Most of the time, the nominees for Best Director at the DGA simply exemplify the films voters liked best. But when a master is in the house, they are hard to ignore. Such is the case that David Fincher is once again in the Best Director race at the DGA. This in Fincher’s 7th DGA in any category, and his 4th for a feature film. He is so well respected that he was nominated for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before the Academy put the kibosh on that. He deserved that nomination, just as he deserved a nominations for Gone Girl, Panic Room, Se7en, and Zodiac. His other two DGA film nominations are of course for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network. Fincher is among the best living American directors who has somehow slipped passed the Academy’s radar to join the ranks of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Orson Welles. Mank is not winning the DGA or the Oscar this year but it nonetheless stands apart as yet another example of a director at the top of his game.
Mank is the kind of film that requires a few viewings and a careful analysis to see how great it really is, how dense it is, how brilliant it is. But voters in the DGA, all 18,000 or so of them, knew enough on sight to pull the trigger on Mank for a nomination because they looked at that movie and thought, wow. Even if it might not have been their thing, even if they didn’t exactly get it, even if some of them found it too dense or too cold or too confusing. They still knew enough about the art of filmmaking to think, wow.
From the first shot, the misty clouds that cling to a sign that says “Victorville” to the final shot and coda of a half wasted, half successful life, Mank is the best film of the year that won’t win Best Picture. It’s the full story of the old myth of that time Herman J. Mankiewicz was put up in a “dry” house, trapped there by Boy Wonder Orson Welles to write a draft of The American, a tilting-at-windmills take-down of not just William Randolph Hearst, but of the kind of powerful, moneyed icons who ruled America in the 1930s, pandered to Nazis and dictators, bought elections and people.
Mank lays itself out like Citizen Kane does only it does it backwards (and in heels). If Kane takes each character’s connections to Kane to help tell the broader story, Mank tells the story of a writer’s journey through source material and inspiration; we aren’t here to study the downfall of Mank as we are with Kane. We’re here to understand the why of it. WHY did he write THAT movie? He did it because it was the risky play. He was an addict – gambling and drink – the one thing addicts love to do is play the odds. It somehow turned out that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time, but there were so many ways it could have derailed. Mank was called a “throw away genius” because he did everything he could to ruin his own life. Everything I love about Mank is wrapped up in the line, “I’m all washed up, Joe.” It is a reminder that we don’t always know what we got until it’s gone. Time has remembered Mank well. Fincher’s film will make sure of it.
No, Fincher won’t be winning this year, not at the DGA and not at the Oscars. It is nonetheless quite a thing that not only is he nominated at the DGA, but the film has 10 Oscars nominations. That’s because David Fincher is a master who has made a masterpiece. And even if they didn’t completely get the movie, they know that is undeniable.
For the first time in their history, the DGA has two female nominees. All but Fincher are writer/directors and all are first-time DGA nominees.
The commanders are a bright and talented bunch, led by the frontrunner – Chloe Zhao for Nomadland. An exceptional work by an up and comer on the rise, Chloe Zhao, will win on her first nomination with the DGA and with the Oscar. With that, history will have been made and more than a few doors will be open. But it isn’t entirely fair to always bring up the “woman of color” achievement with Nomadland and Zhao. She is a complete artist, a committed auteur that worked with a minimal crew and eventually put the whole thing together in the editing room. She has said that editing was her favorite part of the process. Zhao has the distinction of being only the second person in Oscar history to have nominations as the sole writer, sole director and sole editor of a film (David Lean is the other). Having that kind of command of the work has made her win undeniable this year. A few others have been nominated for co-editing (Jim Cameron, Michel Hazanaivicus and Alfonso Cuaron, who is the only director to win for co-editing his own movie).
To be the sole writer, director and editor on a movie is an accomplishment for anyone – male or female. This should not go unnoticed by those of us who watch the race.
She has captured the zeitgeist at a time when the film community from the critics to the industry are demanding progress. Her film is moving and timely, but really what is driving Zhao’s dominance in this category this year is the experience of watching Nomadland through her eyes. She takes us into the film in a personal and subjective way. There is something to it that people find deeply moving, but it is enhanced, no doubt, by the sweet anticipation of making history with the first woman of color to win the top award. It’s history that’s a long time coming. It is only dampened slightly by not being able to see her on stage winning the award to the roar of an appreciative crowd.
Zhao takes us through the forgotten people and places of America with a film that blends documentary with fiction. She has captured the magic hour, the wonder and unpredictability of the natural world.
Also in command of the story is Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman. Fennell, like Zhao, has Oscar nominations for Producing, Directing and Writing. The writing is, of course, great – funny and tragic, up to the minute on the reckoning of the Me Too movement. But it’s really the directing that makes Fennell’s film stand out. That, and the collaboration with Carey Mulligan whose performance perfectly matches the sardonic wit and black comedy. Promising Young Woman does not let you go easily. It stays with you long after the film has ended. Was it deliberate that the main character’s name is Cassie where the actresses name is Carey, which recalls the scene in the Brian De Palma film Carrie when the high school counselor keeps getting her name wrong by calling her Cassie? There are references to other films throughout this movie that I can’t know are deliberate unless I ask Fennell myself. But I see references to Fatal Attraction and What Lies Beneath. She is a promising voice on the rise.
Lee Isaac Chung takes us into his childhood with the lovely, moving, unforgettable Minari. This is his fourth feature, but he’s also edited and even shot some of his previous works. Minari is his first semi-autobiographical film that depicts a young boy with a heart condition trying to eke out a childhood while his parents fight and try to build a vegetable farm in Arkansas. Minari is so much about those moments that echo over time that he is bringing back in this story: preferring Mountain Dew over the drink his grandmother tries to foist upon him. Wearing cowboy boots. His childhood friend. Sitting awkwardly in church. Sharing a room with his grandmother. His judgment of her evolves into compassion – and that is really how this boy comes of age. He begins to understand what family means. We watch as his heart literally grows and heals itself but also how his heart becomes bigger and more loving towards his grandmother.
Finally, Aaron Sorkin‘s second film, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the crowd-pleaser of the bunch, one that has been mostly flying under the radar. Sorkin’s first film, Molly’s Game, didn’t quite get there. But here, he has built something that honors the rhythm of his distinctive writing. He is working with many different themes and moods at once but always keeps the film humming along through shifting perspectives to help tell the story of a famous trial that would decide the fate of the ragtag crew that helped stopped the Vietnam war. Sorkin celebrates them because he is able to take what was great about them but also show what was not so great about them. Although Sorkin did not get an Oscar nomination for directing, a DGA nom the second time at bat is nothing to sneeze at. He has found in directing a way to extend his writing to become an auteur.
The Best Director race seems decided. Chloe Zhao will win in Feature and at the Oscars, but there are five more directors nominated at the DGA for First Time Director:
Radha Blank, The 40-Year-Old Version
Fernando Frías de la Parra, I’m No Longer Here
Regina King, One Night in Miami…
Darius Marder, Sound of Metal
Florian Zeller, The Father
Last year, Alma Har’el won this category for Honey Boy, which means that if a woman wins here it won’t make history, but I suspect they might lean that way anyway. That could mean the three women split the vote and either Marder or Zeller win. Regina King, however, earned a Golden Globe nomination for Directing, which means she certainly has the momentum heading into the race.
The DGA Awards are this Saturday.