Oscar Gold 2019 – Film Editing

Film Editing is arguably the most personal category to me, as I’ve got about a decade of experience as a TV editor under my belt, the vast majority of it in cable sports (those SportsCenter highlights don’t cut themselves). As such, I know the incredible amount of hard work that the post-production staff puts in on the final edit of any project, much less one on a scale as grand as a feature film.

Not only do you have to parse dozens of takes for each shot and put them in order, you have to constantly be on your toes, ready to react at a moment’s notice to the whims of the director, producers, and studio executives. You have to be ready and able to put in tons of hours literally assembling the movie over and over again depending on new ideas, marketing tie-ins, and reshoots. You have to incorporate sound and visual effects. You often have to employ a bit of VFX magic yourself, though usually on a smaller scale than the designated effects department. When it’s all said and done, the editor is the final storyteller of the film, because until he or she gets finished with their job, there is no movie, just images on celluloid and/or hard drives.

It’s with that mindset that I look at this year’s field. No matter who wins, they and their team have put in countless hours and done yeoman’s work like you wouldn’t believe. Sometimes when I’m watching a movie I’m more likely than most to point out editing flaws because my eye is trained that way, but unless they’re egregious I tend to forgive them, because you wouldn’t believe how many pairs of eyes pass over the same thing before the film even comes out, and none of them noticed, either (or if they did, they didn’t care). It’s not all on the editor. They’re simply the last line of defense. And while some of the nominated films may seem like easier edits than others, it doesn’t discount the gargantuan task these professionals had before them.

This year’s nominees for Film Editing are:

BlacKkKlansman – Barry Alexander Brown
Brown is a frequent collaborator with Spike Lee, having served as the lead editor on Do the Right ThingMalcolm XHe Got Game25th Hour, and Inside Man. Suffice to say, he knows Lee’s style, and he knows how to convey that style. This is part of the reason why BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s best joint so far this century. When you have a long-term creative and technical partner like Brown, it’s easy to get your vision across and trust that it’ll be executed the way you want it. That leaves the director free to handle other aspects of production.

And it’s a good thing, too, because Brown pieced this film together brilliantly. There are stylistic flourishes of 70s Blacksploitation films added in throughout, there’s the Black Panther speech where the heads of the audience are superimposed over Ron Stallworth as the message of “Black is Beautiful” is wonderfully hammered home, and there are some lovely mirrored montages of Ron and Flip talking to the Klansmen (especially David Duke) in similar tones and dialogue to maintain the ruse. The absolute best aspects are the dueling montages as Ron and Flip race to stop the bombing attempt at Patrice’s house, and the in-your-face insertion of footage of the attack on Charlottesville with Donald Trump taking the side of neo-Nazis, just in case you still needed a reminder that the struggle is real and ongoing.

Bohemian Rhapsody – John Ottman
Ottman won the Eddie Award from the ACE (American Cinema Editors) union for his work on this film, and it’s not hard to see why. When you have a music biopic on as large a scale as Bohemian Rhapsody, you’ve got a hell of a challenge ahead of you, and we’re not just talking about assembling that brilliantly triumphant recreation of Wembly Stadium and the Live Aid performance, though that was certainly a grand achievement in itself.

This is because with this type of film, you not only have to be meticulous with the visuals, but also with the sound. It’s handy that Ottman is also a film composer, because he’s well up to the task of blending in Queen’s music with the action in the film. Some of the tracks are used as transition material, some as miniature montages. But most importantly, when the band is performing, everything has to sync up properly. We’re not just talking about Rami Malek’s lip syncing of Freddie Mercury either. The guitar, bass, and drum beats have to actually match what’s on screen with the sound being produced. If Brian May’s playing an A-chord on the track, then Ottman has to make sure that he uses a shot where the actor also plays or mimes an A-chord. It may not be the most noticeable thing to the main audience if he gets something wrong, but any musician will call bullshit immediately and be taken right out of the movie. It’s a monumental task, and Ottman rose to the occasion.

The Favourite – Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Much of the edit profile for The Favourite relies on the chapter divisions of the film. As mentioned in the analysis for Original Screenplay, the movie is broken up into chapters – each preceded with a title slate – containing a quote from the segment of varying relevance to the proceedings. First and foremost, the editor has to make sure that a) each chapter does in fact contain the title line, and b) can serve as both a self-contained vignette and a scene in the larger narrative.

And that’s where the other part of the challenge comes in. Because while the film is for the most part presented in a linear format, the characters go on different paths in each chapter. As such, it’s up to the editor to make sure that we spend the right amount of time with each character (Sarah and Abigail chiefly) in each chapter so that we can keep up with the overall story and continue to care about the microcosm events in each successive chapter. It’s not the most arduous task, but it’s easy to mess up, and sometimes just keeping track of everything is half the battle.

Green Book – Patrick J. Don Vito
This is probably the easiest edit of the list, because like The Favourite, the narrative is very linear. Don Shirley’s tour is an established timeline right from the off, so in that respect, all Don Vito has to do is make sure the dates line up and that it’s believable for Shirley and Tony to get home on Christmas Eve.

Within that, however, is the main challenge. There are a few montage sequences here and there to speed up the proceedings, but because Dr. Shirley operates on a strict timeline, we have to make sure that all the events in the film, including bar fights, arrests, and emergency trips back to the hotel to pee, all make sense within their own time frames. Using the latter instance as an example, he’s given a half-hour intermission in North Carolina, which he has to use all of to speed back to the hotel to use the bathroom, because his racist hosts won’t let a black man use their facilities, and Don Shirley, having dignity, will not use an outhouse. It’s those small battles that inform the story, but have to be contained to a finite space, that drives the urgency of the narrative and keeps the plot from dragging.

Vice – Hank Corwin
This is Corwin’s second nomination in this category, his previous being for his work on The Big Short. This is in his favor, because like Spike Lee and Barry Alexander Brown, Corwin knows Adam McKay’s style, and can therefore deliver the goods. It should be an even easier task this time, because Vice mimics the storytelling style of its predecessor. On the down side, he also edited The Tree of Life, which was one of the most baffling and frustratingly nonsensical films I’ve ever seen. I’ll put that down more to Terrence Malick being a pretentious hack for now, though.

Just like The Big Short, the story jumps around a lot. Before it was to all the different characters dealing with the same issues leading up to the housing collapse. This time it’s jumping back and forth through the life of Dick Cheney, treating time as less of a flat line than a jumbled ball of moments that inform one another even if they’re out of sequence, kind of like Quantum Leap back in the 80s. Just as before, Corwin accomplishes the task admirably, using the power of his editing deck to make the film just that much more compelling and funny. He missed out last time, so it’d be cool if he got the win this time around.

* * * * *

My Rankings:
1) BlacKkKlansman
2) Bohemian Rhapsody
3) Vice
4) The Favourite
5) Green Book

Next up: I finally accomplished the goal of clearing the shortlist, then the Academy went ahead and nominated the three worst contenders, frustrating me to no end. It’s Documentary Feature!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which film do you think should win? What’s your favorite technical category? Seriously, how awesome was the Live Aid finale? Let me know!

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