Oscar Beat: Best Director Predictions—Who’s the Wild Card?

The Oscar race is in full swing, and one of the more interesting races that’s heating up is Best Director. 2016 isn’t one of those years where you have a lot of master filmmakers in the mix—there’s no new film from Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher or Wes Anderson. But there’s a fascinating mix of burgeoning young voices (and Martin Scorsese) that’s taking shape, offering up reason to be hopeful for a bright future for cinema as a whole. So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the Best Director race as it stands now.

[Last updated January 7th]

Frontrunners

1. Damien Chazelle – La La Land

2. Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

3. Martin Scorsese – Silence

4. Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

5. Denis Villeneuve – Arrival 

I feel pretty confident with three of these choices here, and there hasn’t been a ton of movement since my initial predictions were posted, but I’d say there are two slots that are semi-up-for-grabs, including one “wild card.” Damien Chazelle was recognized in the screenplay category a couple of years ago for his breakthrough feature Whiplash, but in La La Land he accomplishes a masterful tightrope walk between lavish, Golden Age Hollywood musical and contemporary, affecting character drama. That he pulls this movie off with as much grace and style as he does without sacrificing an emotional connection between the audience and the characters is nothing short of movie magic, and at this point in time he’s the one to beat.

But if there’s someone to beat Chazelle, it could be Barry Jenkins. The filmmaker’s highly personal triptych character drama Moonlight became the critical darling on the awards circuit, getting much love from a variety of critics groups and now scoring recognition with the various guilds. Jenkins’ achievement is stunning, especially given the film’s unique structure, and he’ll no doubt be recognized with an Oscar nomination.

There’s also Martin Scorsese, whose passion project Silence finally hit theaters after decades of development. Scorsese is the major veteran in the mix this year, but Silence hasn’t hit the awards season with the same thunderbolt and lightning that Wolf of Wall Street did a few years back. The film is a tough one to unpack, and while most assumed it would find its fans among the critics groups, it’s been largely forgotten. The various guild awards groups haven’t been much kinder, and so while I still think Scorsese’s veteran status will vault him into this mix, the film itself is a big ol’ question mark at this point in time. In terms of history, Scorsese’s been nominated for Best Director for five of his last six films, so the stats are certainly on his side.

Kenneth Lonergan is a filmmaker who doesn’t have a ton of movies under his belt—Manchester by the Sea is only his third feature—but he’s a critically acclaimed writer/director in the wake of You Can Count on Me and Margaret regardless. Manchester is a masterpiece and a serious Best Picture contender, and Lonergan makes this intimate character drama look easy while in fact, the sincerity and honesty of emotions that he’s able to capture onscreen is immensely difficult to pull off. But he does so beautifully, and should be duly recognized for it.

In recent years, the Director’s branch has been keen on throwing a curveball or two into the mix, whether it’s Michael Haneke for Amour, Behn Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game. My initial thinking was that filmmaker Pablo Larrain would score this slot for his stirring vision of Jackie, a refreshingly unique take on the biopic format anchored by a phenomenal performance by Natalie Portman. However, the film has underperformed since hitting theaters, and could be a bit too divisive to score the widespread Academy love needed for various nominations. For that reason, I’ve now moved Denis Villeneuve into this pack for Arrival as my “curveball” choice. His last film, Sicario, was incredibly well received and folks who love Arrival really love it, so I think it could result in a deserved Best Director nod for the versatile filmmaker.

In the Mix

6. Denzel Washington – Fences

7. Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge

8. David Mackenzie – Hell or High Water

9. Pablo Larrain – Jackie

10. Garth Davis – Lion

As I said, that Frontrunners category is fluid, so really any one of these In the Mix candidates has a shot. Chief among them is Denzel Washington, whose third directorial effort Fences could find solid footing in the Academy. The film has drawn mostly positive reviews but has been left out of the early critics awards aside from acting nods—although, obviously, critics don’t vote for Oscars, which is why I think Denzel’s got a shot with the Academy.

Then there’s Mel Gibson. He was a big question mark going into this race, and while Hacksaw Ridge didn’t pick up amazing reviews or out-of-this-world box office, it seems to be chugging along surprisingly well, finding a solid footing of fans. If it hits big with the Academy, it’s not crazy to think that Gibson could be back in the thick of the Oscar race.

And finally, two new-ish filmmakers who could make the cut. Garth Davis made his mark on the acclaimed series Top of the Lake before helming the emotional true story Lion, which feels like an Academy favorite waiting to break out. But it’s David Mackenzie‘s Hell or High Water that’s been the surprise on this year’s Oscar circuit, and while I have the film down for a Best Picture nomination at the moment, it’s not unlikely that Mackenzie himself makes the Best Director cut.

Outside Contenders

9. Theodore Melfi – Hidden Figures

10. Jeff Nichols – Loving

11. Clint Eastwood – Sully

12. Peter Berg – Patriots Day

13. Stephen Frears – Florence Foster Jenkins

14. Tom Ford – Nocturnal Animals

You’re probably curious if Ben Affleck might finally land a Best Director nod after being snubbed for his work on Best Picture-winner Argo. Well, word on Live by Night is not great, Warner Bros. has all but given up the awards campaign for it, and the film looks to only be a player in the below-the-line categories, so it doesn’t look like that’s happening.

Jeff Nichols has been doing fascinating work for years with films like Take Shelter and Mud, culminating in a successful experimentation with scaling back on plot and dialogue in Loving. The result is a deeply moving experience that puts the characters front and center, and he’s certainly worthy of consideration.

And while Sully feels like a film that could maybe land a Best Picture nod, Eastwood hasn’t been nominated for Best Director since 2007 for Letters from Iwo Jima. There’s also Peter Berg in the mix for Patriots Day, which continues to be a question mark in terms of Oscar. Initial reception was positive, but the same was true of Lone Survivor and that film failed to land any major nominations. And with Hidden Figures a surprise late player in the Best Picture race, now likely to land a nomination, Theodore Melfi could find himself moving up the ranks in the Best Director field.

We’ll see how all this shakes out soon enough as nominations will be announced on January 24th.

For now, if you missed any of my previous predictions pieces, peruse the links below.

Image via Paramount Pictures

Image via Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions

Image via Lionsgate

Image via Warner Bros.

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