Just as it is with trying to rank the best-written, -directed, or -shot movies of all time, it’s quite impossible to actually rank the best-edited films of all time. Filmmaking itself is an artform. And as such, each of its unique jobs are also subjective artforms.
Your favorite movie of all time might be different from your best friends’ lists. And because of this subjective nature, you can both be right (or wrong) at the same time.
That being said, there are certainly plenty of films which have stood out in terms of commercial and critical acclaim. And within these lists, there are films which have stood out for their editing in particular.
Let’s take a look at some of the best (or at least “most famous”) edited films of all time. We’ll also try and see what lessons we can learn from the talented editing artist behind the scenes of these cinema classics.
Battleship Potemkin (1925) — Edited by Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov
To start off our list, we have to talk about Battleship Potemkin. A staple of film classes and YouTube videos, Battleship Potemkin is often used to illustrate the first known uses of the “montage” editing technique.
In fact, filmmaker Sergie Eisenstein (who is supposed to have edited the film with contemporary Grigori Aleksandrov) is regarded as the father of Soviet montage theory and the central purveyor of the style.
As such, Battleship Potemkin stands tall as a hallmark film in cinema history in particular for its editing styles, techniques, and exploits — most particularly with its famous Odessa steps sequence which has been homaged time and time again.
Citizen Kane (1941) — Edited by Robert Wise
Known for its groundbreaking filmmaking styles and techniques, there’s a reason why Citizen Kane is still regarded today as one of cinema’s greatest achievements. And while the writing and cinematography might get the most attention, it’s also one of the best-edited films of all time and should be essential viewing for anyone starting off.
Edited by Robert Wise (a mentor of future editing titan Dede Allen) and with assistant editor Mark Robson (who would go on to have an illustrious career as well), Citizen Kane is a great example of how to mix editing pacing and styles, as well as incorporate long dissolves for thematic effect.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — Edited by Anne V. Coates
There are plenty of reasons to highlight this epic historical drama as one of the best-edited films of all time. However, regardless of the rest of its merits, Lawrence of Arabia’s legacy will come down to one specific (and iconic) cut.
Edited by the great Anne V. Coates (who won an Oscar for best editing for the film — one of her five nominations), the cut in question is a beautiful hard cut between the blowing out of a match and a stark, unforgivingly bright desert landscape.
The rest of the film is a beautiful example of classic Hollywood editing at its finest. But this one cut in particular is so perfect and powerful that it merits watching just to see and appreciate it in action.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) — Edited by Dede Allen
Long considered the pivotal film in introducing the New Hollywood era of cinema, Bonnie and Clyde stands tall as a masterclass in filmmaking. And while its legacy is grand, its famous editor — the highly talented Dede Allen — might actually be the biggest non-acting name in the film.
Regarded as one of the true “auteur” film editors of her time, Allen’s work cutting Bonnie and Clyde was done with flair and style which mainstream audiences had hardly conceived before the film.
Pulling inspiration from French New Wave and arthouse cinemas, Allen’s editing steals the show and is great viewing for any filmmakers looking to get inspiration for their own careers.
The French Connection (1971) — Edited by Gerald B. Greenberg
It’s funny to think about now, but up until the 1970s and 80s, there really wasn’t much of an “action” film genre to speak of. Which means, when more kinetic and audacious thriller films like The French Connection came out, editors like Gerald B. Greenberg had to figure out how to cut together some of the first (or at least finest) action sequences.
In particular, The French Connection is highly regarded for its car chase scene. Greenberg’s smart and visceral cutting style helps to create tension, suspense, and action and is required viewing for learning the roots of modern action.
Jaws (1975) — Edited by Verna Fields
An unspoken hero of the New Hollywood era of filmmaking, Verna Fields was regarded as the “mother cutter” behind the scenes for helping to launch the careers of future filmmaking greats like Peter Bogdanovich, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg.
So it should come as no surprise that Spielberg enlisted Fields' help and guidance to cut together his breakout thriller classic, Jaws, in 1975.
There might not be any scenes more iconic in film history than some of the first shark attack sequences from the original Jaws. Fields' works in the editing room helped to bring these hugely popular scenes to life with her crisp control of suspense-building.
Star Wars (1977) — Edited by Richard Chew, Marcia Lucas, and Paul Hirsch
While the stories behind the original Star Wars films’ production are well-documented filmmaking folklore at this point, its editing history is not as celebrated or known.
Editor John Jympson was actually the first to attempt to cut the film while it was still in production. But his job was quite an uphill battle, because Lucas had apparently not even explained the premise to Jympson when he started. Upset with the direction of the cut, Lucas eventually employed a three-headed team of editors of Richard Chew, Paul Hirsh, and his then-wife Marcia Lucas.
The hodgepodge approach might not be a typical post-production process. But their combined efforts cemented a style and formula that would not only inform how each subsequent Star Wars film would be paced and edited, but actually set the standard for every future blockbuster film’s editing.
Apocalypse Now (1979) — Edited by Walter Murch, Richard Marks, Gerald B. Greenberg, and Lisa Fruchtman
Since we’re going chronologically with our list, it’s almost sad to say that it’s taken us this long to get to the great film editor Walter Murch. Known in the industry as one of the “godfathers” of film and sound editing (most notably for his contributions to all three of the Godfather movies), Murch has made numerous and significant contributions to all manner of modern sound and video editing.
Apocalypse Now might be Murch at his best, as he worked on both the editing and sound editing. Murch, along with several other editors, tried to rein in one of the most infamously chaotic productions of all time. He has since gone on to be one of the best sources for film editing theory with his famous rule of six thesis and his excellent book In the Blink of an Eye.
Raging Bull (1980) — Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker
Similarly, we can finally highlight the outstanding work of perhaps the most famous film editor of all time: The phenomenal Thelma Schoonmaker.
A longtime collaborator and editor with Martin Scorsese, she has edited every one of the famous director’s films since Raging Bull — which is itself regarded as her greatest work and one of the best edited films of all time.
A three-time Oscar winner for best film editing (Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed), to even mention Scorsese’s name or influence without adding a caveat for Schoonmaker’s contributions is downright criminal. Her work behind the scenes has helped to shape everything from scene construction to pacing to emotional tones and thematic representation.
Memento (2000) — Edited by Dody Dorn
Moving into modern cinema, we can finally begin to take a look at how many of these classic films and groundbreaking editors have truly shaped this new world of film editing.
While not his first feature, Christopher Nolan’s Memento was his true breakout film and introduced audiences to a new voice and challenging narrative style. Dody Dorn (who has since gone on to be one of the most in-demand film editors for big budget blockbusters in recent years) was tasked with cutting together one of the most complex films of all time.
Dorn’s work piecing together the backwards format which the film takes — while still slipping in enough information and confusion to string the audience along — should be regarded as one of the best editing jobs ever completed.
Some other film editing Oscar-nominated films to check out
Before we end this discussion, we have to shout-out the myriad of films which the Motion Picture Editors Guild and active and life members of other motion picture arts communities have highlighted for the film editing category at the Academy Awards.
If you'd like to view a full list of the films which have been nominated for Best Film Editing or recieved a film editing Oscar, you can check out all of these best films here.
If you’d like to explore more film editing history, theory, and tips and tricks, here are some additional articles to check out on the Soundstripe blog:
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