicidesSkyfall, The Avengers, John Carter, and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

Best Song Compilation Scores from 2012:  I tend to evaluate film scores themselves rather than the song compilations that often make up film soundtracks, but I couldn’t let this post end without mentioning three particularly excellent song scores from the past year:  Django Unchained, Moonrise Kingdom, Lawless, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Great Score Albums that Don’t Quite Work as Film Scores:  Film scoring is a delicate balance, and sometimes music that is great in its own right ends up having a detrimental effect in the film it’s meant to support.  Below are three scores that fit that description – I’ve spent far too much time listening to and enjoying them this year to not mention them here, but I can’t in good conscience include them in the list above when they each actively harm the films they accompany.

Lincoln – John Williams

As a tone poem about Abraham Lincoln, Williams’ score is pretty faultless – built on noble and stoic harmonies that suggest Copland without quoting him, Williams’ score is the ideal accompaniment for a tour of the National Mall.  But in the film itself, the score too often forces an uplifting interpretations of ethically dubious events that are best left up to the audience.  I’ll talk about this more when I write about the Oscar nominees, but the best way to appreciate this score is on the soundtrack album, where you can enjoy the noble Americana without feeling as though its twisting your arm.

The Dark Knight Rises – Hans Zimmer and friends

As a score album, The Dark Knight Rises contains some of my favorite material of the year, including some legitimately epic payoff to the prolonged restraint that plagued Zimmer’s first two Batman scores.  But in the film, the score embodies both everything that Zimmer’s good at and everything that he’s done to seriously damage the art of film scoring.  When the score is at it’s best, it brings a genuine element of emotionally charged drama to the proceedings.  But as with seemingly Zimmer score, the composer and his team have spotted the music so haphazardly; it surges to extreme levels when nothing of note is happening onscreen, yet somehow whispers anonymously when climactic things actually are happening.  A lot of this is a result of Zimmer’s committee approach to film scoring that I probably shouldn’t get into here.  Whatever his methods, however, I wish Zimmer would just approach a film score as a complete narrative entity, rather than a series of vaguely connected cues that can be plastered onto the screen at random.

The Amazing Spider-man – James Horner

This one is less a great score album than a guilty pleasure album, but Horner’s Spider-man score  makes for a very enjoyable and relaxing fantasy concept album if you can get over the dated new age beats.  That said, it’s a terrible film score.  Horner’s fans often laud him for his ability to write emotional music, but frankly, Horner in the past 15 years has demonstrated that he can score precisely 2 emotions: sentimental joy (“That’s so wonderful that you should just cry!”) and sentimental sadness  (“That’s so terrible you should just cry!”).   These two emotions are the extent of his contribution to The Amazing Spider-man, and they smother the film from start to finish, with absolute disregard to what’s actually happening onscreen.  Every now and then a cue works in context, but because Horner expects us to be just as unspeakably moved by Peter’s casual exit from the subway as he does for the death of Peter’s uncle, the few moments that do work get buried in the sap.  This is, make no mistake, very pretty and pleasurable music in its own right, but it couldn’t be more at odds with the angsty teen character drama and superheroic action onscreen.

And with that negativity out of the way, I’ll end with my…

Favorite Movie Music Moments from 2012 (in no particular order):

Batman clawing his way out of the pit while Zimmer’s urgent music pounds along with him in The Dark Knight Rises– one of the rare moments where Zimmer’s Batman music is completely in-synch with the drama onscreen.  The impact is only slightly compromised by the fact that the same cue plays earlier during a far less significant action scene.

The cathartic reprisal of the main theme as Hush-Puppy marches towards the camera at the end of Beasts of a Southern Wild – it’s about as close as a film score can come to bursting into song without actually bursting into song.

The return of “Noble Maiden Fair” during the last sunrise in Brave.

Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme emerging for the first time when the superheroes gather into a huddle during the final showdown – it actually gets a cheer out of the audience.

Michael Danna’s overbearing anguish as Pi screams at his maker during the last storm in Life of Pi.

The racing variation on the Shire theme as Bilbo Baggins giddily sprints through Hobbiton to catch up with the dwarfs in The Hobbit.  

The theme song from “Trinity is my Name” during while Django makes his horse strut in f Django Unchained – has there been a more purely joyful moment in a Tarantino film?

Victor reunited with his newly resurrected dog as Elfman’s Sparky theme surges in Frankenweenie – one of the purest musical expressions of love for a pet that I’ve yet heard in a film score.

The combination of Adele’s “Skyfall” chorus and the image of James Bond frantically shooting at his own reflection in the opening credits of Skyfall – probably the closest I’ve come to getting choked up during a James Bond title sequence.

Norman shuffling his way to school and greeting the ghosts only he can see as Brion’s bittersweet guitars strum along in Paranorman – I can’t quite explain why, but when the strings swoop in midway through the scene, I find the effect almost unbearably despairing.

Eddie Redmayne managing to break down in tears during his performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” without once compromising the operatic quality of his voice – I didn’t even realize that was possible.  I hated a lot about the Hooper’s treatment of Les Miserables, but that scene nearly redeemed the entire film.

And that, my friends, was 2012 in film music.  Keep an eye out in the next few weeks as I do a similar run-down of my favorite all-around films from last year.  And thank you all for following this blog for the past year.  I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive feedback I’ve received, and it’s heartening to know that so many other people are interested in this stuff.

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