Oscars’ Music Shortlist: 7 Song and Score Surprises

For many years, Oscar “shortlists” narrowed down the choices in a preliminary round that would eventually lead to the five nominees for original song and score. Academy executives discontinued that practice after the 1979 awards, but have brought it back for the 2018 honors.

It was problematic then and it remains so now. Not everyone agrees that the shortlist concept is a good idea, primarily because it forces music-branch members to see and evaluate dozens of films before the first round of voting in early December. Previously, they had until early January to wade through all those “for your consideration” screeners and CDs.

In May, Academy executives insisted that the shortlist “gives smaller or lesser-known films a better chance to be nominated.” Speculation at the time focused on music from films released in the first half of the year, which have often been ignored in favor of end-of-year releases, generally deemed more “important.”

There are 311 active voting members in the music branch — composers, songwriters and music editors — but the evidence suggests that fewer than 100 actually participated in the first-round voting. Academy executives don’t release actual statistics.

Some surprises from the 15-score and 15-song Oscar music shortlists:

The Absence of Women Composers
Sixteen of the 156 qualified scores were  by women. That’s better than 10 percent, probably the highest number in years, yet none were shortlisted at a time when “diversity” is on everyone’s minds. Where were Jocelyn Pook’s “The Wife,” Anna Meredith’s “Eighth Grade,” Germaine Franco’s “Tag” or Miriam Cutler’s “RBG”?

Annie Lennox’s “Private War” Is M.I.A.
Oscar voters inexplicably passed over Lennox’s first new song in eight years, “Requiem From a Private War,”  a memorial to slain journalist Marie Colvin as powerfully played by Rosamund Pike in “A Private War.”

Box-Office Dud Makes Good
The score to “Annihilation” was perhaps the biggest surprise of the score shortlist. A sci-fi-horror film starring Natalie Portman, it was only in theaters for eight weeks and earned low marks in moviegoers’ surveys. Yet its mostly atonal combination of synthesizers, acoustic guitar and eerie voices created by Ben Salisbury (of BBC documentaries) and Geoff Barrow (of trip-hop trio Portishead) clearly impressed voters.

Arlissa Over Kesha
“The Hate U Give” and “On the Basis of Sex” are powerful films about needed change in America: the former, a ripped-from-the-headlines story about a white cop who kills an unarmed black youth; the latter, about crusading lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s landmark sex-discrimination case before the Supreme Court. Kesha’s “Here Comes the Change” from “On the Basis of Sex” missed the cut, but British newcomer Arlissa made the list with her “We Won’t Move” from “The Hate U Give.”

Alan Silvestri and James Newton Howard Return
Two popular, respected composers, neither of whom has been nominated for years (Silvestri’s last was in 2004; Howard’s in 2008), were recognized for work in very commercial enterprises: Silvestri for the Marvel movie “Avengers: Infinity War” and Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” and Howard for the Harry Potter prequel “Fantastic Beasts 2,” none of which were heavily promoted by their studios.

Music Movies’ Moving Target
Multiple songs from the same film can be submitted, although only two can be nominated. Disney chose to submit a pair from “Mary Poppins Returns” (“The Place Where Lost Things Go” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”), both of which made the shortlist. But Warner Bros., in a tactical move, submitted only “Shallow” and not the other likely Lady Gaga contender, “I’ll Never Love Again.”

British Buzz
“The Death of Stalin,” Armando Iannucci’s political satire, was little seen, but British composer Christopher Willis’ uncanny replication of 1950s-era Soviet classical music has been the talk of the film-composer community for months. At the same time, neither British classical composers Max Richter, who supplied acclaimed scores for both “Mary Queen of Scots” and the German film “Never Look Away,” nor Thomas Ades, who composed his first feature-film score for Keira Knightley in “Colette,” were acknowledged on the score list.