Best Film Editing
Sequences of All-Time:
From the Silents to the Present


Written by Tim Dirks

Best Film Editing Sequences of All-Time
Title Screen
Film Title/ Director & Editor and Film Description

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, US/HK/China/Taiwan) (aka Wo Hu Cang Long)

d. Ang Lee

(Best Film Editing Nominee: Tim Squyres)

Ang Lee combined a tale about a mystical, legendary 400 year-old stolen sword (named Green Destiny), gravity-defying martial arts combat and kinetic action sequences, and star-crossed lovers.

It marked the first major American cross-over success of an Asian action film. Lee's martial arts film blended state-of-the-art fighting effects with a 19th century fantasy story of love and bravery.

The sword was stolen by the 18 year-old district governor's daughter - the impetuous, willful and headstrong masked thief Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) while apprenticing under the harsh tutelage of bitter, heartless and treacherous arch-criminal Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei).

The film's major set-piece after the theft was the beautifully-graceful, choreographed, stylized, and gravity-defying, blindingly-fast escape of Jen - she scaled up walls, across buildings, down alleyways, and over rooftops to attempt to elude the pursuit of security officer and female warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) who wanted to retrieve the stolen sword.

They were identified in medium close-ups before the drifting-and-floating pursuit and then once again when the two agile warriors began hand-to-hand fighting on the ground.

[Later in the film was another climactic, visually-stunning sword-fight scene set amidst lush green treetops when heroic, Wudan-style martial arts master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) battled young fighter Jen on the bending limbs of thin tree branches in a lush bamboo forest.]

Gladiator (2000)

d. Ridley Scott

(Best Film Editing Nominee: Pietro Scalia)

Although this action-filled sword-and-sandals epic was replete with CGI effects and won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, it was also exceptional for its sharply-edited gladiatorial competitions in the Colosseum for the benefit of the blood-thirsty crowds and Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).

Heroic Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), known only as the masked, silver-helmeted "Spaniard," led slave trader Proximo's (Oliver Reed) trained gladiators in a mock Battle of Carthage that pitted Barbarians (the losing side) against chariot-drawn archery competitors (the Spaniard urged them to victory: "Whatever comes out of these gates, we've got a better chance of survival if we work together"). Maximus led his group to a decisive victory against the more powerful forces, and then identified himself as Meridius - seeking vengeance against the Emperor for the murder of his family..

He later fought, without his mask, single-handedly in an intense battle in the Colosseum against Rome's only undefeated gladiator - the legendary Tigris of Gaul (Sven-Ole Thorsen).

Their vicious swordplay was enhanced by the unleashing of chained tigers (with handlers) that targeted Maximus and lunged at him periodically. Maximus ultimately defeated Tigris and waited for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down signal whether to kill or spare his opponent. When given a thumbs-down, he refused to obey Commodus' command to strike the death blow to his downed and bloodied competitor. It was an insult to the Emperor, but a crowd-pleaser, and he earned the name "Maximus the Merciful."

Memento (2000)

d. Christopher Nolan

(Best Film Editing Nominee: Dody Dorn)

This thought-provoking, unique and puzzling thriller was told in reverse and was challenging in itself just to watch due to its non-linear, backwards narrative structure.

A crucial fact about the smoothly-edited film was that all the black and white scenes in the film played in correct chronological order, while the color scenes (each about five minutes in length) played in reverse order. Both narratives played separately and alternately until the film's climactic conclusion when the two strands merged into a color sequence.

The twisty film told about how anterograde amnesia sufferer and ex-insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) was investigating the brutal and cold-blooded rape and murder of his wife during a late-night burglary (Leonard suffered amnesia during the attack due to a blow to his skull). He was using his own self-inflicted tattoos, Polaroids, and cryptic notes to aid his short-term memory and provide clues to finding the second intruder who got away.

In the first scene, Leonard killed crooked cop "Teddy" Gammell (Joe Pantoliano), whose real name was John Edward Gammel (John G), believing he was one of the murderous burglars - but Teddy was the 'wrong guy' and wasn't responsible for his wife's death at all.

And as the film unfolded, it was revealed that Leonard had, ironically, remembered only some elements about his wife's traumatic death (she had actually survived the rape attack!), but only as a projection onto an accident insurance client named Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) that he was investigating.

Leonard told a revealing but semi-confused story (intermixed with facts about his own life) about Sammy (whose name was tattooed in cursive writing on his left hand as "Remember Sammy Jankis"), believing that Sammy had faked suffering from memory loss. This led to suspicions that Leonard in parallel fashion had killed his own wife, when she expired from a diabetic coma (not the rape!) when he forgetfully provided her with an insulin overdose when she was testing his memory.

Leonard even admitted to himself in the film: "I think someone's f--kin' with me, trying to get me to kill the wrong guy" - and as Teddy was quoted as saying: "Maybe you should start investigating yourself."

The big reveal at the end was the realization that Leonard felt he needed the hunt to give himself purpose in life. He had chosen to leave notes to convince himself that Teddy was the guilty rapist ("DON'T BELIEVE HIS LIES" was written on Teddy's Polaroid).

This was because Teddy actually knew the 'truth' about Leonard and the real cause of his wife's death -- things which Leonard did not want to face, while Teddy was attempting to convince Leonard to end his vengeful hunt, since he had killed his wife's rapist, John G, a year earlier.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

d. Darren Aronofsky
Film Editor: Jay Rabinowitz

This unforgettable anti-drug cautionary tale was composed of many cinematic techniques, including:

  • inventive, rapid and stylistic jump-cuts (called a "hip-hop" montage)
  • split-screens
  • extreme close-ups
  • assaultive audio
  • distorted images

Aronofsky employed the repeated quick-cutting of multiple intensely-close-up images in the film whenever one of the principal drug-addicted characters (in this instance, Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly)) shot up, consumed or snorted drugs:

One Example of a Montage of Drug-Use

The unrated (originally rated NC-17) film's tense and final 15 to 20 minutes were assembled together into a powerful montage, to illustrate how lives were utterly shattered and affected by diet pills and stronger drugs. The independent film had about three times the number of edits (2,000) when compared to an average film (600+), especially during the ending when each of the shots were shortened and then presented in an intensely-rapid pace along with a memorable soundtrack.

In one of the harrowing ending sequences, elderly Brighton Beach widow Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) - addicted to a regimen of amphetamine diet pills - was subjected to intense electro-shock therapy treatment in a mental institution, while her heroin-addicted druggie son Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) had his painfully-infected arm amputated (due to repeated intravenous injections) - with blood spurting onto his face from the saw. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Marion Silver prostituted herself in a decadent lesbian orgy to raise money to support her addiction.

All of the main characters ended up in a fetal position as the film concluded.

Sara's Electro-shock Therapy

Four Fetal Positions

City of God (2002, Braz./Fr./US) (aka Cidade de Deus)

d. Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund

(Best Film Editing Nominee: Daniel Rezende)

Covering a period of two decades (from the 1960s to the 1980s), this auteurist crime-drama film told about the Cidade de Deus, a violent slum-ghetto section of housing projects in Rio de Janiero. There, a young fishmonger's son grew up amidst gang warfare and drug-dealing.

The all-digital film was rich with experimental techniques, including:

  • "Matrix"-style camera rotations and dolly shots
  • sped-up motion
  • frantic jump-cut edits
  • frenetic montage
  • a mobile hand-held camera
  • freeze frames
  • frenzied strobe lighting
  • a varied musical sound track (from samba to disco)
  • and the POV of a ricocheting bullet in one scene

It opened with a crisply-edited, full-of-energy, electrifying credits sequence, underscored with frenetic music and violence typically found in the underbelly of Rio. Chickens were being prepared by a gang for a picnic meal of shish-kabobs. The birds were de-feathered and cleaned with long sharpened machetes, but one live chicken escaped and was chased through the streets (and even shot at) by the gang.

The group ran into the main protagonist or narrator, an aspiring photo-journalist named Rocket/Buscape (Alexandre Rodrigues) who introduced the story with a flashback to ten years earlier (signified by a shift to sepia-tone), after he found himself, in a whirling, circling shot (a bullet-time type wipe shot), between the gang members and the cops.

Spider-Man (2002)

d. Sam Raimi
Film Editors: Arthur Coburn, Bob Murawski

Geeky, bespectacled Midtown HS senior Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) had recently been bitten by a "genetically-designed super-spider" during a school field trip to Columbia University's Science Department - and was soon transformed.

In the CGI-enhanced Costume Montage sequence, he brainstormed - and designed a crude 'Human Spider' costume for himself in preparation for entering an amateur wrestling competition to win $3,000 in order to buy a car to impress his next-door neighbor classmate Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst).

Prototype sketches of a costume and its 'spider' symbol were made and displayed through a series of overlapping, superimposed images.

Reportedly there were over 40 live-action and graphic elements combined in the approximately one-minute segment.

xXx (2002) (aka Triple X)

d. Rob Cohen
Film Editor: Chris Lebenzon, Joel Negron, Paul Rubell

Director Rob Cohen's PG-13-rated action film, with a very cliched and thin James Bondian-styled plot, had a booming soundtrack and well-choreographed stunts, including:

  • fiery explosions at a Colombian drug ranch
  • skydiving
  • soaring motorcycles
  • a snowy avalanche

It starred Vin Diesel as unemployed, anti-authority, cyber-savvy bad-ass and extreme-sports daredevil named Xander Cage.

In the film's spectacular scene of a death-defying, flying motorcycle stunt (filmed with nine cameras from different angles to produce a "cubist editing" approach), the rule-breaking, muscle-bound, leather-clad and tattooed Xander took a five-second bike jump over an exploding barn in the Colombian drug farm scene, between two strands of razor wire atop a 30-foot fence while military helicopters were engaged in machine-gun fire above him.

The jump's duration was extended to about 30 seconds, through film editing. The action cut away, then showed various angles of the same jump (from behind, the side, from above and from below) -- to heighten the adrenaline-rushing experience.

Best Film Editing Sequences
(chronological order)
Introduction | 1900-1919 | 1920-1939 | 1940-1959 | 1960-1966 | 1967-1969 | 1970-1977
1978-1989 | 1990-1995 | 1996-1999 | 2000-now

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