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15 Great Filmmakers Who Deserve A Best Director Oscar

15 Great Filmmakers Who Deserve A Best Director Oscar

We’re coming to the end of David Fincher week here at The Playlist: we’ve already looked at his music videos, his unmade projects, and ranked his movies. But there’s something else we wanted to address before we wrapped up, and before “Gone Girl” opens tomorrow: Fincher and the awards season.

The director is generally seen as one of the very best filmmakers of the past twenty years, but despite a couple of nominations, he hasn’t yet picked up a Best Director Oscar. Not that there’s any shame in that. Some, like Martin Scorsese, have to go through the wringer several times before taking home a little golden trophy. And plenty of other legendary directors, including Stanley Kubrick and Sidney Lumet, never got one at all (as we documented in our feature 20 Celebrated Filmmakers Who Never Won A Best Directing Oscar).

Fincher’s hardly alone at this stage, as many of his contemporaries have been nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards without ever winning. Below you’ll find fifteen such filmmakers, including Fincher, who have previous nominations, but have never won the prize itself (those who’ve never picked up the nod will feature on another list down the line). Take a look below, and let us know who you think is the most deserving in the comments.

David O. Russell
Directing Nominations:”The Fighter” (2010), “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and “American Hustle” (2013)
Other Oscar History: All three of those films were also Best Picture nominees, and Russell picked up screenplay nominations for “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” the latter shared with Eric Warren Singer.
What He Should Have Won For: Once independent cinema’s enfant terrible, Russell has mellowed in recent years, and has broken through to the Academy establishment as a result. But if we were going to give him an Oscar for anything, it wouldn’t be for his “Yelling and Dolly Shots” trilogy, but for his third film, 1999’s “Three Kings.” Russell’s first venture into the mainstream and a box-office flop, the film looked on the surface like a sort of Boys-Own wartime actioner about a quartet of soldiers in the first Gulf War (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze) who aim to steal some of Saddam Hussein’s gold bullion. But there was as much “M*A*S*H” as “Kelly’s Heroes” in the picture, and Russell smuggled a subversive, moving film about American foreign policy, fuil of savage wit about the futility of war, while still delivering a satisfying and funny action picture. The performances are excellent across the board, and Russell left himself off the chain stylistically with some bravura shots (the famous one that goes inside Mark Wahlberg’s body as he’s shot), and distinctive photography. It was one of the very best films of the era, and still the high watermark of Russell’s career.
Next Chance Of Winning: Russell will be competing again next year, with his re-team with Jennifer Lawrence on “Joy.”

Terrence Malick
Directing Nominations: “The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The Tree Of Life” (2011)
Other Oscar History: Those two movies were also Best Picture nominees, and Malick picked up a Screenplay nod for “The Thin Red Line” as well.
What He Should Have Won For: The reclusive filmmaker was basically ignored by the Academy in the early part of his career (his “Days Of Heaven” scored a Cinematography win for Nestor Almendros), but his return with “The Thin Red Line” proved to be a real event, and the World War Two picture picked up seven Oscar nods (though Malick was beaten to the Oscar by Steven Spielberg and rival war picture “Saving Private Ryan“). And though Malick’s three subsequent movies have all been strong, we’d still give him the statuette for his comeback picture, “The Thin Red Line,” about as poetic, gorgeous and powerful a film in the genre as has ever been made. The film’s got a stronger narrative backbone than some of his later pictures (a relative term, perhaps), but Malick’s more concerned with the effect that war has on the landscape and on the soul, and the result is a film that lingers months and years after first viewing. Some of the starry cameos risk unbalancing the film, but it’s still the finest cast that Malick’s ever worked with (Elias Koteas being a particular standout). Spielberg’s picture might have captured the visceral horror of war, but it’s Malick’s that digs into every facet of conflict.
Next Chance To Win: Whenever Malick’s double-bill of “Knight Of Cups” and the still-untitled Ryan Gosling-starring picture arrive, hopefully next year.

Darren Aronofsky
Directing Nominations: “Black Swan” (2010)
Other Oscar History: “Black Swan” also picked up a Best Picture nod, and won Natalie Portman Best Actress that year. Ellen Burstyn picked up a Supporting Actress nomination for “Requiem For A Dream” a decade earlier as well, while “The Wrestler” got nods for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei.
What He Should Have Won For: Aronofsky’s work is always highly divisive, from debut “Pi” to this year’s unlikely Biblical blockbuster, “Noah.” But this is a case when the Academy probably got it right, at least by nominating his best work to date. “Black Swan” is among the most unlikely Best Picture nominees in recent years, blending classical ballet, “Persona” and a sort of giallo werewolf movie: that it works so well is mostly down to Aronofsky (not to forget Portman’s deseved Oscar-winning work). The filmmaker is often too sincere and unsubtle for many, but a stripped down, yet elevated genre picture is one of the best possible vehicles for his talents, and from the raw 16mm photography, the seamless effects works, the unnerving, nightmarish cutting and the bravura dance sequences, Aronofsky relishes the chance to let loose after his more understated, Dardenne-ish work on “The Wrestler” a couple of years before, like Michael Powell having a fever dream after too much Fantastic Fest queso. Surely that alone would have made him a more worthy winner than Tom Hooper for “The King’s Speech” that year, right?
Next Chance To Win: Technically Aronofsky is in the running this year for “Noah,” though don’t hold your breath for a nomination on that one (had the film had a fall release, maybe things would be different, though likely not). Beyond that, the director hasn’t yet announced a new project.

David Fincher
Directing Nominations: “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” (2008) and “The Social Network” (2010).
Other Oscar History: Both films were Best Picture nominees. ‘Button’ got thirteen nominations in total, winning three, while “The Social Network” also won three, from eight nods. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” picked up five nominations, including Best Actress, and won Best Editing.
What He Should Have Won For: Even Fincher’s worst movie is better directed than 90% of the films released these days, so there’s a lot to choose from here. But if we had to pick, we’d go for Fincher’s true-blue masterpiece “Zodiac,” a film that was entirely overlooked by the Academy (though a spring release date from Paramount, who didn’t know what to do with the movie, probably didn’t help). Fincher’s most substantial film to date, and a major transitional leap in terms of his style (it was his first picture for five years),  the film eschews the show-off qualities of “Fight Club” and “Panic Room,” for a more meticulous and consistent tone and approach, one that seemingly effortlessly crams a huge amount of information and characters into a coherent and gripping story that simply flies by. Personal, subtly funny and even terrifying in places, it led the way for Fincher’s embrace by the establishment in recent years.
Next Chance To Win: Fincher’s very much in the running for “Gone Girl” this time around, though the competition is stiff, with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Richard Linklater looking like locks at this stage, and Christopher Nolan and Angelina Jolie likely if their films deliver, and he’ll have to fight off people like Morten Tyldum, James Marsh and Ava DuVernay to make the cut. It’s probably not his year to win, all things considered, but you never know.

Quentin Tarantino
Directing Nominations: “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Inglourious Basterds” (2009).
Other Oscar History: Both “Pulp Fiction” and ‘Basterds’ were Best Picture nominees, and Tarantino won Screenplay Oscars for ‘Pulp’ and “Django Unchained,” which also picked up a Best Picture nod.
What He Should Have Won For: We’re team “Jackie Brown” ’til we die. Tarantino’s 1997 Elmore Leonard adaptation was almost totally overlooked by the Oscars (earning a single nod, for Robert Forster as Best Supporting Actor), but in our eyes, it’s his best movie and the last project he has made regarding, well, people, rather than riffing on other movies. Tangled and complex without feeling indulgent, taut and tense and restrained in a way that suggested a new maturity for the filmmaker that was quashed by the flying heads and anime sequences of “Kill Bill,” the film is his most grown-up and enduring work, with a timeless feel that’s seen it age better than most of his movies. And it features the most finely tuned performances of any of his pictures (that Pam Grier didn’t get a Best Actress nod that year is, frankly, astonishing). Perhaps if Tarantino had got more awards love for this film, he’d have made more like it, and he’d have retreated less into grindhouse than he did.
Next Chance To Win: Tarantino should be a major contender next year with his widescreen Western “The Hateful Eight.”

Paul Thomas Anderson
Directing Nominations: There Will Be Blood” (2007)
Other Oscar History: Anderson picked up screenwriting nominations for “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood,” and also got a Best Picture nomination for the latter, which received eight in total. Seven actors have been nominated for roles in PTA films (Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams), but only Day-Lewis took a trophy home.
What He Should Have Won For: One of the hardest picks to make, as there are arguments to be made for virtually any one of his films. Our first instinct was “Boogie Nights,” but it’s the work of a director still in thrall to his influences, and he certainly deserved the nod for the classical brilliance of “There Will Be Blood.” But in the end, we’ve plumped for “The Master,” a film that couldn’t have been made by anyone except Paul Thomas Anderson. His most idiosyncratic and puzzling work, the film develops a rhythm and tone unlike almost anything else. It’s not for everyone (despite the three acting nods, not enough Academy members liked it for a Best Picture nomination), and Anderson arguably overshoots the perfect ending, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work that seems to signal a new phase for one of our most talented filmmakers.
Next Chance To Win: This year, with “Inherent Vice.” Sight unseen, the perceived wisdom is that the film could be too wacky and comic to make much of an awards splash, but we’ll be finding out when it screens at the New York Film Festival this weekend.

Gus Van Sant
Directing Nominations: “Good Will Hunting” (1998) and “Milk” (2008)
Other Oscar History: Those two movies were both Best Picture nominees: ‘Hunting’ took nine nods in total, winning Oscars for Robin Williams as Supporting Actor and Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for Screenplay, while “Milk” got eight, winning for Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black.
What Should He Have Won For? Gus Van Sant’s career, at least in recent years, has been virtually schizophrenic, veering between Oscar-bait (sometimes successfully, sometimes not, as per “Finding Forrester,” “Restless” and “Promised Land“), and more experimental fare. As for his finest work, we’re most fond of his early films like “Drugstore Cowboy” and “To Die For,” but would probably just edge 2003’s “Elephant” over them, even if it’s not a film that would have a chance with the Academy. The second of his so-called “Death Trilogy” (after “Gerry” but before “Last Days“) the film is a docudramish, Alan Clarke-influenced tale of a school massacre (inspired by the Columbine shootings four years earlier), with Van Sant showcasing a spare, low-key style in a hypnotic and hugely powerful way, expertly juggling sickening violence and moments of curious beauty. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and Van Sant pulls it off beautifully. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year as well.
Next Chance To Win: Van Sant looks to be returning to more awards-friendly territory next year with “Sea Of Trees,” starring recent Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe. Could that be the one to finally win him the Oscar?

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Directing Nominations: “Babel” (2006)
Other Oscar History: “Babel” was also nominated for Best Picture, and picked up seven nods in total, winning for Best Score for Gustavo Santaolalla. Both 2000’s “Amores Perros” and 2010’s “Biutiful” were also nominated for Best Foreign Language film, with Javier Bardem grabbing a nod for the latter.”21 Grams” also earned nods for Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro.
What Should He Have Won For? We’d actually argue that the only film he’s been nominated for, “Babel,” is his weakest film. You could argue for any of the others: “Amores Perros” is a stunning debut, if uneven, while “Biutiful” is beautiful, if bleak. But our favorite to date (at least that’s hit theaters) is 2003’s “21 Grams.” A time-fractured melodrama with Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro that reteamed Inarritu with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, it’s occasionally a touch contrived, and is pretty tough going, but it packs a hell of a punch throughout, thanks in part to the stellar performances from the leads (plus supporting players like Charlotte Gainsbourg and Eddie Marsan), but mainly down to Inarritu’s filmmaking, which is as visceral and muscular here as in his debut. Up to this year, this was Inarritu’s most wholly satisfying picture.
Next Chance To Win: We’ll say this year, because the director’s “Birdman,” a serious change of pace, is about to hit theaters, and as you’ll know from our review and others, it’s a directorial tour-de-force that looks certain to earn Inarritu a second nod, and could well see him take the prize. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll have another chance next year with Leonardo DiCaprio v. bear drama “The Revenant,” which he starts shooting shortly.

Mike Leigh
Directing Nominations: “Secrets & Lies” (1996) and “Vera Drake” (2004)
Other Oscar History: Leigh also has five screenplay nods, for the two films above, and for 1999’s “Topsy-Turvy,” 2009’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and 2010’s “Another Year.” “Secrets & Lies” also got a Best Picture nod and nominations for Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, while “Topsy-Turvy” won for Costume and Makeup.
What Should He Have Won For? There’s essentially no such thing as a bad Mike Leigh film, but if we were going to pick one as his finest directorial achievement, it’d have to be his least awards-friendly film: 1993’s “Naked.” Far more bruising and abrasive than Leigh’s work is typically understood, it centers on Johnny (a stunning, Cannes-award-winning performance from David Thewlis), a young man who flees Manchester after a rape to hole up with and essentially torment his ex-girlfriend in London. A brutal portrait of post-Thatcher Britain, it has a fire in its belly that’s rarely been seen with Leigh before or since (bar perhaps Eddie Marsan‘s character in “Happy-Go-Lucky”), and if the film had gotten more awards exposure, perhaps the wider view of Leigh would be a different one. But given that this is a film that practically dares you not to like it, that was always going to be a bit unlikely.
Next Chance To Win: Leigh will be in the running this year again, for “Mr. Turner,” one of his very best films. Again, the competition is tough, but he’s certainly viable.

Sofia Coppola
Directing Nominations: “Lost In Translation” (2003)
Other Oscar History: “Lost In Translation” also picked up a Best Picture nomination, a Best Actor nod for Bill Murray, and Coppola won the prize for Best Screenplay that year. Three years later, “Marie Antoinette” won the Costume Design Oscar.
What Should She Have Won For? If, like us, you’re cooler on her last couple of films, most would lean towards “Lost In Translation,” still her most widely-liked film. We rate “Marie Antoinette” better than most, but we’re going to argue for her gorgeous debut, “The Virgin Suicides.” Based on Jeffrey Eugenides‘ novel, it tells the story of five sisters in 1970s Detroit who are dominated by their overbearing parents, with Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Kathleen Turner and James Woods among the cast. The film is a woozy, bittersweet coming-of-age tale, opaque and hypnotic, and aided to no end by Air‘s hall-of-fame score. Though it stands distinct from her father’s work, it was immediately clear that she inherited his great capacity for filmmaking, and a hugely promising career was launched. Coppola has done great work since, but this still feels like her finest hour to us.
Next Chance To Win: Coppola’s possible next film is an adaptation of “The Little Mermaid,” which could well turn out to be her best chance at awards in a decade or so, but that depends on if it starts rolling, or if she takes on another project something else first.

Pedro Almodovar
Directing Nominations: “Talk To Her” (2002)
Oscar History: Almodovar won a Screnplay Oscar for “Talk To Her.” “All About My Mother” also won the Foreign-Language Oscar in 1999, while Penelope Cruz was Best Actress-nominated for “Volver.”
What He Should Have Won For: Close at the top, but we’d just edge “All About My Mother” over “Talk To Her,” “Volver” and “The Skin I Live In,” as it was the film that transformed Almodovar from international cinema’s camp-loving bad boy to a respected and serious auteur. It’s a sparky melodrama about a nurse whose son is killed in a car accident, whose path then crosses with the boy’s father, a transvestite, a transsexual prostitute, a pregnant, HIV-positive nun, and a famous actress. Almodovar is one of the great directors of women working, and this Sirkian tale is his great love letter as such, with everyone from Cecilia Roth to Penelope Cruz delivering knockout performances, and the film remains his best meld of his broad, garish tendencies, his cinephilia, and the possibility of breaking your heart. The warmth and vision of the film is still staggering today, and while it was a worthy winner of the Foreign Language Oscar (one of the best ever in the category), it would have been great to see Almodovar recognized for this too.
Next Chance To Win: Almodovar hasn’t yet announced his follow-up to misfire “I’m So Excited,”but hopefully it’ll be a return to form.

Ridley Scott
Directing Nominations: “Thelma & Louise” (1991), “Gladiator” (2000) and “Black Hawk Down” (2001).
Other Oscar History: “Gladiator” also won Best Picture, was nominated for twelve in total, and won four others, including Best Actor for Russell Crowe. “Thelma & Louise” got six in total, including two Best Actress nods and a Screenplay win for Callie Khouri, while “Black Hawk Down” was nominated for four and won two. Beyond that, “Alien” and “Blade Runner” both got two nods (the former won for Best Visual Effects), as did “American Gangster,” and there’s a handful of nominations for some of his other films too.  
What He Should Have Won For: “A Good Year.” Kidding! “Blade Runner” is probably Scott’s best movie, but in a way, the direction on “Alien” is better: two years after “Star Wars,” Scott created a very different vision of space, a dingy, blue-collar world that’s proved just as influential, and not just in its depiction of its immediately iconic bad guy. The film’s essentially a haunted-house stalk-and-die picture in many ways, but Scott elevates it, not just in the sheer level of tension, but in the amount of character he infuses the film with, making it so much more than a pure genre film.
Next Chance To Win:Exodus: Gods And Kings” hits in December and could theoretically be in the running, but unless its much better than it looks, next year’s “The Martian” might be a safer bet.

David Lynch
Directing Nominations: “The Elephant Man” (1980), “Blue Velvet” (1986) and “Mulholland Drive” (2001).
Other Oscar History: “The Elephant Man” was nominated for eight Oscars in total, including Best Picture and Best Actor for John Hurt. Richard Farnsworth picked up a nomination for “The Straight Story,” and Diane Ladd for “Wild At Heart,” while Lynch is the only person to get Best Director nominations for two films that didn’t pick up any other nods Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation Of Christ” and Robert Altman‘s “Short Cuts” also managed the feat.
What He Should Have Won For: Several contenders, and the most traditionally Academy-friendly is likely “The Elephant Man,” a superb film that’s often underrated in Lynch’s canon due to a lack of backward-talking dwarves or what have you. But the only real answer here is “Mulholland Drive,” which as Academy unfriendly as it might seem at least got a nomination (and certainly would have been a more deserving winner than Ron Howard and “A Beautiful Mind“). Despite its origins as a TV pilot, ‘Drive’ stands as the crowning achievement of Lynch’s career, his most beguiling, terrifying, romantic and desperately sad picture. Blessed with an all-timer of a performance from Naomi Watts (that she wasn’t nominated that year is extraordinary), it’s a more coherent film than “Lost Highway” or “Inland Empire” (the latter of which just feels like a re-run of this, but twice as long and half as interesting), and yet richer and stranger and more baffling. And if you’re going to give Lynch an Oscar, giving it to him for his Hollywood nightmare feels like the most appropriate way to do so.
Next Chance To Win: Lynch hasn’t made a film in nearly eight years, and doesn’t appear to have any immediate plans to return to filmmaking. We live in hope, though.

Michael Mann
Directing Nominations: “The Insider” (1999)
Other Oscar History: Mann received three nods for “The Insider” in total, sharing a screenplay nomination with Eric Roth, and the producing credit on the Best Picture line-up with Pieter Jan Brugge (the film got seven in total). Follow-up “Ali” got acting nods for Will Smith and Jon Voight, while “Collateral” picked up one for Jamie Foxx along with an Editing nomination.
What He Should Have Won For: Though it remains ludicrous that “Last Of The Mohicans” got only one nomination and “Heat” got none at all, the Academy were right to laud “The Insider,” because it’s Mann’s best film by some distance. Mann & Roth’s script is one of the smartest and most savage looks at the media and corporate America ever brought to screen, and the film itself is a thriller that grips around your throat without the gunfights or battles common to much of the director’s other movies. Al Pacino gives perhaps his best latter-day performance, but he’s virtually blown off the screen by Russell Crowe, playing a character older than Pacino was at the time, and almost unrecognizable in his schlubbiness. It’s a great, great performance in a great, great film that, despite the seven Oscar nods, still feels like it’s due more recognition.
Next Chance To Win: After half-a-decade away, Mann’s back with hacker thriller “Blackhat.” Right now, the film isn’t scheduled to open until January, so unless it gets the rumored qualifying run, it doesn’t seem like Mann will be competing until the 2016 ceremony. But then, judging from the first trailer, it’s probably not competing whenever it opens.

Jane Campion
Directing Nominations: “The Piano” (1993)
Other Oscar History: Campion won a Screenplay Oscar for “The Piano,” which also picked up awards for Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, and eight nods in total, including Best Picture. Beyond that, “The Portrait of A Lady” got two nominations, including one for Supporting Actress for Barbara Hershey, while “Bright Star” got a nod for Costume Design.
What She Should Have Won For: If we could give Campion an Oscar for the TV show “Top Of The Lake,” maybe her finest hour, we would, and “The Piano” was certainly deserving of the attention it received, a tougher and more powerful film than it might have appeared on the surface. But if we were going to pick out any picture, it might be Campion’s most recent theatrical feature, 2009’s tremendous and underrated “Bright Star.” A biopic of poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), following his romance with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the film is a delicate and quietly passionate love story that (complete with photography from the then-unknown Greig Fraser, who is now one of the best in the game) captures all the complexity of an early affair, while simultaneously paying tribute to Keats’ work. Making a film about poetry work is quite a feat, and one that Campion deserved more recognition than she got for.
Next Chance To Win: After heading up the Cannes jury this year, it looks like Campion’s next could be an adaptation of Rachel Kushner‘s acclaimed novel “The Flamethrowers.”

Honorable Mentions: As we said above, we’ve limited this to directors who actually have Best Director nominations, so obvious picks like Spike Lee, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater will be dealt with a future piece. Among those who have nominations in the past, but didn’t make the cut here, are Spike Jonze, Peter Weir, Steve McQueen, Alexander Payne, Michael Haneke, Jason Reitman, Bennett Miller, George Clooney, Fernando Mereilles, Atom Egoyan, Neil Jordan, John Singleton, Stephen Frears, John Boorman, and plenty more. Let us know who you think is the most overlooked in the comments section.

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