The 2020 year in film will be marked by the diversity of the offerings in the Best Director category. There are masters of the form who have never won Best Director. David Fincher, in particular, arguably the greatest living American director who has yet to win an Oscar, along with Paul Greengrass for News of the World, who also has never won. Spike Lee is back with Da 5 Bloods, and he’s never won. Sofia Coppola is back with On the Rocks. These directors have spent their careers making different kinds of movies, whether they succeeded or failed. This year you have Fincher making a faithful black and white homage to the writer of Citizen Kane, Greengrass making a western, Lee making a Vietnam war epic, and Coppola making a comedy. None of these directors have made movies like these before and prove that the best way to become great is never to stagnate, but always try something new.
The one thing that helps these directors is that their films translate to the “small screen.” Fincher, in particular, mastered it long ago with music videos. Paul Greengrass started in TV. Spike Lee and Sofia Coppola started with short films – which aren’t exactly small screen but both are adept at bringing it tight and close. While all of their films – Mank and News of the World in particular – would be much better on a screen as big and wide as possible, they also work on the small screen.
Way back when we used to have to take into account how films would play on “Screener-TV,” especially if they were films meant to be seen wide scale, like The Lord of the Rings series. Titanic – would the lack of theatrical experience brought them Best Picture Oscars, if the only way people could see them was on screener? I doubt it. LA Confidential would have had a better shot. The small screen erases much of the things we overlook when we get the theatrical experience. Wonder Woman, for instance, would have been much better viewed in a theater than at home. Without the theatrical wonder and awe much of the visual effects are muted.
So the films that resonate this year will have to be those that don’t rely on the big screen for their overall experience. This puts it heavy on acting and writing specifically and less on spectacle. It is an odd year, to be sure, but hey, we’re making it work, right? Or trying to.
Still, we are at an inflection point with what defines “good” when it comes to directing. What does it mean anymore? Who gets to do it and who is rewarded for it? How much of it has to do with identity? There is an unprecedented array of women behind the camera this year as writer/directors. In addition to Coppola, who always writes her own films, there is the frontrunner, Chloe Zhao with Nomadland, Emerald Fennell with Promising Young Woman, Kelly Reichardt with First Cow, Eliza Hitman with Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always.
It’s also a year with films by directors of color. In addition to Lee, there is George C. Wolfe for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Lee Daniels for The United States vs. Billie Holiday and Shaka King for Judas and the Black Messiah. There is Regina King for One Night in Miami. There is also Korean American director Lee Isaac Chung who directed Minari.
It has to be pointed out because if it isn’t addressed it will be called out on Twitter. If this was representative of every Oscar year there likely would not be controversy spilling over every year. But this isn’t how the Oscar race looks every year. This year is unique and we would be remiss not to notice.
And of course, there are directors who are just getting their foot in the door in terms of the Oscar for Best Director, like Aaron Sorkin for the Trial of the Chicago 7 and George Clooney with Midnight Sky, Florian Zeller for The Father. Kevin MacDonald for The Mauritanian, and Rod Lurie for The Outpost.
The films that have risen to the top of the pile to my mind is different from the critics – and the truth is, at this point, we really have no idea how this race or any other is going to go. You can follow the critics or you can wait to see how the Globes go, which won’t be too long from now. Mid-January voting for the HFPA begins so in roughly two weeks or so we will have a better idea of how this will shake out.
Best Director used to be linked with Best Picture much more than it is now. For decades, after the Academy reduced the number of Best Picture nominees to five (1944) there were five Best Director nominees and five Best Picture nominees. It was not unheard of for Picture and Director to go their separate ways but in general they were united. That was when Best Director drove the Best Picture race and was considered most influential.
Since the expansion of the Best Picture ballot in 2009, these are the directors who also won Best Picture:
2009-Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
2010-Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
2011-Michel Hazanavicious, The Artist
2014-Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
2017-Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water
2019-Bong Joon Ho, Parasite
Directors that won without their film winning:
2012-Ang Lee, Life of Pi (Argo)
2013-Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity (12 Years a Slave)
2015-Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant (Spotlight)
2016-Damien Chazelle, La La Land (Moonlight)
2018-Alfonso Cuaron, Roma (Green Book)
The way this race is going it does not seem like it’s going to split – with Chloe Zhao and Nomadland firmly in the lead. Are they really going to give her one prize and not the other? I have a hard time seeing that. But you never know.
Many are going to be hoping Steve McQueen somehow makes it in for his longform BBC drama Small Axe, which contains shorter films that appear to have divided critics so far. On the whole, it is quite the achievement and it’s hard to imagine Best Director without McQueen on the list.
If I had to predict them now, just before New Year’s Eve, I would do it like this:
Chloe Zhao for Nomadland – highly praised film that no one hates.
David Fincher for Mank – an incomparable masterpiece unlike any other film this year.
Paul Greengrass for News of the World – an epic film with an intimate story at its core.
Lee Isaac Chung for Minari – a nearly perfect film about what it means to be American.
Aaron Sorkin for The Trial of the Chicago 7
Right behind that group:
Regina King for One Night in Miami
Sofia Coppola for On the Rocks
Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman
George C. Wolfe for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Florian Zeller for The Father
There are other films still to be seen, like The United States vs. Billie Holiday and Judas and the Black Messiah. It feels like a packed year.
We will be discussing Best Director on today’s podcast recording and will be posting that episode later tonight.