Oscar Guide 2011: Best Sound Mixing

Posted by · 6:30 am · February 8th, 2012

(The Oscar Guide will be your chaperone through the Academy’s 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 26, with the Best Picture finale on Saturday, February 25.)

This year, the sound category nominations were the ones I found hardest to predict — I went a paltry 1-for-5 in the Best Sound Mixing category — and even with the field narrowed to five, I’m not finding the picture any clearer. Part of the reason for that is the unusual disparity between the Academy’s picks and those of the Cinema Audio Society. For the first time since 1999, they agreed on only two nominees, both Best Picture contenders that aren’t brash sonic showcases: “Hugo” and “Moneyball.”

For the other slots, the Academy’s sound branch set about rectifying some of the more surprising CAS omissions: the guild did well to recognize the sleekly pulsating “Hanna,” but the Academy stuck with more typically large-scale fare for the category in the shape of “War Horse” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” The final field is an eminently mainstream one, but pleasingly balanced between bombast and subtler notes.

The nominees are…

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Bo Persson)

“Hugo” (Tom Fleischman and John Midgley)

“Moneyball” (Deb Adair, Ron Bochar, Dave Giammarco and Ed Novick)

“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Peter J. Devlin)

“War Horse” (Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson and Stuart Wilson)

In addition to the aforementioned “Hanna,” the other CAS nominee slighted by the Academy were “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Super 8.” I’m particularly surprised that the latter summer blockbuster missed in both sound categories — I’d have thought the spectacular train crash alone would seal the deal there — and I wish there had been more time for the crisp, frisky action work in late December release “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” to take hold. Finally, I wish more people would acknowledge that great sound mixing exists in the arthouse too: the sprinkler system from “We Need to Talk About Kevin” hasn’t left my head since May. 

For “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” mixers David Parker, Michael Semanick and Ren Klyce have received their third nomination for a David Fincher film in four years. (Parker previously won for “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The English Patient,” Semanick for “King Kong” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”) Given the lack of a guild nod at the time when the film was racking them up, it’s a slight surprise that the Academy rescued the chilly Nordic thriller here, but a pleasant one: it’s a subtly eerie, glassy mix, working in close partnership with the disquieting reverberations of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s sadly unnominated score. As with the last two Fincher films in the race, it’s likely too muted for the win, but it’s nice to see it recognized. Parker, Semanick and Klyce are nominated alongside Bo Persson.

Being one of only two nominees also mentioned by the CAS — and far the flashier of those two, to boot — at least gives “Hugo” the appearance of an advantage in this race, as does the fact that the Best Picture nominee, with its field-leading 11 nominations, is in a position to dominate the technical categories. If voters who can’t tell the difference between mixing sound and cement are feeling lazy, there’s a good chance they’ll simply check off the most highly regarded title on the list — but while “Hugo,” with all its whirring machinery, bustling crowds and vengeful trains, has plenty to occupy the ear, I wonder if people remember it for its aural qualities as much as its visual ones. Mixers Tom Fleischman and John Midgley have eight previous nods between them (the former was also nominated for “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator”), but this would be the first win for both.

The nomination for the comparatively quiet drama of “Moneyball” wasn’t as surprising as it would have been without that CAS nod, but it’s still the kind of low-key work in a well-loved film that often goes only as far as a guild mention. I’m glad the Academy followed through on this one: this is selflessly film-serving but sharply defined sound work that pays careful attention to conveying and shifting character perspective, as attuned to the crowd roar of the ball game scenes as the silent hum of a lonely office. One of the film’s four mixers, Ed Novick, won an Oscar last year for more bells-and-whistles work on “Inception”; it’d be a surprise to see him take a second straight statuette for work this unassumingly layered, however broadly liked the film. A guild win, strangely enough, seems a far likelier prospect. The other nominees are Deb Adair, Ron Bochar and Dave Giammarco.

Forget Meryl Streep’s third Oscar — you want to talk due? Greg P. Russell clocked his 15th nomination this year for “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (his third nod for Michael Bay’s ongoing scrap-metal saga, which apparently can’t miss in this category, even without guild support), and has yet to win. He’s part of a sonic dream team here — his three colleagues have 17 nominations and four Oscars between them — but I sense this still isn’t Russell’s year. However crystalline every juddering clank is in this gleefully cacophonous blockbuster, Academy voters tend only to vote here for outright popcorn fare if it’s as critically approved as “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “Speed.” Chances are they’d feel dirty voting for “Transformers,” even if Paramount is, unusually enough, campaigning hard for a win in this category. Russell’s fellow nominees are Gary Summers (no stranger to the dance with 10 nominations and four wins), Jeffrey J. Haboush and Peter J. Devlin.

Finally, we come to the film that would seem the can’t-miss frontrunner in this category. It’s a Best Picture nominee, it’s a sweeping war epic with all the tastefully booming sound that entails, it’s a pro team of mixers (Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson and Stuart Wilson) with 10 Oscars between them and it’s from a director whose films have often scored here in the past — but for the fact that the CAS rather unaccountably left it off their list. As it stands, lack of guild recognition shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for “War Horse”: I’d say most Academy members neither know nor care whether the film was nominated by the CAS, and if lack of guild support couldn’t be reversed, we wouldn’t be talking about it in six categories to begin with. Still, it would be a first for the sound mixing Oscar to go to a film not nominated by the Society, and while Steven Spielberg’s film has its fans, I wonder if the blind (or deaf?) vote for “Hugo” might be stronger. 

Will win: “Hugo”

Could win: “War Horse”

Should win: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Should have been here: “We Need to Talk About Kevin”  

Keep track of our current rankings in the Best Sound Mixing category via its Contenders page here.

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What do you think should be taking home this gold in this category? Who got robbed? Speak up in the comments section below!

(Read previous installments of the Oscar Guide here.)

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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