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Best Director – Is It Christopher Nolan’s to Lose?

Christopher Nolan has never received an Oscar nomination for Best Director. It feels sort of crazy to realize, but it’s true. He has helped change the course of film history in the way he makes movies, and he’s considerably upped the game with his devotion to analog film and his utilization of IMAX. Above all, Nolan is one of a handful of directors who can still bring a deeply expressive sensibility to mainstream genre filmmaking. That’s always been true with all his films throughout his career, and all the more when he reaches for loftier peaks of artistic expression, as he did with Memento and now Dunkirk. Although it’s virtually wordless and can almost be described as impressionist cinema on a grand scale, Dunkirk does not dwell in the land of the surreal, like Inception or Interstellar do. After diving into dreams within dreams and going way way out into deep space and into the future, Nolan now steps back into the past to bring to vivid life the story of a crucial evacuation mission at the beginning of WWII. Of course, watching Joe Wright’s equally brilliant Darkest Hour will give you a more detailed understanding of the bigger story around the evacuation of Dunkirk, but Nolan brings the immersive experience of being on those beaches to living, breathing life in a way no other filmmaker has ever done. By relying less on the heroic ideals and more on the visceral experience, we get an up close and personal look at what it must have been like to be embedded in that war at that moment in history when it seemed the world would be lost to Hitler.

That Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are two films that fit so well together and each look to be directly competing for the top prizes (at least so far) may tell us that there is something more at work here than just excellence in filmmaking. Both films key into the zeitgeist of our current moment of global crisis, and they remind us that we could sure use some Churchill right now as we facing grave threats in this country and around the world. As for Nolan, Dunkirk is his most personal and probably most accomplished work to date, which is saying a lot considering where he’s gone with filmmaking in the past ten years.

In short, Nolan is well overdue. That overdue status will help push him to the top of the list when the director’s branch chooses their nominees, even though Joe Wright’s passionate supporters can make an argument for him being overdue as well, given that he lost out on a nomination for Atonement when it got a Best Picture nod. So there’s that. Also, Darkest Hour is vigorously, brilliantly directed and is perhaps Wright’s most artful. One could say he’s overdue, although not in the same way Nolan is.

After all, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is widely believed to be the reason the Academy expanded Best Picture in the first place. When that groundbreaking film was not nominated, it caused an uproar (undoubtedly fueled in part by Heath Ledger’s shocking and sudden death) that perhaps helped motivate the Academy to make changes to adapt to changing times. They expanded the Best Picture lineup from five to ten nominees, and after two years of that, shrunk the nominations slots on the ballot back down to five (with tabulation resulting in a Best Picture slate that can fluctuate between 5 and 10). That was a backtrack which meant that films like The Dark Knight would once again be at a disadvantage. In fact, Inception benefited from the initial change since it got nominated for Best Picture in 2010, when members had 10 slots to fill for Best Picture. That meant they could pick their favorite five and then be allowed freedom to include films like Inception or like Toy Story 3, for instance, that were more indicative of individual niche taste. Under the current system, that really isn’t possible. Oscar voters have only five choices, and that’s that.

If Nolan is the frontrunner, then who else is up there in terms of consideration? Right now, Gold Derby has tapped the following five for Best Director in their expert’s predictions:

  1. Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
  2. Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water
  3. Steven Spielberg, The Post
  4. Luca Guadagnino, Call Me by Your Name
  5. Joe Wright, Darkest Hour

Here are my own choices at the moment:

  1. Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
  2. Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water
  3. Joe Wright, Darkest Hour
  4. Steven Spielberg, The Post
  5. Jordan Peele, Get Out

Scott Feinberg has begun to compile his Feinberg Forecast for the year and has named Peele and also Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird. Peele has made a film that raked in a shit-ton of money while also being told completely from the unique perspective of a black artist. He plays with questions of race and perceptions of racial tension so well, beautifully illustrating the surreal nature of what it must feel like a lot of time to exist in a culture that is oblivious to (if not outright in denial of) obvious racism. Still, will some of the voters feel threatened by and somewhat defensive about Get Out? It’s possible. We know from the way Spike Lee was treated with Do the Right Thing that confrontational films by black filmmakers do not often do as well vying for Best Picture as less confrontational ones like The Help or Precious or even 12 Years a Slave, which for all its horrors does include a “good” white person near the end. Still, we all recall that it was a hard slog for that film heading into Best Picture. There was a lot of defensiveness both from the film critics who felt it was the Oscar frontrunner too soon and “just because” it was about slavery (and remains to date the only film about slavery to win Best Picture — no, Gone with the Wind doesn’t count).

What Peele did with Get Out is so brilliant and subversive that it’s hard to not to recognize his achievement, especially in the era of Trump. While I think it’s possible that Luca Guadagnino could also be recognized with either the DGA or the Academy, I do think Peele, at least right now, has the better shot.

I would then add these five for Best Director:

6. Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name
7. Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
8. Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton, Battle of the Sexes
9. Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
10. Dee Rees, Mudbound

If you look at these ten films, what strikes me about them is that there are five or six contenders with potential Best Actress nominees. That makes this year extremely unusual compared to the rest of recent Oscar history. However, there are other possibilities that must be considered as well:

  • Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049
  • Alexander Payne, Downsizing
  • Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
  • Ridley Scott, All the Money in the World
  • Sean Baker, The Florida Project
  • Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game
  • George Clooney, Suburbicon
  • Clint Eastwood, 15:17 to Paris (tentative release this year, no announcement yet but Clint is always a force to be reckoned with)

History tells me that the Best Director race is primarily a man’s game. The names mentioned above all have a best shot of landing a nomination, but it is still worth pointing out the names of tseveral women who may also receive recognition:

Greta Gerwig, whose directorial debut of Lady Bird lit Telluride on fire, telling a very funny, very personal story of a conflicted relationship between a mother and her daughter — a shooting star of a girl preparing to launch away from her small town. There is a pretty good chance Laurie Metcalf might be one of the strongest contenders for supporting actress.

Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris for Battle of the Sexes, while maybe not the choice of snooty film critics, is a crowdpleaser and in 2017 folks will be looking for those and will likely embrace them more considering the gloomy times we live in. This is probably a longer shot than Gerwig (though both are long shots), but it’s so rare that women are in the race at all we must pay attention when they are.

Dee Rees for Mudbound represents again the rare female director of color entering into the Oscar race. I am seeing Mudbound soon and will be able to write about it better then,. The film will need to be beloved by thousands and thousands of people for the DGA, but will requires far fewer votes from the Academy’s branch of roughly 400 directors. Any film can catch enough buzz to land with a DGA nod, but smaller films have usually done better with the Academy than with DGA.

Angelina Jolie cannot be counted out for First They Killed My Father, a great leap forward for her as a director. Now that the film is headed for the Foreign Language race, Jolie becomes one of the contenders for director as well, even if it runs counter to our intuition that women will not get nominated in the boys club that is the directors branch.

Same goes for Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman, Kathryn Bigelow for Detroit, and Sofia Coppola for The Beguiled.

At the moment, the only director who appears to come close to challenging Nolan is probably Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water. There probably isn’t a movie in the race that is as magical and swoon-worthy as this one. It takes you somewhere else, which is often the best thing a movie can do. Same applies (maybe doubly so) for Call Me by Your Name, which has been met with breathless excitement since it first debuted at Sundance.

This is an exciting race, to be sure, and one of the few I’ve seen in a long time that isn’t “boring and predictable.”