Saturday, February 21, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Director

Alejandro González Iñárritu is nominated for Best Director for Birdman.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Director

The nominees are:

Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman
Richard Linklater for Boyhood
Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game

We could run down the list of great directors who have never won this award – as so many who like to gripe about what the Oscars mean tend to do – but no award recognition, or lack thereof, will change the historical or cultural perspective of anyone. A great director is a great director, Academy Award winner or not, but boy, it sure is fun when our favorites win this award. That is the thing that most people who complain about the Academy miss. As Sasha Stone puts it so succinctly over at Awards Daily: “The Oscars don’t mean anything, except when they do.”

I would amend that to say that while they may or may not mean something to those of us who watch the game, the Oscars always mean something to the people who win them – perhaps excluding the rare person who refuses the award. For any one of these five nominated directors, an Oscar has the power to change the trajectory of his career. Maybe his next project will be easier to finance. Maybe he will have more creative leeway to make the kind of film he wants. Whatever the desired effect, an Oscar is a great way to open doors in the industry.

This is the first time since 2007 that none of the nominated directors has previously won the award and the first time since 2002 that none is a previous winner in any category. That is not to say these folks have never been to the dance. They just have never been voted king. Anderson is a six-time Academy Award nominee, and Iñárritu and Linklater have five nominations apiece. This is Miller’s second nomination for Best Director, while Tyldum is the lone first-timer in the group. One of these men, however, will be a first-time winner, and no matter who it is, it will be exciting to see what doors he chooses to open next.

Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman – Speaking in a general sense, Iñárritu is the best director in this group, by which I mean his career, taken as a whole, is the most impressive of the nominated filmmakers. He has made just five feature films, but each one could be considered a modern masterpiece. His loosely connected communication breakdown trilogy – consisting of Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel – constitutes one of the sterling achievements of 21st century cinema.

Now, we have Birdman, about a communication breakdown on a global scale as seen through the eyes of a washed up actor just trying to put on a play. Leaving aside for a moment the considerable technical prowess of the film, one of Iñárritu’s gifts has always been to bring out the best, most raw and wrenching performances from his actors. Birdman lives and dies on the success or failure of its talented ensemble, but under the guidance of Iñárritu, none of the actors ever steps wrong. Each performance is finely calibrated to the tone of Iñárritu’s pitch-black satire, and nothing ever feels out of place.

About that technical prowess, though, there is nothing else like Birdman. This is a film set almost entirely backstage at a Broadway theater, and it is built on intimate conversations and quiet moments of reflection. So, why does Birdman feel like one of the biggest movies of the year? This is a small scale production that would not be out of place in a lineup with the kind of superhero films it satirizes. The epic camerawork, the grand art direction, the stunning sound design – it all comes together in a film that feels massive, even as it embraces its smallness. This may be Iñárritu’s finest hour – so far.

Richard Linklater for Boyhood – Because Linklater is a daring filmmaker who has never been afraid to try different genres and different styles, there is an interesting split among his fans. Some prefer him in populist entertainer mode with such movies as Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, and his Bad News Bears remake. Others prefer his more formally daring experimental films such as A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. While still others would rather he focus on more talky, low-key dramas such as the Before trilogy. Boyhood finally is the film that could unite all the three groups.

It is an immensely relatable coming-of-age story full of pop hits and memorable performances; the 12-year filming process constitutes one of the most daring filmmaking experiments in recent memory; and while never boring, most of the three-hour runtime is made up of characters simply living their lives. If we cannot quite call Boyhood a perfect movie, it is most certainly a perfect Linklater film.

Most of the Boyhood campaign has focused on the 12-year aspect of the filmmaking – a feat that is integral to understanding the achievement of the movie – but that is a disservice to the deeply human tale Linklater commits to telling. These are not exceptional people leading exceptional lives. They are not inventors or heroes or history makers. They are real, and maintaining the passion and commitment to tell the story of a group of real people over a dozen years may be Linklater’s most wonderful trick of all.

Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher – With just three feature films to his credit, Miller has quietly developed into one of the best American directors of his generation. From Capote to Moneyball and now Foxcatcher, Miller has found a way to bring the honest emotions of a chamber drama to the extraordinary stories of murders, cultural icons, and sports stars. By refusing to sensationalize any of his characters or situations, Miller has been able to take highly specific tales of power and struggle and turn them into universally relevant allegories.

Tales of millionaire murderers are about as sensational as it gets in our culture, and the story John du Pont has all the trappings of an over-the-top melodrama. It features drugs, money, violence, and mental illness. Add to that the government contractors and Olympic athletes that come in and out of the story, and the whole thing starts to strain credulity. Miller, however, refuses to play into any of that. He rejects the notion that the sensational must be told sensationally and instead offers up a dark, brooding tale of ambition, power, and corruption.

Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel – Well, it finally happened. Anderson got the Oscar nomination his fans have been clamoring for. Though the auteur has several nominations for writing to his name – and one for Best Animated Feature – this is the one his fans have been waiting for. I cannot share their excitement. Had this recognition come in 2012 for Moonrise Kingdom, I maybe could have mustered some enthusiasm, but not for this one.

It is inarguable that Anderson is a stylist of the highest order. The auteur theorists of the 1960s would love him, advocating as they did for the authorial role of the director. There is no mistaking an Anderson film for a film by anyone else, and he is to be applauded for developing such a unique signature style, but pardon me for not being as taken with his whimsical fantasies and childlike dream worlds as it seems much of the rest of the cinephile community is.

Does The Grand Budapest Hotel hint at darker themes? Sure, but a hint sometimes just is not enough. Maybe Anderson will become a grownup filmmaker at some point in his career, but it has not happened yet. The Grand Budapest Hotel is unique. There is no denying that, but unique does not equal great. For me, greatness continues to elude Anderson, but maybe I am just a curmudgeon.

Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game – It is a little surprising to me that Tyldum is nominated with this group. The Grand Budapest Hotel may not have worked for me, but I can appreciate the directorial stamp Anderson has on it. On the other hand, The Imitation Game is so thoroughly unmemorable that it would be difficult to dissect any part of the production for either positive or negative critique. It is mediocre at its very core.

Tyldum’s direction is serviceable much of the time, distracting some of the time, and just generally underwhelming all of the time. A lot of this film’s problems begin with the script, but a stronger director could have found ways to accentuate what worked on the page and fix what did not. Instead, the screenplay’s worst tendencies – repetitiveness, a lack of forward momentum, and an overreliance on flashbacks to fill in character gaps – are played up as though the point is to take world-changing events and suck the energy and intrigue completely from them.

The final analysis

This seems like more of a toss-up than it should. Iñárritu won the Directors Guild award, his film has been an industry juggernaut, and for my money, Birdman is the best film from any of the nominated directors. In any other year, I would predict Iñárritu and never look back, but this has been a strange year. As much as Birdman has steamrolled through the industry awards, Boyhood has collected nearly every critics and non-industry award it has been up for – the Golden Globe, the British Academy of Film and Television award, the Broadcast Film Critics, etc.

The last two years have seen a rare split between the Best Director and Best Picture categories, and many are predicting a similar split this year, but I just do not see it. If Birdman really is going to win Best Picture as the statistics suggest it will, I do not see any way Iñárritu’s flashy, innovative, and spellbinding direction does not get awarded. By the same token, if the Academy wants to call Boyhood the best film of the year, how could it not reward the remarkable dedication of Linklater? The numbers tell us Birdman will win, but my gut tells me Boyhood, and if I am wrong, well, I think I can live with it.

Will win: Richard Linklater for Boyhood
Should win: Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman
Wish she had been here: Ava DuVernay for Selma

No comments: