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Oscarwatch: The Directors – Seven Contenders, Five Slots


This year, Best Director seems to be pairing up in interesting ways.

Tarantino has launched into the race in a spectacular 11th hour surge. Whether this means he will, in fact, steal the last director’s slot from Tom Hooper or David O. Russell is still not known. But what is known is that Django Unchained and Lincoln are two views of the same moment in our history.  Both are satisfying smackdowns of the worst among us, the racist beginnings of our country, which could not have profited nor succeeded without slavery.  Even Thomas Jefferson praised the value of having free labor, among other things.  Lincoln, though, tells the story closer to the truth, farther from the bloody speculative spectacle than Tarantino has delivered. As real as Lincoln is, Django Unchained is unreal.Sequestered in clean orderly chambers where slavery was at last undone, Lincoln presides above the pain of slaves from a luminous distance. Django brings that bloody pain up close, thrusting the messy, brutal torment in our faces. Both of these American storytellers have gone out of their way throughout their careers to expand the American experience to include the African-American experience. It isn’t a surprise that they would each come at slavery, this year, from such wildly different perspectives.  The story of 2012 in film can’t be told without either of them, as they have each made two of the best films of the year.

Spielberg’s tightly reigned direction, following the dense, profound script by Tony Kushner with the career-best work from Day-Lewis has made, to my mind, 2012’s best film.  Tarantino’s lead actor, Jamie Foxx, gives one of the best unsung performances of the year. Tarantino’s script fully explores the director’s vision, even if it is disjointed and sloppy in places, the polar opposite of the Kushner’s precision. Still, these two films somehow convey equally vital messages about this American life in 2012.

Likewise, Kathryn Bigelow’s astonishing, unforgettable Zero Dark Thirty goes hand in hand with Argo in many ways. One is deadly serious, the other is fiendishly funny.  But both deal with treacherous episodes of our ongoing conflict in the middle east.  Zero Dark Thirty takes us right up to today, as we grapple with our own definition of what torture means, whether we are prepared to accept that we employed torture as tactic when “questioning” Al Qaeda suspects.  The film is about that — how could it not be — but it is also about the larger notion of revenge and its hollow compensations. Did we kill Bin Laden to avenge those who died in the attacks on 9/11? Or did we kill him in an effort to stop future terrorist attacks? It’s not a question the filmmakers try to answer. They want to ask it.  The best reviewed film of the year, Bigelow’s has become a lightning rod for controversy, some earned, some undeserved.

Argo, on the other hand, is a movie you can sit anyone down to watch and they will like it if not love it. That’s one of the best ways to define an Oscar winner.  Argo is about the CIA, our relationship with Iran (ongoing), and President Carter. But it is also about Hollywood. What makes it so playful is how it pokes fun at everything from how to define an “associate producer” to how the industry builds buzz and publicity. Moreover, it sort of makes a great point: people might hate us all over the world but they surely do love our movies.

The third motif running through the Best Director race is our search for life’s meaning.  Religion, the purpose of existence, love, God — all those themes are explored in Ang Lee’s crowdpleasing Life of Pi, Michael Haneke’s heartbreaking Amour and Paul Thomas Anderson’s troubling The Master.  These three films refract the spectral light of human experience to beautiful, satisfying, and terrifying effect.  They are literal and not literal, and mostly leave interpretations up to us.

In Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom, we follow a non-literal, symbolic and poetic pathway filtered through the eyes of children. Both of these films transport us to unexpected places. While neither is a likely Best Directing nominee, Best Picture seems possible. Silver Linings Playbook is the only bigtime/feelgood love story in the bunch. Truly, the only uplifting one.  But if I had to pick its partner I would choose Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, as both films deal with accepting your weaknesses and working to “fix” them so that you can find peace, love and understanding.

We delve into Wall Street and the great divide between rich and poor in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Nicolas Jarecki’s Arbitrage.  The Dark Knight Rises, like Les Miserables, is about revolution — it’s about mobilizing and working toward a common cause. Both are cloaked in a genre, no doubt, but their themes couldn’t be more clear.

Right now, there appear to be three solid locks in the Best Director category, one near lock, and three others competing for the last slot. It works out this way:

Steven Spielberg for Lincoln
Ben Affleck for Argo
Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty
Ang Lee for Life of Pi

From there the next three would be:
David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook
Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained
Tom Hooper for Les Miserables
Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master

The date change pushing the Oscar nomination deadline before the DGA and PGA announce will either throw everything off so that we can’t rely on ways we’ve previously played the game, or else it will go exactly as planned.

Oscar history tells us that strength in the Best Picture race is usually determined by twin forces. The first is the director, and the second is the movie itself. The power of the film movie worked to the advantage of The King’s Speech and The Artist. The power of the director propelled No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker and The Departed. Slumdog Millionaire fell somewhere in the middle.   When a film is liked and another director is liked at the same time, that sometimes can result in a split vote.  Only 15 times in the last 85 years has a split vote occurred.

1935 – Mutiny on the Bounty (8 noms) – John Ford, The Informer (6 noms)

1936 – The Great Ziegfeld (7 noms) – Frank Capra, Mr. Deed Goes to Town (5 noms)

1937 – The Life of Emile Zola (10 noms) – Leo McCary, The Awful Truth (6 noms)

1940 – Rebecca (11 noms) – John Ford, Grapes of Wrath (7 noms)

1948 – Hamlet (7 noms)  –John Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre (4 noms)

—-DGA formed —–

1949 – All the King’s Men (7 noms) – Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter To Three Wives (3 noms)

1951 – An American in Paris (8 noms) – George Stevens, A Place in the Sun (9 noms)

1952 – Greatest Show on Earth (5 noms) – John Ford, The Quiet Man (7 noms)

1956 – Around the World in 80 Days (8 noms) – George Stevens, Giant (10 noms)

1967 – In the Heat of the Night (7 noms)- Mike Nichols, The Graduate (7 noms)

1972 – The Godfather (12 noms) – Bob Fosse, Cabaret (10 noms)

1981 – Chariots of Fire (7 noms) – Warren Beatty, Reds (12 noms)

1989 – Driving Miss Daisy (9 noms) – Oliver Stone, Born on the 4th of July (8 noms)

1998 – Shakespeare in Love (13 noms) – Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan (11 noms)

2000 – Gladiator (12 noms) – Steven Soderbergh, Traffic (5 noms)

2002 – Chicago (13 noms) – Roman Polanski, The Pianist (7 noms)

2005 – Crash (6 noms) – Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain (8 noms)

Usually, the film with more nominations wins Best Picture, while the better film overall wins Best Director.

But these splits are rare and they’re difficult to predict.  You mostly don’t see them coming until they hit. Arguably, the Spielberg and Shakespeare in Love split might have been one of the few semi-predictable ones. This, because Shakespeare in Love had two things going for it — the SAG ensemble win and more nominations heading into the race.  The ensemble win also caused some split trouble with Crash and Traffic.  That led many to believe the same scenario would have played out when Little Miss Sunshine won the Producers Guild award and the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award the same year. But in the end, love for the director won out and The Departed took both awards at the top.

In only one instance did a film win without any director nod at all and that was for Driving Miss Daisy. That odd year is trotted out, as are these other years, when pundits can’t make the thing make sense. One of the reasons I knew that Tom Hooper would win the DGA for the King’s Speech in 2012 was that the film had 12 nominations for Oscar. If it was going to win Best Picture with 12 nominations, it was going to also win the DGA, as Rob Marshall had with Chicago even when he didn’t go on to win the Oscar.

The DGA has been a crucial indicator and influencer in the Oscar race since 1949. This is the first year when the Oscar nomination ballots will be turned in before we hear from the DGA, which makes it all very suspenseful for those of us who watch Oscar.

That brings us back to this year’s race and those last remaining slots.  It isn’t that the directing nominees for the Globes match Oscar all of the time but if you miss a directing nomination at the Globes, particularly if you are a musical/comedy, that drops your chances to win Best Picture significantly.  Only one film from that category without a Globes nod for director has won Best Picture and that’s … wait for it … Driving Miss Daisy.  We’ll never know if Bruce Beresford would have won for Driving Miss Daisy since he was not Oscar-nominated either.  We don’t know why Driving Miss Daisy won that year.  and although that was probably the movie everyone expected would win it’s frank deconstruction of patriotism might have been too touchy for some voters. But that same year, Do the Right Thing had been shut out and race relations were at the forefront.  Also, there was this idea that Oliver Stone and Oscar had already done the “Vietnam” thing.  Though Stone still won Director, his film couldn’t manage to win Best Picture.

Or did it just come down to likability?  Box office numbers show us that Driving Miss Daisy made $100 million back in 1989, Born on the Fourth of July made just $70 million.  Dead Poets Society made $95 million, My Left Foot made $14 million. Field of Dreams made $64 million.  Driving Miss Daisy had the highest box office of the year.

It’s easier, obviously, for a director with a comedy to get Oscar nominated than a musical. Norman Jewison (Moonstruck), Woody Allen (Broadway Danny Rose), Woody Allen (Broadway Danny Rose), Jason Reitman (Juno), and Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda) all were Oscar nominated for directing comedies despite not getting Globe nominations (thanks to our Nate Silver, Marshall for those stats).  But for a musical?  Marshall tells us, “Bob Fosse was Oscar nominated for All That Jazz in 1979 despite missing at both the Globes and DGA. Robert Stevenson missed at the Globes for Mary Poppins, but was DGA and Oscar nominated, in 1956 Walter Lang was not Globe nominated but was Oscar nominated for The King and I. But no musical has ever won Best Picture without a Globe nod for Director. 

Reasonable arguments can be still made for Hooper and/or Russell making the cut, but just know that it’s a bit of a long shot, especially for Hooper.  Silver Linings Playbook and Les Miserables both have SAG ensemble nods, which gives them an edge over Zero Dark Thirty, which doesn’t have one.

But this is for Oscar not DGA. It’s entirely possible, even probable, that David O. Russell will get a DGA nod for his incredibly likable Silver Linings Playbook.  A previous DGA winner, Hooper also has a shot there.  Since there is going to be a disconnect this year with the right hand unable to see what the left hand is doing, predicting a different slate for DGA and Oscar would make good sense.

Meanwhile, there is always the chance that an outlier will make the cut at the Oscars, someone like Paul Thomas Anderson for the Master or Michael Haneke for Amour.

My current predictions–

O. Russell
Alt. Hooper

Alt. Haneke, Anderson

I reserve the right to change my mind as the season progresses.