Like cinematography, editing stands out this awards season for the creative ingenuity of five frontrunners: the “continuous take” of “Birdman,” the 12-year real-time odyssey of “Boyhood,” the percussive intensity of “Whiplash,” the parallel machinations of “Gone Girl” and the enigmatic humanism of “The Imitation Game.”
1. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu may not want to give away the “continuous take” gag in his extraordinary “Birdman,” but he’s achieved the ultimate in POV narrative. And his long-time editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione “stitched” “Birdman” together in a very unique way, compiling an assembly of rehearsal footage before principal photography and cleverly erasing the cuts with the VFX and post teams.
2. If we thought Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy was bold, the real-time rite of passage of “Boyhood” is even more ambitious, tapping into life’s disappointments and the culmination of seemingly inconsequential events that shape our lives — for better or worse. We actually get to witness the actors age as the characters do, especially Ellar Coltrane as Mason, seen from age seven to 19. Imagine if François Truffaut made the first two Antoine Doinel movies in such a fashion.
Linklater’s long-time editor Sandra Adair (who took the LA Film Critics’ prize) spent a few weeks every year cutting a cycle of footage as though she were spending time with a second family, but leaving plenty of room for the story to unfold before evaluating and fine-tuning the entire 12 years. It’s another unique way of working to deliver a special filmgoing experience. No wonder it’s the best picture frontrunner.
3. Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” a musical “Raging Bull,” in which drumming becomes as violent as boxing, marks another unique editorial experience. For only his third feature, editor Tom Cross found himself in the trenches for a movie shot in only 19 days about Miles Teller’s ambitious drummer going head to head with J.K. Simmons’ abusive instructor, who puts him through hell to become a musical genius.
Director and editor both knew that “Whiplash” was going to be created in the editing room, and it was envisioned as an action movie first and a musical drama second. The musical sequences were edited to pre-recorded music for the major scenes, including the grueling finale, which is an unrelenting blaze of glory inspired by the end of “The Wild Bunch.” In fact, the first cut lacked soul so they fine-tuned the performances so that Teller and Simmons attain a moment of sublime transcendence, despite the masochistic method to the madness.
4. “Gone Girl” is like a Punch and Judy act for Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, which David Fincher likens to “Fight Club” for marriage. The editorial trick for two-time Oscar winner Kirk Baxter (going solo for the first time on his fifth film with Fincher) was creating a language for three different storylines that was easy to follow and compelling, while getting out of the first act as quickly as possible for this 149-minute thrill ride.
They set up a language of presenting the flashbacks and maintaining the questions marks in this marriage gone very bad melodrama. However, once all of the story lines converge, they break the rules and then just run with it in a more modular fashion, playing with the character dynamics in unpredictable ways. “Gone Girl” was also the first major Hollywood feature cut on Premiere Pro CC because of the tight integration with After Effects, which allowed multiple editors and VFX artists to work in unison.
5. In an awards season dominated by biopics, “The Imitation Game” is the most unconventional, flashing forward and back to decode the enigmatic mathematician, scientist and spy Alan Turing, played by the Oscar-buzzy Benedict Cumberbatch.
After “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” Oscar winner Billy Goldenberg has become the go-to editor for true life stories involving military politics and strategy, so “The Imitation Game” offered a new challenge in thinking outside the box with director Morten Tyldum. The trick was being subversive while staying true to Turing’s troubled life. It’s the story of an outsider and the celebration of being different and what makes us human,
For Goldenberg, “It was all about the shading of [Cumberbatch’s] performance, and the shading of the comedy. It was about tone and not about structure.” Spoken like a true editor.