This year's Academy Award nominees for Best Original Score are an odd assortment of obvious choices, reasonable contenders, and surprises.
One big surprise is that Alexander Ebert's Golden Globe-winning score for "All is Lost" isn't even nominated for an Oscar. Maybe the Hollywood foreign press were swayed by Ebert's rock star status (he leads the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros). Ebert is a rookie composer of film scores who's off to a promising start with "All is Lost."
There are rookies among the Oscar contenders, too. Like Ebert, William Butler and Owen Pallett are more experienced in the rock world – Butler with the band Arcade Fire, and Pallett as a contributor to that band as well as projects under his own name and that of Final Fantasy – but their score for "Her" is nominated for an Oscar.
Steven Price, nominated for "Gravity," is slightly more experienced as a composer of film music, though most of his soundtrack credits are as music editor and guitarist. His music for "Gravity" is a very contemporary mix of electronic and symphonic sounds, shifting from anthemic moments to passages that merge the functions of music and sound design.
Film music's grand old man John Williams is nominated for the 49th time, this year for "The Book Thief." His previous 48 nominations yielded five wins, the last of them 21 years ago for "Schindler's List." Williams will turn 82 on February 8, and while another Oscar might be a nice birthday gift, the Academy may choose to wait for Williams's score for "Star Wars: Episode VII," due in 2015.
The two other composers nominated this year, Thomas Newman and Alexandre Desplat, have each contributed impressively and distinctly to the field of film scores. Both men have managed to establish a personal sound and style in an arena that sometimes seems to prefer chameleon-like adaptability.
Newman has been nominated this year for "Saving Mr. Banks," following 11 previous noms, for "The Shawshank Redemption," "American Beauty," and "WALL-E," among others. Although he hasn't yet won an Oscar, it's hopefully consoling for him to know that his father Alfred Newman's nine Oscar wins made Newman senior still the most honored composer in Hollywood history.
Frenchman Desplat is nominated for "Philomena," to which he brought his characteristic buoyancy, sensitivity and intelligence. His five previous nominations include "Argo," "The King's Speech," and "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Desplat seems bound to win an Oscar at some point, if not this year.
My guess for this year's winner is Steven Price, for "Gravity." I suspect that that film will win several awards, and Price may ride those coattails to a win in the Best Score category. Had it been nominated, I'd be rooting for Johann Johannsson's darkly sumptuous music for the film "Prisoners." It's always exciting when a composer adds a new dimension to what a film score can sound like, so I'm looking forward to Johannsson's further work in the field.