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Best Director: The Visual Effects Masterpiece

Last year’s Gravity, and Life of Pi the year before, have flipped-flopped the traditional way Best Picture and Best Director have split. When I stood with Steve Pond in the tent at the Spirit Awards the day before the Oscars and I was trying to convince him why I had changed my mind about Gravity winning Best Director and 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture he was continuing the line of thinking that made the most sense: the uplifting crowdpleaser wins Best Picture and the film that is more artistically daring wins Best Director. This has been the case throughout Oscar history when looking at the split vote.

There was one year, however, that was the better example for last year and that was In the Heat of the Night vs. The Graduate. Combing through the split years, only one year mirrored last because it was an agreed upon split from the outset. Almost every available precursor was giving In the Heat of the Night Picture, and Mike Nichols for The Graduate Best Director.

Of course, in this instance, almost everyone looking back on that year would say The Graduate was the popular crowdpleaser, just as they would say Gravity was the more crowd pleasing of the two films last year. The obligation to reward the more historically important film, In the Heat of the Night, was in conflict with what the heart wanted to do – to pick the most beloved film: The Graduate.

But Steve Pond, and everyone over at Hitfix, was not going for it. It was going to be Gravity and that was that. The rest is the kind of history that will be smeared and debated for years to come. We won’t yet know how either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave will stand up in ten years time. The distance is necessary to see what’s left after the party evaporates.

What won’t be debated, however, is how good Alfonso Cuaron’s direction was. The same can be said quite easily with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. In both cases, the Academy picked a visionary director who had depended almost completely on visual effects to deliver their masterpiece.

Last year and this year is the first time in all of Academy history that visual effects driven films took the place of the traditional visionary auteur in a split vote.

Let’s go back and look again at the splits, shall we?

In bold are the years they used the preferential ballot, in red the years where the director of the Best Picture winner was not nominated.

2013-12 Years a Slave/Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
2012-Argo/Ang Lee for Life of Pi
2005-Crash/Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain
2002-Chicago/Roman Polanski for The Pianist
2000-Gladiator/Steven Soderbergh for Traffic
1998-Shakespeare in Love/Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan
1989-Driving Miss Daisy/Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July
1981-Chariots of Fire/Warren Beatty for Reds
1972-The Godfather/Bob Fosse for Cabaret
1967-In the Heat of the Night/Mike Nichols for The Graduate
1956-Around the World in 80 Days/George Stevens for Giant
1952-The Greatest Show on Earth/John Ford for The Quiet Man
1951-An American in Paris/George Stevens for A Place in the Sun
1949-All the King’s Men/Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter To Three Wives
1948-Hamlet/John Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre
1940-Rebecca/John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath
1937-The Life of Emile Zola/Leo McCary, The Awful Truth
1936-The Great Ziegfeld/Frank Capra, Mr. Deed Goes to Town
1935-Mutiny on the Bounty/John Ford, The Informer

Of all of these splits listed above, only two — arguably three if you count Saving Private Ryan, which I don’t think you can, are big budget effects-driven films.  That is quite a significant change in how voters are viewing both visionary directors and visual effects.  In terms of Oscar history, it is as unusual as Annie Hall winning Best Picture and George Lucas winning for Best Director for Star Wars.

Though the entire membership has yet to really embrace effects-driven films for the big prize you can see how it’s edging closer and closer.  What Gravity and Life of Pi suffered most from was their lack of dependence upon actors.  Actors rule the Academy as the largest branch. They really don’t want to see their jobs disappear. Thus, Best Picture still now and for a long while will likely favor actor-driven films.  That is, unless you can find a way to meld them together as Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings films, still the only film to really win Best Picture when it was so dependent upon its visual effects.

You could put Gladiator in the same category — it was, despite being heavy on visuals, driven by its ensemble. Gravity was one actor, basically, in a space ship with green screen behind her pushed around by 100% visual effects.  Life of Pi was one actor, basically, in a boat with green screen behind him, manipulated entirely by visual effects.  Neither was the case for Return of the King or Gladiator, despite the prominence of visual effects. They could still be considered background information.  But the effects took front and center for these last two, which were given the Best Director Oscar along with the other major tech awards those films won.

Leading up to 2012, when the Academy could not give their Best Director prize to Ben Affleck (which they would have) they had a choice of either Steven Spielberg or Ang Lee. Life of Pi was the more emotionally resonant and memorable film therefore it won.  But had Affleck been on the ticket, this odd mutation on Academy evolution would not have taken place and would not have opened the door to look at the Best Picture/Best Director split quite that way.

Now, directors are being given more freedom to exercise their pure artistic vision and be credited for it rather than dismissed.  Had the stigma been removed a long time ago, Scorsese could have won for Hugo in 2011.  Christopher Nolan could have won for Inception in 2010.  And Jim Cameron could have won for Avatar in 2009.  David Fincher would have won for Benjamin Button in 2008.  Remember how many were predicting Avatar to win Best Picture and Kathryn Bigelow to win Best Director? That is the more familiar way the splits go down.  And yet, here we are, with an entirely different way of looking at the race.

I have been carping for a long while about the need for a separate category for Effects-Driven Best Picture. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. What will happen is that an effects-driven film will win and then maybe the filmmakers in Hollywood will start to chafe, the actors will maybe chafe and then they might put in a separate category the way they did with foreign language and animated.

Either way, there are two films I can think of that might fit the bill this year for that effects-driven Best Director slot.  Matt Reeves for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (possibly) but more likely, Christopher Nolan for Interstellar.  Nolan, in fact, could be credited with this move away from crowdpleasing effects-driven films towards effects driven auteurism.  The trick is locked in with human emotion. Both Gravity and Life of Pi were dazzling in the effects department but they were more overwhelming in the emotion department. And that is where Nolan and Reeves would falter when it comes to winning Best Director.

The one who really has it coming is Jim Cameron for Avatar’s sequel.  That is where I’d put my money as the potential for an effects-driven film to win Best Picture.  Now that the seal has been broken, I’d put my faith in Cameron to finally shatter the boundary between films driven by effects and performance capture and the reluctance of actors to abandon the thing that they have built their careers on: their faces.

Actors have been driving the Oscars for decades. As the biggest voting block, films are usually centered around them as stars. Most Best Picture winners and nominees are led by a male lead, sometimes a female lead.  And almost always a movie star. They like big movie stars, profitable stars, pretty and sexy stars. This drives the box office, the film industry and the Oscars. Or does it anymore?

It seems to me that visual effects have taken over in many regards to the power of celebrity, particularly since the dependence is now almost completely on international box office. Only some movie stars are still profitable world wide. But visual effects? Films with little or no dialogue, like Gravity do very very well internationally as they must be dubbed into different languages.  Therefore, the plug and play model is working well for profit, and yet the Oscars are still stuck in the former model, the actor/star driven Best Picture.

Despite there being up to 10 slots for Best Picture, there are still only five slots for Best Director. For the third year in a row the DGA will announce their nominees AFTER Oscar ballots have been turned in.  That could lead to a confusing year like 2012, or not.  But with only five slots it’s hard to imagine many of the effects-driven movies getting in for Best Director, with the possible exception of Christopher Nolan.

For Best Director this year, we’re looking at (so far):

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken
Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year
Steven Daldry, Trash
David Ayer, Fury
Ava DuVernay, Selma
Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
James Marsh, Theory of Everything
Jean-Marc Vallee, Wild
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
Ridley Scott, Exodus

As you can see, only one of these so far comes from an effects-driven film and that’s Christopher Nolan.  Very likely this will be a year unlike 2013 and 2012.  Will it be a split year? It’s hard to say.  We have no way of knowing what any of these films will do until these films are seen.

This list will likely change in the coming months, but probably one slot is already taken for Richard Linklater for Boyhood, and I would add Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher and possibly Mike Leigh for Mr. Turner.  That potentially leaves only two slots open. It will be, as usual, a very competitive year for Best Director. The word you’ll be looking for is “masterpiece.”