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Oscars 2021: Best Editing Predictions

Current Best Picture frontrunner "Nomadland" leads the pack, with director Chloé Zhao serving as editor. Constantly updated.

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

“Nomadland”

Searchlight Pictures

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This season’s outstanding editing work can be found in such period Best Picture contenders as Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” (serving as her own editor), David Fincher’s “Mank,” Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World,” and Regina King’s “One Night in Miami.” They all explore political activism and personal reconciliation with a keen eye, of course, on the current zeitgeist.

“Nomadland,” the current Best Picture frontrunner, delivers a haunting odyssey about migrant laboring in the American West in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008. It stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow forced to hit the road in her van when her Nevada mining town and life vanish. Fern travels to the Badlands of South Dakota, the Nevada desert, and the Pacific Northwest, meeting colorful characters who inspire her to embrace change (all played by actual nomads with the exception of David Straithern). It’s like a cross between “The Grapes of Wrath” and a neo-realist drama, with editor Zhao skillfully relying on roving shots of Fern at sunrise or sunset along with insightful anecdotes conveyed by her new friends, magnificently shot by go-to cinematographer Joshua James Richards (winner of Camerimage’s prestigious Golden Frog). If nominated for editing, Zhao would join directors Alfonso Cuarón (co-winner for “Gravity”), James Cameron (co-winner for “Titanic”), David Lean (“A Passage to India”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo”), Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”), and Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”).

In Fincher’s hard-boiled, black-and-white “Mank,” his go-to editor Kirk Baxter deftly balances the arduous scripting of “Citizen Kane” in 1940 by washed up, alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) with flashbacks of his ’30s Hollywood antics. It’s framed like a classical biopic about the dark side of the American Dream and the search for redemption. Mank struggles to deliver his literate best to wunderkind director Orson Welles (Tom Burke), using his painful memories of playing court jester to Machiavellian publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) as inspiration. Baxter’s highlight is the wild montage during the 1934 gubernatorial election night watch party hosted by MGM at Trocadera Nightclub. It’s witnessed from Mank’s inebriated POV. He’s miserably delirious over the defeat of socialist author Upton Sinclair and guild-ridden about his inadvertent complicity in the studio’s fake newsreel campaign, and Baxter gives the stylized mashup of iconic imagery a hallucinatory vibe.

"Mank"

Gary Oldman in “Mank”

Netflix

Sorkin worked so well with editor Alan Baumgarten on the director’s debut, “Molly’s Game,” that he continued the collaboration on “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the timely account of the conspiracy trial surrounding the 1968 Vietnam protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It was about conveying the rhythm and language of the script (divided between the overheated courtroom drama in 1969, flashbacks detailing how the peaceful demonstrations turned violent, and the bitter political rivalry between the ambitious Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and the more radical Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen). Baumgarten dynamically overlapped the intensity of the trial with the revelatory flashbacks. By contrast, the riot was scripted to function as rapidly intercut vignettes, which the cinematographer shot in an improvised style reminiscent of “Medium Cool” in the actual Grant Park. Baumgarten went with the vérité approach and also added archival footage that was turned into black-and-white for contrast.

Greengrass re-teams with Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”) in the post-Civil War western, “News of the World,” based on the novel by Paulette Jiles. It’s a mournful drama, in which Hanks plays ex-Confederate Captain Kidd, who travels from town to town in North Texas, reading local and international news to keep the citizenry informed and entertained. When Kidd encounters an abandoned young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), kidnapped and raised by Kiowa, he finds a new mission in life: return the orphan to her surviving family several hundred miles away. It’s a perilous trek about anger and healing, brilliantly edited by Oscar winner William Goldenberg (“Argo”), who previously cut Greengrass’ “22 July.” It’s more of a leisurely rhythm than we’re used to with Greengrass, and yet there is plenty of action to go with the moments of reflection.

Oscar and Emmy-winning actress Regina King makes her feature directorial debut with “One Night in Miami,” the insightful fictionalized meeting in 1964 between friends Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), scripted by Kemp Powers (“Soul”), who adapted from his play. The four Black icons sit around a motel room, engaged in discussions and arguments about racial injustice, religion, power, and social responsibility. Oscar-nominated editor Tariq Anwar (“The King’s Speech,” “American Beauty”) keeps the rhythm varied and fascinating, balancing the personality traits and differing points of view with moments of aggression and vulnerability. And despite the claustrophobic motel room setting, cinematographer Tami Reiker provided plenty of coverage along with dynamic use of space for Anwar and King.

"News of the World"

“News of the World”

Universal

Meanwhile, two other adventures in time are Christopher Nolan’s trippy “Tenet” and Garrett Bradley’s black-and-white non-fiction “Time,” about the prison industrial complex. “Tenet” marks Nolan’s most ambitious experiment involving a time-inversion battle between the present and the future, led by The Protagonist (John David Washington). With go-to editor Lee Smith (“1917”) unavailable, the director turned to Jennifer Lame (“Marriage Story,” “Manchester by the Sea”), who is adept at juggling different temporal narratives. But this globetrotting, cross-cutting spy thriller (shot by Hoyte van Hoytema in large-format IMAX) expanded her usual scope, with a unique visual language portraying time running in different directions. The challenge for Lame was keeping the focus on the intimate character drama without getting lost in the action set pieces (which include the opening storming of an opera house, an elaborate heist on the Laggna Tee freeway with cars moving forward and in reverse; and the climactic 10-minute “temporal pincer” movement involving two synchronized attack teams moving through time in opposite directions.

Bradley’s “Time,” edited by Gabriel Rhodes (“Matangi/Maya/M.I.A”), focuses on the 21-year struggle of Fox Rich to get her husband released from a Draconian 60-year prison sentence for a desperate robbery. The director and editor use Rich’s video diaries of the family as well as present-day footage to depict Rich’s rise as a social activist, relying on the zoom to navigate spaces as a human eye. Rhodes conveyed both the micro and macro stories through powerful cross-cutting. The result is riveting, with this family separated by incarceration, and the black-and-white delivers the requisite starkness about the American Dream gone tragically wrong. This would mark only the third time that a doc has been nominated for editing: the previous two were “Hoop Dreams” in ’95 (edited by director Steve James, producer Frederick Marx, and editor William Haugse), and “Woodstock” in ’71 (edited by eventual three-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker).

Contenders listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.

Frontrunners
“Mank”
“News of the World”
“Nomadland”
“One Night in Miami”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Contenders
“Cherry”
“Da 5 Bloods”
“Father”
“Judas and the Black Messiah”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
“Sound of Metal”
“Tenet”
“Time”

Long Shots
“Hillbilly Elegy”
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
“Minari”
“Pieces of a Woman”
“The Midnight Sky”

Key Oscar Indicators

The Academy’s editing branch currently has 400 members, of which 372 are active and 28 are retired. While Best Editing has  coincided with Best Picture many times over Academy history, in the recent past, the last time that occurred was “Argo” in 2012; and Academy and ACE Eddie Award winners have overlapped just five times in the last 10 years.

Key Dates

Monday, February 1, 2021
Preliminary Oscar voting begins

Friday, February 12, 2021
Submission deadline for 72nd annual ACE editing Awards

Friday, February 19, 2021
ACE nomination ballots sent

Sunday, February 28, 2021
Submission deadline for the Oscars

Friday, March 5, 2021
Oscar nominations voting begins

Monday, March 8, 2021
ACE nomination polls close

Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Oscar nominations voting ends 5 PM PT

Thursday, March 11, 2021
ACE nominations announced

Monday, March 15, 2021
Oscar nominations announced

Friday, March 19, 2021
Final ACE ballots sent

Friday, March 19-Friday, March 26, 2021
Online Blue-Ribbon ACE Screenings

Friday, March 26, 2021
Final ACE polls close

Friday, April 9, 2021
Deadline for ACE advertising

Thursday, April 15, 2021
Oscar Nominees Luncheon
Final Oscar voting begins

Sunday, April 18, 2021
72nd annual ACE Eddie Awards presented (location TBD)

Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Final Oscar voting ends

Sunday, April 25, 2021
Winners announced at the 93rd Academy Awards (Oscars)

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