Oscar Breakdown: Best Original Score

By  · Published on February 22nd, 2011

This article is part of our Oscar Week Series, where you will find breakdowns and predictions for all of the major categories.

There are few categories as enigmatic as Best Score. What do voters even consider when marking their ballots? Which music was the best? Which music aided the film the most? How many synthesizers and tribal drums were used?

That mystery is part of the complexity which speaks to how difficult film scoring is and how truly transcendent the music of movies can be. It’s a diverse field this year, but there can be only one.

With my proposed winner in red, here are the nominees:

127 HOURS, A.R. Rahman

Twanging guitar strings, somber vocals, frustratingly complex chord structures. Rahman got to stretch his contemplative muscles with this score, and even though there are fewer breakout pieces here than with his Slumdog shot, it’s still perhaps the most interesting of the nominees. It also seems most married to the visuals on screen. The rocks of Utah are a strange place for inspiration, but Rahman is an innovative genius, and his work here is incredible.

Why It Might Win:

It’s unmistakably different, standing out from the rest of the pack, and Rahman is loved by musicians and non-musicians alike. The consolation vote is in effect, especially since no one even seems to be giving 127 Hours much chance of winning anything this year. Plus, he’s also the only composer to have one of his songs up for Best Original Song, and that counts for something (although not much).

Why It Might Not Win:

There most likely won’t be much recognition for 127 Hours overall. Rahman is also the reverse of the Legacy Vote – he’s brand new to the Oscars and won his first time out of the gate. His work with this film is stellar, but it’s not nearly as memorable as Slumdog, and there are better scores in the nominee pool.

Previous Nominations: 3

Previous Wins: 2 (with only two possible, considering he was up against himself for Best Song)


Stunning tribal percussion, strings on their edge of their seats, melodies emerging from tubular bells. The soundtrack for the forbidden friendship between a viking and a dragon absolutely made the film stand out. It created a soaring feeling which matched the aerial animated wizardry and signaled the kind of triumph that can only be heralded by viking horn blasts.

Why It Might Win:

Its quality is unquestionable, and Powell is a veteran that hasn’t yet been glorified by Oscar gold. There’s also the political question of whether How to Train Your Dragon will snag this award simply because it won’t be snagging the Best Animated Film award. Consolation prizes are not uncommon, but if Powell does walk away with the statue, he will have earned it with a vibrant, versatile set of music.

Why It Might Not Win:

It’s up against stiff competition. That will become the chorus here, but every score nominated is technically proficient and helps to shape its respective film. This is a first nomination for Powell, who has a lot of time to work on his masterpiece, and the consolation vote for How To Train Your Dragon isn’t enough to secure a win here because of other consolation votes. It has enough tribal drums to come out on top, but it’s going to have to crawl through a pile of talent to get there.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0


The ghostly violins, the boom bass of synthesizers, the click-clack of African rhythms. What a massive score for a massive movie. Almost every inch of it was tied back to Edith Piaf’s haunting, trademark vocals, and there’s a moment in the reprise where everything seems to come to a climax only to be washed away by her singing the mysterious French words about her lack of regrets. When a composer can create another character with his music, it’s a sign that a truly great piece of film composition has been created. Of course, it helps when the writer/director builds music into the plot, but Zimmer created magic with the clay he was given.

Why It Might Win

It would be a dream within a dream come true to see this win, if only to watch Hans Zimmer give his second Oscar acceptance speech (the first being in 1995 for The Lion King). He’s a mainstay of the nominations because of how talented he is and how mountainous his yearly output is. Consolation voting is also in play here because Inception is apparently not poised to win Best Picture, and Christopher Nolan wasn’t even nominated for Best Director.

Why It Might Not Win

Zimmer has a long losing streak to contend with, and he’s not the kind of figure that needs an honorary Oscar (since he’s already won one). The consolation vote is one thing, and if any movie deserves technical honors its Inception, but the momentum from stronger Best Picture nominees could also steal this one a way in the flood of wins.

Previous Nominations: 8

Previous Wins: 1


Clear-toned piano, sweet lines, sorrowful counter-melodies. Desplat’s score carried every bit of weight that the crown carries. His work here is precise and careful, and the end result is a score so delicate that a single piano note can knock you over the edge. It’s stunning.

Why It Might Win:

The classic feel of it all, the baroque styling and the borrowing from Beethoven make it sound like “the kind of score that wins Oscars.” Much like the movie it bolsters, it feels so ripe for statue-holding. Desplat is also no stranger to that and has grown to become a fixture in film scoring and Oscar nominating (so far without a win). Plus, with The King’s Speech as a front-runner for Best Picture, that winning streak may float on down the line and celebrate this touching score as well.

Why It Might Not Win:

So it unsurprisingly won a BAFTA – an award meant to celebrate British filmmaking – but it’s not quite in the bag in this case because of the aforementioned consolation vote. If a ton of voters got tired of writing in The King’s Speech for every category, another movie might pick this and a few other awards up. As it stands though, this beautiful score will most likely win and will absolutely deserve it.

Previous Nominations: 3

Previous Wins: 0


Depressing reverb, whatever that sound that just flew by was, sweet glorious keyboard tones. There’s no doubt that this score is the black sheep of the nominees, and it might just be the best because of it. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross took advantage of electronica expertise (and a complete lack of understanding how to score a film) in order to create a soundtrack that succeeds in its simplicity and strangeness. It works in concert with the film, but can easily be listened to without it.

Why It Might Win:

It’s a wild card, and it could prove to be a spoiler because of it. There has been a lot of love given to this score, and if that translates to Academy voters, it could win over The King’s Speech’s classicism. Its nomination proves there’s no electronic bias amongst AMPAS, and, like just about everything else here, the consolation vote is in effect. It depends on how youthful the ears of the voters are even if the rest of their bodies are fairly seasoned.

Why It Might Not Win:

It stands for both itself and the besmirched Tron score as the sole electronic-dominated offering (even with Hans Zimmer in the field). It’s admirable that Reznor rocked out to Edvard Grieg, but the voters are more likely to be swayed by the classic version of classical.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

Who do you want to win?

Check out our predictions for:

Best Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actress

Best Animated Feature

Best Lead Actor

Best Lead Actress

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.