Friday, February 17, 2017

One Category at a Time: Best Sound Mixing

I feel like every year it gets harder and harder to predict what the Academy as a whole takes into consideration when voting on Best Sound Mixing. Even among the most avid film enthusiasts, the particulars of this craft can be mysterious and confusing. I sometimes struggle myself to decide what constitutes the finest achievement of the year (especially so this year), so trying to speculate as to what others will decide is next to an impossible task.

It brings me no pride to confess that this is the category with my poorest prediction record (roughly 38%), and even the corresponding industry guild -- the CAS, which announces its winners tomorrow -- hasn't matched up all that often: Only 6 of the last 13 CAS champs repeated with the Academy.

But there is one constant that can usually be counted on to pad your Oscar stats: Best Sound Mixing loves musicals.
Over the course of Oscar's history, Best Picture nominated musicals have a small enough sample size that drawing any conclusions about them is oversimplifying, but one pretty consistent oversimplification is that they win this category. A lot. Even movies that aren't really musicals but feature music prominently (Ray, Whiplash) can be counted on to triumph here. So no matter which way the CAS leans tomorrow, the safe logic is to assume that La La Land probably has this in the bag. It'll be the third Oscar on the mantle of Andy Nelson (Saving Private Ryan, Les Mis) but the first for Steven Morrow and Ai-Ling Lee, the latter of whom did terrific work in Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild a couple years back.

But I wouldn't call that team's victory a done deal just yet. There is reasonably stiff competition in the form of Mel Gibson's war epic Hacksaw Ridge, which features all the typical combat cacophony that you'd expect to grab voters' ears. And yet, as it turns out, war films haven't ultimately been that successful in this category for a long time. Since 2002, only one war film, The Hurt Locker, has won for its sound mix. They fare much better in Sound Editing, where 6 of the last 15 winners have been of the genre. But you can bet I'll be rooting for this one, because Kevin O'Connell is the living definition of "grossly overdue". As in, I feel physically grossed out -- nauseous -- every time he loses, because 21 nominations without a win is simply inhumane.
It's for that very reason I'm also rooting equally hard for his former partner Greg P. Russell (not far behind O'Connell with an unenviable record of 0/17) who is among the talented mixers behind 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. The movie itself is every bit as terrible as all of Michael Bay's brain-dead actioners, but the sound crew is the team that always has to work hardest to make sense of all the onscreen chaos. Once again they've delivered exceptional work in a movie undeserving of their gifts.

On merit alone (which is super subjective, because all five nominees are really good), I also have to root for this year's Star Wars event Rogue One. There's a lot happening on this soundtrack which isn't obvious or consciously noticeable on first viewing. That's actually the highest compliment you can pay to Christopher Scarabosio and the mixing crew, in that really good sound mixing is the sort of thing you shouldn't actively notice when watching a movie. But a win for them would be surprising. If the more widely embraced The Force Awakens couldn't even salvage a Best Visual Effects trophy last year, I think it's safe to say the Academy feels no particular obligation to this franchise.

The most subtle mix in the mix (sorry) would be Arrival, which may get more attention for its distinctive sound elements than for how they're put together, which is kind of a shame. The work done here by Bernard Gariepy Strobl and Claude La Haye is completely immersive and plays a huge role in letting the viewer sink into Denis Villeneuve's tense atmosphere. Being a Best Picture nominee (and one in danger of being blanked entirely on Oscar night) means we probably shouldn't write it off, but subtlety has a hard time winning this award.

Will win: La La Land
Could win: Hacksaw Ridge

Should win: Rogue One
Should be nominated: Lion

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