Best Director is often a hard category to gauge, mostly because usually it’s just a rubber stamp prelude to Best Picture, as 67 winners of the top prize also took home directing honors. Literally every winning film in this category since 1930 has also been up for Best Picture, and 88 of the 94 Best Picture winners have at least been nominated here as well, with Argo being the only one left out of the equation in the Preferential Era (you have to go all the way back to Driving Miss Daisy for the most recent example before that), and some argue that Ben Affleck’s omission from this field contributed to Argo‘s victory. In the rare cases where Best Director isn’t the dry run for Best Picture (like Jane Campion winning last year for The Power of the Dog), it’s seen as a consolation prize, alongside one of the Screenplay awards, so that the membership can be seen as “spreading the wealth.”
The problem is that there’s no real clarity in modern times about what constitutes superlative “merit” or “achievement” in directing. I’ve mentioned it before, but we have recent precedent for this very issue. Alejandro G. Iñárritu won this award back-to-back in 2015 and 2016, for Birdman and The Revenant. The first win was seen as something of an upset, as the betting favorite was Richard Linklater for Boyhood, given that he spent 12 years filming it. However, a lot of people were willing to call it a matter of creative judgment and good-faith difference of opinion, as Iñárritu did employ a pretty ingenious use of single-shot photography and editing in his film. But then the very next year, the fact that he took two years on The Revenant because he wanted as much natural lighting as possible was used as justification for his second win. So a 12-year effort wasn’t worthy, but a two-year one was? What the hell kind of sense does that make?
It honestly seems pointless to try to assign value to the artistry behind the job here, because even the least cynical and jaded among us would concede that it basically just boils down to a popularity contest based on whatever hype people have created in their own heads (or had fed to them by a studio marketing campaign). Any rules the Academy could try to set would be instantly ignored like the “context” guidelines suggested in the last decade when it came to Original Song. I still keep it in mind when I judge something, but I don’t have an actual say in the matter.
Still, for me, I try to look at four factors when weighing the candidates. First is technical proficiency. How is the filmmaker’s cinematic eye? Second is the cast performances. How well does the nominee direct his or her actors? Third is the logistics of the project itself. This is where something like Linklater coordinating a 12-year shooting schedule comes into play. And fourth is the overall artistic vision. Did the director tell the story they wanted to tell, and how effective was it for me as a viewer?
Given that, I can make a solid case for three of the five (technically six) hopefuls this time around. All of them have some merit, even if I disagree with their respective candidacies, but only three have positive reports on all four fronts, and as such, they’re the ones who I’d argue actually deserve to be here.
This year’s nominees for Best Director are:
Todd Field – Tár
The hallmark of this film, and the best argument Field has for this award, is in how he handles his actors. He got a nominated performance out of Cate Blanchett in a role that was basically designed for her. There were also strong turns from the supporting cast, including Mark Strong, Julian Glover, and Nina Hoss. In what amounts to little more than a Best Actress showcase flick, Field did do his level best to at least grant the rest of the project a degree of credibility from the standpoint of the cast. Given the very lengthy scenes that open the movie, it does take a considerable amount of skill to ensure that his players keep up their energy and momentum throughout.
I’ll also give points to Field in the technical areas, with solid cinematography and editing, again with the focus being on the timing of scenes. There’s a thematic progression as Lydia’s precarious position at the top starts to waver, with long sequences giving way to shorter bits as events wear on, a frankly brilliant example of parallel visual and technical storytelling. Along similar lines, you have to give credit where it’s due from the logistical angle, as piecing together these moments can’t have been easy, especially when half the cast members were primarily concert musicians rather than actors.
But where he falters, ironically enough, is in artistic hubris. This is a film where, strictly speaking, not all that much happens. There’s an awful lot of dialogue and allusions to events that occur offscreen, but apart from the note-perfect lesson at Juilliard and Lydia’s climactic “entrance,” almost no action. We’re told about nearly everything rather than seeing it. The first 10-plus minutes are spent on a literal lecture from the New Yorker. And of course, let’s not forget the true beginning of the production, a reverse credit roll where we in the audience are forced to read every name before we see a single frame of the story.
That is pretentious as fuck. And to be fair, maybe that was the point, to illustrate Lydia’s arrogance by presenting the film in an artsy-fartsy manner that is equally high-minded and condescending. That’s all well and good, but in doing so, it renders the film’s accessibility to a general audience as basically nil, cementing the entire project as being for critics and insiders to debate rather than an experience for audiences to enjoy.
And I think we need to be a bit honest about where Field’s nomination comes from. Absence does make the heart grow fonder, and it’s noteworthy that this is only his third feature film, his first since Little Children 16 years ago. I think given the gap between works, the fact that the movie doesn’t suck out loud was enough to get him the nod, just because other directors just miss seeing him putting stuff out. I get it. Truly, I do. But that doesn’t warrant Academy honors.
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – Everything Everywhere All at Once
Here’s a bit of fun trivia for you. This is the first time that a pair of directors has been nominated here since since 2008, and the first time since 1979 that the duo wasn’t named “Coen” (Warren Beatty and Buck Henry for Heaven Can Wait). You gotta love the history in all this.
Anyway, on to the controlled chaos that was this film. I mean, this is pretty much a slam dunk as a solid nomination, and even a potential favorite. You’ve got an insanely good cast, all of them acting their faces off, with the five principals playing multiple characters within the same role, four of whom are nominated in their respective fields. You have game supporting players, with the likes of Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr., and Tallie Medel all getting moments to shine. Hell, you even got Randy Newman to voice a raccoon and write a Pixar parody song for the occasion, to say nothing of the hilarious cameos the Daniels give themselves. This is arguably the best ensemble of all of 2022 cinema, where everyone involved goes absolutely bonkers, and yet our stalwart filmmakers never truly let things get out of hand.
From a logistical standpoint, you have to absolutely marvel at what they’ve accomplished as well. You’ve got an incredible stunts team for the action sequences, performing fight choreography that had to have taken days if not weeks to sort out. You have characters who change their appearance on a dime, necessitating a tremendous amount of costuming, makeup, and hairstyling. You have props out the wazoo (literally in some scenes), which all had to be monitored and tracked for continuity. It’s mind-boggling how many elements are at play here, and they’re all done to perfection on a budget of *checks notes* 1/8 that of Marvel’s other “multiverse” project that shall remain nameless here.
That brings us to the technical achievement and the overall artistic vision, which here I think work in tandem. These guys created a world (hundreds of them, in fact) unlike anything we’ve ever seen, filled to the brim with imagination and limitless possibilities. And yet, through highly competent and disciplined camera and editing work, somehow they found a way for it all to make perfect sense within the absolutely batshit context they created.
THESE MEN MADE AUDIENCES LAUGH THEIR ASSES OFF AND CHEER AT FIGHT SCENES FOR 90 MINUTES STRAIGHT AND THEN HAD THEM CRYING OVER SILENT ROCKS! DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW CRAZY THAT IS?!
The fact that any of this worked would be enough to give these guys a nomination. The fact that all of it works to the highest level is something truly groundbreaking, raising the bar for the artform’s potential in the process.
Martin McDonagh – The Banshees of Inisherin
Just about everything I just said about the Daniels can probably be said about McDonagh’s latest opus, apart from all the crazy stuff (though he’s got his fair share of stunning moments here as well). In a way, Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Banshees of Inisherin are two sides of the same coin from a directorial standpoint. They’re both massive, weighty stories told on a relatively small scale in a way that has far-reaching implications. The Daniels took the more bombastic route, while McDonagh kept his affair much more grounded, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less spectacular.
Again, the actors are off the charts. McDonagh has something of a built-in advantage here, having worked with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson on the transcendent In Bruges (and Farrell again in Seven Psychopaths), as well as Kerry Condon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He’s got a well-established personal and professional rapport with most of his core cast, so there’s a deeper understanding of what’s needed and expected, allowing the seasoned pros to give it their all thanks to their common trust.
The same can be said for the other technical and logistical elements. This is the fourth film McDonagh’s done where Carter Burwell composed and conducted the score, and the third where Ben Davis has been his cinematographer. He’s got an Oscar-winning editor in Mikkel E.G. Nielsen. He’s even basically filming on home turf in Ireland (he was born and raised in London by parents from Galway, and the fictional island of Inisherin is off Galway’s coast). All of this is to say that the quality of McDonagh’s work over the years is so strong that he’s been able to build an inner circle of reliable collaborators, which gives him the comfort and ease to focus his attention on his storytelling.
And what a story it is! The artistic merit of Banshees is almost unequaled because of his attention to detail and the intimacy he establishes in his characters. He presents a brutally honest view of provincial life that still finds ways to be endearing when it needs to be. He communicates the desires of vastly different characters while going to great lengths to maintain each person’s individual agency and dignity, even when they go to extremes. Most importantly, he crafts a small pocket of humanity where simple people convey heavy and complex ideas in ways we can all understand, respect, and appreciate, even when we fundamentally disagree with them. His deft touch allows for some unexpected depth from truly daft people, and that’s just incredible. This is how McDonagh is able to distinguish himself from Todd Field, because at first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Banshees of Inisherin – with its odd title, remote setting, and esoteric characters – might be just as niche as Tár. But unlike Field, McDonagh goes out of his way to make the themes, people, and dialogue as relatable as possible while still being true to the overall intent of the story. On the surface, both films could be seen as impenetrable, but only McDonagh works to disabuse the viewer of that bias.
Ruben Östlund – Triangle of Sadness
I’m not one to abide the disingenuous arguments of late that this category is less than credible if there isn’t at least one woman nominated (because tokenism doesn’t demean anyone!), but if the likes of Sarah Polley or Chinonye Chukwu (or those professing to advocate on their behalf) were to claim legitimate beef, Ruben Östlund’s inclusion here is their best evidence.
This guy has exactly one thing going for him, and that’s his cast. With Woody Harrelson as the only big name actor (and he’s only in the second act), Östlund gets the most out of a committed ensemble highlighted by Dolly de Leon and Harris Dickinson (both known commodities but not exactly A-listers), as well as the tragically late Charlbi Dean. Pretty much every member of the group gets a moment or two in the spotlight, and Östlund makes sure that they get the most out of it, wrangling some pretty solid performances.
I’ll give him that, but not much else. There isn’t a lot in the way of technical or logistical achievement here, other than whatever methods were necessary to literally rock the boat during the film’s middle portion for the gorgeously grotesque Captain’s Dinner scene. Everything else is pretty standard. The camera angles are fine. The editing is fine. The music is fine. It’s all just… fine.
But then we get to the overall artistic intent, and whatever merit Östlund may have had here just completely deflates. I honestly don’t know what the motivation for this story was, other than him saying, “I want another Palm d’Or,” and of course the Cannes jury was happy to oblige for reasons known but to the sommelier who obviously provided the panel with hallucinogenic levels of wine. The film is presented as a satire but plays as pure nihilism, where everyone’s an asshole, including the lower and working class people that true satire is supposed to elevate. The script punches down at every turn, even when it pretends to punch up at the idle rich and the cluelessly shallow. Outside of the dinner scene, there is exactly one moment of pure humor, and that’s when an elderly arms dealer and his wife briefly recognize one of their own company’s grenades before it blows up the cruise ship and kills them. That’s the closest Östlund gets to anything resembling poignancy and relevance. Everything else is just mean-spiritedness, and none of it is justified, apart from the joy he ostensibly gets from smelling his own farts. In that respect, the best joke of all might be that he finds a way to damn everyone while boasting and promoting his own profile. What a waste of a nomination.
Steven Spielberg – The Fabelmans
The presumed front-runner this year, Spielberg wears his intentions on his sleeve. He’s been clear from the beginning that this is a semi-autobiographical film, filled with nostalgia and sentimentality, and that he wanted to give his parents – particularly his mother – a treacly tribute, while also saluting the “power of movies.” Mission accomplished. Even though I have quibbles with the execution in places, especially the kid gloves treatment he gives Michelle Williams as Mitzi even when her actions are objectively wrong, you can’t argue that Spielberg accomplished exactly what he set out to do, and for the most part, it really is sweet and entertaining.
And that’s because he’s so well-versed in all the other major elements, having been at the top of this game for nearly five decades now. His cinematic hallmarks are on full display, though thankfully he keeps the “Spotlight Fetish” relatively in check. He cleverly mixes in practical effects to not only show the audience how rudimentary movie magic is accomplished, but also to try to spark that same sense of wonder he had as a kid learning the craft. He knows more than perhaps any director in history how to get emotional, heartwarming performances out of his actors, with Paul Dano being the best in the bunch for my money, because even though he’s treated like an antagonist, he’s by far the most sympathetic character. Williams herself was kind of a bust, and I have no idea why she’s up for Best Actress other than to appease Spielberg (imagine the scandal if mommy wasn’t nominated), but Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Julia Butters, Gabriel LaBelle, and Jeannie Berlin all give great turns. And of course, in the meta moment of the year, David Lynch’s cameo as John Ford was just fucking inspired.
Spielberg knows better than anyone how to play to his audience, and in this film, he does so by translating his personal experiences to the masses in ways that make universal sense. Yes, the antisemitism bullying in the third act was tacked on. Yes, an entire tangent about buying a monkey was completely pointless. Yes, it’s a bit cheeky to wink at the audience in the very last shot by tilting the camera towards the horizon in the exact method that Lynch as Ford said was most pleasing. But the affection behind all of it is palpable, and that’s always been what Spielberg has been about, giving the audience a reason to smile, and occasionally to ponder. This isn’t his best work, or even his most important, but it’s probably the most direct representation of Steven Spielberg as an artist and filmmaker, distilled in a way that has mass appeal while still being a quintessential statement of his own identity. Would he get my vote here? No. That said, I can’t really argue against anyone who does give it to him.
1) Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
2) Martin McDonagh
3) Steven Spielberg
4) Todd Field
5) Ruben Östlund
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, let’s all laugh at the fact that a movie about a composer, where said composer literally campaigns for another composer, is completely left out of the conversation about composers. It’s Original Score!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What makes a great director to you? Would you like to see more directing teams get nominated instead of individuals? Is schmaltz a worthwhile plot motivation? Let me know!
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