Oscar Beat: The Best Director Race at a Glance

     November 28, 2014

oscars-best-director-angelina-jolie

As we head out of the Thanksgiving holiday, studios have been scrambling to get screeners out to critics and voters before early December deadlines, and some of the year’s later releases are finally starting to be seen, which means the Oscar race is becoming much clearer.  We already have one potentially huge game-changer in the form of Selma, which has enjoyed enthusiastically positive response from its initial screenings, but that film also throws a curious prospect into the mix: for the first time in history, could we actually have two female directors nominated for the Best Director Oscar?

After the jump, I consider this question as I take a look at the current state of the rather crowded Best Director race in this edition of Oscar Beat.

richard-linklater-ellar-coltrane-boyhoodThere’s one filmmaker whose name is an almost certainty in this year’s Best Director race, and that’s Richard Linklater.  With the excellent Boyhood, he literally did something that has never been done before: he was in production for over a decade.  Not only did Linklater complete his wildly ambitious project, but he did so to stellar results.  It would be impressive enough just to see a movie that was shot over a period of 12 years, watching all of the actors age in real life as the story progresses, but Linklater succeeded in also making a genuinely great film.  Despite the fractured production schedule, he maintains a strong narrative throughline across all of the different sections of the film, culminating in an emotional and groundbreaking experience that is unlike any other picture.  I fully expect him to be among the nominees for Best Director.

Another high-profile contender is Alejandro González Iñárritu for his buzzworthy comedy Birdman.  While the film itself has proved to be a bit divisive among some critics, there’s no denying the fact that movies about Hollywood tend to do well with the Academy, and this one’s not only about Hollywood but also actors, directors, agents, critics, theater, blockbusters, art-house films, etc.  The film itself plays like one long inside joke delicately crafted by Iñárritu, and if you add in the grand and technically impressive way the story is told (with due praise also going to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki), I feel voters are likely to single out Iñárritu’s direction as being integral to the film’s success.  A second Best Director nomination for the Babel filmmaker seems like a very real possibility.

selma-david-oyelowo-carmen-ejogoA surging contender in this Best Director race is Ava DuVernay, who first came to prominence through her work on indies like Middle of Nowhere and I Will Follow, but who is drawing enormous praise for her studio debut Selma.  The drama is much more than a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic as it focuses on the incredibly dangerous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The film played like gangbusters at AFI Fest and subsequent critics screenings with many singling out DuVernay for her bold direction in telling this timely story.  If the film really takes hold with the Academy (and I think it will), it’s entirely possible that DuVernay could become the first African-American woman to land a Best Director Oscar nomination.

Two of the films that broke out of the Toronto International Film Festival, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, could also garner Best Director nods if they take off with the Academy.  The Imitation Game helmer Morten Tyldum likely has the best shot at landing a nod for his compelling biopic of British mathematician Alan Turing, who cracked the code that won World War II and was later persecuted for his homosexuality.  It’s a solid if rather straightforward film that feels very much like an “Oscar Movie” in the vein of The King’s Speech, and if it finds a large, passionate following with voters (which is very possible given that The Weinstein Company is running the campaign), Tyldum could land in the Best Director field.

whiplash-damien-chazelle-jk-simmonsAs for The Theory of Everything, the Stephen Hawking film is much more familiar in structure than The Imitation Game and it’s also more of a performance-driven film, but James Marsh remains a possible contender if the Academy really likes what it sees.

The Academy has shown a knack for making an oddball choice here and there in recent years (ie. Benh Zeitlin, Michael Haneke), and so I’m wondering if first-time filmmaker Damien Chazelle could have a shot at a nomination for his Sundance hit Whiplash.  The tense dramatic thriller has found passionate advocates in the filmmaking community and Chazelle’s talent behind the camera is certainly striking.  The film has thus far failed to catch on with general audiences at the box office which could be a minor hindrance, but I’d count Chazelle among the serious contenders for a nomination if the Academy falls for Whiplash the way critics have.

There’s also David Fincher to consider.  He is no doubt one of the best filmmakers working today and his exacting work on the incredibly entertaining and conversation-starting Gone Girl is wonderful, but after The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, Fincher appears to be done playing “the game” during Oscar season, so his non-involvement in actively campaigning for a nod unfortunately puts him at a disadvantage, not that he really cares.  Gone Girl is this year’s “popular” Oscar contender with a very impressive box office performance and overall buzzy nature, and while the Academy has moved further and further away from the populist vote in recent years (one Oscar blogger wondered whether Titanic would even stand a chance of winning today), I remain convinced that Gone Girl will have some sort of significant presence at this year’s ceremony.  Whether that includes Fincher is unclear.

foxcatcher-steve-carell-bennett-millerFilmmaker Mike Leigh was somewhat of a surprise Best Director nominee in 2004 with his film Vera Drake, and he stands a shot at landing a third Best Director nod this year for his coarse J.M.W. Turner biopic Mr. Turner.  The film has not been as rapturously received as some predicted after its Cannes debut, but the Academy voting block has a large amount of British voters, and if they rally around Mr. Turner the film could end up doing quite well in terms of Oscar nominations.  However, it’s not an easy film to love and response has been rather muted thus far.

Bennett Miller was an early favorite to land a Best Director nomination for his dark, quietly intense drama Foxcatcher given his Academy history and the promising material of the picture.  His two previous films, Moneyball and Capote, both landed Best Picture nods with the latter also netting Miller his first Best Director nomination.  But as with Mr. Turner, Foxcatcher hasn’t quite caught on like most expected it would after earning heavy praise (and a Best Director award) at Cannes earlier this year.  I still wouldn’t count Miller out and from my perspective he’s absolutely deserving of an Oscar nod, but the pic has cooled a bit with critics at large so it will be interesting to see how the Academy responds.

christopher-nolan-interstellarDespite earning three DGA nods, filmmaker Christopher Nolan has yet to receive a Best Director Oscar nomination.  Many thought Interstellar might be the one that finally cracks the Academy, but given the mixed response overall and complaints about the Nolan-supervised sound mix, it now seems more uncertain whether the Academy will opt to nominate him this time around.  The sci-fi trip is undeniably an impressive achievement with a greater emphasis on emotion than his previous films, and Nolan is quite possibly the most outspoken advocate of keeping film alive, so he will certainly have his advocates, but I’m not sure Interstellar can remain at the forefront of the awards conversation in lieu of its so-so critical response.

It’s also never smart to count out Clint Eastwood, of whom the Academy is quite fond.  Response to American Sniper has been mixed-to-positive thus far, with most agreeing that it’s Eastwood’s best work in a few years if still not all that great.  It’s possible Eastwood could sneak into the Best Director race if the film catches on with voters, though given the amount of quality contenders in this year’s race it’ll be tough.

Rob Marshall was previously nominated for the Best Director Oscar for Chicago and heads back to the genre with Disney’s Into the Woods, and while the initial reactions are mostly positive to the film overall, it’s not the kind of home run that Chicago was.  Plus, I’m willing to bet people haven’t completely forgotten Nine or Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides just yet.

angelina-jolie-unbrokenAnd then there’s quite possibly the biggest question mark of all: Angelina Jolie.  She and her film, Unbroken, have been early favorites essentially since the movie was initially announced, and it remains the last big contender yet to be screened to critics at large (that changes next week).  The picture obviously ticks off a lot of Academy-friendly boxes (ie. WWII story, inspiring biopic, Coen Brothers script, Roger Deakins cinematography), and Jolie is very, very well liked among voters.  Make no mistake: at least a portion of the Oscars is a popularity contest, and the good will that Jolie engenders can only help her case.  At this point, I’d say Unbroken would have to really miss the mark for Jolie not to land a Best Director nod, but her odds will become much clearer once we hear the first responses to the film next week.

There are also other Best Director contenders deserving of recognition.  Wes Anderson enjoyed some of the best reviews of his career for this year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, but the Academy thus far has been uninterested in singling out Anderson’s talents behind the camera.  Paul Thomas Anderson goes psychedelic with Inherent Vice, though most say the picture is possibly even more obtuse than The Master.  Steven Knight pulled off a near-impossible feat with Locke in turning a movie about a guy driving a car into one of the most compelling and emotionally affecting films of the year.  John Michael McDonagh’s impressive Calvary was a fantastic character-driven musing on faith, forgiveness, and morality, and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is impressive in its singularity of vision but doesn’t quite coalesce into something as satisfying as his previous film, All Is Lost.

wild-jean-marc-vallee-reese-witherspoonWild director Jean-Marc Vallee does a fantastic job of turning what could have been a rote and by-the-numbers story into something dynamic, surprising, and emotionally gripping.  Gillian Robespierre adeptly balances difficult subject matter with comedy in Obvious Child, David Ayer’s Fury swings for the fences and is incredibly bold in its vision, and though the Academy apparently thinks making a comedy is somehow much easier than making a drama, Phil Lord and Chris Miller made quite possibly one of the best comedy sequels of all time with 22 Jump Street (they do have a shot at picking up Best Animated Feature for The LEGO Movie).

As you can see, this year’s Best Director race is quite crowded with talent, but we certainly have a few frontrunners that seem very much poised to land a nomination.  Could we expect at least one or two surprises this year, or might the category make history with two female nominees?  It’s still quite early, but here’s how I see the Best Director category shaping up right now (ranked in order of likelihood to secure a nomination):

1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood

birdman-alejandro-gonzalez-innaritu2. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman

3. Ava DuVernay, Selma

4. Angelina Jolie, Unbroken

5. Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

6. Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

7. David Fincher, Gone Girl

8. Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner

9. James Marsh, The Theory of Everything

10. Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Click over to Page 2 for Updated Predictions for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress

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