By Ty Burr
January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

Forget hangovers, resolutions, presidential inaugurations: January is Oscar-handicapping time. And for those of us who listen to film scores — during the movie and, later, on CD — the guesswork about who will be nominated has grown both tougher and more satisfying. Last year the Motion Picture Academy broke the Best Original Score slate into two categories: Best Original Musical or Comedy Score and Best Original Dramatic Score. The expansion should help break Disney’s long lock on the category, and it underlines how open the soundtrack industry has become to outsiders, alternative sounds, and unusual approaches. Judging by the gossip on the Internet’s newsgroup, fan favorites for the 1996 nominations include Michael Collins, Fargo, Sleepers, and Mars Attacks!, but some intriguing could-bes and should-bes have rolled in with the wave of late-qualifying December releases. It’s an easy bet that Daniel Lanois’ score for the eerie Forrest-Gump-gets-homicidal film SLING BLADE (Island) won’t be nominated: This is a subtle ambient-rock soundscape rather than the grandly orchestral poot the Academy tends to favor. So what if Lanois (a moody art-rocker who has produced U2 albums) has created a score that goes a long way toward making Sling Blade the creepy, artsy backwoods experience it is? There’s a small debt to Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks music, and I’ll dock Lanois points for throwing in a ringer from one of his own albums, but at least he corrals Emmylou Harris for a spectral wordless lament. George Fenton’s soundtrack for THE CRUCIBLE (RCA Victor) is a more conventional piece of work, despite the inclusion of period instruments that represents Hollywood’s co-opting of the authenticity movement from classical-music circles. Fenton (Gandhi, The Fisher King) is gifted at creating melodic moods, but here he attempts an astringency to match the movie’s aggressive hysteria. It’s not a bad score, just curiously uninspired — until the final reconciliation between John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife (Joan Allen), when the composer at last uncorks a ”big tune” that swells until you could weep. A more serious Oscar contender is Gabriel Yared’s score for THE ENGLISH PATIENT (Fantasy), music that works brilliantly on the big screen and that grows on you slowly — but no less effectively — at home. The Lebanese-born Yared hews closely to the movie’s notion of a world where nationality and identity are hopelessly uncertain: In the opening cut, what sounds like an Arabic melody turns out to be a traditional Hungarian tune. The score is so sweepingly good, in fact, that jazz numbers like Benny Goodman’s ”Wang Wang Blues” disrupt the flow. Worse, the fake Bach of ”Convento Di Sant’Anna” is nine long minutes of filler. Program your CD player right, though, and you’ll hear music as bewitching as the film’s desert setting. One small thing the English Patient CD does wrong is to present the music out of chronological sequence. So does the soundtrack for the much-praised drama BREAKING THE WAVES (Hollywood) — but here it shipwrecks the whole project. This isn’t a traditional score but a collection of schlocky rock numbers from the ’70s that, in the film, comment with eerie precision on the travails of the heroine (Emily Watson). It’s a conceit that works well enough to warrant its own Oscar category — maybe Best Original Use of Old Jethro Tull Songs. But hearing cuts like T-Rex’s ”Hot Love” and Elton John’s ”Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in random order prevents you from appreciating the way the movie uses them, and turns the disc into something even K-tel wouldn’t release. Perhaps the most radical of the new soundtrack CDs is SHINE (Philips), featuring David Hirschfelder’s original score. Yes, it commits the sin of using snippets of classical works rather than the entire pieces, but if you want the whole megillah, buy the just-released David Helfgott Plays Rachmaninov (RCA Victor Red Seal), featuring the Australian pianist whose life is told in the film. The Shine CD, instead, is out to re-create the experience of Shine the movie: A Chopin polonaise is played on the same tinny school piano that young David (Alex Rafalowicz) plays on screen; the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 dives into the watery sound mix that signals the teenage David’s (Noah Taylor) nervous breakdown. And by eliminating pauses between cuts, the disc beguilingly pulls you into its sonic narrative. Hirschfelder’s original music is simply intoxicating too, and its scaled-down orchestral palette will be a tonic to anyone whose ears have been worn down by the sledgehammer tactics of most Hollywood scores. Whether the Academy itself has grown deaf remains to be seen. Sling Blade: B Crucible: C+ English Patient: B- Breaking the Waves: C- Shine: A-