Smash cut: a closer look at the ‘Best Editing’ Oscar nominees

After an understandably fractured and erratic film year, 2021 showed optimistic signs of an industry in recovery, with many notable films capturing our hearts and minds. From quiet, independent stunners like Drive My Car and The Power of the Dog, to big theatrical spectacles such as Dune and Spider-Man: No Way Home, film lovers exhaled a collective sigh of relief. Maybe it’s too early to shout from the rooftops, “Movies are back!”, but in keeping with the uplifting trend, let’s do it anyway– “Movies are back!”

The latest Academy Award nominations certainly highlight that feeling, being almost impossible to box the nominees in any category. It’s a fully-fledged celebration of all things movies; an eclectic, diverse, and exciting selection that sees, among other noteworthy shouts, the Kiwi filmmaker Jane Campion became the first woman in the history of the Awards to receive two directing nominations. 

But today we’re highlighting another cinematic art form: film editing. As we know, editing is the key to blending the visual and sonic landscapes to create emotional attachments that transcend the very film we’re watching. This year’s nominees certainly do that and across several genres no less: the western, the science fiction, the biopic, the satire, and the musical. Let’s take a closer look.

Don’t Look Up – Edited by Hank Corwin

Adam McKay’s satire about climate change and an impending environmental crisis has sparked plenty of discussion. The film seems to embody the old adage, “love it or hate it, but feel something.” What is beyond argument is that it’s one of the most widely seen films of the year. As per Netflix’s own statistics, Don’t Look Up has amassed over 320 million hours of viewership since its debut. One of the flashiest aspects of this very extravagant film is Hank Corwin’s editing. Corwin is no stranger to McKay’s absurdist streak, having collaborated with him on The Big Short and Vice. Except here, the story is completely fictional, which opened up Corwin to even more experimentation, allowing him to test the limits of what editing can do to promote chaos and anxiety. Most notably, the film features several ‘hard cuts’ which in many ways replicate the experience one might have at an improv jazz concert. Notably, Corwin was also the editor of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World

Dune – Edited by Joe Walker

Lawrence of Arabia is all over Dune, a smart decision given how majestic David Lean’s masterpiece still looks six decades later. But the film is also in conversation with Villeneuve’s other sci-fi works. There’s Arrival’s transcendence of time to affect the present, and Blade Runner’s quest for life purpose in the presence of a great betrayal. The thread connecting them is a protagonist who doesn’t know how much they really know, people whose journeys towards external success involves an investigation of the self–of what’s brewing inside. They’re all spiritual films in that sense, but Dune even more so. It’s hard to brush aside old age tales of “the one,” and the context around what is perceived as a “holy war,” perhaps helping explain why Frank Herbert’s novel has resonated with so many people from so many cultures in the first place. It’s storytelling at its purest and its most ancient–the type that forges a strong bond with the reader and viewer. Playing a big part in achieving this Herculean feat was the now three-time Oscar nominee Joe Walker (see also: Arrival and 12 Years a Slave). Through sophisticated and deceivingly simple edits, Walker helped create a truly larger-than-life movie spectacle that successfully translates in cinematic terms what has been called an “unfilmable novel.” Walker’s other notable credits include Sicario, Widows, and Shame.

King Richard – Edited by Pamela Martin

Based on an excellent script by Zach Baylin, and directed with gusto and craftsmanship by Reinaldo Marcus Green, King Richard centers on the uncompromising Richard Williams and his obsession to make his daughters, Venus and Serena, the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport. While we’ve been given stories of inspirational coaches before, we’ve never quite seen this type of emphasis on the man behind the talent. Lots of tennis balls are hit throughout, but the drama isn’t really in the matches (we know how that story ends).

The games almost seem like an afterthought, merely a necessity in order to advance the character work. It works, mainly due to exceptional performances and Pamela Martin’s effective and classy editing, who builds suspense out of the mundane and cuts the family’s arguments like an action movie. Martin’s been cutting for almost 30 years, and some of her notable credits include Little Miss Sunshine, The Fighter, and Battle of the Sexes.

The Power of the Dog – Edited by Peter Sciberras

“We only used wide landscapes and wide shots in a story-based way, only using them when it was supporting a feeling or setting up a feeling on the way to a scene, like a foreboding or a tension.” That’s from the interview Sciberras gave fellow Evercast writer, Ben Mehlman, earlier this year. In it, he conveys how important it was for Jane Campion to build and maintain tension throughout the film’s 128-minute runtime, while alluding to the psychological complexity of the main characters. The challenge of providing a nuanced exploration of sadistic behavior showcases Sciberras’ keen eye and strong sense of pace and rhythm. Before working with Campion, Sciberras collaborated with Australian filmmaker, David Michôd, on The Rover, The King, and War Machine, meaning he was no stranger to desert landscapes, family sagas, and unexpected violence. 

Tick, Tick… Boom! – Edited by Myron Kerstein & Andrew Weisblum

Perhaps the most unexpected entry on this list, Tick, Tick… Boom! took the spot many thought was going to Belfast, Licorice Pizza, or No Time to Die. Lin Manuel Miranda’s film follows the life of Rent creator Jonathan Larson on the days leading up to his 30th birthday, and delivers a touching and heartbreaking portrait of a creative force in search of his place in the world.

Front and center is Andrew Garfield, who can claim this as one of his finest performances. The other stars are Evercast users, Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum, who take up the momentous task of intercutting several sequences with a great sense of clarity and narrative cohesion. Cutting “Therapy” was a particular challenge, as they tell Variety, but the whole experience required an incredible amount of precision in order to elicit an honest and emotional response. Kerstein is also the editor of In the Heights, Crazy Rich Asians, and Garden State; while Weisblum edited The French Dispatch, The Eyes of Tommy Faye, and Black Swan.

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