It’s funny how little our view of the Oscar landscape has changed since Cannes in May. Was a time when the heat of Cannes came too early to impact the Oscar race. But that has changed as the course seems to be charted much earlier than at any previous time in Oscar’s eight-decade history. With the public effectively taken out of the equation, the race is now decided mostly by critics, bloggers and most importantly, by members of the industry guilds — often before most civilian moviegoers even have a chance to see the preordained films.
The strongest movies this year were made by directors whose vision throughout their careers reach for something higher than entertainment, beyond the usual constraints of Hollywood. The films that resonated before Telluride — Nebraska, All is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Fruitvale Station — continue to resonate after the flurry of festival season. A few new additions have shaken things up considerably — 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips and Gravity.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler continues to maintain its status as a film that performed exceedingly well at the box office, featuring the largest ensemble cast of big name stars, involving a story as important as the Civil Rights era, and leading us through decades of struggle to the Obama presidency. It exists in the Oscar race outside the confines of the festival circuit, and outside the bubble of cynicism and “cool kids” conversation that often overtakes the Oscar race. As many of the best in the business – Steve Pond, Anne Thompson, Pete Hammond, Kris Tapley will remind you — the bubble is not the Oscar race. The bubble is a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff? No, but it’ll do till the mess gets here.
It used to be that the Best Picture race was all about Best Director. But we’ve seen a couple of years in a row when a big name director was not the cause for greatest celebration, as had usually been the case. No one really knew who Tom Hooper was, nor did they care. Ditto Michel Hazanavicious. It was to the Weinstein Co’s credit that, by the time those final ballots were handed out voters surely knew who they were. They were and are among the most newbie Best Director winners in Oscar history.
Back in the day, whenever a relative nobody director entered the Oscar race up against a veteran, the vet usually won — often creating a famous split. Hugh Hudson was never going to beat Warren Beatty, for instance. John Madden would have never beat Steven Spielberg. But Michel Hazanavicius beat Martin Scorsese, and Tom Hooper beat David Fincher. Was a time when such a thing would have been unheard of, particularly with Fincher. It shall remain one of the greatest head-scratchers in recent Oscar history that Hooper pulled out the Best Director win that year.
It’s the publicists job to transform them from total unknowns to knowns in the course of a few weeks with parties and Q&As stuffed with big name celebrities, like Arianna Huffington’s King’s Speech party. By the time the Oscars rolled around you could bet everyone in town knew Hooper and Hazanavicius, just as Sony Pictures Classics made sure everyone knew Marion Cotillard the year she won. It’s no easy task turning an unknown into a familiar face but recent history proves it can be done.
The Wolf of Wall Street reteams Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio for the fifth time. Scorsese is coming off of having delivered Hugo, the film that should have beat The Artist for Best Picture but didn’t — partly because The Artist looks fine on a home screen while Hugo was at its best in 3D and 100 feet wide. Scorsese operates on a different RPM than most filmmakers, thus, audiences must adjust to a Scorsese film. No film that’s too hard to wrap one’s senses around will ever win Best Picture. As proof, Scorsese got there with The Departed, his most accessible film to date. With its tightly written William Monahan screenplay, The Departed was strong on character and familiar symbolism — not at all difficult to understand, a thrill-ride to watch. Wolf of Wall Street has a script by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) that might be another Departed, as in, audiences will get it on the first go-round. But Scorsese is never comfortable huddling to the middle. He works in extremes, and at times his style could be described as a cinematic abstract expressionism. This film doesn’t sound like it’s going to back off in any way. For Scorsese to continue to push the boundaries of cinema at his age is remarkable. He shows no sign of slowing down, even if his fans want him to be just about Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. He is more than that — he is the best there is.
Stepping outside his comfort zone, at last, with Blue Jasmine Woody Allen has handed down a harsh rebuke of the ruling class in this country. It’s a bit odd that it took him this long to get to that point but it’s a beautiful thing to see. Perhaps because Allen is judged for the decisions he made in his personal life (unforgivable perhaps, but also none of our business) he has stuck to films about human relationships. His other favorite subject is the internal debate about what constitutes a moral life. But Blue Jasmine exists very much outside the realms of anything Allen has ever done. It never occurred to Allen to make his film about a man because Hollywood told him to. He would never listen, for one thing, and for another, he comes out of a different era, where women were considered people with rich inner lives. He isn’t painting a positive portrait of Jasmine, of course. She is the worst of the worst — someone who looked the other way while her husband robbed the poor. She spent the stolen money and pretended not to know what her husband was doing. Allen does not waver from his point. What happened with Bernie Madoff and similar Wall Street schemes was criminal activity that mostly went unpunished. Blue Jasmine is a film about the fallout. As a writer/director, Allen is not “married to every line.” He allows his actors to improvise without his ego getting in the way. The Academy rewards Allen time and time again, though only Annie Hall, early in his career, ever won Best Picture and Best Director. Like Scorsese, he was recently honored with multiple nominations for Midnight in Paris. But Blue Jasmine tops that film. Where he’ll sit in this year’s Oscar race is a mystery. He remains an American master. No one can really touch him, given where he started and where he’s ended up.
No other filmmaker paints a more exacting study of the modern American male the way Payne has done with Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and now, Nebraska. Lost for a while, dangling off the edge of of the lives they built, Paynes characters don’t stand on solid ground; they sort out a new way of living by the time the films come to a close. But throughout, their comfortable reality is upended. Nebraska — filmed in inky black, stark white, shades of grey — depicts a bleak view of a life that has not lived up to expectations. Its ashy palette feels right because it represents, perhaps, the grim terms in which Woody (a remarkable Bruce Dern) views the culmination of his faded life. What has it come to? What did he give up? Why does the light seem to dim? Where has the beauty gone? But somewhere behind the faces, behind the sameness of it all there is the love of a son, the memory of lost romance, the chance to live out simple dreams that are so much bigger than the false ones sold to us by corporations and the advertising industry.
Payne has won two Oscars now for writing and no Oscars for directing. He enters the Oscar race again as an American treasure already — one of the most interesting, prolific and vital filmmakers on the scene. His is the kind of career that looms large upon reflection. Somehow the Oscar race always comes down to two things — buzz and feelgoodism. Neither of those infatuations lasts. It falls upon the shoulders of filmmakers who continue to make films that redefine our identity to create the gifts that last — even if those gifts are not tied up in a pretty pink bow.
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Unlike Payne, the Coens have been rewarded by the Academy so often even they seem to find it funny on occasion. When they received ten nominations for True Grit they joked that they wondered whether or not the film deserved that many. They won deservedly for No Country for Old Men because they achieved, with that film, such a level of greatness they managed to top even themselves. And yet, here they are with a totally different kind of film. Inside Llewyn Davis look so different from No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski — those films present entire worlds of place and character that are unlike each other. But the constant is the continuing blank stare offered up by the film’s directors —- a kind of comment-less observation of odd people in odd situations. They offer no judgment on a cat that leaps out a window onto the freezing streets of New York. Nor do they offer judgment of a character who does great and terrible things that relate to that cat. You are left to figure it out for yourself. The Coens, unlike most, give their audience the benefit of the doubt that they will be smart enough to navigate the leaps in logic.
Inside Llewyn Davis takes us back to the early 1960s, Greenwich Village, just before Bob Dylan showed up. We ruminate on the drifting situation of a lost soul, Llewyn Davis, a kind of Dave Van Ronk figure (kind of, sort of). Like most of the Coen’s protagonists, Llewyn Davis has no earthly idea what he’s doing. He doesn’t plan thus he must react to what happens to him. What happens to him happens to him twice during the film. In a way, Llewyn makes his own fate; he chooses to take the actions that negatively impact his life. In another way, Llweyn is a victim of fate’s vagaries through no fault of his own. After all, what good are the best of plans if something coming around the corner is about to collide head-on with those plans? The Coens, along with Payne, are among the few directors who don’t shy away from flawed protagonists. In them we find ourselves, and all the choices we’ve made that determine the course of our lives. If Woody life in Nebraska has been about a safe, mundane existence that reaches for something extraordinary in the end, Llewyn’s life has been about an ordinary guy stuck in extraordinary circumstances. He was in the right place at the right time but he wasn’t equipped to emerge from it a success.
David O. Russell
While we haven’t yet seen American Hustle, Russell has consistently been making interesting, sometimes groundbreaking cinema. I Heart Huckabees, Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, then his recent run at the Oscars with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook — Russell is moving towards something and not settling with what he’s done already. It’s an exciting time to be watching his trajectory. He is angling for Best Picture — whether he gets there or not is another story. It is reminiscent of Scorsese during his Gangs of New York/Aviator phase — almost there, still growing, still learning the right buttons to push — in the meantime making films lots of people love. Russell is one of the best actors directors. He allows his casts the freedom of expression to find the extremes in their characters. The trust between actor and director has always been apparent in his films, despite the Lily Tomlin temper tantrum incident that tainted his early career. Actors love him. His films are driven by those performances.
McQueen has only made three films and each of them has his trademark thumbprint, which is almost as identifiable as Scorsese’s — long takes, characters who confront the viewer with a direct gaze, stories that extend beyond where you think they might be going. So far, all his major films have starred Michael Fassbender, perhaps his muse. He’s ventured into entirely different worlds for each journey — Hunger (prison strike), Shame (sex addiction) and now, 12 Years a Slave (slavery in America). With such a vivid and recognizable style, McQueen is already considered a master by many, and yet he is just getting started. 12 Years a Slave would be one of the more artfully designed Best Picture winners since, well, American Beauty which was directed by another newcomer, Sam Mendes. These are films that created their own genre, didn’t follow any particular structure but still moved you nonetheless. If McQueen wins an Oscar this year, he will become the first black director to do so. Though to speak of him as a black man is almost beside the point. It may has less visceral impact since he’s British born than a win by an African-American director would have. Calling him the first black director to win sounds to some like a form of racism itself. And it such a reductionist label does seem silly. But history is history, the status quo is the status quo. Doors will be opened, perceptions shattered.
Cuaron has added another unique selection to his canon this year with Gravity. Among the best reviewed movies so far this year, Gravity has broken the mold of the sci-fi genre to envision our vulnerability in space. The terrifying notion of free-floating in space, with nothing to hold on to, nothing to bring us home, nowhere to go but out into the black of the universe where humans are as insignificant as a piece of space debris. Gravity is a masterpiece that caps off a versatile career. With films as varied as Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess, Children of Men, Prisoner of Azbakan, Cuaron’s style is hard to pin down. Each of his films are visually splendid, with themes that are all over the place. He isn’t married to any one genre. Gravity, because of the Oscar attention the film will receive, will put him in a much different category. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Greengrass already has a few exceptional works under his belt, and a previous Best Director nod for United 93 among them. With Captain Phillips he seems to have pulled together all his gifts into one film. Strong on character, a master of flawless pacing, the director is building an impressive body of work — so much so that he’ll likely be one of the five this year to get in at the DGA and perhaps at the Academy.
Much of Reitman’s career so far has resided in a realm of irony and snark. It isn’t that he has had nothing more to say — but he’s chosen to say it from the perspective of an outside observer of the human experience more than as an activee participant. But with Labor Day he has taken a giant leap in a different direction. It is a sentimental weepy, one aimed squarely at women. You remember what those creatures are, right? Women are usually either relegated to tiny indies no one sees or talks about, or else they figure prominently in roles that might otherwise have gone to a man. Reitman’s Labor Day hovers just outside the area where the cool kids like to hang out and its those voices who mostly dominate the pre-awards talk, buzz during the early stages of the Oscar race. Thus it feels like Labor Day has been quiet. But make no mistake, in terms of Reitman’s own growth as a director, this is a major shift, an interesting one. Labor Day proves he is a master in the making, someone who is not afraid to step outside his comfort zone.
With his third installment of the Before series, Linklater has entered a new phase of his career as a director. The success of this trilogy must be shared with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, his collaborators. But all the same, if you watch Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and then Before Midnight you will see the evolution of a newbie director rise from simple beginnings of something far grander than ever expected. Linklater’s growth as an artist becomes evident — his confidence as a director and storyteller emerge in Before Midnight like never before. Before Sunset ends with Julie Delpy dancing in front of Ethan Hawke, telling him he’s going to miss his plane. That in itself was a daring move. But the coyness in his camera has vanished by the time Before Midnight comes around. There is a starkness there, a raw quality to the relationship that doesn’t need any kind of showing off. It bodes well for his future.
With Precious, the Paperboy and now, The Butler Lee Daniels is becoming a formidable American voice who comes at the work fearlessly. He doesn’t seem to want to fit into anyone’s idea of the kind of director he should be. He doesn’t shy away from dark characters, or extreme sexuality and violence. The Butler is one of his gentler films to date. It’s evident that he cares about the story he’s telling and was determined not to make the style about him. It is very much about the history surrounding the Civil Rights era, the way our government purposefully did not get involved during the riots and freedom marches until absolutely necessary. The Butler shows what that kind of entrenched denial was like from inside our very own White House.
Chandor took ten years to develop and make Margin Call. He has fine instincts as a writer and director but he also knows that it takes more than instinct and talent — diligence and hard work are just as essential. Surely, you need a combination of all those traits. Chandor could have picked something within his comfort zone for his follow-up effort. With a Best Screenwriting Oscar nod under his belt and nothing but a bright future ahead, he might have chosen to take a big paycheck. Instead, he decided to make All Is Lost, a movie with just one actor and no dialogue. Like Margin Call, what Chandor wants to say is buried beneath the deceptive surface. His is a rumination on life’s struggle to keep going even when it looks like all hope is lost. This works as a metaphor for most things we experience as human beings — love, work, parenting, sobriety, starvation. There is a point when we must give up but we can’t know where that line is until you’ve exhausted everything option. As a director, Chandor’s visuals for All Is Lost went in the opposite direction of the cloistered world of Margin Call. On the open sea, confined to a boat. It’s a hell of a risk to take that seems to have paid off, at least so far.
With Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler emerges as the only African American auteur in the Oscar race. The young graduate of USC has much promise ahead of him as he enters Oscars 2013 with his well reviewed and immensely powerful Fruitvale Station. If Steve McQueen takes on the distant past with slavery, and Lee Daniels carries the story forward a century later with the Civil Rights era, then Ryan Coogler brings us eye to eye with America’s ongoing struggle with racial inequality, tragically illustrating the contemporary injustice black men in America still face to this day. The film was released the same year as the Trayvon Martin trial. Those who are able to fathom that fact will find a wise hand to hold onto, looking back in years to come.
One of the year’s standouts is Sarah Polley and her documentary, Stories We Tell. I don’t think Polley ever got the memo that women aren’t supposed to be ambitious directors because Polley has never really operated from such a narrow point of view. Instead, she has the eye of an artist. She has already built up an impressive body of work, showing her versatility with Away from Her, Take This Waltz and now, Stories We Tell, which is a clever, inventive look at Polley’s own family history.
The director of Blackfish has entered the big leagues this year with a heartbreaking documentary that could change the way orcas are treated at amusement parks, specifically, Sea World and a sad captive whale named Tilikum. Cowperthwaite has put her money where her mouth is by standing behind her film, which represents an activist movement in and of itself. She has made a name for herself by owning the biggest pair of balls of any director this year. Not an easy thing to do, taking on a giant corporation like Sea World but Cowperthwaite did it without flinching. Blackfish is the among the most important films of 2013.
Finding your five Best Director nominees this year is no easy task. I would rank them this way:
1. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
2. Alexander Payne, Nebraska
3. Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
4. David O. Russell, American Hustle
5. Martin Scorsese, Wolf of Wall Street
6. JC Chandor, All is Lost
7. Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
8. Lee Daniels, The Butler
9. Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
10. Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
But that leaves out many of the names mentioned in this piece, and calls out the flaws in a contest that attempts rank the best among so much brilliance. It’s impossible. Whoever picks up the hardware this year will be sharing the narrative from Oscars 2013 that named the best of the best. There are so many of them, so many vivid voices and bold artists willing to put it all on the line to say something significant.