This year’s Best Director category is highly competitive, but the race has somewhat clarified over the past month or so. The director’s branch of the Academy has a knack for throwing in a wild card every year, whether it’s Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge or Lenny Abrahamson for Room, so there’s always the potential for a spoiler or surprise contender when nominations arrive on January 22nd, but for now at least four of the slots feel pretty firmed up.
The Directors Guild of America nominations always provide a roadmap of sorts to how the Oscar field may play out, and it’s quite often that the DGA’s lineup matches at least four of the five Oscar slots, with the Academy’s branch usually springing for something artsy or outside the box for that fifth slot (see: Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread and Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher). This year’s DGA nominees were Bradley Cooper, Alfonso Cuaron, Spike Lee, Peter Farrelly, and Adam McKay. Let’s take a closer look at each contender, then consider who might be swapped in as an alternate.
First we have Bradley Cooper, who made a stunning directorial debut with A Star Is Born. If you’re thinking it’s too much of a stretch for an actor-turned-director to land an Oscar nod (or win) for his debut, just ask Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves), Robert Redford (Ordinary People), or Orson Welles (Citizen Kane). It happens, and if Cooper is somehow left out of the Best Director field this year it would make Ben Affleck’s Argo snub seem minuscule by comparison.
But to pull off the win, Cooper’s got some serious competition. The other most formidable contender this year and quite possibly our frontrunner is Alfonso Cuarón, who won this category for his last film Gravity. With Roma, Cuarón has crafted a bona fide masterpiece, reaching into the depths of his own memories to bare his soul on the screen in groundbreaking fashion. Cuarón served as his own writer, editor, and cinematographer on Roma, so when it comes to Best Director consideration, you can’t say this isn’t completely and entirely his vision. Cuarón has absolutely dominated the critics awards in this category, and if he takes the DGA award, it’s very likely he’ll repeat at the Oscars. Indeed, 12 of the last 13 DGA winners have gone on to win the corresponding Best Director Oscar.
Then there’s Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman, which has been a consistent performer with both critics awards and guilds thus far. Indeed, outside of A Star Is Born, BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther are the films with the most guild nominations. There’s also a strong narrative here as Lee has never been nominated for a Best Director Oscar (side note: that is insane), so I feel pretty confident about his chances.
On the complete opposite side of the coin is Peter Farrelly, who is best known as the co-director of comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something about Mary. Farrelly’s true-story drama Green Book has been a mainstay on the awards circuit, and the Golden Globe win for Best Motion Picture – Drama certainly boosted the film’s visibility. Despite a flurry of controversies, the DGA nod signals that there is significant support for Farrelly among other filmmakers, so it’s very possible he gets a Best Director Oscar nomination. Then again, the controversies regarding Green Book have only intensified after the Globes win, so it’s equally possible Farrelly fades as the film itself becomes too toxic or problematic. Or it could break the other way—fans of the film may feel emboldened to push Farrelly through.
The final DGA nominee is Adam McKay for his divisive Dick Cheney movie Vice. The film has split critics, but guilds have sprung pretty consistently for the film as it picked up nominations from the DGA, PGA, WGA, and ACE, so clearly it has industry support. McKay was previously nominated in this category for The Big Short, which I actually think makes him a bit more vulnerable when combined with the divisive nature of the film.
So I think Cooper and Cuarón are near-locks, Lee is a very safe bet, and Farrelly and McKay could go either way. Who does that leave waiting in the wings? Well in keeping with the Oscar directing branch’s penchant for recognizing artful films in this category, Yorgos Lanthimos is a strong contender for his critical darling The Favourite. The film is due to pick up a number of Oscar nominations and has been a mainstay with both critics awards and guild nominations, so I think he has a very strong shot at getting in.
In the same vein, Pawel Pawlikowski has a shot at landing an Oscar nomination for his critically acclaimed drama Cold War. The Polish film is one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, and Pawlikowski scored a Best Director nomination from the BAFTAs signaling widespread support. Wouldn’t that be something if two of the Best Director nominees were for foreign-language films?
And then, of course, there’s the Black Panther of it all. Disney has played the Oscar campaign for this Marvel movie perfectly, and it’s in line to receive a number of nominations—including Best Picture. It’s undoubtedly the most substantial and thematically rich Marvel movie thus far, and Ryan Coogler‘s direction is beyond impressive. The guy is extremely well-liked and his talent can’t be denied—the fact that he was able to thread such meaty thematic material into a blockbuster superhero movie, in such an artful and organic way, makes him incredibly worthy of Best Director consideration. I’d feel more confident about his chances if he had received a DGA nod, and as I said before when the Oscars break with the DGA nominees it’s usually for an artsy pick and not a blockbuster. But rules were made to be broken, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Coogler scored a nomination. That said, I also wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t—the dwindling market for modestly budgeted “adult” movies has led some to resent blockbuster superhero movies. Which when they’re bad, okay fine. But Black Panther is a monumental cinematic achievement, full-stop.
Also in the mix is Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk, but the Moonlight filmmaker’s follow-up has faltered a bit as we’ve entered the guild portion of the awards season. While the James Baldwin adaptation was a mainstay with critics awards, it was passed over by the Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and most importantly Directors Guild. Of course Jenkins could qualify for that “artsy” slot so I don’t think he’s an impossibility here, but the quiet, immaculately crafted drama hasn’t caught on as strongly as some expected.
If anyone swaps in for one or two of the DGA nominees I think it’s Lanthimos, Coogler, Jenkins, or Pawlikowski, but I suppose there’s a long shot for someone like Damien Chazelle for First Man (though that film’s lack of guild recognition tells me it’s pretty much dead in the water) or Bo Burnham, whose debut Eighth Grade is an indie darling, or maybe even John Krasinski for A Quiet Place, which has racked up some strong guild support.
Of course there’s a big difference between who will be nominated and who deserves to be nominated. A number of female filmmakers released work that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the aforementioned films, from Lynne Ramsay‘s astounding You Were Never Really Here to Marielle Heller‘s character-rich Can You Ever Forgive Me? to Debra Granik‘s deceptively complex Leave No Trace. Alas, it appears a year after Greta Gerwig scored a Best Director nomination we’ll be back to all-male nominees
So yeah, that about does it. The Best Director field has clarified significantly and as we head into the final phase before nominations are announced, I feel fairly confident about at least four of the slots. Below, check out my Best Director predictions in order of likelihood to be nominated.