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The State of the Race – Directors Break with Consensus

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One of the more interesting questions in this year’s Oscar race is wondering what the Directors branch is going to do. Will their choices be as strange and random as last year, when only two names from the DGA also made Oscar’s list? In 2012, for the first time in Oscar/DGA history, the Academy ballots were turned in before the Directors Guild announced their five nominees. That meant that Academy’s director’s branch really had no specific guidelines about how to vote. Each group simply voted for the films they thought were the best and the directors who deserved to be nominated based on those observations. That meant more directors in the Academy voted for Michael Haneke, Benh Zeitlin and David O. Russell while more directors in the DGA voted Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and most notably, Ben Affleck. If there seemed to be anything set in stone about last year it was that Bigelow and Affleck would be nominated. The DGA, a very large voting body of 14,500 voted for them. But the smaller Academy branch, of roughly 400 or so, did not.

Only two names carried over from the DGA’s list — Ang Lee (who won the Oscar) and Steven Spielberg. There are possibly several explanations for this. The first is that with no DGA to guide them they relied on the films they’d already seen. The second is that the prognosticators had it wrong. They were underestimating the power of Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour, perhaps. In more a typical year, Michael Haneke probably would have been nominated by the DGA. Really, Benh Zeitlin was the biggest surprise of last year. He came from out of nowhere, made his film on a shoestring budget using crowdsourcing, mainly, to get it made. It was glorious. It was probably what every filmmaker would like to see happen to them — have a dream, live that dream, get an Oscar nomination. But in so doing, the consensus that we’ve all come to rely on had been shattered.

Most pundits scratched their head and chalked it up to a “weird year.” No one who writes about the Oscars would ever want to admit that we mostly got it wrong — and the year ended up confirming what most people already knew — okay, fine, Argo. There were still surprises on Oscar night — like Ang Lee winning Best Director when many believed Spielberg would. To my mind, I didn’t think they were going to give the win to Spielberg without giving the win to Lincoln so I predicted both, took a deliberate fall, just to prove a point. I did the same thing with David Fincher and the Social Network. I did not believe that voters would split the vote between director and picture — if they were going for director they were going for picture. If they weren’t going for picture some other director would win. It made sense that the other good option for director was Ang Lee. Only he and Spielberg had been nominated by the DGA, after all. You have to go all the way back to the DGA’s beginnings, 1949/1950 to find a year when the Best Picture Oscar winner was not also nominated for a DGA. While Argo’s win was a break with history, it would have been nowhere near as much of a break with history if someone not nominated for a DGA had won. So it had to be either Spielberg or Lee. Since they didn’t like Lincoln as much as the other films, not even for screenplay, they sure as shit weren’t going to give Spielberg a third Oscar. They gave Ang Lee a second one instead.

Now, it’s a year later. The Oscar race is humming along as it always does — festival films out in front at the beginning, stars and publicists working the various angles. Pundits are making their consensus picks, which are starting to align but won’t really be set until the critics groups start handing out awards. And even then. Last year, Bigelow was picking up hardware until Zero Dark Thirty was hit with a mob swarm. You could maybe see why the Oscar voters shut her out when Ad Asner and Martin Sheen told them to. But Affleck? He seemed to be swept up along with her, caught by accident. No one could figure out why he got snubbed — some posed the theory that the directors in the Academy were jealous of such a good looking, fortunate man also being able to direct. Some others thought the movie just wasn’t as good as the ones that did get directing nods. Either way, the predictions were the wrong, the results were the results.

This year might go as it’s been going, with the consensus being mostly right. Or it might fly off the rails as it did last year. The dates are almost as weird this year as they were last year, with the DGA announcing on Jan 7th and the Oscar nominations ballot deadline a single day later on Jan 8th. We might be looking at another year where Best Picture doesn’t even have a Best Director nomination. With up to nine or ten Best Picture nominees — in a year of several superb films — and only five possible Best Director slots, that’s a scenario that could easily repeat itself. Argo’s win last year means that this year even a film with no director nomination can do what the publicity team at Warner Bros did — say, you know what? Fuck it, director nom be damned, we’re going for it. They knew they had a crowd-pleaser on their hands. They knew they had a secret weapon in Affleck himself; it’s one thing for an introverted director to get snubbed. It’s a whole other thing for a charming actor the whole world knows, who is seen regularly at the Farmer’s Market cradling his three adorable children with his good-natured charming wife at his side. He made a movie everybody liked but couldn’t manage to get recognition from the Academy. That created one hell of an Oscar story.

Here are the two charts for Best Director right now from the Gurus of Gold and Gold Derby:

GoldDerby:

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Gurus of Gold, Movie City News

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The consensus is building around a few key names. I would be shocked if these two weren’t receiving the same degree of enthusiasm for nominations as Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg did last year:

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

After that the field appears to get a little murkier for the other likely names, in terms of consensus. There are so many good films this year and only five slots. Two of those films, Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle are being predicted into the consensus sight unseen.

If you take out Scorsese and Russell, the consensus now includes:

Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

Hovering on the borders:
JC Chandor, All is Lost
Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
Spike Jonze, Her

And on the outside:
Lee Daniels, The Butler
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine

Smart money, like Anne Thompson’s for instance, has Woody Allen in her predictions. She knows that it’s not likely Academy members will overlook such a success for this director who has been in the game since the 1970s. Blue Jasmine is considered his best film since Crimes and Misdemeanors. The only reason he’s being overlooked is that he’s not in the consensus.

Smart money is also on JC Chandor, as he’s taken the biggest risk of any of the directors listed above, by making a film with one star and no dialogue.  Chandor, like Zeitlin, is a charmer and an up-and-comer who is making the kind of quality films Hollywood wants to encourage. It’s the anti-thesis of the tentpole.

Because two major films haven’t yet been seen Best Director cannot yet be accurately predicted.  You see, we pundits are flying blind too. After last year no one can say they know for sure how it’s going to go down and anyone who does ought to get comfortable eating crow.  We must keep our minds open to the possibility of what a much smaller group of voters might do now that they’ve been unhooked from the DGA. It is a subtle shift that removes the dominance of the guilds — an influence we’ve seen dominate over the past ten years.  Until last year, the Academy’s choices were merely a period on the end of an already written sentence.  But since the two directors clubs failed so dramatically last year to reach a consensus, perhaps we too need to think differently and break free from reliance on our usual consensus guides. Just a thought.