By Adam Spunberg

James Horner has provided the cinematic world with such a multitude of fine scores, one almost has to wonder how he manages to conjure up new themes as delightful as the previous ones. Despite seven nominations (too few, in my opinion), Horner has captured the golden statuette only once. That was the last time he survived the meticulous demands of James Cameron in Titanic, in the pre-1999 era when Score was divided into Original Dramatic Score and Original Musical or Comedy Score.

What made the 1997 victory so compelling was his estranged relationship with Cameron. Squabbles during Aliens had made their coexistence seem impossible, but Cameron was so enthralled with Horner’s Braveheart score (which had the misfortune of going up against Bacolov’s Il Postino) that he decided to recruit him again. Now, 12 years later, Cameron made like MIA’s “Paper Planes” in his return to celluloid with Avatar, the highest grossing film in history. Partly responsible for that is Horner’s magnificent score, which fully immerses itself within the enchanting mystique of Pandora while also adapting an almost tribal intonation. I would describe it as Glory (also Horner) meets John Williams’ Amistad.

Here is a sample, which I think best encapsulates Horner’s efforts (be patient until it really kicks in at about a minute):

Horner will have steep competition this year, as 2009 yielded a healthy supply of clef-colored artistry. Perhaps the most exceptional – but least known – is Alexandre Desplat’s indescribably charming score from Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Here are a couple of samples, which should properly intoxicate you in the lighthearted wackiness of it all; like a spoon tapping idiosyncratically atop a crème brulee, it tugs at your heart while tickling your preconceptions:

The third nomination for Monsieur Desplat (yes, he is French, which Alicia Keys was unaware of last year when mispronouncing his name at the Oscars. See my live blog), he has sprung upon the scene of late. With The Queen in 2006 and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008, this now marks three nominations in four years. If Desplat can win the award this year, it will be a true accomplishment, as the general obscurity of Fantastic Mr. Fox serves as a major disadvantage. Still, his work is so unconventionally extraordinary, that I think he has a decent chance.

Many are criticizing the inclusion of Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’ score from The Hurt Locker, believing it to be the beneficiary of the film itself while lacking the ability to stand alone. While I would not endorse it beyond the other four nominees, I respectfully disagree with those critiques. The style is certainly different, with its heavy electricity and punk-metal vocals. However, the explosive, adrenaline-charged sound works remarkably well as a complement to the film.

Beltrami and Sanders may not have the best score, but they have given us one worthy of a nomination, if for no other reason than how appropriately it fits and enhanced the subject matter:

Hans Zimmer is no stranger to the Academy Awards, having won once and been nominated seven times. It has been a bit of a drought for Zimmer; the last nomination was in 2000 for Gladiator. Maybe that is why he pulled out all the stops for Sherlock Holmes, employing all sorts of modified instruments, like out-of-tune pianos, banjos, and squeaky violins.

Listen here:

Zimmer truly is masterful in portraying a dark, mysterious world of crime and sleuthing intrigue. When you consider, however, that he has already won before, the quality of the competition, and the somewhat muted approval of Sherlock Holmes as an adaptation of the traditional Sir Arthur Conan Doyle works, a Zimmer victory would have to be viewed as an upset. I would look upon Zimmer as a dark horse contender.

Lastly, we get Michael Giacchino’s nostalgic score in Pixar’s Up. Giacchino has worked with Pixar before, first with The Incredibles and then Ratatouille, with which he procured his first nomination. Could the third time be the charm? Many believe so, and it would be difficult to campaign against this emotional assortment of timeless wonder. Giacchino did win the Golden Globe.

Listen to the superlative welding of old-time rag with modern reflection, here:

When I first heard it on screen, I’m not ashamed to admit that – when accompanied by the heartwarming imagery — it made me tear up. Listening to it again, I just can’t help myself, especially at the end. Any score that can ignite something so deeply personal within us, while so wonderfully depicting the impermanence of life’s most magical offerings, deserves the highest honors.

This might be the greatest collective presentation of scores in recent history, which directly contrasts the poor showings in the Best Original Song category. Even The Hurt Locker’s maligned nomination is foolhardy, as it adds a diverse element to the pool. My vote, and prediction, has to go to Giacchino for Up, but I find the works of Horner, Desplat, and Zimmer similarly dazzling, each in its own way. That such brilliant compositions have found their way into movies is yet another sign that modern cinema can still churn the insides of its customers like no other industry.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!