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The State of the Race — The Directors: Gods & Demigods

(Top: Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas, and Coppola, 1994. Bottom: Hooper, Russel, Aronofsy, Nolan, and Fincher, 2010)

Last year’s slate of Best Directors was one of the most impressive lineups ever. Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Joel and Ethan Coen, David O. Russell and of course, the winner, Tom Hooper. I’m not going to go over this each and every time I write about the Oscars this year, but you have to know that in the 13 years I’ve been doing this I’ve never seen a less experienced, out of nowhere winner like Tom Hooper beat someone like Fincher, who not only has built an esteemed career, who not only won every critics award he came up for (more than any director in awards history, recent or not), but was a homegrown director our film industry here in America should celebrate up one side and down the other.  Some films have tremendous power to move us and The King’s Speech was one of those. It was like Slumdog Millionaire (minus Danny Boyle’s brilliant career behind it), or Million Dollar Baby (minus Clint Eastwood’s brilliant career behind it). And so, we are forgetting (as we pause to remember!) and moving forward with the notion that the Academy — and we can throw in the DGA now — will never vote for a movie that pundits and critics are telling them they SHOULD vote for if they didn’t “like” that movie as much as they liked the one that moved them.

Give Oscar voters a choice, most of the time they will go with the admirable character over the darker one. That was why, believe it or not, when No Country for Old Men came out, there was doubt it would even get nominated, doubt it could even win – why, because it was too dark and it had an ambiguous (albeit brilliant) ending. Back then, no one ever thought the Academy could take their swinging balls and make a brave choice like that. Now, of course, it seems silly that anyone ever imagined any other film winning that year. The same sort of scenario played out with The Departed. When The Hurt Locker came around, there was some similar discussion, but since we’d already seen films with darker themes winning, the question revolved around box-office clout, of which the Hurt Locker had little.

I asked my twitter followers to pick the best film in five year grouping.  And this is how it went down – in a totally non-scientific grouping – with maybe fifteen responders each time, so perhaps it doesn’t tell you much):

First group:
The King’s Speech
The Hurt Locker
Slumdog Millionaire
No Country for Old Men
The Departed

The clear winner was No Country for Old Men, which is such a good movie in retrospect, and was recognized as such, across the board that year, it could probably be in the running for best Best Picture winner of the last twenty years.  The Departed and The Hurt Locker wrestled for second.  Not a lot of love for the two heartlight pics, Slumdog and The King’s Speech – that’s because those kinds of movies can sometimes last (It’s a Wonderful Life) but most of the time do not.  And that’s because the people that write about films, and those who immerse themselves in film history, aren’t necessarily the kinds of people who appreciate those kinds of movies. But ask any Joe Schmoe on the street and they will always pick the films that moved them most.

Next group:
Million Dollar Baby
Return of the King
A Beautiful Mind
This was an easy call – the answers came back Return of the King by a long way.  That’s a film that probably anyone would say was the best of those five.  It was not only a monumental achievement in and of itself but it capped off that exceptional trilogy.  No other film got a mention except Crash, which one person tweeted was their favorite.

Final Group:
American Beauty
Shakespeare in Love
The English Patient
This was slightly more divided, with the winner coming out as American Beauty, followed by The English Patient, weirdly enough.  If we’re talking about films that have staying power, Titanic certainly fits that bill.  Ask the majority of Americans which of these five is best and they’d come back with Titanic.

These selections of years for Oscar represent the time I’ve spent watching the race.  I remember each and every one of these years and I’ve seen the Oscar race go from being a representation of films the public liked to being a much more insular representation of artful films the critics, and occasionally the public, liked.  The King’s Speech, The Departed and Slumdog Millionaire are films beloved by both the public and the critics.  With No Country for Old Men and The Departed we start to see a much narrower sampling of people who appreciate them.

The Academy has mostly mirrored the public’s attitude over the cinephiles except that they’ve had a harder and harder time doing so, what with the big studios opting for films aimed at 13 year-old boys: sequels, comic book movies, remakes — rinse, repeat.  The changes have resulted in lower ratings for the Oscar telecast and a general disconnect between the AMPAS and the public.

But when the Oscars honor mainstream big studio films (as they might have done last year with The Social Network or True Grit, despite the undeniable popularity of The King’s Speech and Black Swan) that in turn motivates the big studios to continue to put out better and better films.  And they do that by fortifying their great directors while also taking chances on new blood.

Up until last year, it could be safely argued that the director was the star of the Best Picture race. Career span mattered. Their ability to stretch as artists mattered. Their prestige within the industry mattered. But last year wiped that slate clean. The upside of Hooper’s win is that it showed that if a movie is good enough even a mostly unknown director can still take home the Best Director Oscar, even up against the most brilliant directors working in the industry, up against Joel and Ethan Coen for goddsakes.

Sure, we’ve seen virtual unknowns (usually British) win before, but somehow it seemed like a pattern was being set with Scorsese, the Coens, Boyle and Bigelow. That pattern was shattered last year – in a good way and in a not so good way: last year rendered the unanimous opinion of critics irrelevant when it comes to the Oscars. Some might say The King’s Speech was going to win no matter what kind of forces opposed it. Others say that the unanimous pressure by the critics turned voters off.   But you won’t find many who would not be bothered by the way the Best Director race turned out.  On the other hand, with Hooper’s win, it gives hope to newbies that they too can win among such heavyweights.

To that end, this year, we can still celebrate the visionaries, the veterans and the breakthrough directors who, on the upside, should have hope that they too can win an Oscar coming out of nowhere (but it helps if they are British).

The All Stars
*Won at least one Oscar for directing
Martin Scorsese for Hugo*
Clint Eastwood for J Edgar*
Steven Spielberg for War Horse*
Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris*
Steven Soderbergh for Contagion*
Alexander Payne for The Descendants
David Fincher for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Terrence Malick for Tree of Life
Cameron Crowe for We Bought a Zoo
David Cronenberg for A Dangerous Method
Roman Polanski for Carnage*

The Reliables / They Elevate the Genre
Stephen Daldry for Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close
JJ Abrams for Super 8
Bennett Miller for Moneyball
Bill Condon, Twilight Breaking Dawn
David Yates, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Deathly Hallows, Pt 2
Rupert Wyatt, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The Outsider Wunderkinds / Auteurs
Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
Steve McQueen for Shame
Thomas Alfredson for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Lars Von Trier for Melancholia
Lynn Ramsay for We Need to Talk About Kevin
Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive
Oren Moverman for Rampart
Gavin O’Connor for Warrior
Joe Cornish for Attack the Block
Rordrigo Garcia for Albert Nobbs
Anrea Arnold for Wuthering Heights

The Tom Hooper model/out of nowheres
Tate Taylor for The Help
Simon Curtis for My Week with Marilyn

George Clooney for The Ides of March (working his way up to All Stars)
Sarah Polley for Take This Waltz
Jodie Foster for The Beaver

Vera Farmiga for Higher Ground
Angelina Jolie for In The Land of Blood and Honey
Madonna for W.E.

The only reason anyone should care about the Oscars at all – most have long since checked out – is because they’re meant to represent our own highest honor in the Hollywood film industry, which is supposed to give a prize to the best achievement in filmmaking every year. We believe them to take this honor very seriously. But what (some of us, sometimes) forget is that these are not critics voting, despite evidence of great taste in the past few years. They are craftspeople and grandparents. Many are upper middle class retirees just trying to make it to 80. A few of them may be tired.  Most of them just want to sit back and let a great movie take them away.  That is why, if they love the film, they also love the director most of the time.  You have to be good at what you do to make a film that so many people liked.  So why not Tom Hooper?

All the same, we can expect our Big Five to be pulled from, I’m going to bet, the All Stars list.  One or two might be plucked from the other groups but for the most part, it’s still a game played by the big boys.

We’re also looking at a scenario where there will be five directors chosen for, we have to assume, the five strongest Best Picture candidates.  4 out of 5 directors would likely see their film nominated for Best Picture if there were still only five Best Picture nominees.

Right now, if you don’t count the movies that haven’t yet been seen (which is essentially all of the Big Oscar Movies) Best Director might look something like this:

Alexander Payne,  The Descendants
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick, Tree of Life
Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive or Steve McQueen for Shame

But if all goes according to plan, and your Oscar prognosticators would likely choose something more like:

Alexander Payne, The Descendants
David Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Steven Spielberg, War Horse
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris or Terrence Malick for Tree of Life

But it’s really too soon to say anything for sure.  This is spitballing of the highest order.  However, it seems safe to say that, right now, the only sure bet is Alexander Payne for The Descendants.

This is the reason we keep coming back for more, we Oscar watchers.  The thrill of the chase, the definition of art, the emerging masterpiece, the celebration of cinema.  It’s all here, trapped in this hamster wheel, this circus, this treacherous game.

It is still only September.  We’ve months yet.  And so we wait.  We wait.