Thursday, February 12, 2015

One Category at a Time: Director

Most years, the Oscar for Best Director goes hand-in-hand with the Oscar for Best Picture. It stands to reason that if you really love a movie, you love the way it's directed, but sometimes a tight race between two films can result in enough of a discrepancy for the categories to split. What we have this season is not simply a tight race between two films, but between four or five films, meaning dozens of winner permutations are possible.

Point is, we could see a Picture/Director split for the third consecutive year, and even though the critics have made it clear who their preference is, that frontrunner is not necessarily as safe in the hands of the Academy.

It certainly may seem like Richard Linklater's Oscar for Boyhood may as well be engraved right now, as he's picked up almost every major Best Director title given out over the last three months. It's not hard to see why. The guts it takes to commit to a twelve-year project and the ability to tie it all together so holistically is an attractive angle for awards voters when they think of directing, although it's his naturalistic execution of each individual scene that actually gives him legitimate claim to this prize. But when your movie isn't the Best Picture frontrunner, you're not entirely secure in Best Director. Boyhood is becoming something of a 'Social Network story' this season; An unanimous champ with the discerning critics, but a harder sell with the gargantuan, middlebrow Academy. David Fincher's fate was sealed when Tom Hooper dethrowned him at the DGA Awards that year, the one guild that Linklater has lost. Mind you, Linklater still won at the BAFTAs, and Boyhood could still very well win Best Picture along with him, but the race may be closer than it appears.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman swooped in at the PGA, SAG, and DGA Awards to become the new frontrunner for Best Picture, meaning that Inarritu himself must be considered a threat for Best Director. The Mexican filmmaker has flirted with Oscar before, receiving attention for his dour dramas Babel and Biutiful, but neither was as technically or tonally daring as this high-flying comedy of artistic identity crisis. Much like countryman Alfonso Cuaron, who took home gold last year for his impressive staging of several long takes in Gravity, Inarritu benefits greatly from his collaboration with genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the seamless tracking shot approach that draws attention to the level of difficulty this film represents. It arguably feels more "directed" than Boyhood, whose direction is more about grounded believability than cinematic razzle dazzle.

Further complicating matters from a predictive standpoint is that Linklater and Inarritu aren't the only ones duking it out for the auteur-worship vote. Having only previously been recognized for screenwriting (and for an Animated Feature nominee), Wes Anderson has had this nomination a long time coming. With his unmistakable symmetrical framing, fastidiously decorated worlds and deadpan characters, the Texas-born humorist has a voice as distinctive as any storyteller in the business; The very definition of an auteur filmmaker. It's a bit of a mystery how the directors branch hasn't cited him until now, but I guess they were waiting for a film of his that they really really liked. Well, the Academy really really likes The Grand Budapest Hotel, and seeings how the film looks poised to be the night's biggest winner (in number of trophies, that is), it would be foolish to write off the quirky maestro's chances at winning Best Director for orchestrating the caper in all its witty mayhem.

But while those three men inadvertently divvy the support of the Academy's more artistic-leaning voters, it's entirely possible that a less conspicuous (though no less dangerous) Best Director hopeful slides up the middle on the coattails of his tremendously well-liked film. Before this year, most Oscar buffs, however savvy, probably hadn't heard of Morten Tyldum, whose screen credits were limited to productions in his native Norway with little North American exposure. But his anonymous directing style turned out to be just the thing to make The Imitation Game the sort of easily digestible movie that aging Academy members could enjoy without having to think too hard about the artistic ambitions of the man behind the camera. So long as the nomination stays a nomination and nothing more, it serves as congratulations for capably ushering in a film that the organization really dug. But if he pulls off the upset, it won't be able to look like anything besides a huge embarrassment on the Academy's part.

Rounding out the field is Foxcatcher helmer Bennett Miller, the only fellow of the bunch who doesn't have a realistic shot at winning due to the distinction of being nominated for overseeing a movie that somehow missed a Best Picture nomination. The distinction extends beyond this year: He is the first 'lone director nominee' in the era of the expanded Best Picture ballot. Many have been quick to wag a finger at the directors branch for choosing another white guy over Selma's Ava DuVernay, but in all honesty (and I say this as someone who put DuVernay in his own ideal lineup), this is trading up. Miller is masterful in his formal construction and attention to all storytelling details, and the branch clearly recognizes his talent. Foxcatcher his only his third feature behind Capote and Moneyball, and all three of them have been nominated for either Picture or Director. Hopefully this is the trajectory of an artist who will one day win, but it won't be this year.

Will win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Runner-up: Richard Linlater, Boyhood

Should win: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Should have been nominated: Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

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