OSCAR COUNTDOWN 2015: Film Editing & Production Design

With each of the technical categories we run through, I’m reminded of how little unsubtle many of the winners in these categories are, Film Editing and Production Design perhaps more so than others. Past winners have often abode by the Most = Best rule, and in at least one of this year’s cases I’m pressed to agree. My dream ballots may admire more subtlety in their construction, but not while excluding some of the year’s more undeniable achievements.

WhiplashBest Film Editing

Occasionally perceived as a prize that goes hand-in-hand with Best Picture, Film Editing has often put an emphasis on fast pacing and added emphasis on movement. In that respect, it’s perhaps a tad surprising not to see Birdman here, though its one-take structure has the unintentional effect of masking the editing of images together. Not that the films that are present here are particularly disarming cases of construction, none more notably than The Imitation Game. This film is here partly for its swift functionality, and partly for the film’s Best Picture presence, but no Best Picture nominee this year feels more like a straightforward visual translation of the script than this, in every respect.

Also at the peak of the Best Picture race is The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s typically lively and energetic pre-WWII caper. It’s certainly buzzing and bustling, as well as managing multiple Inception-style layers of narrative. The film’s an intricately calibrated whirligig, and the overall achievement of the film is commendable, but I think we’ll see that honored more elsewhere. If it does mark up this win, that may be a first indication of a gravitational movement in the night.

BoyhoodIf there’s one nominee I have the most difficulty believing could win, it’s American Sniper. Not that it isn’t propulsive and grounded in the same gritty world that earned The Hurt Locker this prize five years back, but it’s not as immediately noticeable a feat of editing as some of its competitors. I’m thinking most of Whiplash, which seizes and surges through every electrifying drum session, jumping around the room in anxious ways, and all but obliterating the world outside Miles Teller’s mind in the process. Even those not as seduced by Damien Chazelle’s vision will be tempted to honor one of the most alive areas of its production.

Boyhood has proven more of a dividing case this year than one might hope. The mediocre claim that Linklater and co. had more time to work on it, therefore giving it an unfair advantage, applies in nearly every category, and is neglecting the specifics of how the emotionally galvanizing effects of the film were achieved. It’s about creating a careful, seamless flow of experience, even as character ages and personalities jump from moment to moment. It’s an achievement of girth, sure, but one that’s considerable both in broad and specific terms. That may bring it the win by night’s end.

Will Win: Whiplash
Should Win: Boyhood

Film EditingDream Oscar Ballot

  • The Babadook
  • Boyhood
  • Listen Up Philip
  • Night Moves
  • Under the Skin

Runners-Up: Edge of Tomorrow, Foxcatcher, Palo Alto, Selma, Unrelated

Anxiety often heightens my favorites in this category, though, as mentioned above, Boyhood‘s existential angst is one that’s meant to carefully creep up on you. Another careful dilation of mood over time is Night Moves, whose deceptive tightness slowly ensures that the future beyond each moment will be a bit more limited. Listen Up Philip is also a direct in-the-moment headspace experience, but one that skillfully mires us in multiple isolated and isolating personalities. The distinct psychological isolation at the center of The Babadook, meanwhile, manages the same effects with a deeper concern for characters mired in inky black pits of their own grief. Speaking of inky black pits, how endlessly mesmerizing and terrifying is Under the Skin, and how many of those effects are built by the debilitating, pared down editing of it?

The Grand Budapest HotelBest Production Design

I admit to having a bit of an unwieldy grasp of Production Design this year, mostly because there’s one film that clearly has more production design than all the others crammed together. All that in due time, but first a rundown of the nominees that aren’t oozing imagination out of every orifice. In the style of compliant British biopics, The Imitation Game‘s style is a straight historical translation of its settings, but the environments here don’t come alive for a moment, even as Alan Turing creates electronic life. It’s historically functional, but it’s not very fun.

You could perhaps launch the same complaint at Mr. Turner, but the difference here, as it was in Costume Design, is specificity. Mike Leigh has an intimate understanding of what living spaces say about his characters, and in this it’s extended by the magisterial specificity of his subject. Many frames look like they could be a J.M.W. Turner, not merely thanks to Dick Pope, but to the compassionate way the sets seek to define the characters in ways they can’t vocally define themselves – *grunt* *snortle* *grunt”

Mr. TurnerImagination isn’t always a definitively promising term when it comes to Christopher Nolan. The narrative worlds he creates are vivid and extraordinary, but in terms of set design, they can be nullified by their efficiency. His Dark Knight trilogy is a notable exception, creating an intrinsically moody, class-heightened environment, but with Interstellar he strips things down almost counter-intuitively. This is a very strictly functional vision of a near-future, but both its technological and extraterrestrial creations feel pared down to basics. It’s bewildering on the scale that it is, but it’s not quite dense.

Into the Woods really could’ve wanted for more worldly ambition, as its production design is based so stringently on mangled woods and all too distant castles that this fantasy’s imaginative scope feels so gravely limited. It’s possibly the thinnest work of this field, and it occurred to me more than once while watching it that this same material might have been significantly livened up by Wes Anderson.

And successful segue! It’s a forgone conclusion, both in terms of what will and what should win, The Grand Budapest Hotel long since having solidified its place here for its giddily distorted vision of a fictionalized WWII Europe. So much of the film’s meaning and feelings come down to its intricate clockwork of production design, so for it to be slighted here would be downright crude and insensitive.

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Production DesignDream Oscar Ballot

  • The Boxtrolls
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Immigrant
  • Snowpiercer

Runners-Up: The Congress, FoxcatcherIda, Inherent Vice, A Most Violent Year

I do have a soft spot for whirring gizmos in this category. It’s what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel such an unignorable peak of the year, not to mention Wes Anderson’s ballistic style. It’s the chief reason to enjoy the bizarre dystopic rollercoaster that is Snowpiercer, its careful unpacking of class and social dynamics best extrapolated in its design. And it’s what made The Boxtrolls such an energetic, historically conscious charm, adding as much stench for Victorian era Aristocracy as it does to the ingenious underground realms of its titular gremlins. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t quite as bustling, but it’s no less of a culture clash. Meshing politically bombed-out Iran with industrially run-down America, Bad City becomes strangely applicable to both cultures in ways downplayed, yet heightened by a youthful pop energy. Finally, The Immigrant may show a very historically distinct squalor, but it’s flushed with both kitsch and glamour which somehow make it both more elegant and nastier at once.

What are your dream nominees, and who do you hope/think will win?

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