Unlike Best Picture, the Best Director category at the Academy Awards is still only made up of five slots, and it's tough to crack in there, especially as nominees are usually aligned with the Best Picture nominees. More than almost any other category, the merits of a film's direction can sometimes be overlooked in favor of the helmer of the best-liked film, rather than the one who did the most surprising, boldest and impressive work of the year.
As such, having looked at the acting categories in the last few days, we wanted to highlight some directors whose chances of a nomination are slim (right now it's looking like Steven Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, Ben Affleck, and either Tom Hooper or David O. Russell will take those places), but who are just as deserving as the competition. If you are an Academy member, why not take a chance and vote for one of the below. For all The Playlist's year-end coverage, make sure to follow all our Best Of 2012 features.
Joe Wright – "Anna Karenina"
One of the few chances a director has at landing a nomination if their film will be ignored for Best Picture is if their work is showy, in a film where it's clear that the filmmaker involved is responsible for the style and tone of the piece (see Julian Schnabel for "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly" a few years back). And this year, Joe Wright ticks that box with his version of "Anna Karenina." Originally intended to be a more traditional kind of period piece, budgetary issues led to Wright using adversity to his advantage, retooling the film into a non-naturalistic tale set almost entirely within the confines of a theater. Which makes it sound by its very existence stagey, but Wright turns it into something thrillingly cinematic, a curious midway point between Powell & Pressburger, Busby Berkeley and Bertolt Brecht. Long steadicam shots, stunning production design and a few coup de theaters all add up to one of the most original takes on the costume drama we've ever seen, which contrasts the artificiality of the lives of the Russian aristocrats against the "purer," more pastoral life of Levin (Domnhall Gleeson). The cast are superb, the team that Wright has assembled (including returning collaborators composer Dario Marianelli and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) are working at full throttle, and it's both intellectually rigorous and quietly moving. It's the director's best film yet, and a nomination would go some way to making up for him being passed over for his work on the Best Picture-nominated "Atonement" five years ago.
Christopher Nolan – "The Dark Knight Rises"
Famously, the Academy doesn't seem to be convinced by Christopher Nolan; while his films have picked up multiple nominations, he's only ever had one, for writing "Memento," and when "Inception" was nominated for Best Picture two years ago, Nolan was passed over again for Director. In all likelihood, he'll have to wait for his next film before he breaks into the club, but we'd argue that his work on "The Dark Knight Rises" is as worthy as any of the directors who are in serious contention. His third and final Bat-film may not scale the giddy heights of "Inception" (except for literally, in that aerial opening sequence…), but it's the most technically accomplished and adept film he's ever made. He's become more and more confident with his action sequences, which are on a grand scale here (that opening scene, and the stadium explosion, number among the best set pieces of his career), but Nolan's also skilled at the smaller, more intimate moments, with the scene between Bruce Wayne and Alfred proving to be the most emotional of his career. More than anything else, there's simply no one (well, maybe one person) who's making films like Nolan: big, massive scale productions, shot on film, with minimal CGI and emphasis on practical effects wherever possible. And we think that's something that should be applauded, particularly for a film as rich and satisfying as "The Dark Knight Rises."
Paul Thomas Anderson – "The Master"
Okay, so there is someone else working in a similar old-school manner to Nolan — Paul Thomas Anderson. Initially looking like an early lock for a nomination, the director (who only has one prior nod, for "There Will Be Blood" five years back) has slipped out of serious contention after the film died at the box office, and reviews proved divisive. But even those slightly cooler on the film must give some props to the filmmaker, who broke away from the influences (Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese) that have long hung over his work and produced something truly original and distinctive. Again, the quality of his craft can't be questioned. The 70mm cinematography is stunning, with some of the director's most memorable imagery yet, and the editing is hypnotic and unlike anything we've seen before, the film establishing a totally new rhythm. And he once again reaffirms his position as one of the best directors of actors out there (it's always curious, as with this film, when all three major actors in the film are touted for awards, but the director — the common thread — is overlooked). Whether or not you believe that Anderson's script ties together properly, it features some of the best scenes he's ever produced. And even if you do find the film a little lacking, it's hard to disagree with the idea that even Paul Thomas Anderson's failures are better directed than 95% of the successes out there.
Sarah Polley – “Take This Waltz”
Writer/directors are a breed we love and female writer/directors all the more since they’re a fairly rare species in Hollywood. Actress-turned-writer/director Sarah Polley is that tremendously special rare talent. A lot of people are polarized by “Take This Waltz,” a sensuous, sort of fairy tale adultery story set in Toronto during a sweltering summer. It features selfish, mockingbird-like characters that are attracted to shiny new objects and everyone in the film makes poor decisions. Moreover, Polley takes a lot of risks in the picture and purposefully holds back where other filmmakers would have played certain moments for further swooning romanticism or heartbreaking manipulation. And “Take This Waltz” is woozy and devastating, but generally on its own terms. It’s brilliantly realized and captures the frustratingly real messiness of imperfect people and the consequences of selfish or immature decisions. For that, it was hard for some to embrace, but for many of us, it’s a bold and lovely picture, sad, sensual, and a little disheveled like life. Featuring honest performances from the likes of Seth Rogen, a terrific dreamy lens and an ace soundtrack, Polley pulls out a lot of stops without overdoing it. She’s also got a fantastically inventive, poignant and smart documentary coming in 2013 called “The Stories We Tell,” and if you’re somehow unsure of her talents thus far, this upcoming documentary seals the deal for her staying power.
Jacques Audiard – “Rust & Bone”
While foreigner filmmakers like Milos Forman, Billy Wilder and Roman Polanski (among many others) have come to Hollywood to do bigger, bolder work, often on larger, more expensive canvases, Jacques Audiard needed nothing of the kind after his Oscar nominated "The Prophet." And while France submitted the more saccharine and overtly crowd-pleasing “The Intouchables” this year as their Oscar hope, Audiard’s “Rust & Bone” still feels like it has the potential to rise out of the foreign film ghetto and compete for the big awards. And it’s easy to see why. Vivid, evocative and as striking as all his visually poetic previous films, Audiard seems to be the master of pulling tough raw performances out of already-terrific actors (in this case Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts) and then wrapping them in his cinematic aesthetic that’s usually beautiful and punishing. “Rust & Bone” is not without its critics, who claim some of the script is a mess, with an even messier third act, but many of us would argue, the messiness of life, the blood, the tears, the pain, the scars are what Audiard mines for in this picture, coming out the other end with something hauntingly memorable.