5 Favorites Redux #70: Oscars: Film Editing

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

As I continue on in my review of the best winners and losers in each category in Oscar history, we come to a category that some don’t realize just how crucial it is to the filmmaking experience. I’ll also highlight a handful of films that didn’t make my list and even a few that didn’t make the Academy’s either.

Film Editing

Although it’s been an important part of the structure of cinema since the 1900s, the Academy went through six ceremonies before realizing that they needed to honor the noble film editors who splice together footage, blend in music and sound, and are the prime drivers OF the pacing IN a film. With the 7th Oscars for 1934 and forward, the category has been given non-stop. That doesn’t stop the Academy’s film editors branch from making boneheaded decisions. After all, they ignored two of the best edited films of the last three decades, but I’ll get to those in a moment.

After the film editors make their choices, Academy voters, who know what editing is, but cannot actually identify it a lot of the time, get to choose the winners. That could be why there are more losers on my list of favorites than winners. That doesn’t mean they haven’t made grand or great choices, but more often than not, they recognize most editing rather than best editing. Which is strange because one of the films I felt they should have nominated most certainly had the most editing, but it also had great editing.

Some of the winners I considered for my final list are Ben-Hur (1959), West Side Story (1961), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Raging Bull (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), JFK (1991), Schindler’s List (1993), The English Patient (1996), and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Then there are the Oscar losers that I enjoyed: Citizen Kane (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Exorcist (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Aliens (1986), The Thin Red Line (1998), Children of Men (2006), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Black Swan (2010), I, Tonya (2017), and Baby Driver (2017).

With all of that out of the way, but before I get to the final five, here’s a brief review of two films that I felt should have been nominated for the Oscar for Best Film Editing.

Fight Club is a case study in the differing opinions of what constitutes good editing. Many of the film’s critics suggested that the chaotic cuts that made up the film were unnecessary and distracting. However, that excessiveness has become an influence on numerous subsequent films and, thinking back on its use, there’s no question that it was effective. The early reference in the film to pornography getting a quick, 1-frame insertion in some films, is paid out with a similar inset frame at the end of the picture.

The other film that should have been recognized for its editing was Inception, a film that relies completely on the labyrinthine plot making sense within the construct of the film. It certainly does that as keeping track of recursions, layers, and other elements is fairly simple, helping the time-bending narrative work perfectly. Now, on to my five favorite Oscar nominees and winners.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

Jane Fonda stars in this grueling Oscar loser about a group of contestants in a Great Depression-era dance contest where physical pain and suffering are part of the event. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? discusses the lengths to which people who lost everything will go in order to win something, anything at all, that might enable them to feel like they’ve come out on the other end better for it.

This large ensemble drama requires a lot of edits to keep the action moving forward, settling into slower rhythms when necessary and then speeding things back up again. Frederic Steinkamp’s skilled editing keeps the film flowing while ensuring the audience can track what’s going on in the film. Were it not for the next film on my list, I fully expect that Steinkamp would have won the Oscar.

Z (1969)

That said, one of my favorite films that’s not in the English language is this French-language Oscar winner from Algeria. The murder of a prominent political figure and the subsequent military cover up form the basis for this Costa-Gavras film. Based on a novel by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos, the film is a thinly-veiled accounting of the events surrounding the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963.

As Jean-Louis Trintignant as the examining magistrate explores the myriad layers of the plot to hide the events of the incident from public scrutiny unwinds, we get an exciting political thriller. The film’s success is thanks to editor Francoise Bonnot’s tremendous effort to keep the various plotlines wound together so that the audience can follow easily while becoming appalled as the various threads begin to form into the tapestry of events.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Another film that had the bad luck of going up against a more celebrated editing achievement is Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film about ultra violent youths and the British attempts to neuter and control their violent tendencies. Malcolm McDowell stars as Alex DeLarge who, along with is Droogs, beat and rape numerous individuals in their reign of terror over the dark city streets. As part of his conviction, McDowell must undergo a controversial procedure that will effectively eliminate his violent tendencies.

Kubrick’s film lost to The French Connection, a film whose well cut action sequences influenced countless future films, but it’s a shame considering the stellar work editor Bill Butler did bringing the various events in the film together. As part of Alex’s treatment, he’s forced to watch numerous images of violent actions against others while simultaneously being forced to listen to his favorite composer, Ludwig Van (Beethoven). The film questions whether the ultimate lengths society will go to in order to achieve order are worth the damage done to those who simply need a revised outlet. Butler’s work here is one of the best jobs an editor has done for a Kubrick film and while I love Best Picture winner French Connection‘s editing efforts, A Clockwork Orange is ultimately the better film in all ways, including in its editing.

The Matrix (1999)

Not only did the Wachowskis revolutionize the visual effects industry with their massive hit The Matrix, they also perfectly encapsulated why editing is a crucial component of any successful visual-effects-laden film. The Matrix tells the story of a cog in a giant machine named Neo (Keanu Reeves) who navigates mystery and intrigue to uncover a massive conspiracy wherein human civilization is trapped within a giant computer simulation.

The narrative at the heart of The Matrix required tremendous use of visual effects since Neo can literally manipulate the Matrix in which he operates with a single thought. Not only was this film one I almost considered for my five favorites list on visual effects, it seemed imperative to include it here as, like Inception that would come after it, the editing needed to maintain cohesion between effects, music, and story was imperative and done incredibly well even if the attempts at sequelizing the series resulted in severely diminished returns.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The French Connection established the basic editing techniques necessary to keep action fluid and comprehensible. Mad Max: Fury Road took those notions and manipulated them tremendously to get the incredibly successful Oscar winner to work so amazingly well, thanks in large part to its massive car chase sequence. The film is of a post-apocalyptic future where those who control the water and oil control life itself. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) becomes an able support to a group of women fleeing the sexual slavery they have been trapped in.

The requirements to film the massive car chase sequence in the Australian desert required a lot of coordination and balance. Cinematographer John Seale deserves a lot of the credit for that, but it was editor Margaret Sixel who successfully blended all that footage together into what is a most thrilling action set piece that fits effortlessly into the pacing of the rest of the film.

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