Oscar Gold 2021 – Best Director

Year in and year out, this is one of the most difficult categories to judge, which I guess is befitting the largest individual achievement category of the entire Oscars ceremony. More often than not, the eventual winner is pretty well determined in advance, as hype typically sweeps up in favor of one particular filmmaker. Over the last decade, it’s been a pretty even split as to whether or not the Best Director winner is also behind the Best Picture winner as well. So even if Best Picture itself seems like a lock, we can’t always use that to divine the Directing victor.

But even the politics of the Academy notwithstanding, it really is hard to determine what the voters are considering when they pick this category. There really is no set criteria. In recent years, this lack of a standard has been no better illustrated than with the both of the two-time winners, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu.

In the last decade, Cuarón won for the deeply personal Roma and for the sci-fi thriller Gravity. Why did he win? It’s impossible to say, because it’s impossible to compare. For better or worse, Gravity was a stellar visual achievement for its time, with most of the effects still holding up seven years later. So maybe you can make the argument that the Academy judges based on the achievement of a creative vision, given that Gravity basically swept the technical categories. But if that’s the standard, then why didn’t George Miller win two years later despite running away with the artistic and technical categories with Mad Max: Fury Road? He did the same thing Cuarón did, arguably better because he relied much more heavily on practical effects rather than CGI, and yet, nothing.

This same lack of consistency applies to Iñárritu, who won in back-to-back years for Birdman and The Revenant. The first time around, he got major kudos for the one-shot presentation of Birdman, which eventually won Best Picture as well (the only one of these four films to take the top prize), to the point that it overrode Richard Linklater’s 12-year-long passion project, Boyhood. A compelling visual was enough to outweigh a dozen years of production on a story. Okay, fine. But then the very next year, when Iñárritu won for The Revenant, part of the case was that he took two years to film it because he wanted to ensure that most scenes could use natural lighting. That’s right, in the span of a year, the Academy as a whole decided that a 12-year effort didn’t matter, but a 2-year one did. And of course, in relation to Cuarón, one must ask why his passion project, Roma, was worthy of Best Director, but again, Boyhood was not.

To be clear, I’m not stating a preference of making a qualitative comparison between all these movies. I’m simply pointing out that the stated reasons for these respective wins, the talking points from the “For Your Consideration” campaigns, are nakedly hypocritical, and it would help if the Academy (either the main body or the Directing Branch) could just set a standard for judging criteria. Obviously, voters wouldn’t be bound to it, as it’s unenforceable, and people will vote how they want. But it would certainly make my job easier.

For what it’s worth, I basically stick to the artistic vision, or at least, I try to. I’ve probably strayed from this a few times myself, but in my current headspace, the idea for me is to understand what the director was trying to accomplish, and how successful they were in their efforts. What was the vision, and was it properly realized in the finished product? I may change my mind on this down the road. Hell, I may have already changed it before now. Honestly, I’m too tired and lazy to check my own archives to see if I’ve addressed this before. But at least for this year, and this crop, that’s the standard I’m adopting. Feel free to call bullshit on me at any time, and I’ll try to reconcile any contradictory thoughts. Otherwise, for now, that’s what I’m going with.

This year’s nominees for Best Director are:

Another Round – Thomas Vinterberg

Given the jovial, comedic nature of this film, you wouldn’t necessarily realize its tragic origins. While Thomas Vinterberg was working at a Vienna theatre, he wrote a play about the joys of alcohol and youth drinking culture. It was based in part on his daughter, Ida, and her classmates. She encouraged him to adapt the play into a film, and she was even initially cast as Mads Mikkelsen’s daughter. Less than a week into shooting, however, she died in a car crash.

As such, the film was retooled and the script revised to be a celebration of life rather than a celebration of booze, with moments of reflection for people of all ages about moderation and the dangers of excess and dependency. Vinterberg even made a point to film at his daughter’s old school and include her classmates in the cast.

Knowing that, the film becomes an elevated experience. It’s a delightful movie on its own merits, with well-executed cinematography, and it’s clear that Vinterberg knows how to draw out the best performances from his actors. He even drank with the core four during the shoot to help shake off the stress and embarrassment from the goofier scenes. I’ve heard of method acting, but this is method directing, and in doing so, Vinterberg creates not just an enjoyable experience on the screen, but a cathartic one for everyone behind the scenes, and that’s a very tall order in the midst of tragedy. But that’s the entire point of shifting the film’s focus to be more life-affirming, and he succeeded immensely.

Mank – David Fincher

The fact that this film even exists is a testament to David Fincher’s artistic vision. His late father, Jack, wrote the script in the mid-90s, and originally David was planning to make the film right after The Game (an oft-overlooked classic). However, studios wouldn’t finance the project because David insisted on shooting the film in black-and-white. Despite the relatively recent success of Schindler’s List, there was too much hesitancy to use the old style from the moneyed interests, and the project was shelved for 20 years.

So right off the bat, Fincher gets directing kudos for sticking to his guns and not compromising on what he considered a core, crucial element. It’s a testament to his tenacity that he would keep shopping the project 15 years after his father’s death (and still give him sole screenplay credit despite rewrites) to make sure it got made, and got made his way.

Then there’s the creative direction for what we actually see on screen. It’s one thing to make another self-reflexive film nostalgic for the old ways. It’s quite another to frame your homage to be almost rigidly structured to the inspiration, as Fincher does here. The story is about the origins of Citizen Kane, but the intent was to create a sort of spiritual reboot of the film itself, lovingly mimicking the filmmaking and storytelling techniques of this all-time great. There are dozens of references and Easter Eggs littered throughout the film, such that it likely requires multiple viewings to find them all. I caught a couple of the obvious ones, and those were enough to thrill a movie nerd like me. It’s fan service, homage, and history all in one, which is not an easy feat.

Fincher finds a way to honor the greatest film ever made, the system that made it, and his own father all at the same time. That alone is worthy of consideration here. The fact that the movie turns out to be enjoyable as hell simply seals the deal.

Minari – Lee Isaac Chung

Like many directors, Chung’s breakout film is based loosely on his own upbringing, with the characters drawn from his own family, though he makes it clear it’s not a direct autobiography. As I mentioned earlier, a personal film can often be rewarded in this category, even if it’s for objectively contradictory reasons. The funny part, however, is that originally this film wasn’t meant to be all that personal.

When Chung first started writing the script, he wanted to do an adaptation of Willa Cather’s classic novel, “My Antonia,” which is also about a family adapting to new farm life and personal frontiers. After that idea was scrapped, he kept the thematic structure, but included stories about his own family, a fact that he hid from them until he was literally in the edit room with all the footage shot.

I’m thankful that he ended up telling a stylized version of his own story, though, because that personal touch is what gives the film its dramatic heft. Chung takes the relatively unique approach to give his film two lead protagonists, in the forms of father Jacob and son David. Jacob is the patriarch, the one leading his family into this new, risky endeavor, and as such gets a traditional leading man story arc. If Chung had kept the focus narrow, this would still likely be a very good film with a relatable story, but it probably wouldn’t be as special and insightful as it becomes.

Having David as a second, co-equal lead, is what really sells it. Very loosely based on himself, Chung makes David an unlikely point-of-view character, splitting time with his dad so the audience can experience this whole new world through the eyes of a child. The camera is often at his level, giving us a knee-high view of the proceedings, allowing us to look up to Jacob figuratively and literally. Having these dueling perspectives creates almost two different versions of the same story, and allows for expanded empathy because we’re seeing the same tale told from two different frames of reference.

And then, just as a bonus, we get grandma Soon-Ja, who also embarks on a new horizon by moving into this home and trying to form a rapport with David while also fast-tracking her own American assimilation. Her role is more minor compared to the other two, but what makes this film truly groundbreaking is how seamless Chung is able to tell three versions of the same tale of life’s new adventures from three different angles, and yet have them work in tandem.

Nomadland – Chloé Zhao

This is a bit of a unique way to go about this category, because originally, the vision didn’t belong to Chloé Zhao, but to Frances McDormand and Peter Spears, who were the main producers of the film. They had optioned the non-fiction book on which the film is based, and sought out Zhao after seeing her previous film, The Rider. That’s a pretty strong endorsement. Zhao is relatively new to the industry, having only directed two features before now. And yet her work was so good that the executive producer and the star of the film went up to her and basically said, “We trust you to handle this material and make something special out of it.” We should all be so flattered.

And thankfully, Zhao was more than up to the task. Creating a wide-reaching yet intimate odyssey for a sector of the population basically left behind, Chloé Zhao created an entire world out of an idea, then fleshed it out, opening up our own country in ways we don’t often see. From the trading posts to Amazon, Zhao found something poetic in the mundane, and never once hesitated to show it to us, warts and all. At times it’s all so vast that you can’t help but feel tiny and insignificant. At others you can feel an entire world, full of possibilities, at your fingertips, and you’re free to command it. Zhao executes that beautiful juxtaposition with savant-level skill.

And of course, you can’t deny that she gets points for authenticity by casting real-life nomads in the film. For those familiar with the lifestyle, seeing the likes of Bob Wells and Charlene Swankie playing themselves on the screen gives the film a real sense of verisimilitude. For those that aren’t, you still get that genuine feeling of reality because these are not overly polished Hollywood celebrities. If anything, McDormand (and eventually David Strathairn) kind of sticks out, even with the toned down hair and makeup, amongst all these real, everyday people sharing their lived-in experience with the audience through a fictional narrative.

Promising Young Woman – Emerald Fennell

Sing it with me, folks! “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong!”

Okay, I’m not gonna rag on this movie too much. It’s a competent debut that began with a really good idea. In fact, Margot Robbie and her production company bought the script simply on a pitch of the first scene, which is damn near immaculate. If the entire film had the same suspense and cleverness as that opening, Emerald Fennell would be in real good with a chance to win this thing. Unfortunately, this is a case where the director created a handful of really interesting scenes, but failed to convey a vision for a complete and compelling film.

I’ve gone over this a few times. The opening is great. The ending is full of contrived “gotcha” moments, but it certainly works for what was intended. The scenes with Alison Brie and Connie Britton are so delicious they have to be fattening. But beyond that, most of the movie is broad strokes and misplaced accusations.

This is another point I’ve noted repeatedly. The film is not subtle, and that’s fine, even downright entertaining at points. But it also has no nuance, and that’s where it suffers. In a film about rape and revenge, it completely kills any universality and credibility to basically have every single man be a rapist or rape-adjacent. The casting of people like Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Bo Burnham was intentional, to illustrate that anyone could be a potential rapist, even characters played by actors who are considered pleasant and enjoyable. That’s fine, but you have to contrast that with someone who isn’t. Give me an asshole with a moral code who would never take advantage of a woman despite the opportunity. Give me an actual “nice guy” instead of trying to give lie to the concept. Without any kind of counter-example, you’re not telling me that anyone can be a predator, you’re telling me that everyone is a predator, and that only hurts the underlying thesis. The same holds for the film’s practice of lumping in a spectator who didn’t actively stop a situation as being just as guilty as the one who committed the assault. It’s clear these characters all went to medical school, because if they went to law school, they would have learned that this is objectively not the case. There are different offenses and crimes that can be charged depending on the situation, but there are literally laws on the books that say you can’t prosecute a spectator for the same crime as the perpetrator. And yet, the film is here to assert that everyone is equally guilty.

There are other flaws to Fennell’s execution that should have excluded her from this category despite it being an overall good effort. The way she shifts the film from revenge fantasy to rom-com in the second act is jarring at best. The numerous times she pulls her punches when Cassie actually has a date rapist dead to rights is beyond frustrating. The inclusion of Paris Hilton should be brought up before The Hague.

Fennell didn’t do a bad job here, I want to be crystal clear on that. She did fine, just fine. This is her first film, and she gave us something fairly entertaining with an interesting concept that didn’t always hit the target, but on the whole put a smile on my face and had me saying, “Well done” as the credits rolled. There is nothing wrong with that. But to consider her for the Best Director Oscar? Come on. No. Just no. She did good, but she didn’t come anywhere near the level of the rest of these nominees and some of the others who were left off, including Regina King, Aaron Sorkin, Kelly Reichardt, Eliza Hittman, Shaka King, Spike Lee, and George C. Wolfe just to name a few.

***

My Rankings:
1) David Fincher
2) Chloé Zhao
3) Thomas Vinterberg
4) Lee Isaac Chung
5) Emerald Fennell

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Next up, it’s the big one. Everything leads up to this moment, and tomorrow it’s time to dive in and decide what the best film of 2020 is, at least among those the Academy deemed worthy. It’s Best Picture!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Who is your favorite director? Will we have only our second woman to win this award? Where is that kid with my latte? Let me know!

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