Saturday, August 23, 2014

OVP: Sound Mixing (2013)

OVP: Best Sound Mixing (2013)

The Nominees Were...

Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, and Chris Munro, Captain Phillips
Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, and Chris Munro, Gravity
Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick, and Tony Johnson, Inside Llewyn Davis
Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Andy Koyama, Beau Borders, and David Brownlow, Lone Survivor

My Thoughts: We’ve taken a brief sabbatical from the 2013 Oscar races, but we are now back in for the final stretch, finishing up where we left off in the middle of the sound categories.  Like many years, the sound categories ended up being nearly identical to each other (making writing back-to-back articles about both of them a bit of a chore, hence the slight delay between the two).  For those that need to get caught up, click at the bottom for past Sound Mixing articles and some of our previous 2013 races.

But on with the show, and what a show this was-honestly, this is by far the best lineup of 2013, as there are no really bad contenders to speak toward.  I’ll start with the film that continues to surprise in me in how well it holds up, Lone Survivor.  I’ve talked about this a couple of times, but the sound work in this film is really incredible.  The overall movie knows exactly how to play with volume in a way that heightens at the precise right moments.  So many war films turn up the volume and leave it there, but Lone Survivor plays with tones, giving us far more tension and a natural quiet during the scenes in the woods, even breaking up the occasional battle scenes with the crinkling of branches and walking.  It’s a really well-made picture, and one that probably got thrown out by some art house-style patrons because of the subject matter and presence of Wahlberg in the starring role.

After missing the year before, I was perplexed to see The Hobbit amongst the nominees, not because of a lack in quality but because The Hobbit seems to have now entered Harry Potter or Star Wars territory, where it always seems to be nominated for something but never for the same things-who knows what Five Armies will get this year?  The sound work in these films is always divine.  It helps that Howard Shore has a truly mesmerizing theme that haunts the work, and the film is constantly finding prickly ways to keep you glued aurally to the screen-I love the spiders in this particular piece, and the way that even conversations take on a new majesty with the way the score drops but frequently accompanies soliloquies.  All-in-all, another great installment in an extremely memorable series.

Captain Phillips continues to baffle me in terms of quality-I’ve said this twice now, but the middle third of the film continues to be where everything is working, and that includes the sound.  The crashing of the water becomes both terrifying in its constancy and closeness and yet there’s something calming in the way that the main ship speeds by-it’s a weird conundrum for the audience and one of several aural quandaries that highlight the film.  I don’t care for the final third, where the noise (and script) become sanctimonious and muddled in their message-the sound and speaking becomes too underlined on the lines the director wants you to pay attention toward and you don’t feel the naturalism.  But the middle parts of the film (particularly the first unsuccessful pirate attempt on the ship) are truly excellent.

Gravity of course is a sound mixers dream, getting the chance to do some near perfect sequences that exist largely based on the rush of sound around Sandra Bullock’s tragic astronaut.  We are given long stretches of film where it’s either just Bullock or just a pair of actors, and so sound and its frequent absence are critical to maintaining the illusion of space and the impending tension that would come with each swirling cascade of debris.  The movie balances its highs and lows and finds ways to make Bullock’s breathing even more uncomfortable for the audience, making us practically hyperventilate in unison in our seats.  A lovely triumph.

The final nominee, and the only nominee that didn’t get a doppelganger nomination over in Sound Editing is Inside Llewyn Davis.  Because of the obvious need for strong sound work during onscreen performances, musical pictures usually do quite well in this category.  However, Llewyn Davis doesn’t fall into the sad pattern of only being interesting when the band has stopped playing onscreen.  Instead, it has a delicate quiet that casts a shadow over the entire film, so that we can hear the wooden floorboards and the hum of a mellower, less commercial New York.

Of course, when the music actually starts playing, we hit perfection.  The music plays as if it is live, and you are genuinely in a studio recording or the back of a bar listening to a man bare his soul.  The actual singing is heavenly, and frequently has an authenticity that is lacking in larger-scale more recent musicals that are so quick to make something perfect that they forget to make it interesting.  Inside Llewyn Davis is a wonderful selection here, and while I would have put it in a few more categories with Oscar, there’s no denying that the two citations it did grab were well-earned.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Cinema Audio Society started breaking out its live-action and animated contenders a few years ago, so we have two sets of nominees to run through.  The live action categories are almost a carbon copy of Oscar’s list, with only The Hobbit being taken down for Iron Man 3 (Gravity was victorious).  In the Animated field we had everyone’s favorite pair of princesses taking down The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, and Walking with Dinosaurs.  Gravity was also the victor at the BAFTA Awards, with The Hobbit and Lone Survivor both being taken out for All is Lost and Rush.  I am going against the grain here and assuming that, considering that Rush was so poorly-taken with AMPAS that either Frozen or All is Lost (probably the latter) was the sixth place nominee.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I hate to go there again, but what was with the weird aversion to the handsome if occasionally staid work that made up Man of Steel.  Once again I think I would have found room for it, but to be honest this is a very strong list and doesn’t have a lot of need for improvement.
Oscar’s Choice: Once again, there was no denying Gravity for a trophy.
My Choice: This is a genuine tossup for me between Gravity and Inside Llewyn Davis.  I think that Gravity is probably whom I would have to vote for in a bubble (realizing that I’ve given it an alarmingly high number of trophies so far but admitting it’s slightly the better of the two even with a high awards count), but both of these are five-star pieces of work.  I’m going to follow that with Lone Survivor, The Hobbit, and Captain Phillips bringing up the rear.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Do you think that Gravity is the unstoppable force that it should be or was this the time to pick someone else?  What are your thoughts about the technical elements of Captain Phillips and how much are they affected by the plot?  And which film had the best sound mixing of 2009?  Share in the comments!

Past Best Sound Mixing Contests: 2009201020112012

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