Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Director

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu directs Leonardo DiCaprio in Best Picture frontrunner The Revenant.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

A quick programming note: Yesterday, I said we would cover Best Foreign Language Film today. However, instead, we will look at Best Director. Best Foreign Language Film will follow Wednesday with Best Animated Feature on Thursday and finally Best Picture on Friday.

Best Director

The nominees are:

Lenny Abrahamson for Room
Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant
Thomas McCarthy for Spotlight
George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road
Adam McKay for The Big Short

Four of these directors have never been nominated for Best Director before. The last time that happened in this category was 2007. In that year, interestingly enough, there were six nominated directors, and five had never been nominated. Joel Coen was the only previous nominee, and he shared the award win with his brother, Ethan Coen, for No Country for Old Men. This year, Iñárritu is the only previous nominee, having won just last year for Birdman.

Another bit of trivia: It has been 65 years since a director has won this award in back-to-back years. In fact, it has happened only twice. Joseph L. Mankiewicz won in 1949 for A Letter to Three Wives and in 1950 for All About Eve, while John Ford won in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath and in 1941 for How Green Was My Valley. Iñárritu has a very real shot this year of becoming the third name on that list.

How about this? Though Best Picture and Best Director are strongly correlated – both awards have gone to the same film 63 of 87 times – no director has ever directed back-to-back Best Picture winners. Even when Ford and Mankiewicz won Best Director twice in a row, only in the second years did their films win Best Picture. Well, Iñárritu directed last year’s Best Picture winner and helmed one of this year’s frontrunners. The feat would be unprecedented.

Finally, since 1990, only four times has the winner of the Directors Guild Award not gone on to win the Oscar for Best Director. Iñárritu has already made history by becoming the first back-to-back winner of the Directors Guild Award. In that same span, the Directors Guild winner has directed the Best Picture winner all but five times. All of this means we could be set up for a historic night at the Academy Awards, but the other four nominees might have something to say about that.

Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant – If it were up to me, this would not even be a question. The Revenant is not only the most beautiful film this year, but it is among the most beautiful films ever made. In scope, ambition, and execution, there is no film that comes close in this lineup, and I say that with all due respect to the other nominees. The magic that Iñárritu captured is unparalleled.

Working from a fairly bare-bones script, Iñárritu turns the film into a meditation on god, nature, and man’s place in the universe. By allowing the narrative to drift freely through memory and dreams, then back to the harshness of life, Iñárritu crafts a wholly sensory experience that engulfs viewers in its mélange of sights, sounds, and emotions. This is to say nothing of the hardships the production faced in even filming such an epic tale of survival.

When taking this all into account, Iñárritu’s achievement is just stunning. So much so it boggles the mind. It is high art depicting a brutal reality on the largest canvas imaginable. There is nothing to which it compares, and if Iñárritu makes history, it will be a hard-earned, richly deserved distinction, coming on the back of the most majestic film of the year and a true masterpiece.

George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road – Perhaps I have dipped into hyperbole, making the case too strongly for my preferred winner. The truth is Miller’s work is awe-inspiring in a completely different way. Mad Max: Fury Road is a big, bold statement, a referendum on the action genre while being an almost perfect exemplar of the genre. For a film that feels so wild, so out of control, like it might fly off the rails at any time, Miller’s precision in the writing, choreographing, shooting, and editing is what makes everything click into place.

Miller is a living legend with a small but beloved body of work. Since 1979, he has directed just nine feature films, four of them in the Mad Max series. Somehow, the same man responsible for Max Rockatansky, Imperator Furiosa, and Immortan Joe is also largely responsible for giving us Babe the pig and Happy Feet.

He is a six-time nominee across four different categories and won his only Oscar for Best Animated Feature as the director of Happy Feet – when you watch Mad Max: Fury Road, try to wrap your mind around that. However, this is his first nomination for directing, and with Iñárritu already a winner, there could be a push to award Miller for his distinguished career and his remarkable achievement this year.

Adam McKay for The Big Short – Now, if it seems odd Miller would have directed multiple animated children’s hits and the decidedly not-for-children Mad Max films, try on this bit of cognitive dissonance: The director of Anchorman and Step Brothers is now a multiple Oscar nominee. Here is the thing about that, though, you do not get to where McKay has gotten in his career without being a bright, savvy, talented filmmaker.

McKay had already proven all those things throughout his career, but with The Big Short, he has proved he is engaged, engaging, and passionate about the state of the nation. That is a lot more than can be said for many other artists. McKay’s stamp is all over The Big Short with its smart editing, unfussy camera setups, and snot-nosed attitude. Not everything works all the time in this film, but McKay’s willingness to step outside the box and look at the financial crisis and world banking collapse from a skewed view is always an asset.

Thomas McCarthy for Spotlight – McCarthy has been rightly lauded for his and Josh Singer’s work in piecing together the screenplay for Spotlight; however, some have also taken the opportunity to deride McCarthy’s direction of the film as flat or uninspired. Such charges could not be further off base. These commenters seem to believe if a film is not flashy or does not call attention to itself, the direction must not be that special. This belief is so obviously wrong it is laughable, but here we are, having to defend one of the best films of the year as well directed.

Anyone watching closely will see the care and thought that has gone into every frame of Spotlight, from the strategic positioning of the camera when the reporters are going through the archives – wide enough to show us the enormity of the undertaking – to the scattering of churches throughout the background, a subtle reminder of the church’s influence over everyday life in Boston.

The film’s bravura closing passage, set to a children’s choir performing “Silent Night,” is among the most memorable and effective sequences of the year, thrilling, cathartic, and utterly haunting. If voters cannot see the artistry in McCarthy’s accomplishment, they probably should not have a vote. McCarthy may not win this award against his flashier competition, but his inclusion is without a doubt merited.

Lenny Abrahamson for Room – Most pundits, yours truly included, had predicted the other four nominees in this field, being as they directed the four frontrunners for Best Picture. The fifth slot we had chalked up for Ridley Scott for The Martian or maybe Todd Haynes for Carol or Steven Spielberg for Bridge of Spies. However, when Room showed up in four major categories – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay – it was clear the Academy had fallen hard for this brutal, beautiful little movie.

Abrahamson deftly blends an impressionistic art-house film with a pulpy thriller to deliver one of the truly unique viewing experiences of the year. With the story confined for the first hour to a single room, Abrahamson opens up the characters’ world with an array of carefully employed camera angles and selective edits. He shows us a tragic situation through the eyes of a child who does not yet know enough about life to understand the tragedy, and in doing so, Abrahamson turns a difficult viewing experience into one of the must-see films of the year.

The final analysis

Abrahamson’s is the only name on this list it would be an out-and-out shock to hear called out on Oscar night. Any of the other four could win, and each would tell us something different about where the night is headed. If either McKay or McCarthy wins, that would be the clincher for their respective films. The Academy showing its love in that way would be the ultimate indication one of those films will win Best Picture.

If Miller wins, we would have to question the love for The Revenant, and because Mad Max: Fury Road at this point is a highly unlikely winner, the door would be open for either Spotlight or The Big Short to claim the top prize. If Iñárritu wins – and all signs are pointing that way – anything could still happen. A split has not been uncommon in recent years between Best Picture and Best Director, but Iñárritu clutching his second directing Oscar in a row would invite the possibility that history is about to unfold.

Will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant
Should win: Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant
Should have been here: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky for The Tribe

Tomorrow: Best Foreign Language Film

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