Oscar Beat: The Best Director Race – Is the Cuaron vs. McQueen Showdown Inevitable?

     November 28, 2013


The Best Director Oscar category quite often mirrors the Best Picture category, with the winners in both matching up year after year.  That being said, it’s not wholly uncommon to see a split for one reason or another—in fact, it’s happened 22 times.  Sometimes the director of the Best Picture winner gets snubbed out of a nomination (see: Ben Affleck), sometimes heavy backdoor campaigning results in a split (see: Shakespeare in Love take Best Picture and Saving Private Ryan getting Best Director), and sometimes the Academy is simply not willing to award difficult material the grand prize (see: Brokeback Mountain losing Best Picture).  This year, however, we have a different scenario that could simply be boiled down to an incredibly tough choice: two excellent, groundbreaking films that both showcase directing at its finest.

The Best Picture showdown appears to be 12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity, and that same showdown is mirrored in the Best Director race.  Will there be a split?  Can someone like Paul Greengrass or David O. Russell pull an upset?  After the jump, we take a look at the current state of the Best Director race in the latest installment of Oscar Beat


gravity-alfonso-cuaron-george-clooney-set-imageAlfonso Cuaron – Gravity 

The word “masterpiece” gets thrown around much too often these days, but Gravity is a film that has garnered a hefty amount of well-deserved effusive praise.  Cuaron crafted a technical marvel that made even the most discerning of audiences feel the magic of moviemaking once again, and the Academy will no doubt be taking note of this spectacular accomplishment.  Moreover, this is very clearly a director-driven film.  Simply put, Gravity would not exist if it weren’t for the wonderfully innovative mind of Cuaron and his patience throughout the film’s nearly four-year development, production, and post-production.  A Best Director title would not be ill-fitting. 

Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave

With 12 Years a Slave, we have a wholly different yet equally impressive accomplishment.  British director Steve McQueen’s unflinching portrait of slavery is a devastatingly emotional experience brought to life brilliantly through his signature style, and, like Cuaron, the Academy will surely recognize the effort.  It’s no coincidence that Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are currently the two frontrunners to take home the Best Picture trophy, and it seems highly possible that we could see a split in which one film takes Best Picture and the other takes Best Director.  How it splits is anyone’s guess at this point.

Paul Greengrass – Captain Phillips

nebraska-bruce-dern-alexander-paynePaul Greengrass has been nominated for Best Director once before for his harrowing work on United 93, and he has a very good shot at landing a second nomination for this year’s Somali pirate drama Captain Phillips.  The film is shot in Greengrass’ signature documentary-like style that puts the audience right in the middle of the action, and he brings shades of grey to a story that could have—in the hands of a lesser director—been a straight good guys/bad guys/”hooray USA” story.

Alexander Payne – Nebraska

A five-time nominee and two-time winner (both for writing), Alexander Payne is a bit of an Academy favorite.  The director is back in the race once again with another character-driven story filled with equal parts humor and heart, and considering Nebraska’s focus on life in older age, it will likely be a hit with the Academy—a demographic that is largely made up of older white men.  Nebraska is a considerably smaller film than the others in the Best Director race, but it’s wise to keep an eye on Payne. 

David O. Russell – American Hustle

Though David O. Russell dabbled in more esoteric and obtuse territory with his earlier filmography, his last two pictures—The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook—have been considerably more commercial, and each garnered Russell a Best Director Oscar nomination.  American Hustle combines the casts of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and while early reactions are bit more reserved than the effusive praised heaped on SLP after its first screening, Hustle is no doubt a serious player in the race to come.  Whether the Academy will honor Russell with a third straight Best Director nomination remains to be seen, but his chances will become clearer as the film screens for more critics and Academy members. 

Major Threats

Joel and Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis

the-wolf-of-wall-street-leonardo-dicaprio-martin-scorseseIt’s best never to count out the Coen brothers, and that’s the case with this year’s Inside Llewyn Davis.  Though the film has had a long road to the awards campaign (it premiered back in May at the Cannes Film Festival), response remains positive.  It may not have as many passionate fans as Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, but the film remains a genuine contender in multiple categories, including Best Director.  The Academy sparked to the Coens thrice before with Best Director nods, and awarded them the trophy for 2007’s No Country for Old Men.  Some are describing Inside Llewyn Davis as a minor film in the brothers’ oeuvre, but a heavy presence in the impending critics groups’ awards could boost the brothers’ chances of landing a fourth Best Director nomination. 

Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

It’s also best never to count out Martin Scorsese, though it took the Academy decades to finally hand the legendary filmmaker a Best Director trophy.  The Wolf of Wall Street sees him navigating black comedy territory for the first time in a long while, and Wolf very much looks to be in the vein of the director’s classic Goodfellas.  That film earned him a Best Director nod, and while The Wolf of Wall Street hasn’t yet screened for critics (it will very, very soon), it sure looks like a similarly wild ride. 

John Lee Hancock – Saving Mr. Banks

The Academy is not above patting itself on the back, and indeed the past two Best Picture winners have portrayed Hollywood in a positive light.  As such, the Walt Disney/P.L. Travers story Saving Mr. Banks could be a favorite among Academy members, which means director John Lee Hancock also has a shot at a Best Director nomination.  Critics have been more restrained in praising the film and its merits, but it’s definitely one to keep an eye on as the awards season rolls forward. 

Possible Dark Horse

all-is-lost-robert-redfordJ.C. Chandor – All Is Lost

Last year the Academy surprised many by giving the young Benh Zeitlin a Best Director nod for his feature directorial debut Beasts of the Southern Wild.  As such, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for the Academy to recognize another young filmmaker for a daring piece of work, and J.C. Chandor certainly fits that bill.  The Margin Call director went out on a limb with All Is Lost by making a film with one character and almost no dialogue, but he stuck the landing and critics have taken notice not only of Robert Redford’s performance but of Chandor’s direction.  Looking at the lay of the land right now, Chandor feels like a very strong Dark Horse possibility. 

Spike Jonze – Her

Though more traditional filmmaking and stories are most often awarded by the Academy, every once and a while they’ll recognize something a little offbeat.  Spike Jonze landed a Best Director nomination for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, and he’s taken his offbeat storytelling by way of a romance between a man and his operating system in Her.  The film has been a huge hit with critics, and selling a love story between a man and a voice is no easy feat.  Her is a little out there for sure, but don’t be surprised to see Jonze’s name crop up over the next few months. 

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine 

It’s strange to consider a talent as large as Woody Allen a “dark horse” candidate for anything, but the very crowded 2014 Oscar race means stiff competition.  Blue Jasmine is sure to be recognized in the Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay categories, and though Allen shuns the Oscar ceremony altogether (he opts to stay home and watch basketball instead), the Academy continues to reward the legendary filmmaker.  There are plenty of other strong candidates for sure, but Allen remains a serious possibility for a Best Director nod for the excellent and affecting Blue Jasmine.


  • The Flobbit

    Personally, I think Cuaron deserves the Oscar. Gravity was a technical masterpiece; directed flawlessly with style, impeccable attention to detail, and true dedication by one of modern cinema’s great talents.

    Honestly, Cuaron has worked harder on that movie than any other director I know has, except maybe Jackson with LOTR /The Hobbit, or Guillermo with Pacific Rim. Alfonso worked on Gravity for 4 years, inventing camera rigs, technology, and lighting systems; he did his research, he cowrote the screenplay, and was heavily involved in all aspects of the production.

    The result is a tense, brutally efficient and exciting, visually stunning, haunting, and brilliantly acted science fiction tour de force. If he doesn’t deserve the Oscar I don’t know who does.

    • Fiz

      Can’t argue with this. I finally saw 12 Years a Slave yesterday, and though it was quite good, it felt like a normal historical drama to me. Emotional at times, certainly, but there wasn’t anything remarkable to me about the way the story was told (unless you count the notable absence of time’s passing… without the title, I might have thought it all happened over the course of a few months).

      I agree with Adam that Gravity was more of a “director-driven” movie, by far, and I feel Cuaron deserves the award.

      That said, I surprisingly found Captain Phillips more engrossing than either of those films.

      • Gerard Kennelly

        if it hit cinemas when bush was president
        people wouldn’t be in such a rush to over praise it

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    • Gerard Kennelly

      best effects does not equal best director
      hurt locker won best dir instead of avatar
      and i predict place beyond pines instead of gravity

      • The Flobbit

        Good luck getting Cianfrance even NOMINATED. Tell you what, if Place Beyond the Pines wins, I’ll watch Grown-ups 2 and every Madea film in a row.

      • Gerard Kennelly

        Grow Ups 2 is what they force you to watch in Guantanamo Bay

  • signinwith

    I’m not sure the academy really is too keen on
    giving the trophy to the director who really “deserves” the award. Take 2010
    for example: whatever your personal opinion may be of Christopher Nolan or Inception
    for that matter, it only takes simple logic to take a look at THAT movie and a
    movie like The King’s Speech, and understand which director had a more difficult
    job. Like Gravity, Inception would not have existed in its current form if
    Chris Nolan hadn’t done it; while the King’s Speech could have arguably been
    made by many other directors, probably just as well. But alas, Nolan wasn’t
    even NOMINATED for a best Director and Tom Hooper won for King’s Speech. And while
    12 years a Slave is an absolutely great movie and deserves a lot of accolades,
    I highly doubt Gravity would have existed had it not been for Alfonso Cuaron
    (just like you said so yourself). So, in terms of who deserves it; Alfonso Cuaron.
    Who’s gonna get it? Who knows.

    • BigJimSlade

      I could see the art direction or special effects crew getting an award for “Inception”, but it seemed like an exercise of ridiculous exposition scenes dispersed with empty dream battles with dream mercenaries and a bunch of characters with no depth or personality. I can’t think of many more overrated films in the 21st century than “Inception”. I think the South Park parody was much better (and I’m no South Park fan).

      • Gerard Kennelly

        i swear
        the tom hardy role was written for heath :(

    • caveman

      Oh I love Inception and I am a huge Chris Nolan fan. But year 2012 was just jam packed with excellent movies. Personally I thought Darren Aronofskey and David Fincher were far more deserving candidates than Tom Hooper. Black Swan and The Social Network are fantastically directed movies.
      Agee about Gravity though.

      • caveman

        I meant ‘year 2010′. damn…

  • Mixed Race rich kid NYC

    Best director is Steve McQueen
    It’s time for a black man to take the Oscar home
    Where’s the guy who directed fruitvale station ??
    His movie is among the best movies I’ve seen this year
    Top 5 surely
    12 years a slave is a powerful movie and deserves the best picture Oscar while gravity is technical movie a la avatar and deserves only technical achievements awards only
    Best director :
    Steve McQueen
    Alfonso Cuaron
    Ryan coogler
    Woody Allen
    The coen brothers or Paul greengrass

    • Gerard Kennelly

      fruitvale station exploited trayvon martin

  • JK1193

    This year I think will come down to 3 directors who will surely be rewarded well at this point in their careers: Cuarón, McQueen and Russell.

    Russell reinvented himself as a filmmaker with The Fighter and has been on a roll ever since. And judging from positive early response, I think American Hustle could emerge as an equally strong contender alongside Gravity and 12 Years.

    Hunger and Shame did not recieve any Oscar nominations and with the showering of love for 12 Years, McQueen will finally recieve long-overdued acclaim.

    Cuarón I think will be the one to beat. No one has worked as hard as he did putting Gravity together and all of that work can easily be seen up on the screen. Plus, he was robbed big time for Children of Men, so I can’t think of a better makeup nomination than Gravity.

    • Williiiam

      Cuaron was robbed for Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children was OK, but a bit un-engaging. He needs to learn to cast better actors. Gravity was a joke. Movies are not just about flashy CGI and technical expertise.

  • BigJimSlade

    I thought 12 Years was a heart-breakingly moving story, but the direction was serviceable at best. Can’t really think of what director is worthy, but I don’t remember Gravity that well and I haven’t seen Wolf of Wall Street yet.

    • Gerard Kennelly

      dano is still underrated isn’t he ?
      there will be blood
      little miss sunshine
      being Flynn
      the good heart
      prisoners and 12 years a slave (same year)

      • The Flobbit

        Dano is one of the greatest actors alive, mark my words.

      • Giovanni Luis Jiminez

        The girl next door ?

      • Gerard Kennelly

        for ellen

  • Gerard Kennelly

    the only film this year that grabs me as ‘best director’ is THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

  • Strong Enough

    you also have the race factor. the academy might finally want to give a black man a director award. who knows when the next chance might come up. plus they’ll score huge ratings and press for it

    • Williiiam

      He definitely deserved it for Shame!

    • Gerard Kennelly

      when coppola Spielberg and lucas /Streisand walked out to present best director
      we all knew who had won

  • Bob

    Hmm, it’s def between McQueen and Cuaron right now. Not sure who’s in the lead honestly, maybe Cuaron. Then prob Russel and Scorsese. 12 Years is still in the lead for Best Picture though.

  • Wiiiam

    Cuaron, really for deciding on mediocre actors and a lame and trivial story?

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