The current state of the Oscar race is so unclear that in putting together a list of potential Best Director candidates, the list becomes almost humorously long. Given the unpredictability of last year’s outcome, the influx of new members, and the diversity of films that have connected with audiences so far this year, there are a lot of exciting possibilities when it comes to who may find themselves in the nomination circle.
One major possibility, and possibly even the frontrunner at this point, is Christopher Nolan. The accomplished filmmaker was infamously passed over for a nomination for The Dark Knight after netting nods in many other major circles, including the Directors Guild, and is still nomination-less as a director (he does have a Best Original Screenplay nod for Memento). But this could finally be the year thanks to Nolan’s extraordinary work on Dunkirk, his most visually ambitious and, for lack of a better word, “showy” film yet. Dunkirk is a purely experiential film that operates without a traditional plot structure or even really a single protagonist. The film lives or dies by the way Nolan pieces the story together as something to be experienced visually, and he did a remarkable job.
Nolan and Warner Bros. have both been serious about the awards circuit for Dunkirk, sending out 4K screeners and showcasing the film theatrically at the Toronto International Film Festival, even after it had been released. In short, Nolan wants this, and he’s no doubt going to be making the rounds throughout the next few months working to keep Dunkirk fresh in the minds of voters. Will he win? It’s too early to tell, but at this point it really looks like he’s in line for his first Best Director nomination.
Also in line for a first Best Director nomination is Guillermo del Toro, whose romantic fairy tale The Shape of Water has quickly become one of the biggest Oscar contenders of the season. It’s arguably the best film of del Toro’s career, and he shows a masterful handle on the material as every single scene feels immaculately crafted. Moreover, the tone is a delicate balancing act that del Toro wonderfully pulls off, almost like a magic trick, and I imagine he’s at least in line for a Best Director nod come January.
Indeed, the Best Director circle may be filled out with a lot of first timers. Call Me By Your Name continues to go over like gangbusters as Sony Pictures Classics has been playing a very long game with the romantic drama, which first debuted in January at Sundance. Director Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous, sensual take on the film transports the viewer into this summer romance between Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer, and the film’s reliance on quieter scenes, performance, and cinematography bodes well for Guadangino’s chances—he really has crafted something masterful here.
And while folks haven’t yet seen The Post, it feels pretty likely that Steven Spielberg will be in the mix once more. Spielberg has thus far feted seven Best Director Oscar nominations, winning twice, and with The Post he’s tackling the incredibly timely story of the Washington Post’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers against the wishes of the Nixon White House. Again, this one’s fluid because no one has seen it yet, but if Spielberg taps into the zeitgeist as well as we think he could, this could be a major player.
If the Academy is looking for a more traditional nomination that’s not too traditional, Joe Wright is certainly in the mix for his Winston Churchill World War II drama Darkest Hour. The film is essentially a series of speeches and conversations, but Wright elevates the material to cinematic heights with a fitting gregariousness, pounding the story onward. It’s far from a sure thing, and it’ll be interesting to see if voters still take to performance-centric period dramas like Darkest Hour, but Wright could find himself landing his first ever Oscar nomination.
But these five names are far from locks, and there are a number of other possibilities in the mix. Blade Runner 2049 faltered at the box office, but director Denis Villeneuve did a remarkable job bringing that sci-fi world to life in a unique way—and he was nominated last year, so he’s something of a familiar face. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won the Audience Award at TIFF and could follow the same track as Room, which nabbed Lenny Abrahmson a Best Director nod. And Dee Rees is undoubtedly deserving of Best Director consideration for her incredible Southern epic Mudbound, but the film’s Netflix distribution raises some doubts as to whether the Academy will go for it.
There’s also Greta Gerwig, who’s scoring incredibly positive reviews for her downright great directorial debut Lady Bird, which could be a contender for a number of other awards as well. And if we want to talk about the year’s most critically acclaimed films, Get Out is a contender. It’ll be interesting to see if the Academy strikes to this social thriller outside of Best Original Screenplay, especially given their perceived disregard for the horror genre. But Jordan Peele did a tremendous job directing the film and buzz has sustained the entire year, so I do think it’s a possibility that he gets in.
And of course there’s the Wonder Woman of it all. An extremely well reviewed box office smash, which also broke gender barriers as director Patty Jenkins broke all sorts of records for a female director. Judged solely by her work on the film I do think Jenkins is deserving of consideration, and given that a number of outside factors tend to shape the narrative around awards consideration, I think Wonder Woman’s buzz is incredibly strong. Strong enough to crack the Best Director category? We’ll see, but certainly deserving.
Paul Thomas Anderson is something of a question mark, not just because no one’s seen Phantom Thread yet but because the filmmaker—while talented and popular—isn’t exactly an Academy favorite. He didn’t land nods for Inherent Vice or The Master, so if Phantom Thread is similarly esoteric, it may not exactly be an “Oscar movie.”
Sean Baker could be in contention for his terrific work with non-professional actors in The Florida Project, and if The Big Sick is a big hit, Michael Showalter could find himself getting some well-deserve accolades. Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit kind of fizzled at the box office and wasn’t a huge smash with critics, but it’s possible Annapurna Pictures brings the film back around to raise its profile. Speaking of, the studio should absolutely be pushing Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which is a terrifically complex chronicle of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston. And if Wonder Woman does indeed take off with the Academy, James Mangold is worth mentioning for his gritty, Western-tinged take on Logan. It’s also hard to argue Edgar Wright isn’t deserving of recognition for his soundtrack’d action-thriller Baby Driver—at least, he’d be on my list.
And hey, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens wasn’t exactly an Oscar movie, buzz is strong on The Last Jedi and writer/director Rian Johnson is a critical favorite. So that one’s chances aren’t exactly zero.
So as you can see this is an abundance of riches, and there are a number of different combinations that could take hold. We’ll know much more in the coming weeks, but as of right now here’s how I see the race shaking out.