By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 23, 2011 at 1:20PM
You might not have noticed from reading Twitter or movie blogs in the last few days but "The Muppets" hits theaters today. And while those of us in third world countries like the United Kingdom have to wait until February to see the damn thing, even across the Atlantic, there's music in the air. While Jim Henson's creations lost out at the chance of replacing Eddie Murphy as Oscar hosts, and the film is unlikely to figure into the Best Picture race, it's also the closest thing to an original live-action movie musical that's been seen in many years, and as such has a very good choice of picking up an Oscar for its songs.
As such, with Thanksgiving ahead of us, it seemed like a good week to examine the more musically inclined categories at the Academy Awards, not just the toilet-break-excuse that is Best Original Song, but the more prestigious Best Original Score, where the real interest is for anyone who cares about film. Or indeed music.
We'll deal with the songs first because, if you haven't guessed our views already, it's a joke of a category, designed to lend a little razzle-dazzle to the ceremony and generally filled with mediocre cuts from mediocre films (it's the reason why "Quest for Camelot," "Kate & Leopold," "The Wild Thornberries," "August Rush" and "Country Strong" are Oscar-nominees). This year should be an interesting one, however, thanks to "The Muppets." The last time we had something as close to an original live-action musical film in contention, with a brace of specially-written songs? 1980's "Fame." Before that? Best Picture nominee "Doctor Dolittle" in 1967 ("Dreamgirls" picked up three nominations, but was based on a pre-existing stage-show, with new numbers added, principally with the intention of scoring nominations in the category.)
As such, we're expecting the film's original compositions by "Flight of the Conchords" member Bret McKenzie among others to dominate, although the number that's looking like the front-runner from the film, Kermit's song, "Pictures In My Head," isn't actuallly one of his -- it's instead by "Hannah Montana" composers Jeannie Lurie, Aris Archontis and Chen Neeman. The film's most emotion-heavy song is the natural fit, but we're expecting at least one other number to make it into the nominations. Any of McKenzie's "Man or Muppet," "Me Party" or "Let's Talk About Me" are possible (the latter would be particularly amazing, as it would probably lead to seeing Academy Award winner Chris Cooper rapping on-stage at the Oscars, which is something that should arguably happen every year), but opening number "Life's a Happy Song" seems like the most likely to get through, particularly as it's a nice upbeat contrast to the other potential nominees.
So what are its main rivals? Well, it's the usual batch of forgettable ballads for the most part, like Jordin Sparks' "The World I Knew" from the Disney doc "African Cats" or Chris Cornell's "The Keeper" from "Machine Gun Preacher." The leader in that sub-genre seems to be Mary J. Blige's "The Living Proof" as featured in "The Help," and "Lay Your Head Down," the Sinead O'Connor-sung credit-closer from "Albert Nobbs." That one has an added narrative to it as well as Glenn Close, the star, producer and co-writer of the film, also has a songwriting credit, which will help nomination proceedings along, and balance out the risk of O'Connor doing a shit on a picture of the Pope during the ceremony.
Animated films are, as usual, providing plenty of potentials. Brad Paisley and Robbie Williams dueted on "Collision of Worlds" on "Cars 2," but it's so dreadful we're hopeful it'll be too much even for this category. Elton John wrote new songs for "Gnomeo and Juliet" and "Winnie the Pooh" has a brace of possibilities, but "So Long," as performed by Zooey Deschanel, has some star quality that might make it the most likely. "Rio" also has a number of original songs, and while we'd love the film's highlight "Pretty Bird" to get nominated, if only for an Oscar-stage Conchord vs. Conchord face-off (the track is sung by Bret McKenzie's New Zealand band-mate Jemaine Clement, who voiced the film's villain Nigel), either "Let Me Take To Rio," sung by Ester Dean and Carlinhos Brown, which would provide the ceremony with some Latin flair, the Jamie Foxx-featuring "Hot Wings (I Wanna Party)" or theme song "Real in Rio," seem more likely. The latter would be the most fun, if only for letting Anne Hathaway find Oscar redemption after last year, as well as seeing Mark Zuckerberg (aka Jesse Eisenberg) duet with will.i.am and George Lopez.
On the more respectable side of things, we'd love Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner to pick something up for his contributions to "Submarine," but it won't happen. Jonsi, a nominee last year for "How To Train Your Dragon," is back with "Gathering Stories" from Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo," while remarkably, The National are an outside bet thanks to their excellent "Think You Can Wait" from "Win Win." More likely is Zac Brown's country ballad "Where The River Goes" from "Footloose" -- director Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow" won the category a few years back with "It's Hard Out There For A Pimp," and C&W stuff has gone down well of late, with "Crazy Heart" winning two years back.
But the biggest competition to "The Muppets" seems to come from an unexpected quarter -- a superhero movie. Joe Johnston enlisted nineteen-time nominee Alan Menken, a man who's won more Oscars than anyone else alive, to write "Star Spangled Man" for a USO-show production number in "Captain America: The First Avenger," and it proved to be something of a highlight in the film. With "The Muppets" vote potentially being split, it'd take a fool to dismiss the possibility, given Menken's track record, that 'Captain America' could sweep in and win the first Marvel Oscar.
"Lay Your Head Down" - "Albert Nobbs" - Sinead O'Connor
"Star Spangled Man" - "Captain America: The First Avenger" - The Star-Spangled Singers
"The Living Proof" - "The Help" - Mary J. Blige
"Life's A Happy Song" - "The Muppets" - Jason Segel, Walter & Cast
"Pictures in my Head" - "The Muppets" - Kermit The Frog
Right, bullshit out of the way, let's get into the real artistry. While the Original Score category has proved semi-adventurous of late, particularly with the victory of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross last year for "The Social Network," the category's been beset by controversy in recent years. Some of the most significant scores for prestigious films have been disqualified, including Jonny Greenwood for "There Will Be Blood," Clint Mansell for "Black Swan" and Carter Burwell for "True Grit," all because they were judged to be relying too heavily on pre-existing material. In Greenwood's case, compositions produced before the fact, for Mansell it was Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" (which was fair enough), and in Burwell's score, Protestant hymns. But that's not the only reason. "The Dark Knight" was originally ruled out too, deemed to have too many composers (five in total), although the decision was later reversed, at the expense of a nomination, however.
Decisions haven't been made on eligibility as yet, and there's normally at least one surprise, but the principal casualty this year may be Mychael Danna's "Moneyball," thanks to the prevalance of This Will Destroy You's post-rock track "The Mighty Rio Grande" in the film. Jonny Greenwood's "We Need To Talk About Kevin" will likely be discounted for similar reasons as last time, and the same will probably apply to Alexandre Desplat's "The Tree of Life," where classical cuts are featured just as heavily as the score, but only time will tell in those cases. Otherwise, big-hitter John Williams, a five-time winner and FORTY-FIVE-time nominee (more than anyone bar Walt Disney), is back after a four-year absence with two scores for Steven Spielberg, "The Adventures of Tintin" and "War Horse," and while he's no stranger of multiple nominations in the same year, we feel like he'll only manage one this time around. "The Adventures of Tintin" was strong, but a little slight, so we're going to lean towards "War Horse," unheard, but that may change with word of its effectiveness or otherwise.
Meanwhile, four-time nominee Alexandre Desplat has six credits this year, incredibly. "Carnage" is so brief that it won't figure (his music only bookends the film), and as we said, "The Tree of Life" could be ineligible, but a number of others are possible. "A Better Life" seems unlikely, given the film's minimal impact, and "The Ides of March" wasn't his most attention-grabbing work, but "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2" is possible, and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," again unheard at this point, even more so, although it's worth noting that he took over from Nico Muhly at the last minute. Michael Giacchino, who won two years back for "Up," also has several horses in the race, but unless "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" really surprises, his big-hitters "Super 8" and "Cars 2" seem like outliers, and he'll probably sit this year out.
There are two composers this year who each provided two of the best scores of the year. Cliff Martinez brought his sleek electronica to "Drive" and "Contagion," and while the former is unlikely (and possibly ineligible, what with the key songs involved), "Contagion" could happen, considering the momentum behind the film has been surprisingly long-lived, although it's still a long-shot. More likely is Alberto Iglesias, who's never won, despite being a genius. "The Skin I Live In" won't happen, but his superb work on "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" has a very, very good chance of getting recognition.
Otherwise, last year's victors Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are back with "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," but the shock of the new will likely be lessened this time out, and it'll be relatively lucky to get a nomination unless it manages to truly turn heads again. The Chemical Brothers' work on "Hanna" sadly doesn't stand a chance, but Jonsi's "We Bought a Zoo" could end-up surprising, in the pop-goes-to-the-movies department; word should come out after advance screenings this weekend. If the film truly sweeps, Thomas Newman could get in for "The Help" (his "The Iron Lady" score is less likely, particularly as he was a last-minute replacement for Clint Mansell), but despite Dario Marinelli's work in "Jane Eyre" being widely praised, the film is so dead-in-the-water, Academy wise, that it'll be a real coup if Focus can make it happen.
Howard Shore's score for "Hugo" has a lot of positive vibes (even if Playlist team members who've seen it found it forgettable), if only for the relative novelty of a Martin Scorsese film relying so heavily on score over songs, and it certainly stands more of a chance than his work on "A Dangerous Method." But the real front-runner in our minds is a relative newcomer, Ludovic Bource, Michael Hazavanicus's regular composer, who contributes a gorgeous tribute to silent film scores in "The Artist." If the film sweeps the board the way we're expecting it to, it seems like the obvious pick.
Ludovic Bource - "The Artist"
Thomas Newman - "The Help"
Howard Shore - "Hugo"
Alberto Iglesias - "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
John Williams - "War Horse"
1. "The Artist" (-)
This is a crucial weekend for the film. It's finally opening, and we'll see if audiences respond to it the way that festival crowds have so far. But the reviews (97% on Rotten Tomatoes, 81 on Metacritic) suggest it'll do fine.
2. "War Horse" (-)
Not to be left out at this point, Dreamworks and Disney are sneaking "War Horse" over the weekend, so again, we'll see what the word is when crowds hit, and reviews start to emerge (we can't imagine embargoes holding long after).
3. "The Descendants" (4)
An excellent box-office haul and strong opening weekend reviews are the best possible start for the film. But there are fervent objectors (interestingly, those, like ourselves, outside the U.S. most prevalent among them), and we just don't see it taking precedence over its competition for the win.
4. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (3)
Still the last of the really big hitters to be kept under wraps, the decision not to show the film to the New York Film Critics might be significant, considering what an NYC film it's likely to be. Is it problematic, or was it just a "go fuck yourself" to the body's shuffling for attention?
5. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (-)
Most U.S. press have now seen it, and the word is good but the remaining question is if a film that's less than audience-friendly manage to convert at the box office in the way it has abroad? Even if it doesn't, will the Brit-factor manage to take it home for a nod?
6. "The Help" (9)
Urggh. We know. But as more and more films fall off, the film's position gets stronger, but the breadth of nominees is a question. If "The Artist" takes the proportion of first-choice votes we suspect it might, we could only see a five-film field.
7. "Moneyball" (6)
More than one other commentator have noted a drop in momentum for this film, as the time passes since its release. It's starting to roll out internationally, which may pick things up, but its nomination is no longer the sure thing it once was.
8. "Shame" (12)
Are we mad? Possibly, but here's the thing. In a nostalgia-fuelled year, the younger, slightly more on-trend Academy membership, who won nominations for "Black Swan," "District 9" and "There Will Be Blood" in recent years, don't have anything bar the pulpy 'Dragon Tattoo' to get behind, and Fox Searchlight are running a very strong campaign.
9. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (11)
Speaking of, the fact that Sony were keen to sneak the film in for the New York Film Critics suggest that they've got awards hopes. But when even the director thinks there's too much anal rape for it to figure, "Shame" starts to look better by comparison... Critic's awards will be key here.
10. "Midnight in Paris" (14)
Like "The Help," this goes up as the likes of "J. Edgar" and "The Iron Lady" come down, even if we think "The Artist" provides direct competition for it.
11. "Young Adult" (8)
Reviews are coming out, and we're yet to see a bad one. The film appears to be even better received than "Juno" or "Up in the Air," with even the anti-Reitman crowd joining in the praise. But it may be the film's abrasiveness that's winning friends that counts it out, even if Charlize Theron is looking increasingly locked-in to the Actress race.
12. "In The Land of Blood and Honey" (7)
The decision not to release the English-language film is a pretty big blow, Oscar-wise, but not necessarily a killer one (see "Letters to Iwo Jima"). But we've heard it's not an Oscar-film, although reportedly a good one.
13. "The Ides of March" (10)
Dropping off fast in the last few weeks, with box office petering out, and "The Descendants" coming to dominate the conversation. We've maintained all along that it's no one's first-choice film, and that seems more true than ever.
14. "We Bought A Zoo" (-)
With Fox (who don't have anything else in the mix) sneaking the film this weekend, nearly a month ahead of release, it seems to be a real vote of confidence in Cameron Crowe's film, and we wonder if we've been undervaluing its awards chances. Having said that, we still feel that it's a crowd-pleaser at best, without the prestige factor of stuff like "The Artist" or "Midnight in Paris."
15. "Hugo" (16)
Strong reviews the weekend of opening, so it clings on, but box-office will be crucial. If, as we suspect, it turns out to be (sadly) a record-breaking money loser, it's gone.
16. "My Week With Marilyn" (13)
Another Thanksgiving opener, but one that's been ridden roughshod over by bigger competition, even from its own distributor. Still an outside bet, but we'd be surprised if it managed anything bar acting nods.
17. "The Muppets" (-)
Ecstatic reviews (98% on RT), and what should be a healthy box office haul means its earned a mention in the list, for this week at least. The chances of it actually figuring are minimal, but a Golden Globes Comedy/Musical nod is looking increasingly likely.
18. "The Tree of Life" (19)
Still hanging on, but very reliant on grabbing that 5%. Again, the critic's groups, starting next week, could be its saviour, because Fox Searchlight's campaign to date hasn't been as strong as we imagined it might be.
19. "The Iron Lady" (18)
Finally been seen by critics, but no one's raving (even if no one's hating it). Unless the Brits really get behind it (and word there is weaker than from the US), it's likely DOA.
20. "Contagion" (-)
Keeps popping its head about, and more visible with the For Your Considerations than many of its more obvious competition. Supposedly well-liked by the Academy at screenings so far, it could turn out to be a curveball.
Not a terrible box office performance, but not a wow either, and the reviews were even worse than expected, so we can't see this happening as far as best picture is concerned.