Oscars: ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Revenant,’ ‘Mad Max’ Among Top Sound Contenders

From frontier battlegrounds to galaxies far, far away...

The sound branch of the Academy is unique in that its members can represent 10 different films with nominations in the race if they see fit, via the sound editing and sound mixing categories. Though there is, of course, generally overlap between the two races, with one or two divergences of note each season.

This year, you can bank on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” being a considerable force (no pun intended) in both. This is a franchise of films perhaps most distinctly defined by their sound work, from R2-D2’s beeps and whistles to the hair drier whine of TIE fighters and all points in between. With the legendary Ben Burtt (he kicked things off way back in 1977 for the series) and Gary Rydstrom involved, plus Andy Nelson and Christopher Scarabosio on the post mix, you can expect nominations in both categories. David Acord and Matthew Wood pulled editing duties. There are 14 competitive Oscars and two special achievement Academy Awards between the six of them.

Also a strong contender in both categories, with a compelling, immersive mix aided by strong editorial ideas, is “The Revenant.” From a battle scene akin to the opening of “Saving Private Ryan” through a harrowing trek across a vibrant sonic environment (not to mention the implementation of a unique musical component), the film is just brimming with compelling sound choices. Two-time Oscar winner (and 14-time nominee) Randy Thom was brought on to assist on the post-production mix with Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s usual pair, Frank A. Montaño and Jon Taylor (nominated last year for “Birdman” and “Unbroken”). He also joined Oscar winner Lon Bender (“Braveheart”) and nominee Martín Hernández (“Birdman”) on the editorial side.

The Martian” has been humming along as of late, perceived as a strong Oscar player across the board (or, at the very least, in the below-the-line categories). It’s also a great possibility to land in both sound categories, with a mix courtesy of Paul Massey (a six-time nominee for films like “Air Force One” and “Walk the Line”) and Mark Taylor (nominated for “Captain Phillips”), plus editing from Oliver Tarney (also nominated for “Captain Phillips”).

If “Mad Max: Fury Road” can keep its critical kudos momentum going, it should have a pretty significant profile moving into the balloting phase of the season later this month. And in the sound department, it’s a mind-blowing cocktail. Two-time Oscar winner Chris Jenkins (“Out of Africa,” “The Last of the Mohicans”) and fellow two-timer Gregg Rudloff (“Glory,” “The Matrix”) worked on the mix, with editing contributed by the team of Scott Hecker, Mark Mangini and David White (four nominations between them).

Westerns have done quite well with the branch in recent years, whether “3:10 to Yuma” or “True Grit” or “Django Unchained.” Quentin Tarantino’s latest, “The Hateful Eight,” involves his usual team, and particularly on the editing side (Wylie Stateman was nominated for “Django” and six other films besides), it’s a great concoction of boot spurs on wood floors, crackling gun fire and the threatening elements pounding the film’s snow-blown location from the outside. Mixer Michael Minkler, meanwhile, has won three Oscars (for “Black Hawk Down,” “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”) and is joined by son Christian.

Those are the five that feel the strongest in both categories, but of course, things could be splintered a few different ways. For instance, “Everest” features a full-bodied weather soundscape that could pop as a sound editing accomplishment. “Inside Out,” by the same token, could finally bring Pixar back into a category that saw nominations for films like “WALL-E,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3.”

The latest Bond endeavor, meanwhile — “Spectre” — could overcome a general sense of disappointment on the heels of the well-liked “Skyfall” (a nominee in both categories). “Jurassic World” could even find somewhere to land outside of the visual effects field; after all, it’s a series that kicked off with revered sound design. “The Walk” is another movie that could appeal, but is that final 40-minute sequence enough for voters?

As always, keep an eye out for the latest in franchises like “Avengers” and “Mission: Impossible,” though they haven’t found room to navigate yet. Add “Furious 7” to that group as well.

If I could include a personal FYC encouragement, though, I’d ask that branch members give “Love & Mercy” a serious listen. It’s the very essence of what this work can be, a patchwork of aural storytelling that puts the viewer right in the perspective of a musical genius. It’s almost a love letter to the profession itself, really.

Other films that could find support include “Bridge of Spies,” “Creed,” “In the Heart of the Sea” and “Sicario.”

We’ll see what makes the cut when Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 14.

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