Feb. 12—I heard somewhere recently that the Oscars are basically a huge waste of time and an excuse for famous people to reward themselves. Surely the person who said this would be able to tell me about all of the famous sound designers that are working in film today. That is to say, most people cannot name a single sound designer. This is what makes the Oscars interesting and important. Beyond the red carpet, the Oscars honor unseen artists who create for the whole world's benefit. Those who would completely discredit that process are, in my opinion, truly out of touch and insecure.
The subtle sound of "The Zone of Interest" is my favorite achievement of the year. Set in and around the house next to the Auschwitz concentration camp, the trick of "The Zone of Interest" is creating a detached sense of horror. The Holocaust is turned into a mundane fact of life that the audience can't see, revealing the film's central themes. There is no visual evidence of atrocities. Instead, there are distant screams and gunshots that draw the audience unsettlingly close to the darkness.
The sound in "Oppenheimer" is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It is ever-present and often used abruptly, forcing you to pay attention. The intensity of a nuclear explosion is no subtle affair, so this use of sound is effective and true to life. As far as the characters know, their work could destroy the world. It makes sense that the sounds accompanying that feeling would be startling and unfamiliar to the average ear.
"Maestro" is a classic industry pick because of its ties to music. The Bernstein biopic has more mellow uses of sound in Lenny's daily life, but the nomination comes thanks to the large, musical scenes. Bernstein's conducting at the Ely Cathedral was possibly his career peak, and the overwhelming but controlled noise that brings this sequence to life in the film is a powerful piece of work as well.
The "Mission Impossible" film series finally got some Oscar love this year, partly due to the sound work in "Dead Reckoning Part One." While not my typical cup of tea, the franchise is known for being technically marvelous. Its predecessors were considered potential nominees in this category, but "Dead Reckoning Part One," the franchise's seventh film, is the one that finally broke through.
"The Creator" was not quite a smash at the box office, but the reviews were generally positive and it was considered a clear contender in the Oscars' visual effects category. A big surprise came on nomination morning when it scored a nod for best sound as well. An original science fiction film, completely untethered to a pre-established IP, is something Hollywood has sorely needed. I like that "The Creator" has been recognized in a way that can't be gathered from just watching the trailer. Hopefully the film has a second wind as a result of the Academy's support.
"The Zone of Interest" stands out in this group as the quietest of the bunch, but the Academy likes to go for something bigger. It'll be interesting to see how things ultimately shake out, but the more traditional movie watcher will probably gravitate towards one of the blockbusters.