Another tricky call this year presents itself in Best Original Score. It's a category that almost always goes to a Best Picture nominee, of which there's only a single one in play. And yet... it doesn't really sound like a winner.
For the record, I'd be thrilled if the overall Best Picture clout of Bridge of Spies pushes Thomas Newman through to a win, even if it comes for one of his less remarkable efforts. Newman is a true musical auteur; His scores easily recognizable for their distinct instrumentation and beautifully dissonant chords. And yet his is probably the least memorable soundtrack of the five (subjectively, of course). Can he really take it on admiration for the film alone? Possibly, I say, but only possibly.
Indeed, we may have to suspend the frequently upheld rule about Best Picture nominees always winning this, because some of Newman's competitors are from films which may have just missed Best Picture nominations by slim margins.
Many pundits believe Carol was on the cusp of cracking the top 5-to-10, despite guild indifference, so this may be a category where its supporters can rally behind Carter Burwell, who finally earned his first overdue nomination. His full-bodied, articulate melodies may be the film's most pronounced element, which can only help his chances with a voting body that seldom casts its ears towards subtlety.
That's probably bad news for Johann Johannsson's bone-chilling work on Sicario, which did very well with early guild nominations but still failed to win major Oscar attention. His droning strings and threatening percussive beats gradually creep under the skin to frightening effect. The movie surely has its fans [raises hand], but this type of music never wins.
A more conspicuous but equally unnerving score can be found in The Hateful Eight, which every critic and online Oscar-obsessive is desperate to see win. And if you're the sort of person who reads this sort of website then you already know why that is: Ennio Morricone. The Italian maestro who redefined the voice of the Western with his iconic themes for Sergio Leone has been nominated six times now, but without a win. He does have a lifetime achievement honour (back in the days when they deigned to televise those on the actual show), but he's 88 now, and opportunities to give him a proper competitive statuette are dwindling. These ominous and striking compositions -- handily the coolest thing about Tarantino's controversial film -- may provide him with his best chance. Will the story of his legendary career find enough exposure to make this a slam dunk? Or will the Academy, as usual, be completely ignorant of the artisan behind the achievement?
The only other gentleman in this category with a career as legendary as Morricone's is the immortal John Williams, enjoying his 50th (!) nomination for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Underestimate this one at your own peril.
The pull of nostalgia is a persuasive force indeed. Winning would be an embarrassment of riches for Williams (whose status as arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century has long since eclipsed the fact that he has five Oscars already), though not an embarrassment in terms of musical taste. His romantic orchestrations are robust and exciting as always, with some swell new character themes incorporated into familiar motifs.
Will win: The Hateful Eight
Runner-up: Bridge of Spies
Should win: Sicario
Should be nominated: Inside Out