Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Director

Best Director nominee Denis Villeneuve (left), with Amy Adams, on the set of Arrival.

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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Director

The nominees are:

Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

More than any other award, Best Director feels like a coronation. It is the honor that says: Welcome to the club, you are one of us. Four of these men – and once again, they are all men, for the 85th time in 89 years – are first-time nominees in this category. An Oscar is the greatest encouragement the Academy can give, a promise from members they find value in your work and wish to support it.

For the fifth nominee, though, the only one in this group who is an Oscar winner already, a victory here would mean something far different. Gibson’s exile from the Hollywood mainstream was entirely of his own making. We are all familiar with the multiple vile, racist, misogynist outbursts that made him a pariah in cinema circles. His name will forever be attached to that ugliness, and even now, more than a decade later, the question remains whether we can forgive his trespasses. This nomination suggests an answer, but an Oscar win would be the definitive statement of forgiveness from a town that once loved him so.

Damien Chazelle for La La Land – The “it” director of the moment is Chazelle, whose blockbuster musical drama has taken Hollywood by storm and enchanted the movie-going public at a time in our culture when enchantment is in short supply. In some ways, this has felt preordained since Chazelle hit the scene with his Oscar-winning triumph Whiplash two years ago. Once that film took home three trophies, it was clear Chazelle was working firmly in the Academy’s wheelhouse. Fast forward to today, and that assessment looks as on point as ever.

None of the adulation is undeserved, as the 32-year-old wunderkind has demonstrated a remarkable facility for devising ingenious individual sequences and cobbling those moments into a wonderful whole. This is the biggest canvas he has had to paint on yet, and the result is, to borrow a word from the film’s advertising, magic. Combining technically masterful long-take musical numbers that leave audiences gaping in wonder with a story that is as much an ode to the artistic process as it is a romance, Chazelle crafts a film that feels both utterly original and achingly familiar. It is like a half-remembered dream to which you always wished to return, and Chazelle possesses the wizardry to take you there.

La La Land amazes with the sheer audacity of producing an old-school Hollywood movie musical for today’s world. It works because it plays equally well to dreamers and cynics, offering validation to the hopeful and disaffected alike. Chazelle puts his heart, soul, and every ounce of talent into this thing, and as long as Hollywood does not steal him away to make the next big superhero movie, it seems like he has much more of himself to give.

Barry Jenkins for Moonlight – If anyone were to challenge Chazelle for the prize, it would be Jenkins for a film that could not be more different from La La Land. You have never seen a movie like Moonlight. It is a coming-of-age tale that asks you to see yourself in someone who likely could not be more different from you. Few of us know firsthand the trials Little/Chiron/Black faces in his life, but Jenkins does, and through him, we are able to empathize with the character’s experience.

One would not think a moody, contemplative film about a world so far removed from most of us could be this engaging, this enthralling, and this magnificent. Moonlight, which is ultimately a film about subverting expectations, subverts the expectations of the audience. Perhaps you have heard it is sad or slow, or perhaps you believe it will not appeal to you. Well, it is not sad; on the contrary, it is quietly triumphant. Slow is a matter of patience and willingness, and no film is slow that is guided by as sure and steady hands as these. Whether it will appeal to you is simply a question of whether you are able to feel sympathy and understanding for someone not like yourself.

All of this is to say Jenkins has made a perfect film, and his greatest success is forcing the audience to meet him where he wants to go. This is not an easy film – no great art is – but it is a necessary, poignant reminder of the joys and sorrows of people we never see. Everything flows from Jenkins, who guides Moonlight along a path that is sometimes shocking in its honesty, often aching in its beauty, and always leading toward transcendence.

Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea – Lonergan earned his master of fine arts degree in dramatic writing. He is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright. He is a three-time Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay, including this year for this film. It is safe to safe Lonergan is best known as a writer and, more than that, a writer of deeply humanistic dramas about finding connections in those closest to us. On this account, Manchester by the Sea is firmly within his wheelhouse.

What is not often spoken of is Lonergan the director, particularly as a guider of performances. Manchester by the Sea is the only film this year with three acting nominations to its credit, and yes, the performers are wonderful and talented, but it takes a specific kind of director to coax such tremendous work from a cast. Whatever that specific skill is, Lonergan is clearly possessed of it. This is most evidenced by the performance he draws out of young actor Lucas Hedges, who at 19 years old and in just his ninth big-screen appearance, sets a bar that will be hard to clear for his young peers.

The direction of the film is what one might call unfussy. Lonergan mostly hangs back and lets the words and performances do the heavy lifting, which is of course the right call for the material. When it comes time to show off, Lonergan and his able crew, including cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, are more than game. But in a film about repressed emotions, it is Lonergan’s restraint as a director that reveals his ultimate strength.

Denis Villeneuve for Arrival – The Quebecois director has been making films for more than 20 years, but he has rocketed to fame in the last six or seven. After directing the Best Foreign Language Film nominee Incendies in 2010, he made the jump to big Hollywood features with Prisoners, which though I found it tiresome was highly regarded. He also made the critically adored mindbender Enemy and the popular, Oscar-nominated Sicario, which was released last year.

I have been in the minority on his films, finding them self-conscious, macho, and didactic – at least, his most recent few features. For me, Arrival is his first English-language feature truly worthy of the praise heaped upon it. Villeneuve directs the science-fiction epic like a low-key character study, letting the audience become invested in the plot through the people, not the action. There is some self-conscious flashiness here, but it feels of a piece with the story and the drama. Nothing is done simply for the sake of appearances.

Villeneuve, like Chazelle, is on his way up in the directing world, and he is already in post-production on the high-profile Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049. He does not necessarily need the support or encouragement of the Academy, though I doubt he would reject it. Rather, this is an acknowledgement a filmmaker the Academy has had its eye on for a while now has made a film members simply adored.

Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge – Finally, we arrive back at Gibson – Mel, to his fans and supporters – and the question of whether forgiveness is possible, necessary, or just. I am of two minds, though I have the luxury of so being since I was not among the many targets of Gibson’s hate-filled invectives. My belief as a fan of cinema and art in general is that great art is great art, regardless of who produced it. If we agree the populace votes with its wallets, I think I am in the majority here, considering the record sales for someone like Michael Jackson, among other examples. If Gibson has produced work worthy of praise, we should praise it, though that should in no way be construed as forgetfulness or forgiveness.

On the other hand, in the world today, perhaps the last thing we need is to reward a rich, white racist and misogynist. Just because this describes well the leader of the free(ish) world does not mean we must celebrate such traits elsewhere. No one can know what is in Gibson’s heart, whether it has truly changed or if he feels no genuine remorse whatsoever. What we can know is what he has said in the past, words which are well documented and unavoidable. I do not know the answer, and I do not believe anyone else does or even can. I am saying I cannot judge you for what you feel, whatever it may be.

My feelings are thus: As a director, Gibson’s work on dark, gritty action-thrillers – among which let us count The Passion of the Christ for simplicity’s sake – has always been superb. He has a brilliant instinct for where to place the camera for maximum tension and effect, and his sense of pace and energy is astounding. Hacksaw Ridge is wobbly in its opening passages, where Gibson seems unsteady in setting up his war story, but once the war story hits and Gibson is in his element, the action is unparalleled. I will not tell anyone what to feel about the actions of the man, but I must say the actions of the director are tremendous.

The final analysis

The La La Land train really does feel unstoppable at this point, and as the conductor of that speeding locomotive, Chazelle is likely to pick up this award. He would be the youngest Best Director winner in Academy history, edging out Norman Taurog, who was 32 years and 9 months when he won for Skippy in 1931. Of all the history La La Land can make on Oscar night, this bit seems most assured.

Will win: Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Should win: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
Should have been here: Pablo Larraín for Jackie

Tomorrow: Best Actress

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