As we learned at the Oscars this year, the winners of Best Director and Best Picture don’t always go hand-in-hand. And while yesterday we took a very premature swing at the movies that might become 2017 Academy Award Best Picture nominees, if any of those come true and go on to win the big prizes, don’t assume Best Director will follow suit (for another recent example, the year "Argo" won the big prize, it was Ang Lee who took directing honors; Ben Affleck wasn’t even nominated).
READ MORE: Premature Oscar Predictions: The 2017 Best Picture Academy Award Contenders
All that to say, taking a very preliminary look at who could be in the mix for five slots for Best Director in 2017 sees a lot of possibility. Martin Scorsese will be back in the mix with a new film, as will Ang Lee, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg. And those veterans will pose a challenge to rising filmmakers like Amma Asante, Pablo Larraín, and even Nate Parker, who is coming in hot out of the Sundance Film Festival with the buzzed-about "The Birth Of A Nation."
Of course, we’re not psychic, and it’s a bit silly to be talking about any of this when we’re still hung over from this year’s Oscars, but consider this a bit of the hair of the dog. Take a nip, steel yourself, and check out our choices below, and as always, share your thoughts in the comment section.
Amma Asante – “A United Kingdom”
Only four women ever have been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. Only one woman has ever won. No woman of color has ever been nominated. That’s a shameful set of statistics, and even if we end up with a more racially diverse selection of acting nominees, it’s not one that’s likely to go unnoticed. The best chance of avoiding that situation might well be Amma Asante. The British director deserved more attention than she got for “Belle,” but has been gathering fans ever since, and if her new movie “A United Kingdom” lives up to the promise of its premise (see here), she could be set to break down some boundaries.
Pablo Larraín – “Jackie”
Like we said, Pablo Larraín has three movies out this year, and the sheer volume if nothing else should help make him more noticeable to Academy voters. And with “Jackie,” he picks up the reins from Darren Aronofsky (who’s still producing the movie), and seems primed for a sort of Lenny Abrahamson nomination: the kind of undervalued filmmaker much respected by his peers whose work is meticulous but unshowy. The film obviously needs to work, and to be seen as more than a performance showcase for Natalie Portman, but it’s so much in Larraín’s wheelhouse that this could be the year that he breaks into the mainstream.
Ang Lee – “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
There are three directors in history with more than two directing Oscars: Frank Capra, William Wyler and John Ford. Could Ang Lee become the fourth, and the first to manage the feat in nearly 60 years? He’s one of our most restless and fully achieved filmmakers, and has been for close to three decades, and even when his films don’t work (which is rarely), they’re always interesting. Iraq drama ‘Billy Lynn’ is well-poised for awards success in terms of its subject matter, and could see Lee bring home his third trophy. The wild card is a technical one: Lee is shooting the film in 120 FPS 3D. That’s twice the frame-rate that Peter Jackson shot “The Hobbit” in, and given the negative reaction there, it could prove to be a hindrance more than a help. Or it could be the next revolution. We’ll find out in November.
Nate Parker – “The Birth Of A Nation”
The Academy do love an actor turned director: Look at Best Picture or Best Director wins for Ben Affleck, Ron Howard, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Richard Attenborough and Robert Redford, among several others. Nate Parker was, until this year, not as well known as that lot, but if anything, the narrative of a striving working actor who took a chance and ended up with a titanic success could help him more. Reviews for his “Birth Of A Nation” have been glowing, and with Parker as ambassador for the movie, he’s likely to land more than one nod for his achievement.
Martin Scorsese – “Silence”
With five nods in 15 years, no one has popped up more regularly recently in Best Director than Martin Scorsese, and it paid off when he won the Oscar for “The Departed.” He’s the second-most-nominated helmer in history (tied with Billy Wilder, though still four behind William Wyler), and has still only one win to his name. Which is to say that if Scorsese was to win a second, not many people would be upset. Best Picture and Best Director are increasingly split (three times in the last four years), so even if “Silence” proved to be a little too out-there to take Best Picture, Scorsese could be a major, major threat.
Niki Caro – “The Zookeeper’s Wife”
Her international breakthrough “Whale Rider” won its lead actress an Oscar nod, while follow-up “North Country” got nominations for both Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand, but Caro herself has never really been in the conversation (particularly as her last two movies, “A Heavenly Vintage” and “McFarland, USA,” weren’t awards contenders). That could change this year with “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which gives her her most awards-friendly and potentially visually interesting material yet (she’s got “Blue Valentine” DP Andrij Parekh shooting the Jessica Chastain-starring movie), in the shape of a story about the Polish zookeepers who protected those fleeing the Nazis by hiding them in their animal cages.
Clint Eastwood – “Sully”
Clint Eastwood is already the record holder of the oldest man to win Best Director for “Million Dollar Baby” when he was 74. The legendary polymath turns 86 this year, and is still going strong: Could his latest movie, “Sully,” see him break not just his own record, but also beat out John Huston for the oldest nominee (he was 79 when nominated for “Prizzi’s Honor”)? His latest, starring Tom Hanks and Laura Linney, tells the story of the pilot who pulled off the emergency landing of his plane on the Hudson back in 2009, which provides potentially some of the most dramatic material Eastwood’s had in a while. And coming off the high of “American Sniper,” the biggest hit of Eastwood’s 60-year career, he’s well placed for a nomination (even if he hasn’t figured in the conversation since “Letters From Iwo Jima” a decade ago).
James Marsh – “Deep Water”
Though “The Theory Of Everything” was a multiple Oscar nominee, director James Marsh missed out on a nod, blocking his chance of picking up a second Academy Award (his first came for “Man On Wire” in 2009, which won Best Documentary). It was understandable — Marsh’s direction felt a little muted — but he could have a better chance this year as “Deep Water” sounds like it’s back in his wheelhouse in a big way. Written by the great Scott Z. Burns ("Contagion," "The Informant!"), it tells the true story of an amateur sailor (Colin Firth) who attempted to falsify his position in a 1968 round-the-world sailing race and seemingly lost his mind at sea. It’s darker material, more in the line with some of Marsh’s earlier films than with ‘Theory,’ but with Firth and Rachel Weisz in lead roles should still prove attractive to the Academy if he gets it right, as well as fitting into the current vogue for survival narratives.
Jeff Nichols – “Loving”
As our Berlin review of “Midnight Special” indicates, Jeff Nichols continues to go from strength to strength every time he’s at bat. And while his studio debut, a Spielberg-evoking sci-fi picture, likely won’t register with the Academy, his next film, which has already wrapped, might do the trick. “Loving” tells the true story of Mildred and Richard Loving, who were prosecuted for their interracial marriage in Virginia in 1958, and whose case made it to the Supreme Court causing laws banning similar marriages to be struck down. It’s topical and powerful stuff, the first time Nichols has taken on an issues-driven movie like this, and you’d be a fool to disregard him if the film connects with the Academy: He’s the kind of well-liked up-and-comer that the director’s branch increasingly pay attention to. Focus haven’t dated it yet, but the film could be ready to view by Cannes.
Steven Spielberg – “The BFG”
He’s still the most famous movie director in the world, but Steven Spielberg only has two Oscars (and only one Best Picture) to his name, and hasn’t won since 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Which is to say that you feel that he’s still got something in the tank, and maybe Roald Dahl adaptation “The BFG” could be the one to do it. At a time when everyone is ripping off Spielberg’s Amblin vibe, the helmer goes back to the real deal for the first time in years, and the film’s brief trailer suggests the kind of awe and wonder that many aim for, but few bar him can pull off. When he has won in the past, it’s been for more serious fare (and he missed nods for “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” among others), but maybe a kind of nostalgia kicks in at this point? Any way around, he’s got serious potential if the film lives up to our hopes.
Also In The Mix: Short version: the director of every movie we included in Best Picture piece. Also look out for Oliver Stone for “Snowden,” Damien Chazelle for “La La Land,” Robert Zemeckis and Warren Beatty for their untitled movies, J.A. Bayona for “A Monster Calls,” and Garth Davis for “Lion.”
And let’s not forget Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester By The Sea,” Woody Allen for his ’30s set picture, Tom Ford for “Nocturnal Animals,” Derek Cianfrance for “The Light Between Oceans,” Morten Tyldum for “Passengers,” Mike Mills for “20th Century Women,” Denis Villeneuve for “Story Of Your Life,” and David Michôd for “War Machine." Anyone else? Let us know your guesses in the comments.