I guess it’s appropriate that I’m doing the Directing category today, especially after I spent the early part of yesterday’s review of Annihilation calling B.S. on Natalie Portman’s complaints about the category at the Golden Globes. This is a category long mired in controversy, and not just for gender bias, though the fact that it took until 2010 for a woman to win – and the fact that it was for The Hurt Locker of all things (one of the few Best Picture winners I have truly despised) – is fucking insane.
Even in recent years, there’s been basically no consistency as to how the Academy picks the winner here. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have won, the latter in a clear repudiation of the sexual charges against him (he couldn’t even enter the country to attend the ceremony because he’d have been arrested the moment he got off the plane). It took until The Departed for Martin Scorsese – the greatest living filmmaker – to finally get one. Quentin Tarantino has still never won (though he’s gotten screenwriting awards as a consolation). Earlier this decade, both Alfonso Cuarón and Ang Lee essentially won for doing good 3D films. Ben Affleck not getting nominated for Argo created such a backlash that it actually contributed in part to the film winning Best Picture.
Hell, look at two and three years ago. Alejandro G. Iñárritu won this award in consecutive years. The first time, he was given the prize for Birdman because of the genius of doing the entire film in the look of one unbroken shot, which was fine, but it ignored the 12-year endeavor that Richard Linklater went through to do Boyhood. People can differ on artistic taste and opinions, but that was a powerful statement from the Academy’s voters. A cool visual look counted for more than an intense, personal, 12-year passion project. And then the very next year, the gave it to him again for The Revenant, citing the fact that it took TWO years to shoot! So 12 years didn’t count, but two did? Make up your minds!
So I honestly don’t know what goes through the voters’ minds when they determine this category. I’d argue it’s the most susceptible to campaigning from studios. As for me personally, I weigh two basic factors in judging directing. The first is the overall artistic vision of the film, and the second is the quality of the acting. That’s it. How does the film look, and how good is the cast? Those two criteria alone sum things up for me, because the director has to be at the helm of the performances in front of and behind the camera. So while the Academy can sometimes seem like they’re either throwing darts at headshots or just taking the biggest bribe, you can at least know the precise recesses of my ass from which I’m pulling my opinions.
This year’s nominees for Best Director are:
Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread
First off, the acting is more than fine. There’s no such thing as a “bad” performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, and while her role was more serviceable than great, enough people liked Lesley Manville to nominate her for Supporting Actress. Vicky Krieps I could take or leave. Having worked together on There Will Be Blood, there’s a professional rapport and familiarity between Anderson and Day-Lewis that allows them both to stretch their ranges and come up with something pretty awesome.
As for the artistic vision I was left wanting. Anderson is pretty decent at building atmosphere in this film, but not so great at paying it off. It was an interesting choice to keep every shot center framed for the first two acts (literally nothing happens of importance on the periphery of any shot until Reynolds has his fever-induced vision of his dead mother), and the actual layout of the Woodcock house had a cool gothic look, but beyond that, there’s nothing truly “visionary” that came across.
Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water
If there’s a problem to be had with Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to classic cinema, it’s that it’s almost too personal. Elisa and the Creature could have disappeared completely from the film, and there would still be a passionate romance unfolding on the screen, between del Toro and his own nostalgic imagination. Now, the acting just fine (three nominations in the group), but this film is very much about the visual spectacle, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
My issue is that it feels way too personal to del Toro, and some of the elements (say, the laboratory that evokes Tim Burton) are arguably derivative. It’s a fine line to walk between homage and ripoff, and for the most part del Toro is on the right side of it, like Damien Chazelle was when he won this award for La La Land last year. But still, it’s clear that del Toro cared more about how everything resonated with him than he did any prospective audience, and that’s fine. I just personally dock a few points for it.
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s vision here is also very personal, like del Toro’s. The big difference is that she intentionally detaches herself to a certain extent. The character of Lady Bird is loosely based on herself, but the events of the film are entirely fictitious. Gerwig’s experiences as a youth in Sacramento inform her vision, but she made sure that this would not be an autobiographical film. That’s immensely important. Once that detachment is established, she’s able to create a wonderfully realistic portrait of the dwindling middle class, religion, teenage angst, romance, and just general wanderlust and modest ambition.
And of course, the ensemble cast is brilliant. Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, and even Timothée Chalamet to a lesser extent. Every single performance is genuine, believable, heartfelt, and instantly relatable to just about everyone in the audience. This is where Gerwig’s limited attachment to the story works. She made up this story, but her experiences still carried the overall theme, and that’s something she can bring to her actors to help them portray it to us in the theatre. It’s the absolute perfect balance of personal and impersonal, and it makes every second of the film a wonderful experience.
Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk
What can I say about Christopher Nolan’s achievements with Dunkirk that I haven’t already covered throughout this series? The vision is absolutely spectacular, the story structure superb, the visual and sound effects at the absolute top of the line. Hell, there was even a cool little bit of trivia in that the production actually recommissioned a lot of the actual civilian rescue boats to include them in the film!
As for the performance of the cast, though, there’s actually not much to go on. Nolan’s worked with Tom Hardy before, including having him do all of his dialogue from behind a mask (The Dark Knight Rises). But as far as grandiose performances, at best you’ve got Mark Rylance, who I believe should have been nominated for Supporting Actor again after his win for Bridge of Spies. You had a really decent cast here: Kenneth Branagh, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy, and even a surprisingly competent job from former One Direction star Harry Styles. But to be fair, nothing really apart from Rylance stood out. The entire cast was sort of interchangeable. Nolan’s vision is immaculate, but you’d be hard pressed to make an argument that he did anything specific to draw out great performances from his players. It’s a side effect of the original idea to have no actual script for the film. If you have no dialogue, or just improvised dialogue, literally anyone can play the parts so long as they have an appropriate look.
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Right off the bat, Jordan Peele nails it when it comes to the performances. Daniel Kaluuya is my vote for Best Actor for good reason. But the rest of the cast is pretty spectacular too. Allison Williams is actually a lot of fun when she’s not getting her ass eaten out. Stephen Root was an oddly sympathetic villain. And of course, any time you can make Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford seem menacing, fucking good on you, mate! And then there’s Lil Rel Howery as the hilarious audience surrogate Rod Williams as well as Lakieth Stanfield pulling double duty as the opening kidnapping victim who has to turn around and be the gentrified version of himself at the party. If there’s one flaw in the cast, it’s Caleb Landry Jones as Jeremy, and that’s only because he was too over-the-top obviously creepy to balance well with the others.
As for artistic vision, Peele succeeds completely where del Toro comes up just a bit short. There are plenty of homages to the masters of genre cinema in Get Out, from Alfred Hitchcock to Stanley Kubrick. Even that opening sequence when Lakieth Stanfield gets kidnapped is a straight-up tribute to John Carpenter. Nothing he does is derivative, rather a series of geek out moments for those of us in the audience not easily scared. But that’s the other half of the genius of this film. I looked around the theatre at the mostly minority audience, and they were truly terrified. This was a fear they could all relate to, a paranoia they’ve all felt. I’m whiter than bread, so I’ve never been subject to such tension, but it was palpable with everyone else. And again, all this comes from Jordan Peele, a fucking COMEDY WRITER! I was absolutely floored.
This is an incredibly stacked field this year. I’d argue only one nominee is out of place here, and it’s hard for me to parse my top two. I’m pretty sure I know who’s going to win on Sunday, but we’ll save that for Friday’s prediction post. For now, we’ll just stick to personal preference.
1) Greta Gerwig
2) Jordan Peele
3) Christopher Nolan
4) Guillermo del Toro
5) Paul Thomas Anderson
Next up: It’s the big one, the most important prize of the evening. That’s right, we’re doing Sound Mixing again! Just kidding, it’s time for Best Picture at long last!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Is Peele the Key to success? Are you gaga for Gerwig? How stunned are you that I didn’t pick Nolan? Let me know!