Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Sound Mixing – In space, everyone can hear ‘Gravity’

02.21.14 3 years ago 4 Comments

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

Back when it was simply named Best Sound (and when its sister award, Best Sound Editing, had only three nominees), Best Sound Mixing was seen as the more prestigious of the two prizes — though still, many people are unsure as to what the difference between them is. By usually compiling heavily overlapping fields, the Academy rarely helps to establish the distinction, and so it is this year: four of this year’s Best Sound Mixing nominees are also up for Best Sound Editing, and in another Academy tradition, they’re all action fare of some sort. The fifth is a music-based film, though not of the type (or volume) that more routinely features in this race. Meanwhile, two sound mixers are up for two films apiece.

The nominees are…

“Captain Phillips” (Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith and Chris Munro)
Paul Greengrass’s films are always robust on the sound front, and “The Bourne Ultimatum” was a semi-surprise winner in both categories in 2007. The “Captain Phillips” team includes Chris Munro, a former winner for “Black Hawk Down” who also scored an additional nod for “Gravity.” His probably his own biggest competition, too: “Phillips” is a layered sonic showcase, starting stealthily, with the metallic clatter of the Maersk Alabama, and the surrounding whoosh of the ocean echoing in viewers’ ears, before ramping up to its panicky, gunshot-laden finale. In most other years, that’d be enough for the win, but in most other years, it wouldn’t be up against…

“Gravity” (Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro)
Alfonso Cuarón’s space blockbuster happens to be the film on which both this year’s double nominees in the category converge: not just Munro, but six-time nominee Skip Lievsay, also up for “Inside Llewyn Davis.” In giving “Gravity” the win, then, many voters probably won’t be aware that they’re killing several birds with one stone. There are, after all, more compelling reasons to vote for “Gravity,” beginning with its rather mesmerizing sound mix, which plays cleverly on the muted sonic reality of outer space, while escalating at points to a claustrophobic headspace roar. There’s fine work throughout this category, but none that works quite as inventively with perspective or inner/outer balance. (Check out our interview with Skip Lievsay here.)

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick and Tony Johnson)
It was something of a surprise to see the second part of Peter Jackson’s latest Middle Earth trilogy show up in the sound race — though all three “Lord of the Rings” film were nominated in this category, last year’s “An Unexpected Journey” was not, and I assumed its Oscar fortunes would be a case of diminishing returns. (After all, the production designers and makeup artists couldn’t be roused this year.) Still, “Smaug” is the more action-heavy chapter, so there’s some logic to its appearance here. It’s not exactly innovative, but it’s a typically dense, rumbling soundscape from Jackson’s regular, expert team: Boyes, Hedges and Semanick previously won this category for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “King Kong.” It’d be something of a shock to see them up on stage again, but it’ll be interesting to see how the third film fares.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” (Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland)
And so we return to Lievsay, who’s perhaps on more familiar ground here than he is in “Gravity”; the Coen brothers’ regular mixer, he’s been previously nominated for his work on “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit.” Then again, this folk-music tragicomedy is sonically a very different proposition to either of those films, evoking the murmur and crackle of vintage nightclubs and recording studios, and integrating the musical performances of Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake et al with whispery, seamlessly organic authenticity. (Orloff won an Oscar for similarly precise musical work on “Ray.”) It’s by far the most intimate and delicate work in the field, and I’m pleased it got the nomination; given the extent to which “Davis” was shut out by the Academy at large, it could very easily have missed here. (Check out our interview with Skip Lievsay and Peter Kurland here.)

“Lone Survivor” (Andy Koyama, Beau Borders and David Brownlow)
The final nominee in the field is the only one from a team with no previous nominations to their collective name, though they’re hardly new on the scene: between them, their individual credits range from “Koyaanisqatsi” to “Titanic” to “Burlesque.” It’s not surprising that Peter Berg’s relentless Afghanistan war drama wowed the sound branch, even if no other Academy voters bit: virtually from the get-go, it’s a rattling sonic assault of bullets, whirring helicopter blades and rough-and-tumble combat, modulated in the service of extreme tension. If the film had been more widely embraced by the Academy, I’d like its chances more.

Will win: “Gravity”
Could win: “Captain Phillips”
Should win: “Gravity”
Should have been here: “Upstream Color”

All in all, a solid field of contenders, though one that still reveals the Academy’s relatively narrow notion of what genres feature commendable sound work — films not big on either action or music still struggle to find much traction here. “Spring Breakers” featured some of 2013’s most hypnotic work in the field, though is hardly the kind of film anyone in the Academy (least of all the so-called “steak eaters”) would consider; “Upstream Color,” meanwhile, was a stunning sensory feat, but wasn’t even eligible for voting.

What do you think deserves to win Best Sound Mixing this year? Vote in our poll below.

How do you think this race will pan out, and what do you wish were nominated? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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