It's all about capturing the rhythm of the movie and these five contenders are all editorial gems: "American Sniper" is a ticking bomb about to explode simultaneously on the war front and home front; "Boyhood," the frontrunner, is a unique 12-year journey of adolescence told in real-time and patched together like a fine quilt; "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a prism that spins wild pre-war and post-war memories; "The Imitation Game" captures the inner turmoil of a mathematical genius trying to break the Enigma code; and "Whiplash" is a war between instructor and student that builds to a frenzied drum solo.
1. "American Sniper" is gaining Oscar momentum. Editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach provide a new psychological twist on violence for Clint Eastwood's polarizing war movie. Legendary Navy SEAL assassin Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is torn between military duty and family responsibility. And the opening lays it all out brilliantly with Kyle's first combat assignment, in which he must decide if it's necessary to kill a mother and son to prevent a suicide attack, cross-cutting memories of his wedding and the birth of his first child.
There's also propulsive cross-cutting with Mustafa, a fictitious rival sniper, and a sadistic terrorist known as The Butcher, who uses an electric drill on his victims. But one of Cox's favorite scenes involves Kyle's wife Taya (Sienna Miller) warning him that if he returns to Iraq again, he might not have a family to come home to. "And he just looks at her and holds her, but he's torn. How their relationship breaks down is part of its own story," Cox relates.
2. "Boyhood," the favorite to win best picture, represents the ultimate in Richard Linklater's brand of fictional vérité. The director's long-time editor, Sandra Adair (who's already won the LA Film Critics' prize) pieces together footage shot throughout a 12-year period that's both epic and intimate. We actually get to witness the actors age as the characters do, especially Ellar Coltrane as Mason, seen from age seven to 19. But Oscar frontrunner Patricia Arquette provides a compelling dramatic arc full of bad choices and lessons learned.
"The film taps into some very core things about what makes us human and our experiences dealing with the disappointments in life, the unexpected little moments that seem so inconsequential at the time but add up to the fabric of our lives," Adair says. "And I think that's what audiences relate to. They see themselves, they see their parents, they see their siblings. It's the cumulative effect of all of these little moments that become a little stunning."
3. "The Grand Budapest Hotel." For editor Barney Pilling, collaborating with Wes Anderson for the first time was an opportunity to watch a meticulous craftsman at work while expanding his own. More epic in scale than the director's previous movies, it spans three different eras and is mostly set in a wondrous pre-war era where style and grace and good manners are all that matter.
But amid the whip pans and dolly shots, the shifting aspect ratios and delirious action, Pilling focused particularly on Ralph Fiennes: “The camera is doing a lot of big moves, all choreographed to happen on certain words and certain inflections, and Ralph had the ability to marry his performance to the technical timing demanded by that," the editor explains. "He also gives the story a kind of grounding where at times it can be taken very seriously, and it can be very emotional, but is also very funny."
4. "The Imitation Game." Editor Billy Goldenberg pieces together a crossword puzzle about the enigmatic Alan Turing (Oscar-nominated Benedict Cumberbatch): The fact that it's such a multi-layered narrative makes it all the more powerful, according to the Oscar winner for "Argo." On the one hand, you've got the frenzied effort to break the code by Turing and his team; on the other, an introspective story about a social misfit trying to fit in and coping with the loss of love.
Goldenberg's favorite scene occurs when Turing figures out how to break the Enigma based on something overheard in a beer hall. But in the process of breaking Enigma, the code-crackers realize they can't tell anybody. "I think it balances the thrill of it plus making it fun and exciting and then the tragic part of having to let hundreds of thousands of people die for the greater good," he recalls. "I just love the way the movie turns there and then comes tumbling apart."
5. "Whiplash," which features the most powerful cutting style, is an action movie first and a musical drama second, so it comes off as a musical "Raging Bull." Tom Cross honed a multi-layered editorial approach for this intense, psychological cat-and-mouse between Miles Teller's ambitious drummer, Andrew, and Oscar frontrunner J.K. Simmons' abusive instructor, Fletcher, who puts him through hell to become the next Charlie Parker.