The Oscar race officially starts in just two weeks when Venice and Telluride drop their lineup. By the end of those tests, and into Toronto the following week, and New York following that we will have a good idea of those who will be driving the Best Director race and thus, the Best Picture race.
From the looks of it this far out, the Best Director and Best Picture race could be driven by hard hitting political dramas, as one would expect under the Trump presidency. Starting with Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, but also Jason Reitman’s The front Runner, Adam McKay’s Backseat, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite and even Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk revolve around politics and activism. Then there are the ones that will be bright spots, the uplifting films like Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, and perhaps Damien Chazelle’s First Man, potentially Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born.
A Spike Lee Joint
For those of us who have been following Spike Lee’s career, going all the way back to She’s Gotta Have It, it remains a shocker that Lee was never nominated for Best Director. But Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has captured the zeitgeist. Though the film dances with the absurd throughout – Lee greatly enjoys “the natural” hair spiraling out in a massive halo juxtaposed against the very white Colorado Springs, there is no mistake that Lee has put our President in the context of both history and film history. Lee isn’t here for how Hollywood helped shaped racist views in America – he nails them straight to the wall, as he always has in all of his films, careful to point out how white America is okay with the black basketball players, musicians and actors but when it comes to actual power? The residual sting of Hollywood and Washington’s connection to Birth of a Nation echoes throughout the film.
Lee has always had much to say, and was saying it before social media birthed the woke generation of audiences hungry for straight talk on race. Lee was way ahead of his time and if BlacKkKlansman brings his new fans back to his old films all the better. Despite being mostly shut out of the Oscar race, most notably for Do the Right Thing, Lee has never walked back anything in order to become acceptable to the mostly white awards voters. He’s delivering the same message he’s been delivering for the past 30 years – yes, 30 years. He has set his sights higher than Hollywood, and higher than the Oscar race. But we’ve come to a point where the Oscars have evolved enough, and generations of movie goers are open enough, to perhaps at last open their doors to the uncompromising Lee. I don’t see how BlacKkKlansman misses this time.
It will be his first in the Best Director category (he was nominated for writing Do the Right Thing and for the documentary 4 Little Girls). He won an honorary Oscar back in 2016, because the Academy acknowledged the impact and influence of Lee on film and culture. Looking back at his filmography, there hadn’t been a more prolific, innovative, creatively restless director as unrecognized by the Academy as Spike Lee. He will be, one year later, up for a competitive Oscar perhaps – how that one will play out we’re not quite sure yet.
With just five slots for Best Director many will be wondering if any women will make the cut as Greta Gerwig did last year. It’s still too early to know for sure, but there are a few names being tossed around, like Leave No Trace’s Debra Granik, perhaps Josie Rourke for Mary Queen of Scots, and what of Claire Denis and High Life?
As with all categories we often start at the top and work down, so it’s important to know whom the top will be. As far as I can tell right now I would predict, in addition to Lee, the top tier to be:
Alfonso Cuaron for Roma – making a deeply personal film in black and white, about his own childhood appears to be yet another addition to the growing canon of work by the visionaries directors from Mexico who have really taken Hollywood and the Oscars by storm. Cuaron won for Gravity, Inarritu for Birdman and The Revenant and last year, Guillermo del Toro won for The Shape of Water.
Damien Chazelle for First Man – Whiplash, La La Land and now First Man, Chazelle is on a roll knocking it out of the park every time. First Man is one I’d put right at the top without seeing it. It looks good “on paper,” though we’ll have to wait and see how good it is.
Yorgos Lanthimos‘The Favourite – Anne Thompson has already called this one of the most promising Oscar Best Picture contenders, and with Lanthimos’ growing cred it seems certainly possible.
Adam McKay for Backseat, a film about Dick Cheney, starring Christian Bale and Amy Adams. McKay wrote and directed the film, so it can be seen as a passion project for him. [Those who follow him on Twitter know that he is as politically minded as Michael Moore. He is anti-establishment when it comes to politics, which means you can pretty much expect THIS film to be an indictment not just of the republicans but of the democrats. Why I bring this up is that any film released before the November mid-terms that has political implications one way or another will be relevant (like The Front Runner, like Fahrenheit 9/11) because they will take their place in political context. I can’t say for sure whether McKay’s film will be a “Bernie bro” screed, like Moore’s probably will be, but when the nipple the press can’t stop suckling is “dems in disarray,” films like these could find themselves caught in the crosshairs. As a big fan of McKay’s brilliant The Big Short, I am looking forward to this movie.]
Jason Reitman for The Front Runner – with Tully released earlier in the year, Reitman will be heading into what appears to be Thank You for Smoking territory here, though it’s hard to tell what the adaptation of the Matt Bai book, All the Truth is Out – The Week Politics Went Tabloid. Hugh Jackman stars as Gary Hart, with Vera Farmiga as his suffering wife and Sara Paxton as the notorious Donna Rice.
Bo Burnham for Eighth Grade – if there is an early standout that is a film more about hope than despair it’s this one. With its sunny, optimistic lead Elsie Fisher, here is a film that really does what films can to lift spirits on occasion. It isn’t syrupy sweet nor sentimental but it is honest and happens to be about a girl who really does try to make the most out of the horror of adolescence and more than even that – to offer it up to others who might be suffering. It seems like a “small” movie by Oscar standards, and perhaps some might not see this as “important” enough but sometimes I wonder, what could be more important than the tiny sprout of green pushing towards the sky amid so much acid rain.
Bradley Cooper for A Star is Born
Cooper is coming to his first at bat as a director, which would indicate he, along with Burnham, could be up for Best First Time Director at the DGA awards. But beyond that, early word is that the film is beloved by those lucky enough to get a look at it. Lady Gaga is supposed to be phenomenal — as one would expect – and often what drives both the Best Picture and Best Director aces are a singular bravura performance (though usually male). It is familiar and well worn territory for old school Oscar voters, having seen a few versions of the same idea in the past, the last one being the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristoferson version which was not well received. Still, who knows. Actors-turned-directors have pretty good success in so far as getting their foot in the door if the film is good enough. Right now it has more than enough early buzz to be a major player.
Steve McQueen for Widows
While 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, McQueen did not win Best Director. To date, no black or African American director has, in fact, won. Gillian Flynn was also shut out, unbelievably, for her brilliant adaptation of Gone Girl because the Academy had to make room for Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which was abruptly put into adapted. That is the only possible explanation for Flynn’s omission – one of the more depressing things I’ve witnessed covering this race for the past 20 years. Either way, she’s going to be in the awards race again for this one, along with McQueen who is directing Viola Davis in what is sure to be among the performances of the year. This mostly female cast of women finishing the job their husbands couldn’t is among the small handful of films I’m personally most looking forward to.
Barry Jenkins’ for If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ Moonlight was the surprise upset at the Oscars but Jenkins did not win Best Director. Coming off of that film’s success, however, puts Jenkins high on the list for consideration. Moonlight was so good that the bar is set fairly high for him.
Robert Zemeckis for Welcome to Marwen
Zemeckis is an always interesting director to follow, and this film will blend a kind of stop animation with live action. If the central performance by Steve Carell (having another one of those years where he’s in everything) is good enough to anchor the film all the way through, Zemeckis could be looking at his second Oscar nomination for Best Director; he won with his first for Forrest Gump. Speaking of popular film category, Back to the Future is so one of those movies that has really taken its place in America’s cultural past and absolutely should have been nominated for Best Picture. Just saying.
Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace
Though Winter’s Bone was nominated for Best Picture, Granik was not recognized in the Best Director category. For a film coming out so early, it is hard to imagine enough buzz for her extraordinary work here. Women are given the same myth making status as men, most of them anyway, and nominations are rarely driven just by work and work alone. If they were, Granik would be a formidable contender here.
Ryan Coogler for Black Panther
Black Panther has now made 700 million domestically, and is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best, superhero movie. But it’s still a superhero movie and the Academy is not too keen on those. With the new popular film category, however, that seems to help Coogler in this category, rather than hurt him. So who knows.
A few other possible names include Marielle Heller for Can You Ever Forgive Me? Luca Guadagnino for Suspiria and Pawel Pawlikowski for Cold War, Mike Leigh for Peterloo, Joel Edgerton for Boy Erased, George Tillman Jr. for The Hate U Give, Peter Hedges for Ben is Back, and of course Paul Schrader for First Reformed.
1. Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
2. Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
3. Damien Chazelle, First Man
4. Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
5. Jason Reitman, The Front Runner
6. Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade
7. Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
8. Steve McQueen, Widows
9. Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
10. Debra Granik, Leave No Trace
AwardsWatch’s rankings here.