Sizing Up the Best Film Editing Field

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Often called “the invisible art” of the movies, editing is a crucial and frequently undervalued (and misunderstood) element of filmmaking. Even more debatable is how to judge what “best” editing entails. Is it more commendable when an editor cuts a mediocre film out of pure garbage, or if they simply make impeccable footage flow well for the finished product? Is a film full of quick cuts more award-worthy than one comprised of long takes? Can we even compare the editing of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to the editing of The Tree of Life? These are questions that even die-hard cinephiles have a hard time addressing, and Academy members – at least based on their voting habits – don’t really bother with. The rule of “Most” applies here as always; thrillers with tons of cuts and ensemble films split across multiple plot strands have a historical advantage here. More importantly, however, is just how crucial this category is to the Best Picture race. Simply put, it is very rare for a film to win the top prize without a Best Editing nod. The last one to do so was Ordinary People…31 years ago. So with that, let’s see what we’ve got…

Long Shots

  • Beginners
  • Bridesmaids
  • A Dangerous Method
  • The Interrupters
  • The Iron Lady
  • J. Edgar
  • The Muppets
  • Senna
  • Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
  • Super 8
  • Take Shelter
  • The Tree of Life
  • Weekend
  • Young Adult

Some of the titles listed here deserve to have more consideration in this race.  Weekend, one of my top five films of the year that I unfortunately did not have time to review before the reveal, is not only the “wrong” country but the “wrong” genre for its sharp, character-conscious editing to even make a blip.  Beginners also stands a low chance of being considered even though Oliver Bugge Coutté’s brilliant associative montage of seemingly trite imagery puts us right into our hero’s anxious navigation of memory while cutting seamlessly between two timelines.  The Tree of Life has been criticized by many (including some of my own fellow staff writers) for its editing, but I stand by its sizable team for organizing a mammoth amount of impressionistic footage into a symphonic, dilating effect to an already wide-eyed experience.  You’ll also notice that I included two very well-made documentaries, as I always have wondered why those don’t get nominated more often.  One would think that a film made up of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours of unplanned footage distilled into a single feature would be the ultimate editing achievement…but I suppose the Academy doesn’t know that or care.  Others are a little more deserving of being left in the cold, like the plodding Take Shelter, sloppy Super 8 and just plain baffling editing decisions of Young Adult.

Second Tier Contenders

  • The Adventures of Tintin
  • A Separation
  • Contagion
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • Hanna
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
  • The Help
  • Margin Call
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Midnight in Paris
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  • Shame
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • Warrior

These films are in this category for one of two reasons: a) it is not a likely Best Picture contender or b) it has the genre/popularity chops but the spotlight just isn’t as bright.  For example, the fast-paced ambitious adventure flick The Adventures of Tintin would appear to be a very likely contender, except that it hasn’t exactly lit the North American box office on fire.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would also seem to check off the boxes of a contender were it not so confusing to many viewers.  Meanwhile, I could see Harry Potter and Margin Call sneaking in as the category does yield the occasional surprise.  I wish I could say the same thing of the most superbly edited film of 2011 that I saw.  A Separation, with its expert ratcheting up of moral tension and deliberate switching up of its rhythms to hide breathtaking revelations in plain sight, should have been a surefire winner.

Pole Position Contenders

  • The Artist
  • The Descendants
  • Drive
  • Hugo
  • The Ides of March
  • Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
  • War Horse

Some of you may be thinking that I am about to complain about the chances of The Descendants, and while I have nothing nice to say about Kevin Tent’s work, his frontrunner status is not as annoying to me as Hugo’s.  Now, I am normally a cheerleader for Thelma Schoonmaker, but her repetitive cuts to the two children’s aggressively beaming faces and amateurish lapses in continuity logic and pacing might represent her most slack editing work, well, ever.  The Artist and War Horse have the advantage of being guaranteed Best Picture nominees, while the slick, fitfully explosive momentum of Drive should ride its critical laurels to at least a nomination here even if Best Picture is still iffy.  Rounding out the most likely contenders here is Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, a joyfully fleet-footed ride that is now enjoying (deserved) box office success and critical approval.  Very well-received action flicks will manage a nomination here from time to time, and none were more happily embraced than this one.

How do you judge what “best” film editing is?  Do you have a favorite in this category?  Join the discussion and stay tuned for the next installment!