Thursday, February 2, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Editing

Andrew Garfield stars in Hacksaw Ridge, which is nominated for 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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Editing

The nominees are:

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land

In general, the Academy likes to see its crafts up on the screen. The movies that win in the below-the-line categories are often the biggest, the boldest, or the flashiest in the bunch, which usually makes it easy to pick a winner. When it comes to nominations, this maxim often holds true as well. However, the editors branch can be more particular, more discerning in its tastes. Oh, they go for flashy as often as the Academy at large, but they also fall for far subtler work that would likely miss the eye of a non-expert in the field.

Smaller human dramas such as Spotlight last year and Dallas Buyers Club three years ago, as well as Moonlight this year, can garner a nomination in this category. This is because editors can see the work their fellow craftspeople put into building stories and characters scene by scene, shot by shot, and frame by frame. These movies rarely threaten for the win because those outside the craft may be hard-pressed to identify the nuances of the work, but the nominations reflect a willingness within the branch to look closer and really consider what “best” means.

While the five nominees this year all come from the Best Picture lineup, the two awards are no longer as closely linked as they once were since Best Picture expanded beyond five nominees. In the seven years since that change, only two films have won both awards, whereas in the seven years prior, they matched five of seven times. With that in mind, this is an interesting year because the presumed Best Picture frontrunner and potential crafts juggernaut does not feature the flashiest work in this category. That belongs to our first nominee below.

Hacksaw Ridge – This film was a dicey proposition for a couple reasons. First, there are the obvious and legitimate concerns about honoring a film by an artist as troubled as Mel Gibson, an issue we will discuss at greater length later this month. However, this is also a war film about a pacifist, leaving potential audiences to wonder just how exciting a film with such a description could possibly be. The answer: remarkably so. Hacksaw Ridge builds to become one of the most harrowing portraits of war this side of the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan.

Nominated editor John Gilbert uses the natural rhythms of battle to create a push-and-pull dynamic that leaves the viewer breathless. As soon as the characters have a quiet moment to reflect on their predicament – and to let the viewer catch up – the next brutal reminder of war and its carnage is at hand. Gilbert is a previous nominee for his work on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and while this cannot match that film’s epic scale, it more than exceeds it for emotional intensity. What is most impressive, perhaps, are the cuts Gilbert chooses not to make, letting moments linger so that the audience can engage in the full depths of what we are witnessing.

Hell or High Water – Director David Mackenzie’s southern bank robbers saga is a thriller of the highest order. From its opening tracking shot to is elegiac epilogue, we know we are in the hands of a master storyteller. The world of the film is so well established at every step the audience is never left fishing for answers about motivations or logic. It is spelled out and plainspoken like the characters the story portrays. Hell or High Water is a heart-pounding tale that lets off the gas at just the right moments to delve into the humanity and loss that exist at its core.

Jake Roberts is a first-time nominee who made his name in European character dramas such as Starred Up and Riot Club, but his best-known previous work is probably last year’s Best Picture-nominated romance Brooklyn. This brand of storytelling is 180 degrees from anything like Roberts’ previous work, but he adapts his style wonderfully to the rhythms and cadences of the American southwest. With two other films likely leading the way in this category, Roberts could end up the beneficiary of a split vote and surprise with a win, which would be wholly deserved.

La La Land – Even if we accept the term “musical” as a relatively nebulous concept, I think we are safe in saying no musical has won this award since Chicago in 2002 and before that All That Jazz in 1979. Depending on your definition, no musical has even been nominated for this award since Walk the Line in 2005. However, when your film carries the record-tying nominations haul of writer-director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, precedents are bound to fall.

Editor Tom Cross is the only previous winner nominated this year, having taken home the award for his only previous nomination, Chazelle’s last film, Whiplash. Interestingly, like that earlier collaboration, La La Land builds to an emotionally powerful climax that is a masterclass in montage, worthy of recognition in its own right. However, while that sequence rightly calls attention to itself, much of Cross’ best work in the film is seamless like the “single” take song-and-dance number that opens the film, which is in fact several shorter takes stitched together. From beginning to end, Cross is integral to every step of the film’s success.

Arrival – A movie that is ultimately about how we experience time was bound to be a tricky feat of editing. Editor Joe Walker and director Denis Villeneuve step up to the challenge, employing a series of flash-forwards, flashbacks, and flashbacks within flash-forwards to establish the circular nature of the film’s storytelling. There is no linear way to tell this story, and Walker embraces that as an opportunity to find new ways to shepherd the audience through the film’s vertiginous narrative.

Walker was previously nominated for his work on Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave and probably just missed out on a nomination last year for the drug-war thriller Sicario. Villeneuve also brought Walker on board for his Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, due out later this year. Walker’s gift with Arrival is to take a story that could be too twisty or involuted in less capable hands and to make it palatable and comprehensible without sacrificing its quintessentially loopy plot.

Moonlight – We talked yesterday about Bradford Young becoming the first black American nominated for Best Cinematography by the Academy, and today, we shift to another bit of history. Joi McMillon is the first black woman nominated for Best Editing. Another barrier broken, and yet still more to fall. McMillon is joined in the nomination by co-editor Nat Sanders. Both are first-time nominees, and both were students with writer-director Barry Jenkins at Florida State film school.

Much attention has been paid to the emotional reality of Moonlight and the way it maintains the truth at the core of its characters over the 20-plus years the story takes place. Credit due of course to the wonderful script and performances, but it becomes McMillon’s and Sanders’ task to find and establish the thread that carries the film from start to finish. This is easily the subtlest work of the nominees and, therefore, the least likely winner, but Moonlight does not become the remarkable film it is without the contributions of McMillon and Sanders.

The final analysis

The America Cinema Editors guild, which overlaps with the editors branch of the Academy, named its winners last week, awarding La La Land in its comedy category and Arrival in its drama category. While La La Land was not up against any of its fellow nominees here, Arrival beat out the other three Oscar nominees – Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, and Moonlight. That would seem to position La La Land and Arrival against each other for the win.

However, the members of the editors guild are almost certainly more likely to recognize the degree of difficulty in editing Arrival than the Academy at large, who may be more wooed by the bolder strokes of Hacksaw Ridge. Ultimately – and you may as well get used to hearing this now – the award is La La Land’s to lose, and I would not bet on it losing.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Hacksaw Ridge
Should have been here: O.J.: Made in America

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