Hollywood Contenders: Shining a “Spotlight” on the Films Trying to Make the Cut for Best Film Editing

JOY Jennifer Lawrence 2015

Why are our films not all three hours long? How do some films that are that long manage to grip us nonetheless? Why do some films with seemingly dull plots manage to enthrall from start to finish? How does a narrative of a film get put together post-shooting? The answers lie in the talents of film editors. Those talents are rewarded every year in the Oscar race for Best Film Editing.

The Film Editors Branch is, more than any other in the Academy, seemingly very tied to the Best Picture race. Since the expansion of the Best Picture category to more than five films, non-Best Picture nominees have seldom made the cut here. But even before then, the overlap between the two categories was intense. Otherwise, the branch tends to love musicals (not likely to be a factor this year) and action/suspense films.

“The Revenant”’s Stephen Mirrione shockingly wasn’t nominated last year for “Birdman,” the first Best Picture winner in 35 years to triumph without a Film Editing nomination. “The Revenant” appears to be more classically an editor’s piece, and I’d be surprised if Mirrione doesn’t return to the fold. He did win for “Traffic” and was nominated for “Babel.”

“Steve Jobs” has been praised for its interesting and innovative structure, rejecting the traditional biopic, instead concentrating on discrete events within the title character’s life. Much of the praise for the movie has been justly bestowed upon Elliot Graham, seeking a second nomination, seven years after “Milk.” He seems in solid shape.

“Joy” is said to be another innovative biopic that has positive buzz surrounding it. While one wonders how long David O. Russell’s streak can last, he has assembled an amazing crew of editors, all of whom have been nominated in the past – Alan Baumgarten (“American Hustle”), Jay Cassidy (“American Hustle,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Into the Wild”), Christopher Tellefsen (“Moneyball”) and Tom Cross (last year’s winner, for “Whiplash”). If the film ends up a major Best Picture player, one would think this crew would be in contention. Though the phrase “too many cooks” also comes to mind…
Leading the list of “all-time” nominees in this category is, of course, Michael Kahn, once again in contention this year for Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” Kahn has earned seven of his eight nominations for Spielberg films and while this latest effort won’t go down as one of Spielberg’s classics, the fact is that we should not rule out Spielberg – or Kahn – for a respected Cold War thriller.

The October release I’m getting increasingly confident about regarding “overall” Oscar chances is Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” The crowd-pleasing suspenseful sci-fi effort has many characteristics of typical nominees in this category. Pietro Scalia has four nominations and two wins to his credit (including one of the all-time editing accomplishments, “JFK”) but hasn’t been nominated since his second win, “Black Hawk Down.” “The Martian” would seem an appropriate way to welcome him back.

Other favorites of the Editing branch are Mike Hill and Daniel P. Hanley, Ron Howard’s editors of choice, who have four nominations and a win to their credit for past Howard efforts. The film remains a big question mark, and I’m not sure if it will actually emerge as a big player. But if it does, watch out.

“Concussion” is another large question mark and I doubt it will emerge as a huge player overall. Having said that, it could feature football at least in part. And William Goldenberg is a respected five-time nominee/one-time winner (for “Argo”), so let’s not rule him out either.

“The Hateful Eight” is another of the relatively few films that remains unseen. Quentin Tarantino films always feature showy editing, and Fred Raskin has emerged as his go-to editor after the untimely death of Sally Menke. He’s a real possibility, depending on the film’s reception.

We know that “Spotlight” has been very well received indeed. I think Tom McCarthy is likely headed to his first Best Director nomination. Ensemble pieces are also frequently favored in this category, so McCarthy’s long-time editor, Tom McArdle, could end up with his first nomination as well.

“Room” has also been very well-received, with the delicate but sharp editing of Nathan Nugent helping the audience experience the wonder of getting the know “the world.” I think the film may end up too small to begin racking up the crafts nominations, but let’s not come to any conclusions yet.

It’s difficult to completely rule out Best Picture nominees in this category so if “Carol,” edited by Affonso Gonçalves, or “Brooklyn,” edited by Jake Roberts, end up unstoppable forces, I wouldn’t rule them out completely. But neither film seems an “editor’s piece” in a traditional sense.

I’ll end by discussing action films, the likes of which sometimes score here. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” as I have mentioned in past weeks, was extraordinarily reviewed, and it was also a work first and foremost of the director and the crafts artists. Margaret Sixel, George Miller’s long-time editor, was largely responsible for making this made ride through the desert so compelling. Here’s hoping her fellow editors recognize her accomplishment.

“Spectre” is from a franchise that one would have thought would have had more success in this category than it has had. But even “Skyfall,” with its five nominations and two wins, couldn’t score here three years ago. Lee Smith is a two-time nominee (“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and “The Dark Knight”), but he wasn’t nominated for “Inception” so I’m not holding out a lot of hope.

I’ll end with a film I’ve discussed so often in these columns – “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The franchise’s first film won this category thirty-eight years ago. Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey will be hoping the action and adventure of this latest entry into this series recaptures magic, not only in the eyes of the public, but also the Academy.

There are the top fifteen contenders as I see them. And I’d guess that “Bridge of Spies,” Joy,” “The Revenant,” “Spotlight,” and “Steve Jobs” will be the final five. But we’ll see how this race – and that of Best Picture – shakes out over the next several months.

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