*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*
Believe it or not, Whiplash was perhaps the most exciting, pulse-pounding thriller of 2014. No, there were no high-speed chases, nor were there any shootouts between troubled men, nor were there any explosions of fire and fury. Instead, the film is a tense battle of wits at a prestigious music school, where talented jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) seeks the approval of his terrifying, brilliant instructor, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is a sadist, and Andrew is a glutton for his punishment, eager to do whatever it takes to impress him and be acknowledged. It's a horrifyingly abusive relationship built on a game of derogatory cat-and-mouse; Fifty Shades of Grey has nothing on this film.
So it's not particularly surprising that Whiplash earned an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing when that category has long had a soft-spot for tightly-wound thrillers. Even just looking at the past ten years, this category lists The Departed (2006), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), The Hurt Locker (2009), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) among its winners, with nominees including Collateral (2004), The Constant Gardener (2005), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Captain Phillips (2013). You could go back even further and see that Three Days of the Condor (1975), Robocop (1987), Die Hard (1988), Basic Instinct (1992), and Air Force One (1997) were all nominees in this category as well.
Whiplash deserves this award, however, because the editing is crucial to the film's frenzied build. In many ways, the editing functions as the conductor of the jazz ensemble that is the film, tightly controlling the tempo, the dynamics, tossing in a lighter phrase before hitting the next crescendo. The film cuts quickly between Fletcher's prestige jazz ensemble prepping their instruments to him conducting, alternating between the characters' faces and feet tapping the ground to keep the tempo. The editing pulses with a rhythm that's not unlike the high-energy jazz number that is the ensemble's centerpiece performance, also called "Whiplash." It's a dazzling feat that culminates in the year's most intense, electrifying finale, a burst of cathartic release that perfectly pays off everything the film built up.
Sure, there were other terrific feats of editing this year. But none were as powerfully effective as the rat-a-tat editing in Whiplash.