This is the first year that Sound is just a single category, after decades of it being split into Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. There is a difference, but it’s now moot, because after years of the Academy members also being confused, the two were combined into the single category, which makes sense.
In a normal year, the Sound category might be considered one of the less glamorous of the below the line group. But when it was a year that had such a spectacular, singular example of what the medium can achieve, that no longer applies. There are five nominees here, only one of which is a big action movie — which right away makes it a strange year, as this category is typically populated with those types of films. While all five did a lovely job of using sound to its best effect, only one used it to fully immerse its audience, creating a nearly three dimensional viewing experience.
But I’ll get to that.
First up, the nominees:
Greyhound (Warren Shaw, Michael Minkler, Beau Borders, David Wyman)
Mank (Ren Klyce, Jeremy Molod, David Parker, Nathan Nance, Drew Kunin)
News of the World (Oliver Tarney, Mike Prestwood Smith, William Miller, John Pritchett)
Soul (Ren Klyce, Coya Elliott, David Parker) and
Sound of Metal (Nicolas Becker, Jaime Backsht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés, Phillip Bladh).
The thing about the Sound category is that it has always tended to reward bigger movies with lots of sound effects and a certain busyness built into them, which covers one of the nominees. Also rewarded, musicals, like Bohemian Rhapsody, a big winner here two years ago, or films about music, which covers another. As it happens, two of this year’s nominees qualify, and we’ll get to both of them in due course.
Since we’re doing this alphabetically, one of the two is first, and that’s Greyhound. The World War II flick is one of two Tom Hanks movies on this list, and is the one big, sprawling action movie that made the cut. Most of those types of movies didn’t come out at all last year, and were instead pushed to this year and next (because they’re meant to be cinematic experiences). Because this was an Apple film, it was put on the company’s TV+ service, for quality home viewing. Greyhound is a fun movie that I greatly enjoyed, and not just because it’s a naval battle movie, and to paraphrase a friend of mine, any movie with naval battles in it is a good one. War movies likewise tend to be good with sound (Saving Private Ryan is a perfect example), and this is no exception. The sounds of war, and the sounds of the sea, are expertly crafted and on display here. In a regular year, I think this would be a solid contender, but this, as noted, is not a regular year. Because of that, Greyhound isn’t going to win this award.
Nor, for that matter, is Mank— the year’s most honored movie, with 10 nominations–which is a David Fincher film, and therefore as technically brilliant as all his films are. Fincher takes us back to 1940, and the writing of Citizen Kane by Herman Mankiewicz. Fincher recreates the era in winning fashion, and when we get to the directing entry, that will be discussed in far more detail, but as technically proficient as Mank is, this is not a category the film or its artisans will win.
News of the World, the other Tom Hanks movie, is a unique work that follows a man whose job was to read newspapers to people in the Old West. What’s different about this movie, aside from the period piece nature of it, is the use of human sound effects, added to the readings in the movie. That’s the kind of thing that a sound technician loves, recording and re-recording those particular noises and utterances to enrich the finished project. There is also a bare quality to the movie’s soundtrack, with explosive bursts of violence to offset it. It’s impressive work, no question, and in another year, it might sneak through as the eventual winner. Not this year, though.
Same with Soul, a movie that a lot of people liked a lot more than I did (by-the-numbers Pixar, if you ask me, but that’s a different conversation), but one which focuses on music and the magic of it, and it does stalwart work creating that world. Pixar movies are often honored in this category, because the system the company has in place is second to none. Their technical work is always excellent, and this is no exception. And yet, this also is not going to win.
The reason is because this year we saw the release of Sound of Metal, which might not be the best movie I’ve ever seen in how it uses sound to tell its story, but is pretty damn close. The way director Darius Marder and his team utilize sound to make the viewer feel the main character’s descent into total silence is incredible. It’s dazzling. Mind blowing. It creates a sense of discomfort so extreme, you find yourself speaking random words out loud to ensure that you haven’t, in fact, lost your own hearing. I’ve heard that tinnitus is a maddening condition, but having never lived with it in any sustained way (other than after a loud rock concert or something), that’s a hard thing to imagine. Seeing it in this movie, though, watching as Riz Ahmed’s Ruben suffers from it and tries very hard not to lose his mind as he does, then loses all his hearing completely, made this one of the more remarkable viewing experiences I had this year. Whether or not it was the best movie of the year (it wasn’t, though it certainly deserves its Best Picture nod and the five others it earned along with it, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor) is sort of beside the point. What it did, better than any movie I’ve seen in a very long time, was use sound to put the viewer inside the head of its main character, and make us feel what it might be like to be deaf.
This is a movie I would have loved to see in the theater, in the dark, with surround sound and an audience whose trepidation and discomfort would have filled the space around me. In those moments, when the hairs on your arms stand up and you understand that you’re seeing something truly special, a home entertainment system, no matter how good, has a hard time comparing. Sound of Metal is a tough film to watch, because of the subject matter, and is not a movie I am in a rush to see again soon, but I may end up doing so just to recapture that feeling, the feeling of a movie that made me feel and experience something I hadn’t in a very long time.
Should Win: Sound of Metal
Will Win: Sound of Metal
Final voting for the Cinema Audio Society (CAS) Awards closes on Tuesday, April 6, and you can see those nominees here while voting for the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) Golden Reel Awards closes on Monday, April 12, and those nominees can be read here. Voting for the Academy Awards closes on April 20, and you can read the full list of ALL the nominees for the 93rd Annual Academy Awards here.