The five directors who are nominated for the DGA have reminded me what great cinema is all about. If the big screen is the canvas, the director must make sure every brushstroke, every line of dialogue, every edit, every music cue, every character arc works. The directors in the race this year are masters of the form. Most have been making movies a long time. They have made some great movies and some not so great. They are unafraid of taking risks, which is a requirement of becoming a master.
The best films don’t give you everything on first watch. Successful Oscar movies usually do. Very few people have the patience to study movies by the best directors to solve the puzzle of what’s presented on screen. Films change as you age, and when you revisit them you discover even more. It took me about ten viewings of David Fincher’s Se7en to finally uncover the repeated image of a cross on windows and on building structures. I could not see it the first few times because I was caught up in the story and the characters, but the greatest directors leave visual cues to take you deeper into the story. You just have to be there to notice them — and often times, as least for me, that takes many viewings. I’m still learning new things, for instance, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
I believe four of the five directors nominated for the DGA have made masterpieces. That is, career achievements that are either as good or top the best films they’ve made.
Sam Mendes brings with him in making 1917 his background in theater with actors, and that knowledge of the power of live performance. This is a film about the inward trajectory of one reluctant soldier whose call of duty means crossing No Man’s Land to deliver a message that will save thousands of lives. He isn’t supposed to be the one. His friend is the one who was handpicked to be the hero. This isn’t just a film that says “war is hell.” We already knew that. Mendes hold us there with his relentless camera, which never gives us a chance to catch our breath because this soldier would never have a chance to catch his breath, and with the singular performance of George MacKay, whose dedication to the role becomes our emotional guide. Mendes knows actors and rehearsed them for months before filming so that when the moment came for each of them they could nail it. And they do. Only a great director of actors can do that.
1917 is very specifically about two things. The first — acts of heroism in war, however noble, are ultimately acts of futility in a war fought for no good reason. The second — cinema. It tells a moving, involving story, but as a work of cinematic art it soars. Yes, a good deal of this beautiful thing you’re looking at is because of the lensman, Roger Deakins, who has infused this WWI film with the imagery of German abstract expressionism. To quote Reed Johnson writing in the Los Angeles Times, “From the fiction of Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and John Dos Passos to the savagely critical paintings and etchings of George Grosz and Otto Dix, World War I reshaped the notion of what art is, just as it forever altered the perception of what war is.” 1917 somehow brings both of these complex ideas into one film. Perhaps Americans connect more strongly with WWII, but the First World War shocked the modern world into a new phase of perception. Many believe all hope ended there. But to the British, it means even more: quoting War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, the First World War is “so deep in us; the poetry, the stories, the loss, the suffering is there in every village churchyard.”
Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is a film that has such complex structure that even after five viewings I am still uncovering new things about it. For instance, the Voss water bottles kept in the fridge as a symbol of wealth. Only really rich people can afford to be eco-friendly in their water choices. So what does the invading lower-class family do once given freedom to roam the house? They go right for the water bottle. Parasite succeeds on every level a great film should. The story is powerful beyond words: that each of us is trapped in a capitalist structure we can’t overcome. Bong expresses this visually and structurally with the house itself. The invading family “moves in” from their basement dwelling and takes over the wealthy family’s elite terrain, unbeknownst to them. Here comes a big spoiler — and once you go even deeper, you find that underneath the house itself is a basement that a terrified architect in Seoul built in case North Korea ever decided to attack, or where they could hide out once their debt becomes too crippling. The dweller underground is devoted to his host family, even lighting the stairs each time the head of household arrives home.
About halfway through, the story completely changes and is no longer a madcap satire. As Bong’s films often do, Parasite just gets sadder and darker as the truths are revealed until it at last explodes in violence at the end. It is a dazzling work, shot by shot, line by line. The director never drops the ball and is in complete command of this story, taking us to places that are heartbreaking, painful, and inescapable. By the end, all we want for them is relief from the misery, relief from the trappings of their lives, and relief from the truth they can never become equal to the wealthy family, no matter how many lies they are told about their prospects. Parasite is the best film Bong has ever made and without question one of the best films of the year.
Quentin Tarantino is arguably one of the most influential American directors. His films have left their mark for decades now, each of them inventing their own language, both with his words and visual style. Fusing music, pop culture references, and a wild, electrified imagination, Tarantino is on fire with this, his best film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Following three different characters alive and inserted into one hot night in August 1969, where everything changed, this film is both a love letter to the past and renewed hope for the future. It is his third in a revenge trilogy where Tarantino confronts the crimes of humanity that haunt us: the Holocaust with Inglourious Basterds, the Holocaust of American slavery with Django Unchained, and now, the Manson murders with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In each of these three films he rewrites the ending to scratch the itch that asks, what if? What if instead of reaching their destination point and killing everyone inside, what if they ran into CLIFF BOOTH and his dog instead? Well, they wouldn’t have a chance.
Tarantino takes a while to get us to that end point because he has to tell each of the stories completely. If this film had only been about the tragedy or only about the Manson family, it would not be so wildly entertaining as it is, as it has no right to be. For those of us who love it and can’t stop watching it, we almost hate it because it won’t let us go. He must tell the whole story of Rick Dalton, the star of Bounty Law whose career is on the skids. He has to tell the whole story of Cliff Booth as Dalton’s sidekick. And every fairy tale needs a character in need of rescuing and that comes in the form of the bright, effervescent light that was Sharon Tate, who did nothing more than simply move into the house where Terry Melcher once lived. That’s it. She moved into the house of the guy Charles Manson hated enough to send his family members to slaughter.
Tarantino’s visual style from frame-to-frame is intoxicatingly beautiful. The mirrored realities of the Hollywood Western up against Spahn Ranch as its own Western. Every frame of this movie is alive. It is by far one of the best films of the year and Tarantino’s career high point.
Martin Scorsese seems to reinvent what he can do every year he makes another movie. Who could have predicted Hugo followed by The Wolf of Wall Street followed by Silence? He aims high and sometimes he hits his target and sometimes not, but every one of his movies — even the worst of them — has Scorsese’s thumbprint throughout. The Irishman is the most subdued of his mobster series, but it is every bit as dazzling and impressive as the ones that move much faster. Scorsese had an ambitious idea: what if I could have the same actors play themselves from young to old? What would that look like? How would that emphasize the arc of a man’s lifetime? We have the technology, so why not? All of these films, and some of the best movies ever, almost always start with that simple question, “Why not?” Why not make a movie in one continuous take about World War I? Why not make a movie about a family living on top of another family? Why not make a movie that rewrites the fate of Sharon Tate? And why not make a movie that, for the first time, put to full use the transformative overlay of state-of-the-art digital technologies. The jokes about the Irishman being too long are lazy. The film takes you somewhere, and to get there you need to know the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story. Al Pacino very nearly steals the show as Jimmy Hoffa: every scene with him in it sparks and sizzles, especially the scenes he shares with Anna Paquin as the young Peggy. That this lively, funny, likable man would be murdered by the film’s main character leaves you with hollowed out sadness that, by the end, strips the mob of whatever romance Scorsese and other filmmakers have ever given it.
Scorsese’s first DGA nomination was for Taxi Driver in 1976, 43 years ago. His tenth feature film nomination is for The Irishman. For all of the films he’s been nominated for, there are many more milestones that went un-nominated. Documentaries, concert films, shorts. Is there any other American director who has that kind of career? And to continue to reinvent what he can do AND what film can do? No one even comes close.
Finally, Taika Waititi joins the DGA five with a nomination that isn’t buttressed by the kind of lifelong of careers these other directors have had, but he lands a nod for the sheer likability of Jojo Rabbit, one of the few films made this year that brings the viewer pure joy by the end. Waititi’s style is playful, risky, satirical, but all the while dances on the edge of darkness. Od course we know who Hitler was. We know what Nazis were. Waititi never intended to make Schindler’s List. Instead, he wanted to give history a twist that would ignite hope and try to offer an antidote to the brainwashing that can infect us when an autocrat takes power by scapegoating an oppressed group of people. This theme ran through many of the films this year, including Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. To do it with humor and satire is far more effective, even if your end game isn’t to change minds. It’s important for art to leave a record a its time. Art enables future generations to vividly remember the truth. That Jojo Rabbit is divisive is one of its biggest strengths because how else to tell a story where a battle rages inside the heart of a dejected, bullied 10-year-old boy. In that way, it has something in common with Todd Phillips’ Joker. Both offer two different paths to take when bullying assaults us, where to take that hate. Luckily for Jojo, he has a good mom and a good teacher in a young Jewish woman taking refuge in his attic. Without the influences of these two women to show him what love looks like, how would he have learned what hope feels like? Without them Jojo would be lost to the Nazis. As it is, his attitude is changed and his mind is realigned.
Jojo Rabbit is full of funny and often moving performances. It is unique in its storytelling and one of the best films of the year.
As we head into the DGA ceremony this weekend, it’s very likely any of these five could win, adding another light to signal which film might win Best Picture. Or not. The combination of this year’s rushed schedule, the unusual set of contenders, and the fickle preferential ballot make predicting Best Picture hard. Best Director, however, is not chosen by a preferential ballot: five contenders, one round of voting, the most votes win.
And now to the stats.
In the shared history of the PGA, DGA, and Oscar — that’s 30 years, from 1989 to now — only one director has won the DGA without winning either the Globe for Best Director or the PGA for Best Picture or both. That director was Ron Howard and the movie was A Beautiful Mind. Why did A Beautiful Mind get there? Because Ron Howard’s Oscar story was that he’d been screwed over for Apollo 13, which won the PGA, the DGA, and SAG ensemble but then did not get a Best Director nomination at the Oscars. Braveheart won Best Picture instead. His win with A Beautiful Mind had a lot to do with making things right. It was also driven by a bravura performance by Russell Crowe.
Using those variables to triangulate means our most likely winner is Sam Mendes. Quentin Tarantino is also a possibility, based on his popularity and the fact that, as of yet, he has never won the DGA or the Oscar for directing. And of course, the third possibility is Bong Joon-ho for Parasite. Martin Scorsese could always win (you never know), and in a wild card shocker, it could go to Taika Waititi.
Parasite’s SAG win has led many to believe it will now win Best Picture. And it might. But I looked at that and thought, it was chosen by SAG-AFTRA and not SAG. It might have won anyway. It’s still a wild card. But Parasite also won the Eddie for editing, beating Joker and The Irishman — which is an even bigger sign, I think, of the film’s broader reach. If it can win there, it surely can win the DGA.
We will be putting out our own predictions later, but here is your chance to enter our contest. Do your worst (best).