For an Oscar year as weird as this one to ultimately yield another no-brainer Best Picture winner (from where we stand, at least) is a bit disappointing. Thankfully, all the uncertainty and unpredictability that was once thought to cloud the Best Picture race has instead been concentrated into the competition for Best Director, which is up for grabs in Ben Affleck's conspicuous absence.
In recent years with a Best Picture/Best Director split, Best Director has often gone to the presumed runner-up for Best Picture as a sort of consolation prize. To cite the examples, it certainly seems like Brokeback Mountain, The Pianist, and Traffic all came about as close to winning Best Picture as you can get without actually winning. But it begs the question: Which movie is in the runner-up position? Will that even matter?
While I wasn't predicting Michael Haneke to be nominated for his austere but immaculate direction of Amour, I can't say that his inclusion was a huge shock. Several outlets had been bandying about his name as a possibility in this category since the film first bowed at Cannes waaaaay back in April. Deserved though the honour may be, one has to suspect that Haneke would have been one of those “lone director nominees” in a year with five Best Picture slots.
By far my favourite single nomination of the year – maybe my favourite of the last several years – is Benh Zeitlin for his marvellous feature debut Beasts of the Southern Wild. Not just because he topped my personal ballot of directors this year, but because it was a genuine surprise to hear his name called on nomination morning. He and Haneke are likely bringing up the rear in this contest, but it's gratifying to see two of the best directorial accomplishments of the year represented.
Ang Lee has had an unusual history with Best Picture. When Sense and Sensibility was up for the big prize in 1996, he was not nominated along with it. He was able to accept the Foreign Film trophy for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001, but the film lost Best Picture and Best Director to two different films (one of those tricky split years). When Brokeback Mountain looked poised to dominate in 2006, Lee ended the night with Best Director in hand but without a Best Picture distinction for his film, as Crash pulled off the upset. And this year will likely see another split, possibly involving him again. With Life of Pi en route to collect several craft awards, voters may indeed see it as the most challenging and visionary accomplishment of the year.
Conservative logic suggests that Steven Spielberg, helmer of nomination leader Lincoln, is the most sensible choice here. But the season has taken its toll on the talkative biopic, which now looks weak in every category except Best Actor. Many voters may feel Spielberg, as a Hollywood fixture, is already amply rewarded. Or perhaps many may consider Lincoln to be more of a writer's or actors' piece since Spielberg's direction is so tactfully invisible.
A contender who should certainly not be counted out is David O. Russell, whose Silver Linings Playbook might be the stealthy second-place Best Picture contender who gets consolation in this category. Although directors of comedies almost never win, the film is well-liked enough to draw votes. Russell has also quickly built a new reputation for himself by ushering crowd-pleasing ensemble pieces to the screen. Those four acting nominations might convince some members that he has a more rightful claim to this trophy than his competition.
Will win: Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Runner-up: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Should win: Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Should have been nominated: Ben Affleck, Argo