In my opinion some of the best film sound is not loud or overt, and I've used silence many times in film soundtracks myself but I am interested to know what your favorite use of silence or near-silence is in a film?
Contact... Not a huge fan of the movie, but the scene in the opening where the camera pans away from the Earth through all of the radio broadcasts through our history. It eventually gets farther and farther out until it reaches total silence. I've always thought that was one of the best uses of silence in film.
In addition to the excellent examples previously mentioned, I thought that "No Country for Old Men" had great use of "silence:" Long sequences of ultra-subtle foley and natural ambiences instead of music, dialog, or any other hard-source sound. The sequence where the main character is first sussing out the figure beneath the tree, early on, was a great example of many.
Carter Burwell scored, what, only 15 minutes of music in that film, or something along those lines?
Personally I loved There will be Blood for its minimalism regarding the sound and music. I think the contrast the film makers created made the film amazing to watch. I agree Book of Eli used sound design in an incredible fashion. I actually told my on-set sound guy to go and watch the film the next day.
If I remember correctly Three Colors Blue was also a very quiet film but extremely moving.
It suddenly jumped to mind, BABEL has a deaf character in the film who lives in Hong Kong - that was done with such sensitivity, truly amazing again to see (and hear) how the pictures and the sound contrast.
Of coarse the opening scene for 2001 a Space Odyssey, TOTAL SILENCE.
One particular scene in 'The Fountain'; Hugh Jackman's character leaves a hospital after his wife has died, out onto a busy city street scene in total silence, and after a few moments steps out to cross the road and the silence is broken by a car horn and screeching tyres. Really beautiful scene in a really beautiful movie, which was apparently "borrowed" from a Kurosawa film, 'Ikiru'.
I'm just adding a few thoughts to Andrew Spitz's post. Yes, indeed silence is very unusual in films and the 3 examples you give, Andrew, are based on building up an intense soundscape and then dropping everything. Interesting climax, but it is becoming overused. Another example of the same kind is in Jarhead (2005) at 78 minutes, when the explosion goes off in the desert and the troop wets himself. (Sorry, can't remember names, but here it is on http://www.megavideo.com/?v=F5BIO6X)
The Director wanted solely the voice over. Pat Jackson (supervising sound editor on Jarhead) was against this idea and she asked a collegue to come up with a subtle sound that contrast well with the sound of explosions. It was decided to "give voice" to the sand particles and Pat's recordist collegue started to experiment with different materials. What ended up in the final mix is a type of fine sand slowly dropped on a movie light diffusion paper.
Watching this sequence in its context I think produces a good but now perhaps cliché effect.
The other film which people might want to have a look at is more drastical in using silence as a storytelling tool. "Leaving Las Vegas" by Mike Figgis is the only film I know which uses TOTAL silence in one of the scenes. It is around the time when Sera gets raped. As far as I remember the visuals show a waterfall around this time, too. It's been a long time since I saw this film last, excuse me for my rather vague memories.
+1 for There Will Be Blood (jozua already mentioned it.) The long, establishing shot at the top comes to mind.
Jonny Greenwood's score for that movie made me very uncomfortable. At first, I thought I just didn't like it. But by the end of the movie, my perception tweaked to think of the score as a character... a character whose villainy I did not like. And that, as a concept, I VERY MUCH like.
So often movie scores are literal and on the nose about what you're seeing. In There Will Be Blood, they were willing to risk subverting expectations. Playing against the grain. The music was in a sense, an unreliable narrator.
I digress. And love Radiohead.
It's amazing how a sense of great power was communicated in some scenes of this film by using silence through out many parts of this film. The first time I watched this movie on the big screen I felt as if the whole room was hanging in suspended animation for an eternity. Incredibly affecting.
I'm jogging my memory here, but some of my favorite scenes with relative silence are:
The Pianist. The scene where an explosion goes off while he is playing piano. He deafens, and we hear this from his point of audition (POA?). All we hear is a high pitch ring and some low bass. Very disconcerting.
Saving Private Ryan: Similar thing after an explosion goes off.
I guess this kind of design has become somewhat of a sound cliche. But that's because it works well.
- Book of Eli: I very recently watched it. One of the characters (won't say who in case you haven't seen it) gets shot. All that is kept is the decay/reverb of the gunshot. No other sounds are heard. The sound slowly pans around the audience. This relative silence makes time slow right down, and brought me right into the moment.
I can't think of an exact example, but going under water seems to be used quite effectively. Didn't Saving Private Ryan have this?
Not a film.. but I personally love the way Greg P. Russell use the silence in his mixes... One of my favorites today.
Another recent would be "The Hurt Locker", Ottosson did an amazing work by combining silence on a deep and stressful soundscape :)
Horror films also use silence a lot to generate tension and contrast the silence with an specific sound in a specific moment. There are a lot of great of these. I would recommend the work of Gary Rydstrom on "The Haunting" or Ren Klyce on "Panic Room".
I love Gus van Sants "Gerry" soundtrack for its silence. His "Elephant" is also a quiet one. Andrei Zvyagintsevs "Return" ("Vozvrashchenie") is a great example of silence in film. Final scene (very dramatic) & titles are only with subtle rain. It's not silence of course, but many directors would put there very emotional music. One of the best movies I have seen.
Nunta Muta (A silent wedding), a Romanian film has a brilliant sequence where a wedding takes place silently because of the death of Stalin, as celebration was banned as a part of "mourning" for his death. It is a very funny sequence and in my opinion is a sonically strong. It also has this amusing scene where words are misheard and eventually change the meaning completely when communicated (in this case in whispers) from one person to another and then to another and so on. I can not find the clip on youtube though.. but try to get hold of this movie.. it is a brilliant one.
There is a movie called "Kôfuku no kane" (English title: "The Blessing Bell") which only uses music for the opening and closing titles. Lots and lots of silence and the main character doesn't even speak until the last couple of minutes in the film. Such a great movie, making wonderful use out of the quietness. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0358559/
The Hurt Locker: When he's disarming the first bomb all you hear is his breathing and the camera angles are from potential spots of where the bomber might be watching him - pretty intense.
I think the hurt locker was great with silence in many scene's. All the explosions were uniquely crafted. Also a great combo of sound design and music. (there is very little music in it, mostly just acoustic drones). Loved that film
Almost all Ingmar Bergman movies. They are the ones that have made great use of silence. here's one of the scenes from wild strawberries:
There are 2 films from the same director, Kyoshi Kurosawa, that use silence in an interesting way. Not just designed silence, but an absolutely (or, if not, very close to) dead soundtrack.
Cure (1997) has a scene where the antagonist (to use the term loosely) hypnotises a doctor. I can't remember the exact details but, as he speaks to her (doing the whole hypnotist soothing voice thing) the image cuts to some water, spilled from a glass, trickling along the floor. It's accompanied by the sound of water oozing over the floor, then fades to nothing briefly. Very eerie, and creates a strange effect.
Tokyo Sonata (2008) has a scene in which a mother sees off her rebellious teenage son, who's leaving to join the army. As the bus he's in pulls off, there's a tight POV (from the mother's perspective) of her son's face in the window, which is accompanied by a brief dead spot in the soundtrack. The scene was already quite emotional but, somehow, the dip to silence gave me a lump in my throat.
Madeo (2009): i don't know what it is with Japanese/Korean sound design, but this one also has a fantastic use of dead silence in the final shot of the film.
Favorite us of silence is difficult to compare and rate. I think silence can have very different funtions (visceral and sensuous or more symbolic etc) in movies and is closely connected to the overall sound design in a movie, including the music score, if any. Anyway, I want to mention Let the right one in. Absolutely fantastic sound design (including silence).
This is a vague memory. But I recall in 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose' (Hurt Locker's Paul Ottosson) the courtroom scenes had no, or very little, room tone. All you could hear was the dialog and the rooms reverberation. Leaving silence between lines of dialog. Contrast that with the activeness of the flashbacks made for a very unsettling experience. Not to mention Christopher Youngs excellent score, not over used.
+1's on previous suggestions: There Will be Blood, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Minority Report, Contact, Ikiru
Ridley Scott's 1979 classic, Alien comes to mind. If my memory serves me right there is no dialogue whatsoever in the last twenty minutes. And the last twenty minutes are some of the most tense of the whole film. Sound editor Jim Shields managed to create a very eerie atmosphere using very subtle sound design.