Oscar Guide 2013: Best Film Editing

Posted by · 8:17 am · February 18th, 2013

(Welcome to the Oscar Guide, your chaperone through the Academy”s 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 24, with the Best Picture finale on Friday, February 22.)

Best Film Editing is the technical category most closely linked to Best Picture: the slate is routinely dominated by Best Picture contenders, and it’s an oft-repeated stat that no film has won the top prize without an editing nod since “Ordinary People” 32 years ago. That’s no random Oscar voodoo. Editing is a narrative-determining craft — it’s often said the editor functions as another screenwriter — so it stands to reason that the Academy’s favorite films figure most into this category. A bad film can be beautifully shot or scored, but it’s rarely beautifully edited.

Last year, however, the voters threw away the category’s unofficial rulebook by handing the win to David Fincher’s thriller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” — while a film not nominated for Best Picture has taken the prize on occasion, it was the first film since “Bullitt” in 1968 to win this category and no other. This year, however, promises a less surprising result, in a category ruled by Best Picture frontrunners, and featuring just one first-time nominee.

The nominees are…

“Argo” (William Goldenberg)
“Life of Pi” (Tim Squyres)
“Lincoln” (Michael Kahn)
“Silver Linings Playbook” (Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers)
“Zero Dark Thirty” (William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor)

After last year’s divergent upset, the editors’ branch stuck closely to the Best Picture race this year. Somewhat surprisingly, to me at least, they opted not to hand one of their occasional classy-genre-film passes to ACE and BAFTA nominee “Skyfall,” which I had thought was sufficiently well-regarded and conspicuously edited by industry veteran Stuart Baird to feature here. I personally thought some of the year’s sharpest cutting came in counterintuitive packages, such as “Magic Mike” and “Rust and Bone,” but that’s not how the Academy rolls.  

Some bloggers have spun the narrative that “Argo” could become the first Best Picture winner in 77 years to take no other awards. That always seemed unlikely to me, not least because it seemed a strong contender for this particular prize even before it became the indomitable Best Picture frontrunner. Four-time nominee William Goldenberg’s tight, twitchy editing can claim a lot of credit for the success of Ben Affleck’s well-liked thriller, particularly in a climactic airport sequence that is pretty much a textbook exercise in cutting for tension. While some voters may simply opt for it here in tandem with their Best Picture vote, it’s a showcase for the craft that even laymen can identify. Goldenberg, meanwhile, is the first editor to score two nominations in a single year since the great Walter Murch was listed for both “Ghost” and “The Godfather Part III” in 1990. Murch lost both his bids; with the ACE and BAFTA awards on his mantel, I’m confident Goldenberg will have better luck.

American editor Tim Squyres has cut all but one of Ang Lee’s 12 features to date (the prominent exception is “Brokeback Mountain”), and previously scored an Oscar nomination for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “Life of Pi,” however, presented Squyres with a new series of challenges: smoothly merging the film’s physical and digital landscapes, while maintaining control of its tricky multi-planed narrative structure. It’s work that’s often highly impressive on a sequence-by-sequence basis, particularly in a spectacularly visceral shipwreck scene, but the film still feels structurally uneven to me, and Squyres should take some criticism for the flat rhythm and awkward integration of the film’s much-criticized framing story. Still, “Pi” is poised to take a number of below-the-line trophies, and though Squyres hasn’t won any precursors, it could sweep this one along with them.  

One of only four people to win three Oscars in this category, Steven Spielberg’s loyal collaborator Michael Kahn brushed past Thelma Schoonmaker to claim the title of most-nominated editor in Oscar history with his eighth nod for “Lincoln.” (All but one of those eight have been for Spielberg films.) It feels odd, then, to describe him as an outsider, but it nonetheless would be a major surprise to see him claim a fourth win for this stately, almost deliberately starched biopic, which offers none of the opportunities for propulsive, action-oriented cutting that won Kahn Oscars for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Of course, Kahn also won for less flashy work on “Schindler’s List,” but that was with heavy Best Picture momentum behind him — and with “Lincoln” increasingly losing ground in the top race, it’s hard to see why voters would single it out here.  

Comedies are rarely nominated in this category — which is odd, when you consider how much a successful comedy comes down to timing and, consequently, editing. But “Silver Linings Playbook” overcame the odds to place here, and while some will simply attribute that to its savvy campaign and cross-category momentum, it’s a genuinely deserving nominee. David O. Russell’s films tend to be distinguished by their bristly, slightly frayed energy, and veteran Jay Cassidy (previously nominated for “Into the Wild”) and relative newcomer Crispin Struthers (the category’s lone first-time nominee) have hit on a knockabout comic rhythm for the film that’s most aggressive in its garrulous opening stretches, cleverly levelling things out as the characters gradually find their feet. They recently won the ACE award in the comedy/musical category, and while the film will probably strike most voters as too scrappy for technical prizes, it’d be a credible winner. 

Now we return to William Goldenberg, who bookends his “Argo” nomination with arguably even more challenging work on “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s very different Middle East-set tension exercise. This time, he’s not on his own, sharing the nomination with Dylan Tichenor (himself previously nominated for “There Will Be Blood”). Goldenberg and Tichenor would be the critics’ choice for this award, having already prizes from the LA, Boston and Chicago groups, as well as the BFCA. It’s not hard to see why, as their work patiently organizes the procedural ins and outs of the CIA’s hunt for Bin Laden, skilfully conveying the exasperating sense of years ticking away, before exploding into life with a riveting climactic raid as immersive and panic-inducing as any single cinematic sequence from 2012. Combat films often fare well in this category, and as a feat of editing, this is both showy and substantial enough to potentially wrestle votes away from the more simply constructed Best Picture favorite. Either way, things look good for Goldenberg.  

Will win: “Argo” (William Goldenberg)
Could win: “Zero Dark Thirty” (William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor)
Should win: “Zero Dark Thirty” (William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor)
Should have been here: “Magic Mike” (Mary Ann Bernard, aka Steven Soderbergh)

Ben Affleck in Argo

Is the Best Picture frontrunner unstoppable in this category? Will William Goldenberg wind up beating himself, or could he lose twice? Tell us in the comments section!

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