This category puzzles me this year, enough that I've gone back and examined a good bit of the history of the award. For my purposes, I've looked back 50 years -- because it's a nice round number, and because it almost perfectly encompasses my time watching the Oscars. (It's in fact off by just one year...meaning this Sunday will be my 50th time watching the Oscars. Happy weird anniversary)
The winners over that 50 year period have made it clear that, for voters, Best Editing largely translates to Most Editing. They like lots of cross-cutting...which has, over time, caused them to vote for movies featuring battle sequences, prize fights, car chases, suspense sequences, visual tricks (animation combined with live action, documentary mixed with fictional footage), and, a more recent trend, multiple story lines/realities or jumbled chronology.
There's a second level involved in the choice, though. Like in most other Oscar categories, voters tend to favor more generally-admired films -- i.e., the best picture nominees. Only 6 of the 50 editing prizes in my survey were given to films excluded from best picture consideration. In fairness, 3 of those 6 have come along in the past 12 years, possibly indicating a loosening of tradition. But it must further be added that all 3 of those winners (The Matrix, Black Hawk Down, The Bourne Ultimatum) came into their evening armed with the ACE award. You have to go back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to find an interloper that didn't win the Editors prize first. This, of course, is not good news for the Dragon Tattoo. But I'll get to that in a bit.
You can further break down the 44 remaining editing winners -- 24 times the prize went to the best picture winner; another 20 it went to a losing nominee. In the latter group, you can often easily see why the film would triumph against the gravitational pull of a best picture winner. Mary Poppins had its visual tricks; Z, Jaws, Raiders and Witness had taut suspense throughout; Raging Bull was (to date) the last of the boxing ring choices; Cabaret inaugurated the out-of-time-sequence tradition -- and was followed by Fosse's own All That Jazz, JFK, Traffic, and The Social Network; Star Wars and Saving Private Ryan had razor-cut battle scenes. Pretty much every one of these "exceptions" reinforced the prejudices of the category
But then there are those 24 cases where the best picture winner won the prize, which many look at differently. The roughly 50% synchronicity has led some to consider the editing prize a natural part of the best picture haul -- a default choice, as it were. Is this true? Well, a goodly number of best picture winners had plenty of credentials for winning editing on their own. Lawrence of Arabia and Return of the King had their battles. French Connection had its chase, Rocky its ring sequences. The Deer Hunter had those tautly edited Russian roulette games. Dances with Wolves had a buffalo hunt. Schindler's List had those gruelling run-the-inmates-around-the -camp scenes. Gump had its Forrest-meets-the-Presidents footage. English Patient, Crash and Slumdog had the fractured time sequence, Chicago the integration of fantasy and reality, Titanic different time frames and massive action sequences. (The Last Emperor and, stretching it, even Gandhi had some level of this time displacement, as well) The Departed and The Hurt Locker were loaded with tense moments. I'd say all of these qualified for editing under standard expectation.
But there are a few winners about whom you just have to say, It won because it was the big movie of the night. West Side Story. The Sound of Music. In the Heat of the Night (not that it was bad; just that I didn't see conspicuous editing). Patton. The Sting. Unforgiven.
But really nothing after Unforgiven. Making one wonder if default-to-best-picture used to be an option, but one not exercised as much these days.
Which brings me, at last, to this year's group.
Lots of people are applying the best picture default to The Artist. I'd like to have these people explain to me: did the film's editing stand out for you in any traditional way? The film is certainly professionally edited throughout, but literally the only thing I can think of that traditionally would qualify it for the prize would be that near-end sequence of Peppy driving the car/George flirting with suicide.
Not that I think most of the other candidates have any major claim on the prize, either. Despite its surprise win at ACE, The Descendants, whatever you think of the film, seems far too unflashy to compete. Hugo is certainly well constructed, but except for a few stray scenes -- the train crash, chasing Hugo through the station -- it doesn't scream Editing! Moneyball feels like the strongest of the best picture contenders, with its flashbacks to Beane's early career, and that one heightened game at the end. But enough to claim the prize? I'm dubious.
I think Sabin is right in pinpointing Dragon Tattoo as the strongest challenger under the standard format. But there is that stat I mentioned earlier: it would be one of only two films in 50 years to win the category without a best picture nod or an ACE win. You want to buck those odds?
So, most people have drifted to The Artist. And they may be right. But it feels like a pretty weak front runner. This'll be something of a test of how strong The Artist tide really is. If it wins here -- and places like costumes or screenplay -- then it might be the kind of sweeper Slumdog was (and King's Speech fell short of being). But if it doesn't, the evening might be more interesting than it currently appears.