Friday, February 5, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Editing

The Big Short is among the frontrunners in a number of categories this year, including Best Editing.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Editing

The nominees are:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The four films with the best chance of winning Best Picture are matched against each other in only three categories – Best Picture, Best Director, and here in Best Editing. It is a fitting trio of nominations for these films. If these are the four best films of the year, it stands to reason they are also the best directed, but once the director’s job on set is finished, the editor’s work begins. None of the hard work of getting the film in the can means anything if the editor cannot piece it together into a coherent whole.

The Academy of course is well aware of this, which is why Best Editing is so strongly tied to Best Picture at the Oscars. Since 2000, seven of 15 Best Editing winners have won Best Picture, while 12 of 15 have been nominated in the top category. Even more striking, since the Best Picture lineup expanded beyond five nominees in 2009, only two films have been nominated for Best Editing without a corresponding Best Picture nod – surprise Best Editing winner The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2011 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens this year.

All of this means we are probably looking at a four-way race for the award this year with Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the outside looking in. One thing that has been consistent through the years is that voters tend to like their editing big and flashy. They want to be able to see the cuts working on screen, which gives a leg up to the first nominee below.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Starting in the 1980s, action pictures have actually done quite well in this category, even without earning a larger stamp of approval from the Academy. The editors have seen fit to nominate films such as Aliens, Top Gun, Die Hard, Speed, and eventual winner The Bourne Ultimatum. Not one of those was nominated for Best Picture. Well, Mad Max: Fury Road has gotten a tremendous stamp of approval from the Academy, and its editing is the boldest of the bunch.

First-time nominee Margaret Sixel is tasked with assembling a linear narrative from essentially a series of action set pieces. She does so and more as the film’s rambunctious style and propulsive energy owes a great deal to Sixel’s machine-gun editing. It is no easy task to begin with, but keeping in mind this is just Sixel’s third feature film, it seems utterly impossible. All of those films have been for her husband, director George Miller, and based on the work they have produced together, it might be fair to say they bring out the best in each other.

The Big Short – Director Adam McKay’s Wall Street satire jumps around constantly from character to character and storyline to storyline with a whole bunch of stops in between. While the plot is straightforward, McKay turns the film into a wandering exploration of modern greed in all its terrible incarnations. The only reason the whole enterprise does not spin out of control is because editor Hank Corwin is perfectly tuned into the machine. He knows what every part does and where it fits, and as a result, what appears clunky and cumbersome on the page runs smoothly and effortlessly on screen.

Corwin is another first-time nominee, but he started his career as an assistant editor on Oliver Stone’s JFK, which won Best Editing. More than two decades later, Corwin is still wrangling wide-ranging tales of governmental conspiracy, except this time, instead of the assassination of a president, it is the assassination of the world’s economy. If The Big Short works for you, it is because Corwin was able to tie all the loose threads McKay was intent on following into one, tightly tied knot.

Spotlight – This is the subtlest work in the lineup and, therefore, a surprising and welcome nominee. Spotlight is a film about people doing work, slowly and laboriously. The characters dig and prod and dig some more. Little by little, they uncover the depths of corruption in the Catholic Church. There is no big “gotcha” moment, no climactic chase sequence, or anything like that. Director Tom McCarthy’s film relies on the cumulative effect of the reporters’ investigation for its power, and editor Tom McArdle displays tremendous patience and skill in allowing all the elements of the story to build on top of each other until the result is simply overwhelming.

McArdle, who has been at this game for nearly 25 years, has mostly spent his career in independent film, including editing all five features directed by McCarthy. Spotlight, McArdle’s first Oscar nomination, is of a piece with the rest of his career and follows the rhythms of an indie drama much more closely than the big-budget legal thrillers with which it also shares DNA. McArdle never forces false drama or artificially raises the stakes. The story is important enough, and McArdle is content to ensure it plays out the best way it can.

The Revenant – Alejandro González Iñárritu’s slow-burn western plays like a cinematic riff on the quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic trumpeted by musicians such as Kurt Cobain. It alternates seamlessly between long stretches of meditative silence and wild bursts of extreme violence. The action only works because of the contrast, the moments when the world seems to stop so the rest of us can listen. Then, when we are deepest in our reveries, everything comes crashing down around us and snaps us back to the present.

Stephen Mirrione is the only previous nominee on this list. He won an Oscar for Traffic and earned another nomination for Iñárritu’s 2006 drama Babel. Mirrione’s career highlights, which also include the Ocean’s 11 trilogy, Good Night and Good Luck, and Birdman, mostly revolve around large ensembles and sprawling stories, and he has shown a tremendous facility for balancing disparate elements within a narrative. Here, he adapts his style to help tell the perilous journey of one man, and rather than be constrained by the narrower focus, Mirrione seems freed by the opportunity to step outside the narrative and explore the thematic wilderness of The Revenant.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – This is just the second Star Wars film to be nominated for Best Editing after the original film in 1977, which ultimately took home the award. The difference is that original film was also nominated for Best Picture, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens could not find any traction outside the crafts categories. Still, you will not find many ready to argue against its inclusion here. It is a critically acclaimed adventure spectacle that benefits greatly from fight scenes and action sequences that audiences can actually comprehend in real time, unlike so much other action fare.

Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey have edited each of director JJ Abrams’ feature films, including Mission Impossible III and the two most recent Star Trek pictures. Their collaboration on those Star Trek films seems to have come in particularly handy as the team does an excellent job of balancing the desire to pay homage to a beloved property while also establishing a unique identity. Brandon and Markey never allow the tributes and nods to the original trilogy (and the prequel trilogy, too, I guess) interrupt the flow of the story or distract from the clockwork pacing of the plot.

The final analysis

The American Cinema Editors handed out top awards last week to Mad Max: Fury Road for dramatic feature and The Big Short for comedy, making those the two frontrunners here. However, The Big Short is probably little more than a red herring as this seems to belong to Mad Max: Fury Road through and through. It is big, flashy, and popular, a combination that almost always spells victory, regardless of other factors.

Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should have been here: 99 Homes

Tomorrow: Best Production Design

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