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Best Director – Heroes, Just for One Day



“Unconsciously we all have a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one, and is this: we admire them, we envy them, for great qualities we ourselves lack. Hero worship consists in just that. Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with a secret shame, that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes.”
― Mark Twain

As we march towards the Oscars and Hollywood readies itself to crown its new king, the director category sits there like the guests at the dance who didn’t bring a popular date. Every other member of every other branch, seven in total, but only six if you count the individual branches using the preferential ballot, picked Argo.  But the directors didn’t.

In the past 40 years of Academy history, Chariots of Fire is lone Best Picture winner that trailed its competition with the 4th highest nominations tally overall.  Argo stands in line behind 4 other films this year with only the 5th highest total.  With that 8th nomination, a directors nod, Argo would have tied with Silver Linings Playbook and Les Miserables, giving Affleck a realistic chance to win.  But there was a reason Argo was left off the Best Director list.  No one has adequately come up with a good enough reason to satisfy his fans.  “It was a fluke,” some say. “It was just a quirk of weird timing in a weird year.” But the truth is that the directors branch knew Argo was a frontrunner and they knew everyone expected them to nominate Affleck.  We were all surprised when he wasn’t on the list.   Probably he split up the vote along with Bigelow, Tarantino, Anderson and other strong directors in a strong year.  Affleck’s unexpected absence ended up working in the film’s favor and now, inexplicably, Argo is the film to beat.  No film has ever won with the fifth most nominations.

If the names that replaced Affleck and Bigelow had been bad choices, lazy choices I could see condemning the Academy.  But you have to admire a group that picked Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke, stepping outside the box to reward visionary auteurs.  How can you complain about that? For once, the Academy has proved itself more daring than the critics.  Whoda thunk it?

In a logical world, the strongest two directors in the race would be Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee.  And in a logical world Affleck would have been nominated, you might be thinking, but without the perception of a “snub” it’s hard to imagine this kind of momentum being built.  After all, Argo entered the race the film people were least excited about.  They liked it okay, some thought it was great, but after he was “snubbed” it became #teamaffleck.  So if Argo prevails its win will be bittersweet.  No director nom has already predetermined that.  I don’t think George Clooney, Ben Affleck or Grant Heslov are going to care how it was won, the winning will be worth their time and trouble, director nod or no.  They are the producers. They will all walk away with Oscars anyway.

Everyone was expecting the same old Spielberg with Lincoln. They were expecting rousing battle scenes and smeary sentimental rack zooms.  They were expecting “more action scenes” and not a movie about people “just sitting around talking.” They wanted Gone with the Wind and they got To Kill a Mockingbird.  And they hated him for it. The fanboys especially. But it wasn’t just them — many in the bubble of film criticism and blogging, and those who cheer on from the sidelines of this dog and pony show we’re all a part of it — they just couldn’t stand to sit there and listen.  To listen.  Just to listen.

The beauty of what Spielberg and Kushner did with Lincoln was to bring what we all remember as Lincoln’s external world and transform it into his internal world. I admit you have to have patience for that. Most people don’t. Not when you have movies that give it all to you in one go — and there are a few of them this year and one is probably about to win Best Picture.  But if you do listen, if you do take the time to watch this film again, a whole different movie will emerge.  The film is about passing the 13th amendment but it is also, and primarily about, changing minds.  And not the minds of the people in the film. Their minds won’t be changed for hundreds of years. They mostly had to be tricked into doing the right thing and that was Lincoln’s gift — knowing when to exploit opportunity to do the impossible.  The Emancipation Proclamation was passed following one of the bloodiest battles of the civil war.  And the 13th amendment was passed right before the end of the war, with leverage to end the war being the main motivator.

A movie about people talking that’s made almost $175 million? 12 Oscar nominations? Lincoln got caught up in “they admire it, they don’t love it.”  Emotions are temporary. They don’t amount to much in the end except for recording a moment in time and what people were feeling at that moment. If I could wave my magic wand and change anything about the Oscars I would change that. I would say, make it about what it’s supposed to be about: high achievement in filmmaking.  Extraordinary work rewarded, not momentary passion. But I am not a magician. I’m just a lowly Oscar blogger and no one ever listens to me.

Another such triumph is Ang Lee’s Life of Pi — a celebration of life but it’s also a brilliant example of Lee’s willingness to go as deeply as possible to make the film he wanted to make. So much of it rests on the shoulders of the film’s star, Suraj Sharma, who worked so closely with Lee throughout that one could make the logical assumption Pi was Lee’s own avatar.  For Lee, it is a movie about the power of God. For many of us, it is also a movie about the willingness to choose God.  It is about that but it is also about cinema — about 3-D and the endless possibilities therein.  Like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Lee plunges us into the third dimension not so that we think “wow, that looks real” but instead to pull us deeper into the story — full immersion.  That is what 3-D, when done right, has to offer.  But Pi works on its own, without the 3-D.  It’s true it’s polarizing, like Lincoln, but the best films always are.  The preferential ballot doesn’t allow for these kinds of films to win, that means it’s going to be a while until a truly great movie can ever win the Best Picture Oscar again, maybe if they switch back to five.

The one to watch out for is probably Benh Zeitlin. I’ve never had a movie take the breath out of me like this before. I thought “breathtaking” was just a word.  But it does have meaning and it happened to me at the end of Beasts of the Southern Wild. I suspect this film could upset in both Director and Screenplay. Can it win Best Picture with a preferential ballot? Oh, probably not.  But its originality is what got Zeitlin the Oscar nom for directing. It never once played it safe – Zeitlin decided not to listen to the critics or anyone else who told him he couldn’t do something. He decided he would do what he wanted regardless.  He and his producer found a way.  And they did it for under $2 million.  Instead of celebrating Zeitlin, and the Academy’s willingness to embrace change, the chattering class instead were upset that the Oscar race they were predicting was derailed.  Though I agree that Affleck deserved a nom, and so did Bigelow, how can you not be thrilled with Zeitlin also getting in?

Michael Haneke wrote and directed Amour, the other critics darling next to Zero Dark Thirty pre-controversy.  Haneke is an odd duck. His films are usually strangely cold. But he is an auteur like no other.  He enters the Ingmar Bergman realm with Amour. How thrilling to be living at a time when the directors branch is reaching back to those roots, when they really respected these outside-the-box directors enough to nominate them.  Amour is a love story but more than that, it’s an explanation of what love is. Love isn’t skipping down the street and kissing in the rain, it isn’t being rescued by Prince Charming, and it isn’t a way to find life’s ultimate happiness.  Love is a slog.  It’s sticking by someone even as they begin to decay.  It’s the desperate ties that bind us to each other.  I’ve never really seen a movie define it that way before.  Haneke is always surprising no matter what he’s doing.  He’s an old timer but he’s young in the mind.  I could see him upsetting also in the screenplay and director categories.

And then there is David O. Russell who, like Affleck, is showing the awards community that he really wants to win.  He went down the awards gauntlet with The Fighter and lost to Tom Hooper but he’s back with the kind of movie Oscar voters are supposed to love.  The relentless campaigning for Silver Linings could push it through to a surprise win; after all, Argo doesn’t have a lead performance to pin itself to as most Best Picture winners do. The Artist — Jean Dujardin, The King’s Speech — Colin Firth, even The Hurt Locker had a corresponding nomination for Jeremy Renner.  Even when the lead actors aren’t nominated, having that strong, central performance matters.  And Silver Linings has that, plus four acting nods.  The Academy liked it enough to give Russell a director nomination to boot.

To win Picture and Director, Russell would have to be the first and only movie since Annie Hall to win without having first won the Globe in the musical/comedy category.  Since their narrative has shifted from love story to mental health story, perhaps they have a better shot at it now.

Lincoln has 12 Oscar nominations, heading towards $175 million, three acting nominations and director nod. Life of Pi has 11 Oscar nominations, and insane worldwide box office of $550 million and climbing, and a director nomination.  As far as the Oscar race goes, and Oscar history, these would be the two films to beat.

It seems as if these two would be the most likely contenders for Best Director. It’s funny to think of it like that since both these men had what many consider to be the biggest Best Picture upsets in Oscar history; Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan losing to Shakespeare in Love (most nominations), and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (most noms) losing to Crash.  For Spielberg to win his third directing Oscar that would put him in the ranks of a select few who have won three: Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler.  John Ford is the only director with 4 wins.  No director has won a third Oscar for directing since 1959.

In a split year, you have to go back to 1966 to find the winner of Picture or Director that didn’t go to the film with the most nominations. Reds vs. Chariots of Fire, Brokeback vs. Crash, Chicago vs. The Pianist, etc.  That makes it seem both likely and unlikely that Spielberg might win a third.  He certainly deserves it and his 40 years of filmmaking put him in the leagues of a select few; that he is still making great films all of these years later is astonishing.

Right behind Spielberg is Lee, who hasn’t made as many films as Spielberg but has tried something new every time.  How many directors do you know that could have made movies as diverse as Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, then Sense and Sensibility, then Brokeback Mountain, then Lust, Caution, then Life of Pi? A versatile, robust body of work by a cinematic genius is also very worthy of the prize. Like Spielberg, though, he hasn’t won any major awards yet because both have been thwarted by the Argo steamroller.

To my way of thinking, though, and it chafes against the general consensus and the status quo, Oscar doesn’t like to split.  When it does split, the DGA usually determines the Best Director Oscar.  But it can’t do that this year.  So I think one of three scenarios will play out.

The first, and to my mind most likely, picture and director will not split. So, either they will pick Spielberg and they will pick Lincoln to go with it and not have to defy Academy history to do so.  Or they will pick Ang Lee and Life of Pi or they will pick David O. Russell and Silver Linings Playbook.

The second scenario is that it will split and Argo will win and Spielberg or Ang Lee will win Director.  That’s the generally agreed upon consensus.  With the brutal treatment of Spielberg and Lincoln in the press of late, god only knows what kinds of whisper campaigns are circling around it, I fear the worst in that regard.

The third is the weirder one to call and that’s a split with either Argo winning, or even Lincoln or Life of Pi winning and one of the newbie directors taking the award in a freak surprise.  Most of the scenarios we’re predicting have similar parallels at some point in Oscar history so it is definitely not your typical year.  But Ben Zeitlin, or Michael Haneke could win.

When we say wide open, we mean WIDE OPEN.

At the end of the day, I think Lincoln deserves to win a multitude of Oscars.   Behind Lincoln for me would be Life of Pi. And after that, Beasts of the Southern Wild, then Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, then Argo, then Django Unchained, then Les Miserables, then Silver Linings Playbook.

For Best Director in a split I’d probably have to predict:

1. Steven Spielberg
2. Ang Lee
3. Benh Zeitlin
4. Michael Haneke
5. David O. Russell

For Best Director in a non-split year I’d have to go:

1. Steven Spielberg
2. David O. Russell
3. Ang Lee
4. Benh Zeitlin
5. Michael Haneke.