In three of the last five years, the winner of the Best Director Oscar has gone to a film that did not win the Best Picture Oscar in the same year. This recurrence of splitting the difference makes predicting the Best Director category both harder and easier in some ways—harder because the Best Picture frontrunner isn’t always your Best Director frontrunner, but easier because the Academy tends to trend towards technical achievement in the Best Director category (see: Gravity, Life of Pi, The Revenant).
This year’s Best Director race is a formidable who’s who of towering talents, many of whom have been to the Oscars before. Quentin Tarantino has arguably his best shot at winning his first Best Director Oscar since Pulp Fiction; Martin Scorsese looks to win his second-ever award; and Sam Mendes could be back on the stage for the first time since his divisive debut American Beauty. But there are also exciting relative newcomers to the field like Taika Waititi, Bong Joon-Ho, and Marielle Heller.
It’s an interesting year, and while it seems likely at this point that the eventual winner will probably be someone who’s won an Oscar before, there certainly exists a serious chance of a game-changing shift over the next month as the critics groups begin to weigh in. So for now, here are my Best Director predictions in order of likelihood to be nominated.
Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Martin Scorsese – The Irishman
Sam Mendes – 1917
Boy this is quite the dogfight. Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a lovely, masterful ode to a bygone era rooted in a surprisingly compassionate friendship between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth. It’s the most tender film Tarantino has ever made, and the fact that the Academy tends to really like movies about Hollywood works in its favor. Sony has really been pushing this one hard on the awards circuit, and Tarantino and his A-list cast have been front-and-center. They’re putting in the work, and it could very well pay off in a big night for this movie, including Tarantino’s first-ever Best Director Oscar.
But there’s another Hollywood veteran in the mix for his own masterpiece, and he’s got a few decades on Tarantino. That would be Martin Scorsese, whose Netflix epic The Irishman is a sorrowful yet compelling film about mortality and regret. The semi-autobiographical nature of the film’s themes aren’t lost on anyone, and on top of that Scorsese’s direction is just as impeccable and meticulous as you’d expect.The Irishman is likely to be a major contender in a number of categories and I’d be shocked if Scorsese didn’t land a Best Director nod here, if not the win. But there’s one latecomer who threatens to crash the whole party…
Sam Mendes made waves for winning Best Director and Best Picture for his first feature, American Beauty, back in 1999 and while he’s flirted with the Oscars here and there since that time, the World War I epic 1917 is his best-constructed film yet. The wildly ambitious movie plays out as if it’s one long, single take, with cuts hidden throughout. But it’s not so much the one-take aspect of the film that’s so impressive as it is the scope of that single take—the film traverses wildly different terrain, enters and exits buildings, and even chronicles stunning shifts in daylight, all under the tutelage of cinematography legend Roger Deakins. It was no doubt a herculean effort to get this all onscreen, and the result is something truly awe-inspiring that will make even the most educated of film scholars wondering aloud, “How did they do that?” Mendes is absolutely a contender to win this thing.
In the Mix
Noah Baumbach – Marriage Story
Bong Joon-ho – Parasite
Greta Gerwig – Little Women
Todd Phillips – Joker
Pedro Almodovar – Pain & Glory
Taika Waititi – Jojo Rabbit
Lulu Wang – The Farewell
Fernando Meirelles – The Two Popes
Marielle Heller – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
James Mangold – Ford v Ferrari
Beyond those three frontrunners, there are many formidable candidates ready and waiting to jump in. Noah Baumbach could absolutely earn his first Best Director nod for his most complete and accomplished film yet, Marriage Story. It’s maybe not as flashy or epic in scope as some of the other contenders, but his work in crafting this word-perfect character-driven drama is no less impressive. Bong Joon-ho is also absolutely a contender for his masterful construction of Parasite, one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. The precision with which Parasite unfolds and the impact each beat carries are both a testament to Bong’s incredible vision here.
There’s also Greta Gerwig in the mix for her second Best Director nod after Lady Bird, in the hopper here for her unique take on Little Women, although it remains to be seen how big of an impact that film will have on the Academy owing to its late December release and somewhat limited screenings. I also would not be shocked to see Todd Phillips land in the Best Director circle for Joker if the Academy takes to the gritty DC film the way I have a feeling they might, so keep an eye on that one. Ditto to Jojo Rabbit, which critics have been divided on even though the film has received a pretty positive response from the industry thus far, paving the way for potential recognition for Taika Waititi.
The Director’s branch of the Academy usually likes to single out one or two unique or left-field contenders—usually of the indie variety (see: Lenny Abrahamson for Room or Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild)—and I think Lulu Wang could benefit from that slot for her excellent work in crafting The Farewell. Similarly there’s Fernando Meirelles, who was nominated in this category in 2003 for City of God and who’s behind the feel-good Netflix drama The Two Popes this year, and Pedro Almodovar crafts one of his best films in years with the semi-autobiographical Pain & Glory.
If the Academy wants to recognize good old-fashioned filmmaking at a studio level, there’s James Mangold’s terrific take on Ford v Ferrari—a film I fear may be in danger of being undervalued this Oscar season. I also think Marielle Heller certainly deserves a shot for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, as she took a unique cinematic approach to the “Mister Rogers movie” by crafting the whole film as if it’s a long episode of Mister Rogers’ show for adults. Over the course of just three movies, Heller has become one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
On the Outside
Josh and Benny Safdie – Uncut Gems
Clint Eastwood – Richard Jewell
Jordan Peele – Us
Jay Roach – Bombshell
Tom Hooper – Cats
Rian Johnson – Knives Out
Dexter Fletcher – Rocketman
On the outside looking in there’s a mix of hopefuls, longshots, and maybes. Uncut Gems may very well go the way of Good Time and get snubbed by the Oscars entirely, but that doesn’t make the work of directors Josh and Benny Safdie any less impressive. Clint Eastwood might be in the mix if Richard Jewell makes a splash, or this one could go the way of The 15:17 to Paris. If there were any justice, Jordan Peele would be under serious consideration for Us, but unfortunately it feels like many have completely forgotten that movie even came out this year. And while Tom Hooper is a former winner of this category, it sure feels like Cats is a massive misfire waiting to happen.
Jay Roach chronicles the Fox News/Roger Ailes saga in Bombshell and Dexter Fletcher makes the “Good, Actually” version of Bohemian Rhapsody with Rocketman, but if we’re talking purely impressive directorial effort, Rian Johnson’s masterfully crafted and executed Knives Out deserves to be in the mix.
That about does it for now, and as you can see there’s no lack of deserving contenders. It’ll be interesting to see how this race shifts over the next month, but as of today this is pretty much how it stands.