The Best Directing Oscar has not gone to a director born in America for the past four consecutive years. That’s the longest running gap in Oscar history. Last year, the first Mexican director won, Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity. The year prior, the brilliant Taiwanese genius, Ang Lee (a naturalized American citizen) won his second Oscar (another record breaker), the year before that, Michel Hazanavicius directed the first French film to win Best Picture, and prior to that, the old mainstay, a Brit, Tom Hooper won for The King’s Speech. The last time an American director won was Kathryn Bigelow for the Hurt Locker in 2009.
This reflects both reflects the changing landscape of the Oscars and the film industry overall – more focus on international and less on domestic product.
Though many of the early directors who built the Hollywood empire by directing iconic films were immigrants from other countries, like Billy Wilder (The Apartment), like Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo), like Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life), Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), David Lean (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia), Milos Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), this has been the longest stretch at the Oscars without an native-born American director winning.
The irony of it is that one reason American directors haven’t been winning has more to do with the experimental, often divisive work many of them are doing, as opposed to the more traditional types of storytelling that wooing a larger consensus often requires.
This year, as is the norm lately, there are directors hailing from all over the world currently flooding the Oscar race, with three Americans at the head of the pack. Richard Linklater for Boyhood, David Fincher for Gone Girl and Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher. They join Mexico’s González Iñárritu for Birdman as the four strongest contenders for the category this year so far. Four wildly different films, of darkness and light, of realism and fantasy, of dreams and nightmares.
Boyhood is the culmination of the meditative storytelling of Richard Linklater, a director who really has never fit inside any box. What his work has to offer in abundance is depth and heart. He is a good-hearted person and that shines through in the films he writes, alone or with his collaborators. He’s the guy who put the camera on Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as they tore each other apart in the third of the Before films. He’s the guy who finds nothing more interesting in life than the art of conversation — two people walking the streets of Vienna, diving into the human condition. But Linklater is more than just someone interested in conversation, he is also known to pull rabbits out of his hat unexpectedly with films like Fast Food Nation, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly. You’d be hard pressed to nail him down to any one style except raw authenticity. But it’s really with Boyhood that’s Linklater has taken his work to a different level, perhaps one he didn’t even see coming. It isn’t just a gimmick, this making a film over a 12-year period. This is careful storytelling, planning and filming pieced together as though it had been filmed in 12 months.
What Linklater does so well in Boyhood is tell this story seamlessly, literally having it move along in the blink of an eye. Never has a film captured life and preserved it behind glass like that. You’d think the result would be to marvel at people aging before your eyes — and whether you connect with the material or not that happens to you while watching the film. But it’s more than that. It’s about the delicate accidental pathways we carve for ourselves and others that amount to the totality of our lives. If you’re one of those people who fights off dark nights of the soul you’ll already have figured this out. But if you haven’t, Boyhood might just do it for you.
When the film ends you realize that Linklater has really been telling the story of the mother, played brilliantly by Patricia Arquette. This was a love letter to her, and all of the teachers whose paths he crossed along the way. But to pay homage to the woman who did all of the hard work raising you? That’s some kind of thing. Boyhood has much going for it heading into the race and as many have already said, and I myself have said, it’s going to be a hard one to top.
It’s one of those odd stories in American film history that David Fincher hasn’t yet won an Oscar. He is already overdue twice over, once for Benjamin Button and again for The Social Network. Could it be possible, when all is said and done, that Fincher might join Kubrick and Hitchcock in the ranks of directors who gave us some of the finest films ever made but never won over the consensus? The buzz right now for Gone Girl is deafening. It has not only captured that elusive zeitgeist (as Fincher’s films often do) but it’s making big money. Dizzying, beautiful, haunting, Gone Girl is a send up of the right now, a companion piece to Fight Club and the Social Network as a sharp elbow to the ribs and a good laugh at the end of the night over the absurdity of it all. Each of these three films ends with a punctuation mark at the end of an ellipses. Working with an ensemble of talented actors, under the pulse of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Fincher has probably made the most provocative film of the year in a year of very provocative films.
Gone Girl can be enjoyed on two different levels. For those hoping to get their money’s worth on date night, it delivers a thrill ride and something unexpected. But Gone Girl, like Fincher’s other films, will also appeal to viewers ready to take a deep to other layers, if they feel like going there. To do that you have to be willing to step back and look at the world around you and listen to what this film says about that world. You have to be willing to look at yourself and your place in that world. Gone Girl is at once about the striations of the institution of marriage as currently stands in American culture as it is about the way we choose to define ourselves outwardly, our avatar selves, our social networking disconnect between who we are and who we want people to think we are.
One of the reasons there is so much excitement for Gone Girl is that it’s the first big studio movie to come out in a long time that isn’t aimed at 13 year old boys — or the vast numbers of Americans of all ages and both sexes who sometimes seem to have the mentality of 13-year-old boys. Its presence in theaters, on social networks, and word of mouth is a stark reminder of how starving adult people are for movies about people rather than costumed or animated characters. Fincher makes films in hard R. How many directors are even allowed to do that anymore? Some of us remember how things used to be. Oscar season is the one time of year now where we get a chance to live it again. Summer used to be the only time for blockbusters aimed at tweens. Now it’s a year round event. It’s not surprising that the coverage for Gone Girl has been off the charts. Now that Oscar season is upon us there will be plenty of films coming to take up the slack, to become filler for a season that has way too many crows pecking at few crumbs of bread.
Either way you look at it, this is one of the year’s most talked about films, which can sometimes translate to an Oscar nomination.
Bennett Miller brings another pitch black comedy of sorts to the race with Foxcatcher, the true story of the murder of Dave Schultz at the hands of John Du Pont, heir to the Du Pont fortune. As the story of multimillionaire misfit, the film doesn’t try to be a documentary. Rather, it settles like a slimy layer left overnight on an otherwise serene American dream, rotten from the ground up. Both Gone Girl and Foxcatcher offer up that dream as a too-pretty facade that covers the absence of where real happiness can be found: in real human relationships. These films are about the buying and selling of that dream and how, in the end, it can’t be bought.
Foxcatcher is a slow burn, but ultimately one that leaves you groping around in the dark for the light switch. It’s not a film that is going to send you out of the theater skipping with childlike glee that all is right with the world. But oh, is it brilliant. As our country unwinds from the damage caused by two decades of a government going from a democracy to an oligarchy, here is a film that clearly shows how different these two worlds are. Though Foxcatcher works as a film based on a true story, it also works beautifully as a metaphor for the theft of the middle class at the hands of people who have no right to take such a thing.
Alejandro Gonzolez Inarritu’s Birdman is another pitch black comedy. That’s three, count ’em, three headed into the race. His camera trails a day in the life of a former superhero who is trying to fumble towards one last grab at respectability by making What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the Raymond Carver short story, into a play (Adapted by, Directed by, and Starring!). It is another film about identity versus reality, illusion vs. delusion all pinned under what is made to look like a single take.
Like Gone Girl and Foxcatcher — and to a certain extent, Boyhood — here is another film that searches for the meaning of life, or the place where true happiness can be found. Birdman takes a merciless stab at criticism, fame, and even Twitter. There is a sense of artists fighting back at the strange way media has taken over the conversation. It is easy to make internet chatter and bloggers look stupid because when you look at it from real life’s point of view few things seem smaller than the silly shit we are all consumed by every second of every day online.
Though no one has yet gutted this modern phenom, Birdman comes pretty close to illuminating that modern-day feeling that there is just no THERE there anymore. The camera keeps us tied to the characters so that we can feel as suffocated as they do, so we can feel that there is no escape from the madness.
These are films that will define 2014, at least so far. The only one of them that can win the way the Academy votes now is Boyhood as it’s the only one that celebrates the goodness in us. In Boyhood, things turn out all right. There are no dramatic shifts in any direction to say that life is a sucky tragedy until we die, or that someone wins a million dollars and gets rich. There is just the heart-stopping beauty of the fleeting moments that fly by every second of every minute of every hour of the day.
When films like this come along any Academy member worth his or her salt would be wise to take notice, whether it makes you feel good or not. But this is an unwinnable war. With the balloting such as it is voters only have five choices for Best Picture, even if they include those that almost made it in.
Other masters hovering just outside the race would include:
Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
New Kids on the Block
The other directors right now that are looking to make a slash with their films would include:
James Marsh for The Theory of Everything
Damien Chazelle for Whiplash
David Ayer for Fury
Xavier Dolan for Mommy
Tommy Lee Jones for The Homesman
Jean-Marc Valle for Wild
Master directors who could really change the game:
Clint Eastwood, American Sniper
Eastwood has won Best Director twice (along with Best Picture). To win a third time would put in an elite club of only three other directors in Academy history to win more than two. John Ford holds the record with four wins but only one of those (How Green was my Valley) also won Best Picture. William Wyler is next, with Mrs. Miniver an The Best Years of Our Lives, and finally, Frank Capra who won three Oscars but only once with Best Picture, so Eastwood would have to really make Academy history here.
Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
It seems inconceivable from where I sit that Nolan will be excluded from the race for Best Director for Interstellar. The only snag is that he doesn’t make “accessible” films but rather requires that the audience be active participants.
Women are a Force to be Reckoned With
Ava DuVernay and Angelina Jolie are headed squarely into the Oscar race with Selma and Unbroken, two films about American heroes. DuVernay’s film is about the march for civil rights and the Voters Rights Act. Jolie’s film is about Louis Zamperini’s incredible life as a prisoner of war. This hardly ever happens, to have women — and especially not a black female director like DuVernay to get this close to the Oscar race. Sure, these films have not been seen yet but how great that we’re talking about them at all.
Best Director right now looks like this:
1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
2. David Fincher, Gone Girl
3. Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
4. Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
5. Morten Tyldum, Imitation Game or James Marsh for Theory of Everything
It really is a roll of the dice as to what will happen in the coming months with screenings ahead. It seems most likely that Christopher Nolan will get in but it is too soon to know about the rest.