I’m gonna get on my soapbox for just a second and say that I am so sick and tired of complaints about Best Director being an all-male field. I don’t know the current membership of the Academy’s Directors Branch, but it goes without saying that it’s a boys club. It has been for a long time. Only one woman has ever won the prize, and ironically, she’s the current head of the branch.
In whatever category you get, the relevant branch handles the nominations. Directors nominate other directors. And yes, that means that a largely male population will tend to vote for their peers and friends. Do I agree with that? Not really. But it’s the system we have. And if you want to change the system, you have to work from within. The most immediate solution, therefore, is to get more women into the Directors Branch. It’s going to take time, but if you want true representation in the nominations, you need it in the nominating branch.
Because yes, if I had my druthers, Greta Gerwig would be up for this prize, and she’d almost get my vote for the win (I’d rank her #2 against the current set). I’d have also liked to see Alma Har’el get a nod for Honey Boy, but that film’s been shut out entirely, same with Booksmart, where a strong case could be made for Olivia Wilde.
That said, the big thing worth noting in all three examples above is that I don’t give two shits what they have between their legs. I like the work, regardless of the source. I’ve seen brilliant films made by women, and I’ve seen tons of shitty films made by men. It doesn’t matter to me what your sex is. What matters is the quality of the product.
But really, the core problem isn’t with the Academy itself, it’s with the nominating process, and more specifically, the marketing process. This isn’t a bias towards sexism, it’s a bias towards hype and networking. If you asked every director to nominate their five favorite films (or four if they count their own work) completely independent of the films’ release schedule or For Your Consideration campaigns, you’d likely get a much wider array of nominees. Hell, if you just had people rating films year-round, we could save ourselves a lot of aggravation with this Christmas week backloading and get a much more diverse field, as people would rate films that they saw back in April just as high as they do the ones in December, and then the nominations could remind them that they actually did like other stuff than what was crammed down their throats by a PR firm right before the holidays.
However, I’m a realist. I know the real reforms won’t ever happen, so we have to work with what we’ve got and the system in place. That means continuing to expand membership and getting more women in the branch so that they can have a stronger say.
Now, onto the business at hand. The actual Oscar for Best Director has already been decided. I mean that figuratively – as all undercard ceremonies have resulted in the same victor – and literally, as ballots were due to the Academy today. The winner has been picked. It’s just a matter of counting the votes to confirm it.
For me, I look at three factors when it comes to this category. One, how well does the director tell the visual story? In essence, how good is his or her cinematic eye? Two, is there a signature touch, a hallmark, that we can look at based on previous work, to judge whether or not the filmmaker has improved their craft to pantheon levels? Three, how good are they at directing the actual talent on camera? If a director can excel in at least one of these areas – and preferably all three – they can have my nonexistent vote.
This year’s nominees for Best Director are:
Martin Scorsese – The Irishman
Cinematic eye? Check. Director hallmarks? Well, we’ve got long tracking shots, expert use of a catalog soundtrack, a keen understanding of criminal culture, and richly drawn antiheroic characters all set against a backdrop that recalls the greatest minds in film, including his own. Ability to direct actors? Come on, this is Scorsese. He’s literally the greatest living director. He’s also working with actors he’s known and admired for decades. If there’s anyone who can get the best performances out of them, including getting Joe Pesci out of retirement, it’s Marty.
Now if he’d just stop appearing in stupid, god awful commercials…
Todd Phillips – Joker
Of all the nominees, he likely has the shortest résumé, and up until this point, the bulk of his work has been in goofy comedies like the Hangover trilogy, Due Date, and Old School. That said, he does have an understanding of misfit characters, and his artistic vision has included a lot of dingy scenery, which he uses to great effect.
Where I dock him for our purposes here is on the other two fronts. As far as hallmarks, he’s basically borrowing them from Scorsese, as Joker is heavily influenced by, and heavily references, two of Marty’s best films, The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. It’s weird to applaud the homage when he’s up against the man he’s honoring, especially when that idol made the better movie. As for directing actors, Phillips is great with comedy, but by all accounts he pretty much just let Joaquin Phoenix do his own thing on set. I’m all for a laissez-faire approach, especially with an actor of Phoenix’s caliber, but if you do that, you really can’t take credit for the accomplishment.
Sam Mendes – 1917
Mendes is another filmmaker with a relatively short list of credits. But whereas Todd Phillips made his bones with the goofballs, Mendes has done nothing but prestige his entire career. I mean, his first feature was American Beauty. The motherfucker won this award on his first try 20 years ago, and he’s basically done nothing but high-profile work since then. Literally the only film of his I haven’t seen is Away We Go, unarguably his lightest fare.
Whether he’s going for pure prestige like 1917 or doing something more commercial like the last two Bond films, Mendes employs his trademark style across the board. He likes long, extended takes, playful camera angles that can trick either the viewer or an observing character. He likes getting inside the minds of his cast most of all, never satisfied with black and white answers when there are endless shades of grey he can show.
In 1917, those hallmarks are well and truly on display, and given the one-shot format, you can definitely say his cinematic eye is on point. As for directing his actors, while he doesn’t get any noteworthy performances out of his cast, he has to be given credit for the technical choreography of hundreds of extras. Even though he’s not my favorite in this field, he’s almost certainly going to get his second win in this category on Sunday, and it’s for fairly strong reasons, and that’s before going into the inspiration from his WWI veteran grandfather in making the film in the first place.
Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
You want director trademarks? We’ve got ’em in spades. Tarantino’s entire career has been about referencing classic cinema, both in dialogue and in spectacle, and that’s on full display in this film. We’ve also got plenty more examples of his cinematic foot fetish. Honestly the only Tarantino trope this film is missing is, thankfully, his penchant for the n-word.
It’s really hard to argue against the other two factors as well. QT has always had a great visual style, utilizing a color palette like no one else can, and while even some of his signature camera angles have almost hit the level of cliché (trunk shots, low angles, wide shots of violence, etc.) you have to admit they’re still effective after more than 25 years. As for directing actors, Brad Pitt is finally going to get his acting Oscar, Leonardo DiCaprio is up for Best Actor yet again, and Margot Robbie should have been up for this movie instead of Bombshell.
It boggles my mind that the man has still never won Best Director, and that he’ll lose out yet again this year.
Bong Joon-ho – Parasite
While Bong’s work may not be all that well known to American audiences, he is an absolute master storyteller, and I’ve gone on at length during the course of this Blitz about his ability to bend genre to his whim and make it dance like his own puppet. Similarly, his artistic vision is almost unparalleled in modern world cinema, as he uses practical sets and exterior scenery in ways that feel completely alive, as if the world around his characters is just as much a player as the actors themselves. The way he frames the city in Parasite, complete with its hundreds of steps that truly show the “trickle down” effect of the rich having everything during a torrential storm is nothing less than magical and tragic.
And as for his cast, every single character feels completely natural and lived in. Both the Kim and Park families have strong bonds with one another, never once coming across as disingenuous. No matter their motivations and backgrounds, their devotion to one another is absolute. And while certain characters – like the oblivious Mrs. Park – are intentionally one dimensional, Bong makes sure his actors play that one note for all its worth, delighting in the joke before revealing their inner depth.
It’s yet another trick he employs to manipulate the audience and subvert their expectations. It’s so easy to get lulled into a false sense of security with this film, to think you know who everyone is and where everything is going, but Bong knows you better than you do at times, and he’s always ready to expertly pull the rug from under us all. He’ll twist and turn the plot to switch genres. He’ll introduce unexpected nuance into pastiche characters. He’ll show you the beauty and horror in something as simple as a rainy day. Even though he won’t win, I’m so glad Parasite is getting the attention it deserves, because audiences all over America are being exposed to Bong’s genius at last.
1. Bong Joon-ho
2. Quentin Tarantino
3. Martin Scorsese
4. Sam Mendes
5. Todd Phillips
Next up: We’ve only got two more categories to go, and before we go for the best feature, we have one more look to take at the non-features. It’s Live Action Short!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which director was your favorite last year? What do you think the Academy should do to give women more chances at the top prize? Are you high right now and giggling at the name Bong? Let me know!