Splits between Best Picture an Best Director have a weird arrhythmic history at the Oscars. They seem to crop up in bunches before to returning to long stretches when it never happens. We seem to be in the middle (or perhaps the end) of one such bunch, which has seen these two top categories go different ways in three of the last four years. Whether or not this is a blip on the radar or a more mainstaying result of the current Best Picture voting mathematics might require a few more years to suss out, but this year it appears that things will return to the status quo.
Not long before La La Land wins Best Picture on February 26, I fully expect its fearless leader Damien Chazelle to claim a trophy of his own, becoming the youngest Best Director ever at just 32 years, 38 days of age. And it's impossible not to see why the award is his. The Academy will opt for "most" direction even when they prefer a subtler film overall (think Cuaron over 12 Years a Slave, and Inarritu over Spotlight). But don't mistake La La Land for being brazen for brazen's sake. A heightened genre needs heightened direction, and who can deny that the final product is a culmination of a singular directorial vision?
Dude deserves it.
But of course there are those who will resent the musical's dominance and consider it "overrated". They will more likely than not throw their weight behind the softer, but equally impressive artistic vision of Barry Jenkins. His approach to telling the story of Moonlight is delicate, soulful and completely attentive to craft, despite being far less showy than Chazelle's flash and pizazz. I'm not brave enough to predict an upset, but I'm not ruling out the possibility. Jenkins is, however, likely to receive a well deserved consolation prize for Screenplay.
Also not to be counted out entirely is Kenneth Lonergan, whose brave tragicomic handling of Manchester by the Sea is certainly unique for the tone it strikes. Your mileage may vary on how successful it ultimately is; I have issues with it, but others I know love it, and it wouldn't surprise me if the Academy is similarly divided. I maintain that his best shot is in Best Original Screenplay, but even that feels in jeopardy of losing out to La La Land.
The question going into nominations was which DGA nominee would be replaced (most correctly guesses Lion's Garth Davis), and by whom? I not only hoped, but honestly believed that Mel Gibson would be at the bottom of that list, but I guess it serves as sobering reminder that the directors branch, though small and discerning, is still an 'old boys club'. Not that there's anything technically weak about his overseeing of Hacksaw Ridge. It's a perfectly competent war movie without a shoddy below-the-line bone in its body, but its corn-huckster idealism and fascination with mutilation make for odd bedfellows. And while his fellow helmers may be willing to welcome Gibson back, I suspect there are enough within the whole Academy who would feel uncomfortable checking off his name given his troubling past.
Will win: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Could win: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Should win: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Should be nominated: Ava DuVernay, 13th