The GRAMMYs may be Music’s Biggest Night, but the Oscars are no slouch when it comes to honoring auditory achievement. Since Hollywood’s Academy has many fewer awards to give out, each category — from effects to makeup to music — gets a share of screen time.
That’s great for film nerds who also happen to be music nerds. Sunday’s telecast will feature live performances of all the nominees for Best Original Song, and viewers will get to hear what 2017’s most deserving composer has to say about their award for Best Original Score.
In both categories, this year’s nominees are stacked. Whether it’s Hans Zimmer‘s pulse-pounding score for Dunkirk, the jazzy strains of Alexandre Desplat‘s The Shape of Water or the sublte evolution on display in the music for Star Wars: The Last Jedi (the 51st nomination for John Williams), industry heavyweights crafted immersive soundtracks for some visually stunning films. Meanwhile, artists like Sufjan Stevens, Mary J. Blige and Common made meaningful contributions to another crop of top-flight pictures.
But as is true of any awards show, the Oscars did overlook a handful of worthy contenders. Here are a few of my favorite scores from the past year that didn’t make the cut.
Listen to New Film Scores Now for an up-to-date mix of movie music, including scores for this year’s Oscar nominees.
Director Dennis Villeneuve was under intense pressure to create a worthy sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner. In a controversial move, he replaced the late, great composer Jóhann Jóhannsson — his collaborator on three previous films — with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to better match the original film’s iconic score. While Jóhannsson’s cues for 2049 would have been a treat to hear, there’s little doubt that Zimmer and Wallfisch were the right guys to take his place. Their ominous synth-scapes nail the bleak, futuristic spirit of the franchise without aping major themes from Vangelis. Electronic revs and rumbles pull double duty as quasi-sound effects, lending this already grey universe a harsher mechanical edge.
This film mesmerized me, but half the illusion lay in its incredible score. Long stretches of ambience mirror the lush, expansive beauty of the Bolivian rainforest, as well explorer Percy Fawcett’s hallucinatory journey down the Verde River. With indigenous instruments that snap and rattle during moments of high tension, Christopher Spelman references the movie’s core theme — confronting, and even embracing, one’s fear of the unknown — throughout his suite. These pieces don’t tie up neatly, but then, neither does Fawcett’s epic story.
The titular animals in Rat Film serve as an allegory to explore race and class issues in Baltimore. For his soundtrack, dance-pop weirdo Dan Deacon took the idea one step further: he used actual rats to inspire his compositions. A group of theremins responded to the rodents’ movements in an enclosure, while sensors collected data from their brain activity. In places, the finished product sounds about as jittery as you’d expect, but elsewhere, Deacon’s Rat Film gives off a strangely soothing vibe.
In hindsight, Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh and director Taika Waititi were a match made in heaven. The third entry in the Thor franchise turned out to be the campiest yet, with goofy villains and over-the-top action that fully embraced the escapist premise underlying all superhero films. Mothersbaugh wasn’t content to write any old score, either. By plugging vintage synths into a 100-piece orchestra, he kept the music for Thor: Ragnarok gleaming with vivid textures. Waititi has said he’d have hired the band Queen for the job if singer Freddie Mercury were alive, but I’d argue that Mothersbaugh’s kitsch-y bombast suited this project just fine.
While it fell short with critics, the Netflix-exclusive War Machine boasts a beautiful soundtrack by two longtime denizens of darkness. Bad Seeds Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have created a minimalist, dreamlike expanse upon which the story of General Stanley McChrystal unfolds. Always soft and never quite spooky, this music is nonetheless supremely effective at evoking American arrogance and the cost of war.