So – barring the next post, which will be a general list of superlatives for the rest – why did I save this for last of all the featured lists regarding components of movie making in the 2010s? Because it’s actually the component to me.
I did call cinematography essential to cinema in the last, but frankly editing is more essential. It is the single most distinguishing feature of the medium: the fact that we are able to mandate what the audience sees and how, creating rhythms and developing vocabulary out of that. The most formative pictures in cinema history were mostly due to their utilization of the cut – just look at all that Soviet cinema from the 1920s – and recognizing the power of its impact. Even the early actualities that have no cuts and are just tests of the medium have one particular principle of cutting, duration (and boy oh boy will I sound like that guy if I say L’arrivee d’un Train a la Ciotat is overlong… so let’s pretend I didn’t).
Thereby a constant since the dawn of the medium and the thing that makes a movie speak the way it does, let us recognize…
THE BEST EDITED MOVIES OF THE 2010s
Disqualified Simply Because The Circumstances Felt Like Cheating Even Though I Do Highly Admire These Works of Cutting:
Evan & Galen Johnson – The Green Fog. For basically being glorified YouTube poop made up of pre-existing material, much as it results in some brilliant associative results.
Bob Murawski & Orson Welles – The Other Side of the Wind. For being the after-the-fact completion of a masterpiece film without the final say of the movie’s creator… even as exciting as the results are.
30. Sandra Adair – Boyhood (2014)
Those who mock that it took 12 years to make can go fuck off. Adair’s work for Boyhood feels not just like 12 years, but the exact way that will look back on a span of time… capturing the sense of breeze that one gets journeying through old memories, picking up small incidents and large wopping arcs in various levels of emphasis and underlining. Even the way that the duration of the whole film overstays its welcome (only by a bit) helps gives us the sense of coming back to the present and looking towards the future.
29. Brett W. Bachman – Mandy (2018)
If clarity’s what you want, you won’t particularly get it here. While the opening sequences have a patient meditative rhythm to them in establishing a character’s very own piece of heaven, once Bachman gets the ball rolling, it rolls fast and hard. Beginning the first sequence of aggression in cutting with a moment that uses strobe lighting as a indicator of where to lose track of characters’ movements and orientations to each other put us on the right foot for all the ways that Bachman tries to favor impact over continuity. Which is just as well for a movie about a one-track minded quest for vengeance.
28. James Herbert & Laura Jennings – Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
A little bit like what Boyhood is going for – trying to collect a vast span of time experienced (if not particularly really moving) into something compact and experiential – but now it gets to mix in other tricks: the erratic and stressful state of combat, the elliptical way of communicating fatigue, the rhythms and repetitions building momentum, and of course what’s really surprised me enough to fall in love with this movie is the way Herbert & Jennings take the Groundhog Day-like premise to stick in some really good jokes, making this a highly amusing experience just as much as a video game-like one where we build up to being badasses.
27. Alfonso Cuarón & Mark Sanger – Gravity (2013)
Patiently allowing shots to float for long stretches of time is kind of a no-brainer thing to do in space and it’s especially the sort of approach you’d expect for a Cuarón movie, but I think there’s a lot more rhythm in the selection of when those long takes should be applied here than other Cuarón’s films that have the time. It’s a thriller (which to be fair, so is Children of Men, but that one is trying to feel like an endless chase in ways Gravity isn’t) and so that means that when the peril grows, it’s time to get punchy but Cuarón and Sanger find a way to let that stress be maintained without losing that afloatness and even letting it add to the unsettling effect. Plus, isn’t it so fucking nice to have a 3D movie actually allow us to just live in the 3D shot for a minute rather than get in a rush?
26. Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall – The Social Network (2010)
I can’t remember the source – I would have thought it was Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar acceptance speech for the same movie, but I just replayed it and it wasn’t that – but SOMEBODY involved with the movie in their award speech noted Baxter & Wall’s work as being the sort of magic that turns typing keys into the same kind of excitement as a bank heist and I just can’t put it better than that. I can give it a try though in acknowledging how the editing for The Social Network plays exceptionally well as a visual dance with Reznor & Ross’ screenplay, which shouldn’t be a surprise when they both bring the same nervous energy of somebody analytical and cold at the same time. I’m pretty sure that no movie has been subject to fawning internet aesthetic analysis than The Social Network, so you can probably find plenty of examples on how Baxter and Wall pace a conversation to let us know where Zuckerberg loses somebody’s appreciation or the way that they cut through Harvard bro events like some sort of dark underworld. I feel like I’d be preaching to the choir if I said anymore about this movie.
25. Yang Jin-mo – Parasite (2019)
Parasite is the sort of precise movie that earns every bit of its acclaim and Yang’s cutting is no exception. It’s one thing to just know – outside of the last two minutes of the movie sadly – exactly what shot is needed and how long to have it so that Bong’s genre-fluid work can have that enviable tonal control through out. But it’s another thing to arrange those shots exactly in a way that invites the audience to recognize the major differences between each shot’s subject whether it’s a shot-reverse shot of two characters on different wavelengths, a consideration of two spaces and perspectives from them, or just calling attention to the doomed state of fatalism for two particular events happening simultaneously. I have to admit… when Parasite‘s loss of Best Film Editing and Best Production Design at the Oscars almost got me as mad as the win for Best Director and Best Picture got me happy.
24. Ted Guard, Yorgos Mavropsaridis, & Santiago Otherguy – Monos (2019)
These lists’ rankings are mostly arbitrary, I confess, and I don’t know I just decided to land with Parasite to Monos, but I’ll just go and lean with it because I think there’s a nice juxtaposition here: Parasite‘s editing is an example of precision in the service of objectivity and Monos‘ editing is an example of precision in the service of subjectivity (they also both happen to have fucking garbage endings, but let’s ignore that part and focus on the positive). Everything Monos chooses to do feels exactly right and that’s a thrilling thing in consideration of how it all functions to let us fly between several different perspectives without any real anchor for most of the runtime. Instead, it just makes sense that suddenly our focus is on the water because this character is swimming, but then we don’t get a whiplash when the next shot is looking up at the jungle covered sky because somebody is laying on guard and so it all goes so that he feel a bunch of experiences at one.
23. Anne McCabe – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
The best conversation scenes – in fact, the best way to cut conversation scenes – of the decade from the invisible job of McCabe silently coaxing us to recognize when one of Mr. Rogers’ talks with Vogel hits a moment of profundity regarding each others’ character, while also allowing that roadblocks receive the same underlining, and the manner in which the dynamics of the conversation shift. All it has to do is deal with the orientation of our characters and decide on how those can be adopted to certain beats and states and McCabe does so better than any movie I had seen since… well, since The Social Network in fact. Plus, that minute of silence doesn’t get to be a minute of silence without McCabe and what she decide to embed inside that moment only makes it astoundingly warm.
22. Job ter Burg – Elle (2016)
That dinner party scene is just wonderfully cut and paced. It’s the moment where the editing gets to take its nasty sense of humor – adopted from a movie that has been happy to adapt to its lead character antagonistic and critical nature by how it looks at characters – and translate it into a timebomb where the explosion is defused by one extremely well-timed joke. And yet outside of that, we still have that wonderful staring daggers perspective that ter Burg’s job here facilitates to get us in Michèle’s headspace and recognize the moments that tension and trauma will creep up in that space. That’s the major thing that makes this movie very hard to recommend: the manner in which ter Burg and Paul Verhoeven communicate the impact of these flashbacks to the central rape that knock Michèle out of her usually cool rhythm, but it’s also extremely effective cutting as psychology and it’s reflexive of the triggering nature of such a memory.
21. Megan Gill – Eye in the Sky (2015)
A confession: I was in a stage production back in college of a not-yet-produced screenplay (which since has been produced into a film, Drones, that I have not yet seen) and as you can probably tell by the title… it kind of reflects the same subject matter and even tensions as Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky. Obviously, that background is going to color my attitude of the movie a bit but how that did so was to make me fascinated of what Gill’s work did in building up the anticipation of something happening the more and more, it doesn’t. The nervous energy of having to jump between several rooms trying to see how the buck is passed and expect who is going to eventually bring the discussion to a decisive end is ideally agonizing as much as it is what thrillers are made up of. Gill keeps that momentum raising in speed and then lets the anticlimax of certain decisions cool down without assuaging us of the grim anxiety of the scenario and that’s just something to be respected.
20. Steven Soderbergh – Magic Mike (2012)
It’s a dance movie so that alone will demand Soderbergh (under his mother’s name of Mary Ann Bernard as he often credits himself) is on his best behavior in editing and he certainly maintains that same sense of spectator adoration to the strip routines as one would have in a sports event. But it’s also a comedy and a lot of that comedy comes by the form of reaction shots to the wild world and drama of this strip club backstage – I’ve hit upon my favorite in the Best Movie Moments, but a very close second is a moment between one guy watching a penis pump be used – and Soderbergh’s playful utilization of the basic way editing gives us comedy just charms me even more.
19. Leslie Jones & Peter McNulty – The Master (2012)
I know that if I haven’t said “psychology as cutting” a lot by this point, I’m going to say “psychology as cutting” in this list a lot. I think Jones and McNulty though have accomplished something very potent in understanding a troubled mindset like Freddie Quell and what goes into his mind and more importantly, the casualness of these cuts allowing us to slip into these uncomfortable revelations solely by the basis of what they are and not the abruptness of their digression.
18. Paul Tothill – Hanna (2011)
Hey, it’s a glorified music video for that same score I honored in the Best Scores list, just finding more and more ways to be a partner with the blasting rhythms of the Chemical Brothers. Can’t complain at all – it’s the most engaging I’ve ever found a Joe Wright picture and that line is exactly what hooks me into it. It’s dizzying excellent popcorn stuff.
17. Paul Machliss & Jonathan Amos – Baby Driver (2017)
Showy as hell, probably the showiest editing of Edgar Wright’s wonderful career of comedy through editing (just look at the Every Frame a Painting video about his visual comedy). But it is the manner by which the movie is dedicated to transforming every moment into a miniature music video just like Hanna above. I mean, the first scene is imitating the exact shot patterns of the “Blue Song” video, but that doesn’t mean the editing isn’t finding places to surprise us after that wonderful tease. Whether car chase setpiece or just grabbing coffee, Machliss & Amos’ work allows the cutting to feel just as much a dance move as the camera movements is a major part of what made Baby Driver such a flighty joy.
16. Mo Stoebe – Kedi (2016)
Not necessarily that it creates a narrative out of shots of stray cats, but it certainly creates a sense of… recurring characters. Recognizable cats that we can pass by while following another one and just spend some time with before catching up with another cat that we’ve already seen before. And it’s that sort of wandering nature of Stoebe’s work on Kedi that gives it a real charm, but we also all of a sudden find ourselves impressed upon with a new and unorthodox vision of Istanbul wholly tied to the places that cats go and the experiences they have.
Also, of course I will have the movie that is mostly shots of cats up in here. They know their bread and butter.
15. Mohamed A. Gawad, Vartan Avakian, & Barbra Bousset – In the Last Days of the City (2016)
What really surprised about this movie – despite the title kind of giving it away – was how it gave me the same vibe of those “Portrait of a City” movies like Manhatta, Man with a Movie Camera, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and… well, Kedi up above, without trying to really emulate it. It’s a narrative film and Gawad, Avakian, and Bousset keep that sense of narrative structure intact but aren’t afraid to divert into tangeants in a manner that seems distracted for the film. And yet the result is a collage of Cairo at a time and place and even… I’d dare to say a state of mind, giving me the excitement of a Foreign-film constructing its own vocabulary that I don’t think we’ve received since the Soviet editing experiments. But not at all an idiosyncratic one that would discourage people from watching the film.
14. Eddie Hamilton – Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
I’m going to sound like a complete fucking fool when I say this, but outside of the disqualified Green Fog, my favorite bit of editing joke was in Mission: Impossible – Fallout‘s climax. Tom Cruise has just climbed up to a helicopter that he intends to hijack and it is such an incredible feat that he needs to catch his breath when he gets up there… except the door is open so he swings in full view of the enemy sitting there and the movie takes a beat to show the man reacting to this. And then to Cruise hanging out the door awkwardly staring at the guy. And then back to the guy scoping up and down him trying to figure out what the fuck is happening and how. And then back to Cruise still looking fucking awkward. Each one of these shot-reverse shot cuts have the same obnoxiously shocker musical horn cue. And then the fight begins. I laugh like a maniac every time I see that moment, the way the editing comments on the absurdity of the situation and its hero’s endurance. And certainly the rest of Mission: Impossible – Fallout‘s intelligent sense of when to just linger and the maddening stunts that the characters are indulging in or when to continue the film’s committed sense of momentum pads this movie’s placement here quite nicely but that one moment is the cream of the crop for editing with a personality in my eyes.
13. Joe Walker – Sicario (2015)
I don’t know how many of y’all play guitar but there’s a really tense vibe I get when it comes to tuning an old string. Particularly the way that sometimes you need to tighten or slack up the string depending on how the note can land but each time, I’m also taking a single pluck out of it to see what note its on. When I slacken, it lets me breathe out a little bit but not too much because there’s still a danger to it for me. That pluck feels like poking at a land mine to me and I’m occasionally hesitating to pluck because I’m afraid it just might snap. And sometimes it does and when that happens my previous apprehension just peaks into a flinch and shock at what just occurred to me that is only leavened by then turning into disappointment that I need to buy a new string.
It sounds like an exaggeration of what should a mundane task and it’s really not that deep (I don’t really feel like I’ll lose an eye because I’m careful enough), but that is the feeling I get tuning a guitar string and Walker’s editing on Sicario gives me that exact same tension. Seen it twice now and it hasn’t failed.
12. Frederick Wiseman – National Gallery (2014)
Frederick Wiseman has been one of my newest discoveries of the decade and there is at least one movie this decade that I’ve admired more than National Gallery, I think National Gallery is the one where I really admired what he was doing with his post-production process. Obviously it’s admirable enough to take a Goliath amount of film and shape it into something (there will be many other entries below that also accomplish this), but National Gallery also leads us – more than any other Wiseman film – towards a logical sense of progression without implying any narrative or theme. It only wants to be able to nudge your interest from one area of the museum to another and I found it working remarkably well for me while leaving space for my own musings on what I’m witnessing. Engaging without coercion in invisible ways and all the more impressive on how this principle allows the movie to never feel boring for the entirety of its 3 hours.
11. Gareth Evans – The Raid 2 (2014)
Don’t know if it took you guys as long over the decade to learn this as it took me, but a lot of great action cinema is just the product of great action editing as this list illustrates (and will continue to illustrate). And when you’re like Gareth Evans and editing the very action picture you direct and co-choreograph, then I can’t help thinking that there’s going to be a real clarity of approach and capture. I sense it in moments like the prison mudfight where on top of maintaining the chaos of it all, we get this eager need to capture all these mini-stories of death. I sense it in the focused momentum of the car chase, the sense of direction and impact dancing around each other nicely so that we can get both without undercutting either. And even when it’s not the action setpieces that are showcasing the precision of staging and perspective that Evans put work into, there is still the way that the construction of this long movie is just tense build-up of its gangster premise that doubles as build-up to the next brawl.
10. Walter Fasano – Suspiria (2018)
It kind of makes sense to me that Luca Guadagnino and Fasano here worked together on Call Me by Your Name and Suspiria at the same time, but I honestly think Fasano’s disinterest or inability to establish coherent spacing or adapt to visual rhythm has a lot more merit being used in the hallucinatory horror movie about dancing witches than in the nostalgic movie about summertime romance. Here Fasano gets to allow all this confusion to function to disorient us as we spiral into the atmosphere of the characters both dealing with something hard to get a mental hold of and a historical time of intense stress. The fact that the editing is appropriate and welcome here. More importantly, since we can’t get a handle on what’s going on, the decisions on when to punctuate the intense violence of moments becomes that much more upsetting and blindsiding, which is the stuff of good fucking horror movies to do.
9. Kim Sun-min – The Wailing (2016)
Listen, this is mostly on the power of that cross-cutting ritual scene and the intensity and modulation it gets from that and you can read all about that scene in my Best Movie Moments list, so go there if you please. I’m going to approach Kim’s work here from a different angle. Do you realize how many 2 and a half fucking hour horror movies we’ve had in the last year alone? More than necessary, none of them knowing what the fuck to do with that runtime except fill themselves with “stuff” to try to justify the impression that they need to waste my time. And Kim’s The Wailing has that same massive runtime and doesn’t need to shed a single second of it. Kim effortlessly allows every moment to play a part in establish the sense of growing helplessness, the quiet town atmosphere, and cod-Exorcist fears about being the parent of such a doomed child. It’s all part of the same rhythm to him and even the movie makes me tired by the end via design, I never made me feel unengaged.
8. Atanas Georgiev – Honeyland (2019)
To somebody else, the obviousness with which Georgiev editorializes the documentary footage in Honeyland could be a problem. Sucks to be them, because I think what is a huge virtue of Georgiev’s work is how he is able to establish the sequence of events and the characters involved that sequence and leave it at that. We are given pure drama… but the drama is so mutable as to impose pull our own social observations from it all. And it is rich with potential social observation, I’m not sure that somebody could pick just one particular reading. Whatever it is, there’s no way a viewer can’t find an angle for this to speak to them.
7. Todd Douglas Miller – Apollo 11 (2019)
Ahhhh, the other miracle of 2019 in constructing documentary footage together into a narrative with its own interesting angles: this is pre-existing footage that was obviously taken for the sake of institutional archive and more importantly, this is an event that we already know about. So you wouldn’t expect it to be easy to construct into the stuff of a procedural thriller, but Miller finds a way… by God, he finds a way and at the end of it all, doesn’t impose any personal presence in the material. Just lets us sweat while watch these people try not to crash on the way to the moon and back.
6. Kayla Emter – Hustlers (2019)
I promised myself I’d give myself the challenge of not naming you-know-who and you-know-what-movie-of-his (or hers if you’re thinking of the editor and not the director). An excellent utilization of cutting to define the energy the two central characters exude, one of them exciting and dazzling and kinetic and the other hesitant being somebody who is a bit more scrutinizing to this new world of hers and so taking more time between moments. Which establishes this tug-of-war in codes in such an underlining way. But that’s just the tight way in which Emter establishes character-based tension with her editing. This is also just as much a hang out film about girls having a found family and because of that Emter knows when to relax from the sort of gangster-movie poppiness that the rest of the film would demand. And there’s also the way that Emter allows the aftermath guilt of certain perspectives in the films to sink in with shots that feel sedate in their wallowing. Overall, it’s a movie where Emter pulls out a bag a lot of tricks to keep the movie as fun as it is emotionally engaging and in actively modern ways that make the movie stand out separate from its obvious influences.
5. Steven Soderbergh – Haywire (2011)
Steven Soderbergh beating Steven Soderbergh on this very list (or Mary Ann Bernard beating Mary Ann Bernard if you want to go with that). Much as I noted that great action cinema is great action cutting, Soderbergh uses Haywire as a license to go ahead and do his genre-breaking thing. It’s not necessarily breaking the rules, so much as how he applies the rules: the action sequences have the feel of distant longeurs at this point (save for the excellent impact of the Fassbender fight) but the dialogue scenes are where all the clippy momentum starts happening. Hell of a way to turn our expectations around and give us a visual accompaniment to this character study on violence.
4. Pete Beaudreau – All Is Lost (2013)
You get one single setting for the entire runtime, so there’s no real sense of journey especially since the idea of the picture is to feel stranded. But there is a sense of urgency and that’s all thanks to the way that Beaudreau allows certain gestures to have the gravity of escalating survivalism. And the fact that he constructs these incidents in a manner that can still retain this movie’s blessedly slim duration means that we’re never particularly lo– uh, out of the loop on which beats brought us to this point and it adds to the exhilarating hope that all of these thing will build to a success.
3. Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, & Mark Yoshikawa – The Tree of Life (2011)
The final one of these “Massive Mounds of Footage Formed Together Into a Movie” entries and I think it’s very easy to see the scale of that by how many editors are involved in it. And yet we’ve received something deeply resonant with this work by so many authors – three of whom had worked with Terrence Malick before, but all of whom bring a different perspective to the scattered thoughts of one singular mind. And the editing maintains that singularity by the associative logic of the whole thing, the most obvious Malick touch and the logical evolution of what Corwin and Yoshikawa brought on their work in The New World and an exciting precursor to what experiments Malick would push forward on later in his career (reuniting with some of these editors). It never crosses the line from sprawling to messy, there’s always an emotional center to everything it is presenting us and the intensity with which it is doing so… an intensity that hits me right in my heart despite being made almost entirely out of matters I do not personally relate to. Abstract and profound at once in its treatment of space and time as a mutable concept.
Plus as a bonus, I don’t know if any of these editors are responsible for the Extended Cut that premiere in the Criterion Blu-Ray, but there’s now a brand new dichotomy to how each cut approaches the central setpiece of Creation and the flashbacks to post-war Austin… the theatrical cut has the austerity of a movie from the point of view of God answering the central question, but the more human and visually grounded extended cut now gives us the hope the characters developing their own answers. Having both of those at the same time for me to indulge in is brilliant.
2. Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir – Atomic Blonde (2017)
I don’t know if Chad Stahelski and David Leitch played rock-paper-scissors for who got Ronaldsdóttir to join in their career after the first John Wick or if there was no fight or whatever but however it happened, Leitch lucked out. Ronaldsdóttir doesn’t just bring an incredible intensity to the fight scenes of Atomic Blonde, though of course every moment of impact is felt almost exclusively by how Ronaldsdóttir stresses those landing blows. She brings the same intensity to the moments where characters are just lying to each other or following each other or just doing shady shit, they shouldn’t be doing… presenting all of these moments like a waiting game for things to collapse. It’s a key component of how Atomic Blonde works as a movie made up of attitude just as much as it is made of action, something that adds to its presentation of this cold fantasy Berlin as the color collected photography and the excellent costumes and the performances, just in a less thanked way.
Plus it IS fucking amazing action editing. Much as the John Wick sequels are better overall movies and have more impressive setpieces-qua-setpieces, they just do not pack the same “oomph” punch that Ronaldsdóttir brought here from the first.
Margaret Sixel – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Again… great action cinema is great action editing. Great cinema is great editing. And at the end of it all, Sixel’s work on Mad Max: Fury Road is some of the most incredible editing around. When I watch that movie, I think of how George Miller wisely recruited her simply because “it won’t look like every other action movie.” I think of how Steven Soderbergh was awed from this: “We are talking about the ability in three dimensions to break a sequence into a series of shots in which no matter how fast you’re cutting, you know where you are geographically”. And I mean they are both right, Sixel’s incredible work is the kind of thing that has its cake and eats it too: it goes for the sort of clarity you want in an action movie but also maintains the sort of manic chaos you want from a post-apocalypse. She finds a way in the vocabulary to communicate both of these apparently opposite objectives. She establishes that continuity of what should be an abstract chase in an indefinable desert bit by bit, while still maintaining that Miller touch of impact. The judicious utilization of speed ramping, the power of the insert shot to suddenly throw a new wrench of concerns, the exhausting power of the dissolve, and I think there’s even a return of one of my favorite bits of action editing ever in Mad Max 2, the hard cut to white to emphasize a hit. All of these tools to let things feel out of control, while let us remain in control. It’s no surprise that she’s married to the director when their dispositions as artists are so perfectly in conversation with one another. And I have to admit… out of all of the Oscar wins I agreed with in the past decade, nothing gave me more joy than this one. They fucked nailed it.