Oscars cliffhanger: So… WTF will win Best Film Editing?

One of the few unpredictable Oscar categories this year is Best Film Editing, which makes it all the more hilarious that it will be one of the eight categories handed out in the pre-show. “Dune” has long topped the odds over “The Power of the Dog,” “Don’t Look Up,” “King Richard” and “Tick, Tick… Boom!“, but it hasn’t performed like a frontrunner as it has collected no hardware from any major precursor. So what’s winning editing?

“Dune” has lost three awards it was expected to win to three different movies: “King Richard” won the ACE Eddie Award in drama, “No Time to Die” took the BAFTA, and “West Side Story” garnered the Critics Choice Award. (“Tick, Tick… Boom! won ACE Comedy.) It almost feels like everyone is actively going out of their way not to award “Dune.” “No Time to Die” and “West Side Story” were snubbed by the Oscars, so that’s good news for the nominees, and if you go by history, “Dune” has one big edge: the sound stat.

There is a heavy correlation between the editing and sound Oscars (the two sound categories were merged last year) as you typically need a sound nom to presage an editing triumph. The last editing champ without a corresponding sound bid was “The Departed” (2006). The only other two instances this century are “Traffic” (2000) and “Crash” (2005). Before that, you have to go all the way back to the ’80s with “The Killing Fields” (1984) and “Witness” (1985). And the last eight editing winners won one or both sound categories. “Dune” is expected to win Best Sound and is one of two editing nominees with a sound bid, the other being “The Power of the Dog.”

But don’t start engraving “Dune” on the trophy quite yet. Since “The Departed,” every editing winner not only had a sound nomination but it won at least one of the precursors (Critics Choice added its editing category 12 years ago). If you consider just the industry awards — ACE and BAFTA — the last editing champ that didn’t win either was “Gravity” (2013), which did snag Critics Choice and didn’t lose both ACE and BAFTA to two non-Oscar nominees. “Dune” and “Gravity” are similar in that they’re huge crafts players whose editing is not as flashy as that of a high-octane action flick (see: 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”) or a war film with explosive battle scenes (see: 2016’s “Hacksaw Ridge”). However, “Gravity” was a much stronger film overall and the probable Best Picture runner-up with a locked directing win, while “Dune” is in fifth place in the Best Picture odds and was snubbed in director.

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So does that favor Best Picture and Best Director frontrunner “The Power of the Dog”? It has the sound nom — one of its leading 12 bids — but its subtle editing goes against the grain of the typical winners in this category. However, last year, the slower-paced “Sound of Metal” edged out the cut-heavy “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Like “Sound of Metal,” “The Power of the Dog’s” editing is rooted in character work rather than plot or scene mechanics. Maybe it’s the start of a new trend? And in a wide-open race, voters could just default to the Best Picture favorite. “Argo” (2012) was the last film to earn Best Picture and Best Film Editing honors.

“Dune” and “The Power of the Dog” were the top two in the ACE Drama odds, but “King Richard” pulled off a mild upset. And you can argue that, despite it being in sixth place in the odds, “King Richard” is closer to Best Picture than “Dune” is with a Best Actor trophy waiting for Will Smith in the wings. Plus, Best Actor-winning films usually bag more than one Oscar. “King Richard” didn’t make the BAFTA editing longlist, but it aced the tennis sequences with lots of showy cuts that feel like real match footage. The one thing it’s missing is the corresponding sound nomination. ACE Drama winners without sound noms that lost the editing Oscar to films with one include “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Parasite” (2019), “Boyhood” (2014) and “The Descendants” (2011). Also note that the three films that nabbed editing without a sound nom this century — “Traffic,” “Crash” and “The Departed” — either won Best Picture or likely nearly did, as “Traffic” converted four of its five nominations into Oscar gold, losing just the top prize.

“King Richard’s” fellow ACE winner “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is also not to be underestimated as it boasts some of the flashiest editing of the year in its musical sequences. But ACE Comedy champs struggle to win the Oscar — the last one that did was “Chicago” (2002), the Best Picture winner. “Tick, Tick… Boom!” not only missed Best Picture but is also AWOL in Best Sound. However, if sound were still split into two categories, it likely would’ve made Best Sound Mixing, which favors musicals and music-based films, whereas “King Richard” still might not have made either. The last non-Best Picture nominee to win editing was “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), which was another year in which ACE, BAFTA and Critics Choice went three different ways, with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” only taking Critics Choice in the run-up. It beat four Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, which is what “Tick, Tick… Boom!” would need to accomplish.

And then there’s “Don’t Look Up,” the nominee with probably the most editing — never a bad thing here — but the only one that’s seemingly out of it. Now watch it win.

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Oscar odds for Best Film Editing
What will win?

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