1. “Mad Max: Fury Road”: ACE winner Margaret Sixel became the ultimate problem solver in cutting husband George Miller’s ambitious return to his post-apocalyptic wasteland. It was rhythmically challenging going from intense action to slower, more poetic moments. But the centerpiece is the 18-minute climactic race in the desert landscape of southwest Africa between the War Rig and War Boy’s vehicles. Miller’s mandate was to center the frame at all times, and Sixel had to cut fast yet maintain a seamless, continuous action so we’re never confused. The result is a powerful and immersive visual masterpiece.
2. “The Big Short”: Hank Corwin, the other ACE winner, created just the right frantic mood in conveying Adam McKay’s brilliant black comedy about the bursting of the housing market in 2008. He not only had to make such complicated economics understandable, but also humanize the ensemble of brokers. In this regard, he had a wealth of on set improvisation from Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Oscar nominee Christian Bale. One of Corwin’s secret weapons, though, was the use of time-lapse montage to lend cultural context. His choice of rhythm was different for each set of characters, and he found a way into the narrative that was chaotic, absurd, and surreal. Like last year’s winner, “Whiplash,” this could really wow the Academy into a victory for Corwin.
3. “The Revenant”: Stephen Mirrione was certainly primed for this metaphysical journey in the Canadian Rockies after “Birdman.” But he couldn’t rely on dialogue to anchor the narrative, and the rhythm kept changing because of the cranes, the wide lenses, and the vast landscape. Even though it was shot in sequence, the editor constantly made discoveries and adjustments. Once again, they started with blocking rehearsals, but there were many more moving pieces to play with. They shot 200 hours of material and went about finding the story, trying to be engaging and immersive while allowing the viewer to understand Oscar frontrunner Leonardo DiCaprio’s emotional journey. The bravura opening ambush contains a series of emotional beats, alternating between realism and the abstract, while the intense grizzly bear attack manages to elicit horror and empathy without a cut. This represents a master class in construction.
4. “Spotlight”: Tom McArdle’s achievement is the most underrated of the season: a model of restraint and clarity in conveying this complex journalistic procedural for Tom McCarthy’s Best Picture contendef. The challenge was juggling shifting points of view between Michael Keaton’s editor and his three Spotlight reporters, played by Oscar nominees Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James. The editor not only got the details right but also made it fascinating and suspenseful. After all, it’s a movie about reporters making phone calls, knocking on doors, creating spreadsheets, and dealing with constant politics and pressure. It turns the mundane into a triumph, albeit one filled with pain and tragedy along the way.
5. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”: The objective for J.J. Abrams regulars Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey (who split up the movie) was to avoid imitating the same cutting style of “A New Hope.” It was about balancing point of view, action, and humor without letting up on the tension. And the hardest part was figuring out when to introduce the veterans, particularly Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher). The opening village attack was tricky, as was the scene where Rey (Daisy Ridley) touches the lightsaber, with the little girl’s voice calling her in when she’s scared out of her mind. And there’s a great use of rhythm and sound effects when Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) tries to get the map out of Rey’s head and she turns the Force back onto him. Thus, the editing duo succeeded admirably in touching both “Star Wars” devotees and newcomers.