Oscar Gold 2022 – Best Director

I had initially planned to do a YouTube video for this category as well as the four acting fields and Best Picture. After all, the director is the ultimate creative force behind a successful film. It’s their vision for the material that’s ultimately realized through their ability to frame shots, wring the best performances they can from their cast, and make use of the litany of talented professionals in all departments. Best Picture ultimately goes to the producers of the movie, but it’s the director who brings it all together and truly manages all the variables. This is why they’re the ones called “filmmakers” rather than anyone else.

But then I realized, there’s not much I can say on camera, at least, not all that much that would convey the emotions, opinions, and jokes I might have, because for this year’s set of nominees, four of them absolutely deserve the honor, having executed a phenomenal feat in their own unique ways. I’ll rank them all at the end, but it might as well be throwing a dart on the wall for four out of our five.

And then there’s Spielberg.

I had the most delicious, biting, (hopefully) funny set of bits to do when it came to Steven Spielberg and his West Side Story remake. It was going to be a rage fest for the ages, similar in form to my “Worst Trailer in the World” feature in TFINYW. But the problem is, I’d need to do it all in one take (and that’s a lot harder than you might think), and there’s nothing I can say about the other four that would measure up. It’s just praise upon praise. If one more director was undeserving of a nomination, I might have had enough to go on. If even one of them did something worthy of playful ribbing, it might have worked.

But that’s just not the case. While my channel is still quite new and trying to find a voice and following, I really do put my best foot forward with every video I do, regardless of the overall production quality. And when it’s all said and done, I just didn’t think it would be a quality experience for you to watch me fawn over four masterful artists as a buildup to a rant about another legend’s total hack job. It’s just not something that would be the least bit compelling on video. In print? Sure. You guys who read, comment, and reach out to me bring up great things to talk about no matter what my approach, so in this forum, it works. As a video, it just wouldn’t this time. So like any decent creator, I know when to cut my losses. Sometimes you have to know when to leave well enough alone.

Take the hint, Steven.

This year’s nominees for Best Director are…

Kenneth Branagh – Belfast

Here’s a fun fact. With his three nominations this year for Belfast – for Director, Picture, and Original Screenplay – Kenneth Branagh becomes the first person in history to receive an Oscar nomination in SEVEN separate categories. This is second nod for Best Director, but all the others are unique. That first nomination came alongside his Best Actor shot for his version of Henry V in 1990. Three years later he was up for Live Action Short, having made an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s one-act play, Swan Song. Four years after that, he was recognized for Adapted Screenplay for his version of Hamlet (which is still my favorite filmed version of the tragedy, yes, even more than Laurence Olivier’s that won Best Picture). After a 15-year gap, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in My Week With Marilyn, where he PLAYED Olivier. Now, ten years later, he has this triad honor. That’s pretty damn impressive.

As a director here, normally he might have an advantage over the field because he also wrote the script, meaning he had his vision in mind well in advance. But even that doesn’t allow for separation, as everyone BUT Spielberg either wrote or co-wrote their film’s screenplay.

So what does set Branagh’s direction apart? For me, there are three items. First was the decision to shoot in black-and-white. It provides a constant visual metaphor about the shades of grey lingering amidst the Troubles, where Catholics and Protestants were set against each other in bloody, guerilla urban warfare off and on for 30 years. In a conflict so deeply rooted and polarized, the point of the film is to find the subtlety in the reality of people’s day-to-day lives. I think that’s crucial to the film’s success.

Second is the focus on Jude Hill. The young actor playing Buddy has to carry the majority of the narrative, and he’s doing so in a cast that includes absolute titans of the acting craft. It’s Branagh’s job to make sure that the lad isn’t overwhelmed AND can give a competent performance of his own. He exceeds all expectations here, getting a genuinely affecting, seasoned-feeling performance out of the newcomer.

Finally, the decision to depict the story from Buddy’s perspective was very risky, and for me it paid off quite well. Some have criticized the move, saying that taking the violence from the point of view of a child creates a remove from the proceedings. To me, that’s not a bug, but a feature. Keeping the camera largely at Buddy’s level allows us to reminisce about our own childhoods while also empathizing with him as a lead character. We remember the moments when our parents or other family members tried to protect us from the harsher truths of the world, and having lived through this era (Buddy’s house in the film is literally Branagh’s childhood address), Branagh has that recall to picture the moments when things felt distant and when they arrived on his literal doorstep. Translating that to Buddy is a key move, because it humanizes the entire main cast, giving the audience analogs to their own loved ones, and creating a measured balance of trying to shield the boy while also giving him intellectual credit to figure it out on his own. For me, that’s an absolutely essential step in making this movie work.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi – Drive My Car

I brought this up only yesterday when I covered International Feature, and even that was a callback to the original review, but it bears repeating once more. Drive My Car is a three-hour film, and yet the plot doesn’t drag for a single minute.

How did he do it? HOW?!

My mind still boggles trying to make sense of this, which is partly why my personal preference for Adapted Screenplay is for this film as well. Hamaguchi (and co-writer Takamasa Oe) made a three-hour epic that was perfectly paced out of a short story. I’ll say that again. A short. STORY!

As a writer, Hamaguchi created something that borders on the miraculous. As a director, he makes sure the trick works by crafting his scenes in a way where they feel like they’re always moving, even if the characters aren’t. There’s an emphasis on natural humanity in every single plot point. The line deliveries are never stilted, nor are they unnecessarily drawn out. Hamaguchi makes sure his actors are performing as if they’re having regular conversations, reacting as any regular person would to their counterparts. Active listening is key.

When the scenes call for no dialogue, like when Kafuku and Misaki are on their titular commutes or when a character is alone and simply living in a moment, Hamaguchi makes sure that the frame itself is still active, showcasing gorgeous scenery, highlighting the sounds of nature, or giving the periphery just enough focus so that the viewer knows that something else in the shot is contributing the overall visual profile. No better is this illustrated than when Kafuku discovers his wife having sex with Koji by seeing them reflected in the doorway mirror.

And then, of course, there is the absolute genius presentation of Kafuku’s stage shows. I’ve gushed about them a lot, so I won’t beat it into the ground any further. But you are going to be hard pressed to find a better literary device to get the emotional and thematic heft of any film across to an international audience in ways they can all understand. Truly spectacular.

Paul Thomas Anderson – Licorice Pizza

It’s kind of weird that we’re in the final four categories, and only now am I bringing up one of the Best Picture nominees for the first time. But that doesn’t mean Anderson isn’t deserving. Far from it. In fact, there are three truly superlative aspects of his creative vision that prove why Licorice Pizza was my favorite film of 2021. And arguably, they might raise his profile above the entire set.

One, and this is an underrated element, but it’s crucial to a film like this, the catalog soundtrack is expertly on point. We had a fair few movies last year that leaned on needle drops like a crutch (Cruella and House of Gucci chief among them). They were prime examples of why quantity does not equal quality. But there were also some that knocked it out of the park, like Last Night in Soho, and even Belfast‘s was pretty strong, though I don’t include it as a point for Branagh because it’s almost entirely Van Morrison, who also composed the score. But Licorice Pizza‘s is the best of them all, because Anderson always opted for the perfect tone, figuratively and literally. He didn’t go for terrible audio puns, like using “She’s a Rainbow” when Emma Stone dyes her hair. Instead, using a wide range of thematically-appropriate tunes from the likes of David Bowie, Nina Simone, and even Suzi fucking Quatro (yeah, Leather Tuscadero, bitches!), he maintained the perfect blend of pleasing background music with sweeping ballads that played to the mood and subtext of the scene rather than the most obvious superficial connection. This is fairly overlooked when talking about what makes the best movies so great, but it’s no less important.

Two, in an era where Hollywood has to, at times, take a hard look at itself and its uncomfortable legacy, Anderson outwardly embraces the insanity, finding the fun, humor, and pathos in the patently absurd and off-the-wall. He convinces the likes of Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, and John Michael Higgins – all seasoned pros of great esteem in their fields – to play essentially bit parts that are so wackily offensive that the woke and broke alike can appreciate the gags and acknowledge the flaws that the system still hasn’t quite worked out while still being thoroughly entertained. Turning Jon Peters into a psycho killer, or Jerry Frick into an Asian fetishist with a lack of cultural sensitivity only rivaled by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a tremendous risk, because if the timing of these jokes isn’t 100% precise, or if it isn’t made clear that the offender is the target rather than the offense, or if it’s presented in a way that makes it feel like any one group isn’t in on the bit, then the entire thing falls apart and Anderson is cancelled faster than Heil Honey I’m Home! Oh yeah, that was a thing. Look it up online if you ever want to see how far your jaw can drop.

Third, and most importantly, through Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim as his two leads, Anderson pulled out two nomination-worthy performances (seriously, it’s a sin that neither got a nod), with both of them in their first EVER film roles. It’s like he heard that Branagh got a tremendous turn from Jude Hill, and then decided, “Well, kids are malleable. I’m dealing with adult newbies, TWO of them, and I can make them instant A-list actors.” And son of a bitch, he did it. How Paul Thomas Anderson essentially became the only person nominated for this movie I’ll never know. But despite that oversight, he certainly made sure that his bona fides were well in order for it.

Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog

I mentioned this in my review, but it’s amazing to me that Jane Campion hasn’t directed a film in 12 years, and hasn’t had a true hit – critically or commercially – since the mid-90s. After The Piano, she was on top of the world, only the second woman ever nominated for this prize. Since then, her work has been hotly debated among the experts, with truly polarizing results.

But whatever the reason, she’s come back with a vengeance with The Power of the Dog. All her best qualities as a filmmaker are on full display, including stunning cinematography, richly-drawn character studies, and poignant explorations of sexuality, though this one is more subtle in that last respect than some of her other films. Somehow it all came together this time.

She had the highest-profile main cast to work with among our nominees, which honestly presents the biggest challenge. How do you get two full-on superstars, one up-and-comer, and one underrated gem to come together, share space appropriately, and have them ALL give award-worthy performances without stepping on each other’s proverbial toes? It’s honestly awesome.

And then, of course, there’s the accomplishment that Phil Burbank himself represents. It is rare to get a truly great villain these days, and even when we do, it’s in a supporting role. Campion crafted this character in the open, and made him the centerpiece. This movie revolves around the bad guy, and Campion gets unbelievable mileage out of it. It’s audacious in its brilliance, because so much can go wrong at so many points to make this idea fall short. If Phil ever feels cartoonish, it’s over. If he ever feels non-threatening, the moment is lost. If he dominates too much of the proceedings, it can’t work. That’s why Campion focuses on getting the most out of the smallest moments, from lighting a paper flower on fire to that oh so satisfying needle of a whistle. She hits just the right note at just the right moment every. Single. TIME!

God I wish she had spent the last 25 years pulling this off consistently.

Steven Spielberg – West Side Story

This may come as a shock to you, given how much I’ve griped about this project over the last several months, but there are two things you need to know before I go off here. One, as I said in the review, overall, I do like this movie. It just has a ton of flaws that prevent it from being great, and as such it’s certainly not worth the massive hype it’s enjoyed for the past 11 months. Two, I really do like Spielberg as a director, at least when he gets out of his own way. There were few movies I loved more as a kid than E.T. One of my few regrets in life is that I never saw Jurassic Park on the big screen, chickening out when I got the chance. I still feel he got robbed with Shakespeare In Love winning Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan. He truly is one of the greatest filmmakers who’s ever lived, and certainly one of the few who understands how to mix crowd-pleasing popcorn fare with true prestige and artistic sentiment. I am not hating on this man right now due to some deep-seated grudge or preexisting bias.

But when he loses sight of what made his best films so special – be it blockbuster spectacle or deeply human character study – it becomes intolerably frustrating, because we KNOW he can do better. That’s what happened with films like War Horse or his god awful remake of War of the Worlds (to this day one of the five worst movies I’ve ever seen; it was #1 until The Tree of Life), and it’s what happened here. There are some truly awesome things in his West Side Story remake, but all of them are in spite of Spielberg’s direction, not because of it, with the exception of the staging of “Cool.” I mean, we should have all been on heightened alert for bullshit from the moment that he insisted on calling this a “re-imagining” or a “re-adaptation” rather than a remake. When the actual meanings of words are called into question, you know you’re in an Orwellian amount of trouble. And remember, this guy aggressively trying to redefine words is the same one who clutched pearls over Netflix movies being Academy-eligible and who digitally replaced the guns in E.T. with walkie-talkies because seeing such things might be too much for kids to handle… 20 years after kids (including me) already handled it just fine.

In his quest to signal every virtue that the whiniest of us demand, he ruined much of what makes West Side Story so timeless. He took a gang war and turned it into class warfare. He turned a tomboy into a referendum on non-binary pronouns. He didn’t resist a single temptation to flood the screen in superfluous spotlights. He made a whole point about proper racial and ethnic representation, but still fucked it up (almost none of the Sharks have Puerto Rican heritage) by emphasizing skin color over acting talent.

Speaking of the acting, there are so many scenes that look like the cast was left to their own devices, and several of them fell woefully short. Rita Moreno is only in two or three scenes but she acts circles around the lot of them. It’s like the only notes Spielberg gave his actors were hastily scribbled on a Post-It.

“Uh, okay, Jets. Let me see. Um, I can’t read my own word here. I have R-A-something-I-S-T-S. Huh. I can’t remember if I wrote ‘RAPISTS’ or ‘RACISTS.’ Well, just to be safe, you’re both. And for good measure, you’re also anti-Semitic.”

“But Steven, there aren’t any Jewish characters in this mo–“

“YOU’RE ANTI-SEMITES! Okay, Sharks. Um, you’re horny. Like, super horny. All the time. Seriously if you’re not doing something on camera that would get you dragged in front of H.R. on a normal job, you’re doing it wrong. Just play ‘Tonight’ in your head with these lyrics: ‘I’m Latinx, and I need lots of sex…”

“But what about those of us who don’t have love interests?”

“I SAID HORNY! Now, Mike Faist. You my boy, are spectacular. You’re absolutely killing it out there. I love your intensity. You might give the Jets some dimension if you keep going like this. Thank God we’re killing you off halfway through.”

Aaaaaaaaaand scene!

But worst of all, and I’ve brought this up before, he chose sides. What makes West Side Story work is the fact that, just like its source material, Romeo and Juliet, the Jets and Sharks are on equal terms. They are the street version of “Two houses, both alike in dignity.” In order to score political correctness points, Spielberg threw out all that nuance. For his film, the Sharks are all joyous, lively people with perfectly valid hopes and dreams who are completely above reproach. And just to make sure no one thinks anything negative, Bernardo’s hotheadedness is toned down immensely, and the whole part about Maria being brought to New York as an arranged teenage bride for Chino is cut entirely. But the Jets are a monolith of white grievance – hateful, bigoted, and all capable of sexual assault. They even all wear the same basic outfit, whereas the Sharks get bright, vibrant variety. Even Tony, our ostensible hero, is tainted. His one bit of additional character development is to explain his year away from Jets gang activities as him being in prison for a year for beating up a different gang of non-whites. In the musical, and the original movie, he’s simply outgrown the petty street squabbles and is only drawn in as a side effect of Bernardo and Riff’s feud. That’s why he’s a tragic character. For Spielberg’s woke mobile, he’s just as guilty as the rest of them.

How can you fuck up this badly and miss the point so egregiously? It beggars belief. But because he’s Spielberg and the final product looks flashy, the people making the decisions convince themselves that this is of the highest quality. Instead, nearly every problem with this film is squarely down to his decisions. Almost every single change that Spielberg made from BOTH source materials was for the worse, and it’s an exercise in the most extreme form of artistic cynicism to pretend that what he did is anything but that. Every single Academy member not named Steven Spielberg (or perhaps Kate Capshaw if she ever got to join) is willingly sacrificing their integrity and credibility if they vote for him to win.

***

My Rankings:
1) Paul Thomas Anderson
2) Ryusuke Hamaguchi
3) Jane Campion
4) Kenneth Branagh
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5) Tommy Wiseau’s Tiktok
6) Steven Spielberg

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

Up Next, we enter the final week of the Blitz with a category that in most years I dispense with pretty early because I easily have all the nominees in hand fairly early. This time it took me several weeks because I missed 60% of the field. It’s Makeup & Hairstyling!

Join the conversation in the comments below! How do you separate the top four? What’s the worst you ever saw a film mismanaged? How badly do you think Spielberg wanted to make this movie about aliens? Let me know!

One thought on “Oscar Gold 2022 – Best Director

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