Thursday, February 5, 2015

One Category at a Time: Sound Editing

For the first time in as long as I can remember, none of the Academy's nominees for Best Sound Editing are ones I would have nominated myself for my own personal ballot. But that's not to imply that the sound branch has dropped the ball. Quite the opposite, as the five they settled on are a most respectable lineup.

It speaks more to the diversity and high quality of the work from which to choose, and there's never a dearth of aural accomplishments in a town that cranks out bombastic blockbusters and sonic showcases with such exhausting regularity.

It's worth noting that the Academy at large will sometimes throw a bone to the 'loud' action movies in this category over Best Picture nominees (Skyfall,
The Dark Knight, and The Bourne Ultimatum are recent examples), although if they can have their cake and eat it too, they will; Best Picture nominees that are also 'loud' movies -- such as Gravity, Zero Dark Thirty, Inception or The Hurt Locker -- are hard to beat.
On that note, it makes perfect sense to assume that American Sniper (which I recently handicapped to win Best Sound Mixing) is the one in the driver's seat here. Sound designers Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman won Oscars for another Clint Eastwood war film, Letters from Iwo Jima, in 2007. Their work on this project is just as expertly achieved as that previous triumph, and gripe if you will about the film's politics (or lack thereof), but a victory here would be well deserved and unsurprising. Best-Picture-nominated war movies almost never lose this, with the only counter example in recent memory being War Horse losing to Hugo (which still makes zero sense to me three years later). Besides, it's only ever happened once that the two sound categories have been split between films nominated for both, so if you believe that American Sniper takes sound mixing,
it follows that it should take sound editing too.

There's another war picture in the mix, although to call Unbroken a war picture might be a stretch, as it's not actually about the war so much as it's about a series of increasingly cruel circumstances befalling serviceman Louie Zamperini.
Still, Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro had to create an extensive library of sound effects ranging from aerial dogfights to ocean waves to the distinctive whistle-and-whack of that bamboo cane that keeps pummeling poor Louie.
All of it is solid throughout. But they're fortunate to be nominated at all, as the film has become the latest poster child for Oscar season duds, and will remain as such until next year's overly hyped prestige project -- whatever that may be -- comes up short with the Academy. Despite its war-related genre, this one doesn't feel like a threat to upset American Sniper.
Perhaps the most likely challenger comes in the form of an epic science-fiction that, like last year's winner, uses the silence of space to make some interesting sonic decisions. Interstellar may have generated some negative discussion for its odd mixing style, but no one seems to have any complaints about Richard King's sound editorial, which finds just the right voice for the rustic tech of Christopher Nolan's lived-in future. Having already won three Academy Awards in the last eleven years (two of them for Nolan films), King has become one of the leading artists in his field, and it's entirely possible he brings that Oscar tally up to four. Space movies have had plenty of success here in the past, although its genre conventions may not be quite enough to overcome American Sniper's Best Picture heat -- or its staggering box office.

The only nominee with even more Best Picture heat than Eastwood's boffo smash is Birdman, which most agree would make an atypical winner in this category. Martin Hernandez and Aaron Glascock (the latter of whom did nomination-worthy work on Spring Breakers last year) filter the sounds of a Broadway theatre through Riggan Thompson's ears with great care and subtlety, and thankfully that subtlety is clearly not lost on their peers in the sound engineering community.
The film received a field-leading three nominations from the MPSE, as well as mentions from BAFTA and, of course, AMPAS. But subtlety is not your ally when it comes to actually winning, no matter how promising a Best Picture contender you are. Think No Country for Old Men, whose nuanced soundscape was just too quiet to register despite the film being a juggernaut in the top category.
Probably bringing up the rear is The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,
the only one of the five not accompanied by a corresponding sound mixing nod. The sixth Middle Earth movie doesn't even have an accompanying nod in any category for that matter, making it clear that the Academy has finally had enough of Peter Jackson's tired, strung-out franchise. Brent Burge was nominated for last year's The Desolation of Smaug, and this outing features even more in the way of medieval action. The whole latter half of the film basically amounts to an extended battle sequence with thousands of swords clashing, orcs hollering, stones crumbling, arrows flying... you get the picture. In fact, the aural assemblage rendered by Burge and his co-nominee Jason Canovas is so dense and articulate, that besides American Sniper I'd say it's the next most deserving to win. I doubt the Academy at large would feel the same way.

Will win: American Sniper
Runner-up: Interstellar

Should win: American Sniper
Should have been nominated: Fury or Godzilla (hard to pick)

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