Best Original Score:
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross double dip in this category with Mank and Soul (with contributions from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert band director Jon Batiste), two films that couldn’t be further apart in every conceivable manner. James Newton Howard delivers a predictably old-fashioned score for News of the World, replete with traditional instruments such as banjos and guitars. Terence Blanchard (Da 5 Bloods) is a longtime Spike Lee collaborator, and often his expansive jazz-inspired scores often set the tone for Lee’s movies, sometimes even overwhelming them. A win for Blanchard would be long overdue. The only newcomer is Emile Mosseri for his dreamy, almost ambient score for Minari. Mosseri has made a bit of a name for himself in the indie movie circuit with scores for the acclaimed The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Kajillionaire, and his nomination for Minari is a pleasant surprise. Academy members, like most people, tend to recognize scores when they are a prominent part of the plot, so it would seem that Soul, with its story about a jazz pianist, is the front runner in that respect.
Best Original Song:
Many of the nominees for this year fall into the somewhat unfortunate category of what could be called “Inspirational Background Music”. Basically, this would describe songs that offer words of encouragement for people fighting for important human rights issues. Often these songs come from genuinely talented artists, in this case, H.E.R. (‘Fight for You’ from Judas and the Black Messiah), Leslie Odom, Jr. (‘Speak Up’ from One Night in Miami), and Celeste (‘Hear My Voice’ from The Trial of the Chicago 7), but these songs are not central to the plot and are often simply grabs to get an Oscar nomination under the film’s belt. Diane Warren makes an almost-perennial appearance for ‘Io Si’ (Seen) from The Life Ahead, which otherwise has not been talked about in any significant way in awards chatter. ‘Husavik’ from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is not only a beautiful, soaring ballad, it is central to the plot of the popular Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams-starring musical. It is also one of many amazing songs on that soundtrack. A more just year would have seen multiple songs from Eurovision nominated instead, and perhaps with its planned promotional push with the actual Eurovision Song Contest (canceled due to COVID-19 of course), it might have pulled it off. Instead, it seems Leslie Odom, Jr. has a significant advantage with his double nomination and cultural popularity due to Hamilton also coming out last year.
Prediction: Speak Now
One of the biggest changes made to this year’s Academy Awards is the combination of the Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing awards into one award named Best Sound. Whether or not this was a good decision depends on who you ask, but that does not mean there was any lack of splendid sound design from 2020. Sound is one of the most important technical parts of any film, and the best sound design is often seamless. Two such examples are Greyhound and News of the World. Both led by Tom Hanks, these films utilize sound design in such powerful ways that really help to tell their stories through audiences’ ears. Greyhound is the expected nomination for the year, as there will always be a war film for voters in the technical branches to root for and Greyhound does it beautifully, creating a realistic and dangerous warzone for its characters to exist in. News of the World also succeeds in establishing a similarly beautiful audio environment, as its usage of the Civil War-era setting provides such expansive potential for the sound designers to excel.
The less expected nominee for this year is Pixar’s Soul, as animated features do not pop up in this category as often as live-action ones. However, this film does a wonderful job of incorporating jazzy music with its ethereal, existential world and deserves so much recognition for its sound design. Mank brilliantly uses sounds of 1930s Hollywood to create a visceral experience to pair with the crisp, black-and-white cinematography. This era of Los Angeles is captured very well by Mank’s sound design and the utilization of radio aesthetic and early sound equipment makes for a very suiting watch. The clear frontrunner for this year, however, has to be Sound of Metal. The audio design of Darius Marder‘s film drives the whole story and the way the sound department focuses the audio on the lead character’s perspective is just wildly engrossing. As the drummer begins to lose his hearing, the audio shifts to distort what the audience hears and this unique choice was such a vastly important, creative decision that it seems nearly impossible to tell this story right without its glorious sound.
Prediction: Sound of Metal