What's Daniel Day Lewis' best film? "Gangs of New York," perhaps? What about his Oscar-winning performance as the 16th President of the United States in "Lincoln?" Surely his efforts there should put Steven Spielberg's historical drama in the running for Lewis' finest work. Well, it's neither of these. Daniel Day Lewis' best film is, in fact, 1985's "A Room With a View," — at least according to Rotten Tomatoes.

The website that determined there to be only two perfect horror movies can also be consulted for its rankings of individual actors' filmographies. This has resulted in the definitely correct revelation that Sean Connery's finest film is "Darby O'Gill and the Little People." Now, it's Gene Hackman's turn to have a lifetime of acting ability summed up by a series of cartoon splats and tomatoes. What could possibly be at the top of this list? Well, my money was on "The French Connection" but I have once again been proven wrong by the all-knowing Tomatometer, which has bestowed only one "perfect" RT score on Hackman in his six-decade-long career.

That 100% rating belongs to "I Never Sang for My Father." The 1970 drama is an adaptation of the 1968 play of the same name and follows Gene Garrison (Hackman), a 40-year-old college professor who has never been close with his father, Tom (Melvyn Douglas), and struggles to find any kind of reconciliation with him even after the death of his mother, ultimately leaving the old boy behind for a new life in California. For his performance in "I Never Sang for My Father," Hackman won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. But surely the most prestigious prize is this "perfect" RT rating.

There are currently 10 reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes page for "I Never Sang for my Father," two of which only two count as "Top Critic" reviews. These two come from The Daily Telegraph's Margaret Hinxman and Roger Ebert himself, who evidently thought the film made "a poignant and ultimately tragic statement about parents and children, life and death, and all the words that go unspoken." Hinxman, meanwhile, praised Gilbert Cates' "discreet" direction and the performances, singling out Gene Hackman's turn "as the son whose father has never treated him as other than a backward boy."

All of which is great for the film, but when you look into its theatrical debut a little more you'll find that not all critics were impressed by Cates' drama. The New York Times' Vincent Canby, for example, had some frankly bizarre thoughts on the film, none of which were very positive. Take this extract from his review:

"Many people, I suspect, are drawn to give lip service to this sort of thing because the basic situation, though badly handled, is valid, and the movie is 'nice,' meaning that it contains no rapes, incest, nudity, murder or violence. But is that really enough? I don't think so."

What do any of the acts mentioned in this quote have to do with anything? Well, that remains a mystery, but the point is that Canby wasn't a fan, and if his review was counted in Rotten Tomatoes' aggregation, "I Never Sang for My Father" would not hold a "perfect" score.

The fact that "I Never Sang for My Father" has a perfect score based on ten reviews, but would immediately drop a few percentage points if Rotten Tomatoes aggregated all the reviews that were actually available online, should tell you something about how seriously to take these "perfect" scores. Often, the percentage you see is based on only a handful of critic's opinions, and it's very rare for a film to have a 100% RT score and be supported by dozens of legitimate reviews. As you'll see if you visit the page for "I Never Sang for My Father," the film has missed out on the "Certified Fresh" rating because RT simply hasn't collected enough articles for it to meet the "at least five Top Critic reviews" threshold.

A good example of the flimsiness of these percentages is Alfred Hitchcock. His 1951 effort "Strangers on a Train," is widely thought to be an underrated Hitchcock movie more than worthy of more attention, but it's currently missing out on the 100% rating simply because of New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowthers' negative review. So too is the undisputed classic "Rear Window." Meanwhile, the lesser-known "Young and Innocent" currently enjoys a "perfect" ranking on the site.

All of which is to say that a "perfect" RT score isn't necessarily a good indication of the prevailing consensus on a director or actor's body of work, and really doesn't tell you much beyond the fact that the reviews collected by the site are all positive, whether they come from just two or 200 critics.

I used to be able to understand 99% of the dialogue in Hollywood films. But over the past 10 years or so, I've noticed that percentage has dropped significantly — and it's not due to hearing loss on my end. It's gotten to the point where I find myself occasionally not being able to parse entire lines of dialogue when I see a movie in a theater, and when I watch things at home, I've defaulted to turning the subtitles on to make sure I don't miss anything crucial to the plot.

Knowing I'm not alone in having these experiences, I reached out to several professional sound editors, designers, and mixers, many of whom have won Oscars for their work on some of Hollywood's biggest films, to get to the bottom of what's going on. One person refused to talk to me, saying it would be "professional suicide" to address this topic on the record. Another agreed to talk, but only under the condition that they remain anonymous. But several others spoke openly about the topic, and it quickly became apparent that this is a familiar subject among the folks in the sound community, since they're the ones who often bear the brunt of complaints about dialogue intelligibility. 

"It's not easy to mix a movie," says Jaime Baksht, who took home an Oscar for his work on last year's excellent "Sound of Metal" and previously worked on Alfonso Cuarón's "Roma." "Everybody thinks you're just moving levers, but it's not like that."

This problem indeed goes far beyond simply flipping a switch or two on a mixing board. It's much more complex than I anticipated, and it turns out there isn't one simple element that can be singled out and blamed as the primary culprit.

"There are a number of root causes," says Mark Mangini, the Academy Award-winning sound designer behind films like "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Blade Runner 2049." "It's really a gumbo, an accumulation of problems that have been exacerbated over the last 10 years ... that's kind of this time span where all of us in the filmmaking community are noticing that dialogue is harder and harder to understand."

Join me and these industry experts as we sort through that "gumbo" and identify some of the most prominent reasons it has become more difficult to, in the paraphrased words of Chris Tucker's Detective Carter in "Rush Hour," understand the words that are coming out of characters' mouths.

When it comes to dialogue unintelligibility, one name looms above all others: Christopher Nolan. The director of "Tenet," "Interstellar," and "The Dark Knight Rises" is one of the most successful filmmakers of his generation, and he uses his power to make sure his films push the boundaries of sound design, often resulting in scenes in which audiences literally cannot understand what his characters say. And it's not just audiences who have trouble with some Nolan films: the director has even revealed that other filmmakers have reached out to him to complain about this issue in his movies.

Donald Sylvester, who took home an Oscar for his work on "Ford v Ferrari" and is currently serving as the supervising sound editor of "Indiana Jones 5," says Nolan is a singular figure in this regard. "I think Christopher Nolan wears it as a badge of honor," Sylvester declares. "I don't think he cares. I think he wants people to give him bad publicity because then he can explain his methods to everybody and we can all learn. But I don't think other people actually understand it."

Baksht thinks the complaints about Nolan's work, specifically the hubbub about unintelligibility surrounding last year's twisty action thriller "Tenet," are overblown. "I think in the case of Mr. Nolan, with ["Tenet"], the characters have a mask, and he wants to keep the original sound because I think for him it's more real," he says. Presumably, that mentality also extends to "The Dark Knight Rises," in which Bane's mask muffled a significant percentage of that character's lines.

Thomas Curley, who won an Oscar as a production sound mixer on "Whiplash" and previously worked on "The Spectacular Now," has also seen this type of mentality at work. "Not everything really has a very crisp, cinematic sound to it in real life, and I think some of these people are trying to replicate that," he tells me.

Baksht says that type of creative aesthetic does not need to permeate an entire movie — it can sometimes change from scene to scene depending on the director's goals in telling the story. Although, as this anecdote illustrates, its effectiveness remains debatable:

In the case of Alejandro González Iñárritu, he did a movie ['Biutiful'] where all the dialogue was really dirty. They were in Spanish, but you weren't able to understand much. When I asked his sound designer about this issue, he told me the reason they wanted to keep the dirty dialogue was because the situation was so awful in the life of the character that it helped the feeling of depression. I told him, 'Yes, I think the audience got depressed because they couldn't understand anything!' But when [Iñárritu] did 'The Revenant,' the dialogue was pristine and perfect."

I understand his point, although I take issue with using "The Revenant" as an example of pristine dialogue because that film features Tom Hardy in a supporting role, and Hardy is one of the most notoriously difficult-to-understand actors working today.

Hardy occupies a unique position in film acting these days, having developed a delivery style that's frequently so indecipherable it's as if he's purposefully challenging audiences to lean in and understand what he's saying. But what about actors who aren't quite on that level of unintelligibility?

"It seems to be a little bit of a fad with some actors to do the sort of soft delivery or under your breath delivery of some lines," Curley says. "That's a personal choice for them. Our job is to record it as well as we can regardless."

Mangini says that in the old days, "you could count on an actor's theatricality to deliver a line to the back seats." But acting styles have changed so dramatically over the years that it has become much more difficult to capture great sound on the set. When actors adopt that more naturalistic style, "it's even harder for the production sound mixer to capture really quality sound. Now we get those compromised microphone positions here in post-production, reaching for a dialogue line that is barely intelligible or maybe even mumbled because it's an acting style, and already, we're behind the 8-ball in trying to figure out a way to make all of those words intelligible."

Karen Baker Landers, whose credits include "Gladiator," "Skyfall," and "Heat," among many others, has her own term for it. "Mumbling, breathy, I call it self-conscious type of acting, is so frustrating," she says. "I would say a lot of the younger actors have adopted that style. I think the onus also falls on the directors to say, 'I can't understand a word you're saying. I'm listening to dailies, and I can't understand.' No amount of volume is going to fix that."

That naturalistic performance style might feel right for actors in the moment on set, but it can be hell for the sound professionals who have to clean it up afterward. "We're very careful to make sure there's clarity," Baker Landers says. "You go in and you volume-graph up a vowel, or one letter. You go in and you surgically – maybe if it's not right on camera, you slow it down. There's all kinds of things we spend hours trying to do that may help a performance. We really strive for that."

But they can only do so much.

Another ingredient in this complicated gumbo is how the sound team is treated during the process of filming.

"What we see from our brothers and sisters in production is a never-ending [complaint] that they don't get the respect they need to get the microphone where it needs to be to capture the sound clearly," Mangini says. "That's because as movies have matured in the last 15 years, movies have become more visually exciting. And because of that, it is less likely that you're going to be allowed to put that boom mic right where the actor is, because it's probably going to drop a shadow because it's in front of a light that the camera team insists has to exist to get the perfect look of the shot. So [the visuals have] taken precedence over what we hear."

Sylvester agrees with that sentiment. "If the sound guy goes, 'Can you get one more take for me?' they go, 'Nope, we're wrapping. We've gotta move on to another setup.' It's because pictures are the most important thing, and we do a good job fixing sound at the end of the day. So they go, 'We'll fix it in post.' That's literally their go-to answer. 'I just need to get this.' 'Yeah, we'll fix it later.' And we do, unfortunately. But it's not because we want to. It's because we have to."

Another "Whiplash" Oscar winner, Craig Mann, acknowledges that less time on set can have a negative effect on the sound crews. "There's more demand on crews to do many setups a day, and that could be a contributing factor," he says. "The production sound guy is the tip of the spear in terms of our first line of defense, and oftentimes if there are problems, the good ones will approach the director or the AD or the DP and say, 'Hey, this isn't working, you're going to miss this.' Oftentimes it gets handled. But on the other side, sometimes there are a lot of production sound guys that do not feel empowered or have had a bad experience about speaking up in the past, or whatever the reason is, and the material gets back to the cutting room and it's a mess, and [they say], 'Well, we thought everything was fine!'"

"I would blame it more on schedule and budget and maybe trying to rush," Baker Landers says when this topic arises. "It's an art form to be a dialogue editor. It's an art form to be a great production recordist. Then to be able to get the clarity of dialogue in a mix with everything else going on and have the dialogue feel natural and not forced is another art form, all of which take time. Budgets and schedules are crunched on a lot of projects, and some of these are amazing films."

One high-profile Hollywood sound professional who wishes to remain anonymous points to the evolution of technology as an ingredient. "The reason people don't remember having these same audio issues with older films is that [now] we have more: more tracks to play with, more options, therefore more expected and asked for from the sound editors," they say. "If you listen to, say, 'Four Weddings and a Funeral,' you'll hear every word ... the sound was cut on film back then, and with limited time, track count, and budget, these are the results you got."

The anonymous sound pro also pointed to what they view as an increase in the amount of music in modern movies compared to older films, bemoaning directors' over-reliance on music as "pushing emotion" on audiences and the way music and dialogue are forced to jostle for prominence in the mix. "The technology we have today is so vastly improved that there is no limit to what can be added: whatever the director wants, for months on end. We literally have hundreds of tracks at our disposal ... in a final mix, we therefore have a lot to deal with. Unending score smashed up against hundreds of tracks, with the client asking to hear every nuance above every other nuance."

Curley sums it up beautifully. "It might fall into the realm of the 'Jurassic Park' thing: they spend so much time realizing that they can do all these things, but not thinking about if they should do all these things."

In Craig Mann's experience, though, the idea of familiarity is not a widespread issue. "As someone that does this on a daily basis, I think dialogue clarity is the number one priority on the mixing stage," he tells me. "Dialogue, music, and effects, in that order, is usually the chain of priority. If you can't hear the dialogue, we're going to find a way to hear it. Just speaking of the couple things that we've done even this past year, I can say Joe Carnahan, writer/director, wants to hear every word. Tyler Perry, we just did something with him, wants to hear every word. Sean Penn wants to hear every word. So I don't necessarily agree with getting numb to it. I think it's incumbent upon us to have that fresh ear every time we show up."

Sylvester also points out that unfamiliarity may be an issue in some instances. "What I'm wondering is if, sometimes, some of these films that we see, people are saying words that we don't know what they mean, such as 'Dune,' where they start talking about characters and places that sound unfamiliar. They do it in such a way, offhandedly, where it's like, 'What did he say?' Some of it is the content."

Another prong involves sound professionals consistently finding ways to up their game to meet the changing circumstances of the moment. "We can do better in post in terms of how we manage those mixes that are designed specifically for a non-pristine sound environment," Mark Mangini admits. "I would argue that we're probably not doing a good enough job with those mixes, and part of it might be that the individuals who are working in those mixes probably have a really super duper sound system at home and they're not fully aware of how compromised the home environment can be."

That involves thinking outside the box and staying vigilant about the ways the average person is watching a movie. "What can we do technically? I think it's our brain that's the technical solution to this," Donald Sylvester explains. "Because all these gadgets and tools that we use to plug into this are just tools to make the storytelling clearer or better or more exciting. They're just components. At the end of the day, you still have to have a brain telling you what needs to be heard, and when and how ... I think the solution is brain power and being aware of what we're losing in these new presentation environments that people are watching these films in."

The third and final prong involves having tough conversations on the set which establish priorities and make sure everyone is on the same page. Here's a story from Mangini illustrating how having a potentially awkward conversation can result in a change that has a notable improvement on the final product:

"There's a director I've worked with five times, and for four films, we have not had great sound. And this director only makes talky movies. Yet, we still have dialogue intelligibility problems. Mostly because the crew, unbeknownst to him, hasn't respected the sound team on set enough to give them the tools and access they need to get a great recording. It took four films with this director for me to finally get up the gumption to say, 'Dude, you keep telling me dialogue is king in your movies, but you don't put your money where your mouth is. This film, here's what you're going to do: you're going to call a department heads meeting, introduce your sound mixer, and you're going to say, 'See this individual? You have to listen to what he asks you to do, or you're going to answer to me.' And you know what? We got the best track we've ever got. All it took was a little bit of collaboration and communication, and all of a sudden, grip and electric are moving generators a hundred yards away instead of having them right around the corner from the set. It takes an infinitesimal amount of extra effort to get us close to what we need, but it takes somebody with authority to make it happen. Me as the sound designer, I'm not a loud enough voice. But a director is."

Sylvester offers an optimistic closing thought which underlines that point. "There's a lot of people who are moviemakers who aren't technicians, so they don't really understand a lot of this. They just like to make movies. But if we explain to them how we're not getting the message out properly and people aren't getting the message, maybe the artists themselves will take steps to fix it."

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