Great sound design can elevate a film from "OK" to exceptional. It is the unsung hero behind the thrill you feel when you sit down in a theater, and it seems like the film surrounds you on all sides, immersing you in its environment.
Here are our picks for the top 25 award-winning movies that take sound design to the next level, using it as a key storytelling tool or as a way to build a world beyond what we can see with our eyes.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
You would be hard-pressed to find someone who can’t immediately hear the electric, laser-like zoom of a lightsaber being drawn when you mention Star Wars. This franchise invented a plethora of unique sounds to immerse viewers in the world of a galaxy far, far away.
The Dark Knight
When your main character has bat-like hearing, and 80% of your film takes place at night, sound effects becomes a crucial element in your storytelling process. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan and the team that created The Dark Knight leaned into the details and built a film that you hear more than you see.
What do dreams sound like? That's the question that Christopher Nolan and his sound design team set out to answer, and quite successfully. Inception is filled with sounds that are both real and surreal and help immerse the viewer in the bizarre dreamscape that its characters must escape from.
Sometimes, the best sound design includes the selective absence of it. Gravity is a masterclass in restraint, with director Alfonso Cuaron attempting to recreate the vacuum of space, where no sound can be heard unless there is air to carry it. Every sound you hear in Gravity is placed there for a reason, and the final result makes the audience feel like they just reached the stars themselves.
How do you tell a story when your main characters can’t speak? In the case of Wall-E, quite masterfully. Every beep, squeak, and creak in Wall-E helps paint an emotional picture of a lonely little robot searching for some beauty in a world gone wrong, proving that when you have great sound, you don’t always need words.
Saving Private Ryan
War is ugly, frightening, and quite often loud. Saving Private Ryan immerses viewers in the chaotic world of World War II, from the barrage of Normandy to quiet walks through the French countryside as its characters go behind enemy lines to recover their lost serviceman.
Apocalypse Now has long been heralded as a golden example of how to use sound to tell a story. From its opening sequence of a ceiling fan reverberating like a helicopter propeller to surreal soundscapes meant to replicate a psychedelic episode, Apocalypse Now leans heavily on sound to help tell the story of what war does to someone's mind.
Mad Max: Fury Road
The heavy metal apocalypse of Mad Max: Fury Road is a symphony of sound from start to finish. From its exhilarating soundtrack to the roar of battle cars, Mad Max: Fury Road is a non-stop feast for the eyes and the ears.
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
When you’re creating a fantasy world, you are confronted with both the challenge and blessing of designing a whole landscape that doesn’t exist in our world. That includes what a fantasy world might sound like, from the music to the creatures that inhabit it. Peter Jackson and his sound team crafted a soundscape for this franchise that includes everything from thrilling swordfights to what ghoul-like flying dragon creatures might sound like.
In theaters across the world, the rumbling roar of an escaped T-Rex rattled audiences to their core. Jurassic Park is still heralded as one of the most magical soundscapes ever designed by Steven Spielberg and his sound team. While research has suggested that most dinosaurs didn’t actually sound like the ones in Jurassic Park, the chilling bark of a raptor in Spielberg's blockbuster franchise is still enough to keep us up at night.
Just like Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk immerses viewers in the chilling realities of war. Christopher Nolan paid attention to every detail to ensure that viewers could immerse themselves in both the sights and sounds of the daring water evacuation of Dunkirk in World War II.
When you're telling the story of an aspiring drummer, it goes without saying that audio goes from being a background element to being one of your main characters. And that's exactly how filmmaker Damien Chazelle treats the sound design in Whiplash. Every pop, crash, and thump is crystal-clear as the sound of the movie itself is one of the main devices that tell us the story of a young drummer and his intense mentor.
Hugo is an homage to the magic of film. And as such, every element that makes a great film is treated with reverie and respect, including sound. The orphan that lives in the walls and grand clock of a train station is surrounded by the echoes of hurried passengers, booming bell tolls as the clock strikes the hour, and whistles of departing and arriving trains. This sumptuous film is a feast for both the eyes and the ears that looks and sounds like a love note to the film.
Slumdog Millionaire does a masterful job of using sound to capture the contrast in the two worlds its main character finds himself in. One is the chaotic, bustling streets of the poorest slums of Mumbai, and the other is the slick and shiny world of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire set that Jamal finds himself suddenly thrust into.
Peter Jackson once again flexed his muscle for creating immersive fantasy worlds in his adaptation of the classic story of King Kong, the biggest ape ever discovered. The soundscape here immerses us in the hidden jungle paradise where King Kong rules over his domain and helps us feel the thunderous weight of this apex creature.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
What does it sound like to explore the far corners of the world on a huge Napoleonic warship? Master and Commander does a masterful job of whisking the audience away on a daring seafaring adventure, where the crashes of waves, creaks and groans of an old wooden ship, and soundtrack highlighted with the baroque chamber music of the time period immerse the audience in a time long-passed.
The thrill of the colosseum cannot be truly felt without the clashing of swords, shields, and the battle cries of vicious and desperate warriors. Gladiator is a thrilling soundscape that puts the viewer right in the heart of the pulse-pounding world of Roman gladiators.
Braveheart beautifully captures not only the serene landscape of the Scottish highlands, but the brutality of an oppressive regime and the war waged to be free from it. From the beautiful echoes of bagpipes to the rallying war cries of a scrappy army, Braveheart rings in your ears long after the final shot fades.
Similar to Gravity, Apollo 13 seeks to put the audience in the passenger seat of a daring space mission. Unlike Gravity, however, the sound design of Apollo 13 is less minimal but still impactful. It focuses heavily on the music of the era to tell the story of astronauts that are desperate to find a way back home.
The Black Stallion
Like Wall-E, The Black Stallion decides to forego dialogue almost completely to tell the story of a shipwrecked boy and the huge black horse that saves his life and becomes his companion. Instead, director Carroll Ballard relies on a highly detailed sound environment and swelling soundtrack to set the stage for an incredible story of survival and friendship between a boy and his horse.
Fiddler on the Roof
While Fiddler on the Roof is far older than many of the movies on this list, it is still a phenomenal example of cutting-edge sound design for the time. Using the highest quality recording devices available, Fiddler on the Roof expertly captures every lilt of the violin and builds a stunning soundscape over this film shot largely on silent soundstages.
What does a bullet sound like in slow motion? What sounds would be included in a futuristic matrix designed to enslave humanity? Creative and immersive sound design was one of the defining features of this futuristic blockbuster hit that kicked off one of the film industry's most successful franchises.
What makes the sound design in 300 so impressive is that nearly every sound element of this film had to be artificially created. Filmed almost entirely in a CGI-ready void, 300 does not benefit from natural environmental sounds that can be used in the final mix. Instead, sound designers inserted nearly every element of the final product, from the clanging of shields to the rustling of a breeze.
West Side Story
Like Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story is a musical that used the leading sound capturing and designing technology of the time to create the crystal-clear soundtrack of this modern Romeo and Juliet masterpiece.
You simply cannot tell the story of one of the greatest composers of all time without a soundscape to match it. And Amadeus pulls out all the stops to have sound design worthy of the master himself, crafting a resonant soundtrack over a beautifully designed natural soundscape of 1800's Vienna.
There is a reason many Best Picture winners also take home awards for Best Sound Design or Best Sound Mixing. Sound is one of the crucial elements that goes into making a film that people will remember, and these movies leave a lasting impression on both our eyes and our ears for years to come.