The auteur as Oscar contender (much less champion) is not as common as you’d think. For all of the films that have won Best Picture and Best Director since 2009, only one film written a single writer/director has ever won Best Picture and that was The Artist, which did not win Best Screenplay. When films win both Best Picture and Screenplay, the writer/director tends to either share the screenplay Oscar with a co-writer (e.g. Birdman, Moonlight, Spotlight), or the story is adapted by a separate writer from a preexisting work, like Argo or 12 Years a Slave. It is rare for one person to stand up on stage and accept two Oscars for writing and for directing, let alone both those plus Best Picture. The Coen brothers pulled off that hat trick 10 years ago, and together carried home six Oscars between them.
The heat this year, in terms of screenplays, is in the original category. Strangely enough, many of these scripts were also written by the director, making this year a “battle of the auteurs.” With Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread all in Best Picture contention alongside Guillermo Del Toro’s and Vanessa Taylor’s The Shape of Water, we’re seeing an unprecedented number of auteurs or writer/directors at the forefront of the Best Director race. There are a number of collaborative efforts in the conversation this year as well, including Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, Jonathan Dayton’s and Valerie Farris’ Battle of the Sexes, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit.
It is unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, to have a year like this one. Over the past 89 years, only a few hyphenate auteurs have ever won Best Picture. Single writer/director winners whose vision came entirely from their own minds include Oliver Stone for Platoon and Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist, although neither won for their screenplays. Others writer/directors whose films won Best Pic and Screenplay often had co-writers, such as Birdman, Moonlight, Crash, Annie Hall, and The Apartment. Auteurs adapting previously published works and/or co-writing with someone else have been more common: think Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather, James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment, or the aforementioned Coens for No Country for Old Men.
As such, to see all three of the strongest contenders for Best Picture right now were written and directed by the same person (at least according to what we’ve seen so far: critics + Globes + SAG). This is very rare, and seems to be part of a recent trend. And needless to say, no female filmmaker who wrote her own screenplay (as Greta Gerwig has done with Lady Bird) has ever won either Best Director or Picture.
The reason this matters at all is that throughout Oscar and Hollywood history, being a good writer and being a good director (much less producer or actor) were considered different gifts. If you were good at one, you usually weren’t as good at the others. In fact, many directors in the past have been mocked for even trying to write and writers were mocked for trying to direct. This has been reflected, mostly, with how the film awards have been given out. If you are going to award one person whose imagination delivered this film, you have to really respect and like that person to give them that many accolades.
But this year there seem to be little wiggle room in that regard — you either dive into one person’s world or take the more customary route. The options for the customary route would be a roster of fine films like The Post, Call Me By Your Name, The Big Sick, Darkest Hour, and All the Money in the World.
So far, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Broadcast Film Critics Association are the most significant groups to weigh in on this year’s Best Director race. But that will change on January 11, when the Directors Guild announces their five nominees for feature film. Predicting the DGA five is slightly different from predicting what the Academy’s director branch will do. There have been unusual years where no more than two directors were nominated by both groups (Spielberg for Lincoln and Ang Lee for Life of Pi in 2012, for instance), but in general, the DGA and Oscar tend to agree on four out of five names. The DGA has around 16,000 members, many of whom are television directors and assistant directors. In contrast, the Academy’s directors branch has around 400 members, and all are film directors, mostly white, mostly male. They Academy has, as of last year, brought in many new members into this branch, but it’s not known whether these new recruits will shift the overall makeup of the nominees that are chosen. Nearly all of the time, the director who wins the DGA also wins the Oscar. The two recent exceptions to this are when Ben Affleck won the DGA in 2012 and was not nominated for the Oscar (Ang Lee won) and 2002 when Rob Marshall won the DGA but Roman Polanski won the Oscar.
However, since 2009 Best Picture/Best Director have largely become separate races, due to the odd nature of the preferential ballot which rewards broad likability as opposed to passionate love. The director race still seems to go with passionate love, which makes it a wee bit easier to predict. As Oscar predictors, we almost always used to think in terms of “what wins Best Director will win Best Picture,” but that has hardly been the case recently. Might it be this year when the two realign? It might.
What to look for is simply this: if one film wins all three of the major guilds — PGA, DGA, and SAG — it’s very likely that Picture and Director will align. If each of those guilds go for a different film, or if even one guild disagrees with the other two, then Best Picture and Best Picture could very well not align. Nothing is 100%, of course — each race, each year is different.
Nolan’s hunger to wrestle with the frame works whether he’s making a small film about a Möbius strip of delusion that swallows up the main character, as in Memento, or a film on a screen as expansive as IMAX, like Interstellar and now Dunkirk. Dunkirk is such a powerful story it barely needs any words, and relies instead on threads of visual storytelling from the air, from the sea, and from land. The battle of Dunkirk and the miracle that was the evacuation was not just one of the most compelling stories from the second World War, but it also resided inside Nolan’s heart, an aspect of him we rarely see. The masters of the form of visual storytelling often keep themselves out of it by design; they want to transport you somewhere else, not pull you into them. Nolan’s Dunkirk somehow does both because it really does point back to the 12-year-old dogfight-obsessed Nolan ready to point his camera at anything that flies. It also the perfect battle to illustrate why the Allies were so outmatched by Hitler and his army of speed-addicted Nazis. The Germans had the Allies cornered and nearly beaten, and had they killed those 400,000 stranded men, you can imagine the immense power imbued upon Hitler, the demoralization Britain would have suffered, and how hard it would have been to find the resources, manpower, and resolve to fight back. We see how Winston Churchill mustered all those factors in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, but we see how difficult the evacuation itself was in Nolan’s breathtaking film.
Guillermo Del Toro
Because The Shape of Water ends on such an uplifting, sensual, glorious note, many keep calling it “beautiful,” although del Toro would not be the genius he is if he merely dwelt in the beautiful. He has always been unafraid of the spectrum of the human experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When depicting early-1960s America when monster movies had to express much of our secret confessional longings, del Toro does not shy away from ugliness and violence. But he skillfully juxtaposes those with love — unapologetic, erotic love. For a director who has contributed so much to cinema across the board, he continues to dazzle with his expansive imagination. The Shape of Water is arguably his most complete film. The charismatic del Toro can captivate any crowd, which always makes his face-to-face appearances in the awards race something to look forward to.
Talk about entering the world of an auteur — Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri requires immersive acceptance of Martin McDonagh’s specific language, both dialogue and themes as well as visual. So far it seems that it has hit the right spot for people looking for something to connect with in very confusing and upsetting times. Anchored by brilliant, vivid performances, McDonagh’s directing takes us to unpredictable places. He is great with actors and it shows. Three Billboards is not made by an American, but it is meant to tell an American story. What it does more than anything is reflect ourselves back at us through the eyes of someone who clearly has affection and hope for the best selves of some of the most troubled Americans and the kind of enduring legacy of ugliness we carry with us year after year.
One film this year that stands out in terms of sheer filmmaking flair alone, even if you don’t think about its deeper themes, is Get Out. Endlessly enjoyable, suspenseful, and compelling, Get Out is the kind of film you can’t stop watching, even if the subject matter might make us feel a little on edge. From the eerie roadkill of the poor deer early on in the film, through the slow burn of meeting the family, the casual way some characters can disguise diabolical intentions, leading to a graphic and violent finish, Peele manages to expertly walk the line between funny, strange, horrific, and profound.
The one woman left standing in a year with so many films directed by women emerges in the year of the auteur because that’s exactly what it is. Gerwig was not trying to make a film that was separate from herself. She was introducing us to her world, her sensibilities, her sense of humor, and the occasional deeper message that creeps through here and there. Lady Bird is probably the most vivid film in terms of what an auteur can offer because Gerwig is telling a personal story (not precisely factual, but clearly in all ways personal) and isn’t trying to get across any political message or heavy commentary on society. Rather, she seeks to capture a particular time and place, filling her film with all things familiar to draw viewers into that place. It is not as easy as it sounds to pull this off because it could so easily have come off like one inside joke after another. But she doesn’t alienate her audience. Gerwig shows them what it was like coming of age in the early 2000s in that part of the world, what’s swirling in the head and heart of a girl who wishes to leave her home town. It seems so simple, yet stories like this are so rarely put on screen.
Spielberg is such a great director that just about any story he tries to tell he can bring to the screen brilliantly, whether it’s personal or not. With The Post he was investing in a female icon, Katharine Graham, while also telling the story of the Pentagon Papers. The Post is about those documents and the fight to let the public know about them, but it’s really about our commitment to fighting for freedom of the press at a time when the wannabe-despots now installed in our government are doing everything in their power to sew distrust and doubt. These are desperate times that call for desperate measures. Spielberg does an expert job at using the past to make sense of the present.
With a script written by James Ivory, Call Me By Your Name is one of the few screenplay adaptations that is strong in the Best Picture/Best Director race. This is true even though this film fits so well into themes that run through all of Guadagnino films, as he pulls the story into his own universe. Every inch of this film brims with life and sensuality, so much so that it makes us long for that kind of experience even if our own relationships are far removed from what Elio pursues. These characters seem to exist in a place none of us have access to now because we’ve had to give up, in a sense, the world of intimate immediacy we once possessed before electronics became our social go-between.
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Sean Baker, The Florida Project
Dee Rees, Mudbound
Joe Wright, Darkest Hour
Michael Showalter, The Big Sick
The problem with predicting Best Director at the DGA and and the Oscars this year is that we have six frontrunners and only five slots. One is going to have to go.