Oscars: Is The Best Director Competition More Than A Two-Horse Race?

Oscars: Is The Best Director Competition More Than A Two-Horse Race?
Oscars: Is The Best Director Competition More Than Two-Horse Race?

If this year’s Best Picture race is tough (and it is, even with films like “Foxcatcher” and “Monuments Men” pushed into 2014), it’s nothing compared to the fight that’s brewing in Best Director. The category has evolved somewhat since the Best Picture field expanded to ten films. Before that change, the line-up tended to mirror the five Best Picture nominees, with the occasional exception, usually for an arthouse Euro-auteur like Mike Leigh (for “Vera Drake” in 2005) or Julian Schnabel (for “Diving Bell & The Butterfly” in 2008). And it’s still true that the directing nominees are mostly drawn from the Best Picture nominees, but with more opportunity for a film to get recognized in the bigger category, it does seem to have enabled the directors’ branch to be more idiosyncratic in their choices.

Logic would suggest that with five directing nominations, it would be a reflection of the five films most likely to be nominated for Best Picture, but that’s not really how it’s shaken out: there was little-to-no chance of “The Tree Of Life,” “Amour” or “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” actually taking the top award, but it didn’t stop Terrence Malick, Michael Haneke or Benh Zeitlin all picking up nominations in recent years. Meanwhile, last year saw “Argo” become the first film since “Driving Miss Daisy” to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination (one could argue that the film’s win was partly attributable to the upset over the snub for Ben Affleck). So how’s the competition looking this year?

Even given the relative unpredictability in the category in recent years, one can probably rule out the likes of Richard Linklater, Ryan Coogler, Jason Reitman, Abdellatif Kechiche and Jeff Nichols, whose films don’t quite have the Best Picture traction of some of their competitors, and are unlikely to be nominees. Other films are more on the border at the moment: the likes of “Prisoners,” “Rush,” “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” and “The Book Thief” looked like strong possibilities at one point, but have rather fallen over time. Outside of a groundswell of love or acclaim, it’s unlikely that Denis Villeneuve, Ron Howard, Ben Stiller or Brian Percival will figure in this year. There’s also a couple of directors, such as Peter Berg and Scott Cooper, whose films are yet to be seen, though both will be unveiled at AFI Fest in the next couple of weeks.

With most of those directors ruled out, we’re left with a field of about fifteen viable contenders. Especially with the last few auteur-happy years, there’s a certain kind of film that, while it might be awards-friendly, doesn’t necessarily get attention for the filmmaker unless it’s a real frontrunner (something like “The King’s Speech” isn’t a director’s movie in the traditional sense, but if voters love it enough, the filmmaker will get a nomination, and even win, as did Tom Hooper). So, while “Dallas Buyers Club,” “August: Osage County,” “Philomena,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”  might yet be Best Picture nominees, it’s hard to see Jean-Marc Vallee, John Wells, Stephen Frears and Lee Daniels getting nods in January, despite the latter two being prior nominees (for “The Grifters,” “The Queen” and “Precious,” respectively).

John Lee Hancock is somewhat in the same boat for “Saving Mr. Banks,” which is a surefire nominee, but not a particularly showy film. But it’s not inconceivable that, if the voters really take to the film, he could end up in the final five. Meanwhile, Alexander Payne has two Oscars (both for writing), and two nominations for directing, but “Nebraska” doesn’t quite have the same momentum that “The Descendants” did, so we suspect he’ll miss out this time around. Similarly, Woody Allen is a favorite, and picked up a nod only two years ago for “Midnight In Paris,” but with “Blue Jasmine” on the bubble as a Best Picture nominee, and showier competition around, he’ll likely have to take another screenplay nod as a consolation (not that he cares, obviously).

At this point, we’re left with a field of eight strong possibilities, most of whom are veterans with at least one nomination, and in the case of Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers, previous winners. The biggest neophyte of the group, even though he won a screenplay nod for his debut “Margin Call,” is J.C. Chandor, whose “All Is Lost” is only his second film. Most of the attention on the film in advance has focused on Robert Redford‘s performance, and the actor will be a nominee whatever happens, but Chandor’s achievement is just as impressive; he really demonstrates himself to be a first-rank filmmaker with an incredibly powerful piece of visual storytelling, and would be a worthy nominee (he’s certainly be in our ballot at this point). But with the film underperforming at the box office, he has a harder road to walk, and his status as a relative unknown in a field of near-legends may see him missing out.

Better known is Spike Jonze: he was a nominee for his debut “Being John Malkovich,” even though the film wasn’t a Best Picture contender. That said, Jonze has generally been hipper than the Academy’s usual tastes, and the subject matter of his latest, “Her,” isn’t necessarily going to appeal to voters any more. But it is the director’s most personal film, and there’s a lot of critical support. If the film can keep up the momentum it’s building and break into the Best Picture field, Jonze could well follow it.

As we said, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers are both previous winners in the category (though relatively recent: they won in successive years, 2007 and 2008), and will certainly be competing again. “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t one of their most accessible films, but we do think it’ll be among the Best Picture nominees, and with the pair now in the club, as it were, there’s a fair chance of another nomination. As for Scorsese, we have no clue about “The Wolf Of Wall Street” yet, as it’s still being finished, but only a fool would doubt him, given he has seven nods in the category.

The four remaining directors are two filmmakers who have previous nominations in the category, without having won, and two who have never picked up nods here, but are certainly thoroughly deserving. Paul Greengrass was honored for “United 93” (another film which didn’t get a Best Picture nomination), and has picked up his best notices since that film for “Captain Phillips.” It’s proven popular with audiences and critics, but given the fierce competition, Greengrass could possibly fall out.

Meanwhile, David O. Russell has nominations for both “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” in the last few years, and there’s a certain feeling in the air that he’s due. But of course, “American Hustle” needs to deliver — it’s still some way off completion, and likely won’t be unveiled for another month at least. We’ve heard some good buzz, but also some suggestion that the film wasn’t quite working, so this could still go either way. But if the movie does live up to our hopes, Russell will certainly be a nominee, and might even challenge for the win.

Russell’s probably the only filmmaker that could stop this from being a two-horse race, between two directors who would be first-time nominees. Steve McQueen‘s first two films, “Hunger” and “Shame,” weren’t really on Academy radars, but “12 Years A Slave” certainly is, with ecstatic reviews and strong box office so far. But even if the film wins Best Picture, which is more than a possibility, McQueen might not necessarily follow it. He dampened down his rather austere style into something more classical, which helps, but he’s not yet shown a warmer side to a public persona that can be prickly. While we wish that didn’t matter, just look at David Fincher losing out to Tom Hooper for how personality can sometimes matter. The strength of the achievement, and its historical power (McQueen would be the first black director to win Best Picture) may yet win out, but there’ll be ups and downs to come.

And in part, that’s because of “Gravity,” and its director Alfonso Cuaron. For a while, the Mexican filmmaker (nominated three times: for screenplay for “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Children Of Men,” with an editing nod for the latter as well) was the best helmer that wasn’t quite a household name, but the blockbuster success of his space adventure has changed that almost immediately. The film’s also more purely a director’s vision, with groundbreaking techniques and innovation, and more obviously showy touches. Both are guaranteed to be nominees. But it’ll take some time to tell whether this year will mirror the last ceremony, when Ang Lee‘s visionary 3D “Life Of Pi” film won out over Steven Spielberg‘s historical epic “Lincoln,” or whether it’ll be closer to 2010, when voters decided to make history by awarding the statue to Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” over James Cameron‘s game-changing VFX extravaganza “Avatar.”

Our nominations as it stands below. The Best Picture chart will return next week.

Best Director Predictions – Wednesday October 30th

Alfonso Cuaron – “Gravity”

Paul Greengrass – Captain Phillips”

Steve McQueen – “12 Years A Slave”

David O. Russell – “American Hustle”

Martin Scorsese – “The Wolf Of Wall Street”

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