Tech Support: ‘Argo,’ ‘Les Mis’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ feature in the race for Best Film Editing


This word is iconic in popular culture as something the director shouts to end the shooting of a scene. It even featured prominently in last year”s Best Picture winner.

But it’s the film editors who truly “cut” our films down to what we actually see on screen. Deciding what leave in, what to leave out, how to convey the narrative and how to establish pace are just a few of the editor”s extraordinarily important roles.

The work of many other crafts artists, to say nothing of the actors, is finished when the shoot is done. Others, such as the composer, only begin when the shoot is over. The film editor, on the other hand, is there throughout, working with the director until the film is just right.

More than any other category with the possible – and even that is debatable – exception of Best Director, the Academy Award for Best Film Editing is very often tied to the Best Picture race. The two categories are intertwined. Prior to the Best Picture expansion there were almost always three-to-four nominees in common between the two categories. In 2002, there was a 100% matchup. Of the past 15 nominees, 14 have been Best Picture nominees. The one exception, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” actually won the category. That was the first time since 1968″s “Bullitt” where a film won this category and no others.

But the branch does look for things beyond Best Picture potential. Action films and musicals do quite well here, due to the fact that making coherent fight scenes and song-and-dance numbers is hardly an easy task. By “action films” I include war films and suspense films. Films with interesting and unusual narratives such as “Memento,” “United 93” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” also score often.

Probably more than any other, the category is *not* principally concerned with in-club considerations. Many editors receive second or third nominations, but only two working editors – Michael Kahn and Thelma Schoonmaker – have seven nominations to date. While that is a lot of nominations, it is not a great deal for “most among working artists” when compared to every other crafts category.

On the note of Michael Kahn, he has the potential to earn his eighth nod this year for Steven Spielberg”s “Lincoln.” With six of his seven nominations coming for Spielberg films (including at least one nomination in each of the past four decades), Kahn clearly has a great working relationship with the director. An epic film involving numerous characters would seem a good bet for yet another nomination. Moreover, “Lincoln” is poised to be Spielberg”s best reviewed film in quite some time. Even so, Kahn has been a surprise omission before (“The Color Purple,” “Minority Report,” “War Horse”), so let”s not take anything to the bank.

Chris Dickens won this award four years ago on his only nomination. Cutting Danny Boyle”s “Slumdog Millionaire” was doubtless a difficult task. This year, he collaborates with another recent Oscar-winning director – Tom Hooper – on “Les Misérables.” With this being a musical, everything seems set for the nomination. This is all of course subject to the condition that the film actually lives up to expectations, which have been set high indeed.

Another one-time nominee working with an Oscar-winning director is Tim Squyres, on Ang Lee”s “Life of Pi.” Squyres earned his only nomination for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” despite editing popular movies such as “Gosford Park” and “Sense & Sensibility.” I”ve written before that adapting this book is going to be exceptionally difficult, and expert pacing will be a necessity. So if this becomes the Best Picture Best Picture contender it looks like it will be, one would expect Squyres to be among the nominees. Even so, two of Lee”s three previous Best Picture nominees (“Sense & Sensibility” and “Brokeback Mountain”) came up short here.

Yet a third one-time nominee working with an Oscar-winning director is Dylan Tichenor, who is cutting Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.” The veteran Tichenor finally garnered his first nomination in this category for “There Will Be Blood.” “Zero Dark Thirty” will presumably rely heavily on both suspense and action, so Tichenor”s potential is great. It all depends on the quality of the film in my view. If it becomes a major player, a nomination here would seem probable. Tichenor worked on the film with two-time Oscar nominee William Goldenberg (“The Insider,” “Seabiscuit”).

I don”t believe “Zero Dark Thirty” is Goldenberg”s best chance this year, however, as he also is responsible for having cut Ben Affleck”s “Argo.” This exceptionally well-made and suspenseful thriller seems the perfect vehicle for the Academy to welcome Ben Affleck to the list of Oscar-nominated (and probably Oscar-winning) actor/directors. Goldenberg has been nominated for the two previous Best Picture nominees he edited. He may be a double nominee this year, but I”m confident he”ll at least score for this title.

“Django Unchained” is Quentin Tarantino”s latest hotly anticipated cinematic event. Tarantino”s films have narrative structures that inherently require great editing. This one looks that it will involve suspense and action as well. Sadly, Tarantino”s longtime editor Sally Menke has passed away, and Fred Raskin is filling her shoes. Good luck to him – he has big shoes to fill.

“The Master,” like all of Paul Thomas Anderson”s films, featured a visual assemblage that was integral to its success. In the race for a Best Picture nomination, it also must be considered here. Peter McNulty and Leslie Jones have taken over from Anderson”s previous collaborator Dylan Tichenor. Keeping the audience”s interest in this movie was a challenge. At the same time, I can”t help but feel that the pacing was one of most people”s gripes with the film. So I wouldn”t bank on a nod.

“Silver Linings Playbook” could easily benefit from a likely Best Picture nomination resulting in citations in other, unexpected categories. This should be considered first among them. By all accounts, the pacing of the film is top-notch. Jay Cassidy managed a nomination for “Into the Wild” (its only recognition in the crafts categories), so he and Crispin Struthers could well end up in the final five.

Elena Ruiz and Bernat Villaplana have the responsibility of blending the stories of separated family members in “The Impossible,” to say nothing of making sense of the tsunami at the center of the movie. I could see this film getting anywhere from zero to seven nods. If it is closer to the latter, it may find a place here.

“Looper” is the sort of high-concept action movie that occasionally finds a home here. I”m still doubtful it will be loved enough among AMPAS circles. And Bob Ducasy, like most of this film”s crew, has no history with Oscar. Even so, I thought I”d mention it. The film will be remembered by its rabid fans, regardless of what the Academy does.

Robert Zemeckis”s “Flight” opened last week to very good reviews and very solid box office. A suspenseful tale with scenes from a plane crash featuring prominently, this seems the sort of movie that could place here. This is especially the case if it makes a solid Best Picture run – something I”m doubtful of but you never know. Zemeckis hasn”t had an Oscar hit in a while and I suspect Washington will have all the praise for the movie directed his way. Even so, Jeremiah O”Driscoll probably has the best opportunity of his career.

Another exceptionally reviewed November release, “Skyfall,” opens today. Stuart Baird likely came close to a nomination for “Casino Royale.” This latest Sam Mendes movie has surpassed even that in the eyes of most observers. I fully expect a BAFTA nomination to come. And if the “best of the series” raves resonate with AMPAS, this could even become the first Bond flick to score here.

Each of the three installments of “The Lord of the Rings” found a home in this category, with the final entry winning. So can Jabez Olssen, Peter Jackson”s new editor of choice, benefit on “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”? To be frank, I”m doubtful, though that could be because I”m doubtful of the film”s chances overall. But balancing these characters, and integrating inevitable action scenes, has the makings on paper of a Best Film Editing nominee. So if the film is a hit, and certainly if it is a Best Picture contender, it will have to be considered.

So there are the lucky top 13 contenders as I see them. Who do you see making the cut? And do you think I missed a genuine contender?