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Oscars: Is The Best Director Competition More Than A Two-Horse Race?

by Oliver Lyttelton
October 30, 2013 2:53 PM
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Oscars Director 2013

If this year's Best Picture race is tough (and it is, even with films like "Foxcatcher" and "Monuments Men" pushed into 2014), it's nothing compared to the fight that's brewing in Best Director. The category has evolved somewhat since the Best Picture field expanded to ten films. Before that change, the line-up tended to mirror the five Best Picture nominees, with the occasional exception, usually for an arthouse Euro-auteur like Mike Leigh (for "Vera Drake" in 2005) or Julian Schnabel (for "Diving Bell & The Butterfly" in 2008). And it's still true that the directing nominees are mostly drawn from the Best Picture nominees, but with more opportunity for a film to get recognized in the bigger category, it does seem to have enabled the directors' branch to be more idiosyncratic in their choices.

Logic would suggest that with five directing nominations, it would be a reflection of the five films most likely to be nominated for Best Picture, but that's not really how it's shaken out: there was little-to-no chance of "The Tree Of Life," "Amour" or "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" actually taking the top award, but it didn't stop Terrence Malick, Michael Haneke or Benh Zeitlin all picking up nominations in recent years. Meanwhile, last year saw "Argo" become the first film since "Driving Miss Daisy" to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination (one could argue that the film's win was partly attributable to the upset over the snub for Ben Affleck). So how's the competition looking this year?

Richard Linklater

Even given the relative unpredictability in the category in recent years, one can probably rule out the likes of Richard Linklater, Ryan Coogler, Jason Reitman, Abdellatif Kechiche and Jeff Nichols, whose films don't quite have the Best Picture traction of some of their competitors, and are unlikely to be nominees. Other films are more on the border at the moment: the likes of "Prisoners," "Rush," "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" and "The Book Thief" looked like strong possibilities at one point, but have rather fallen over time. Outside of a groundswell of love or acclaim, it's unlikely that Denis Villeneuve, Ron Howard, Ben Stiller or Brian Percival will figure in this year. There's also a couple of directors, such as Peter Berg and Scott Cooper, whose films are yet to be seen, though both will be unveiled at AFI Fest in the next couple of weeks.

With most of those directors ruled out, we're left with a field of about fifteen viable contenders. Especially with the last few auteur-happy years, there's a certain kind of film that, while it might be awards-friendly, doesn't necessarily get attention for the filmmaker unless it's a real frontrunner (something like "The King's Speech" isn't a director's movie in the traditional sense, but if voters love it enough, the filmmaker will get a nomination, and even win, as did Tom Hooper). So, while "Dallas Buyers Club," "August: Osage County," "Philomena," "Lee Daniels' The Butler"  might yet be Best Picture nominees, it's hard to see Jean-Marc Vallee, John Wells, Stephen Frears and Lee Daniels getting nods in January, despite the latter two being prior nominees (for "The Grifters," "The Queen" and "Precious," respectively).

Woody Allen

John Lee Hancock is somewhat in the same boat for "Saving Mr. Banks," which is a surefire nominee, but not a particularly showy film. But it's not inconceivable that, if the voters really take to the film, he could end up in the final five. Meanwhile, Alexander Payne has two Oscars (both for writing), and two nominations for directing, but "Nebraska" doesn't quite have the same momentum that "The Descendants" did, so we suspect he'll miss out this time around. Similarly, Woody Allen is a favorite, and picked up a nod only two years ago for "Midnight In Paris," but with "Blue Jasmine" on the bubble as a Best Picture nominee, and showier competition around, he'll likely have to take another screenplay nod as a consolation (not that he cares, obviously).

At this point, we're left with a field of eight strong possibilities, most of whom are veterans with at least one nomination, and in the case of Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers, previous winners. The biggest neophyte of the group, even though he won a screenplay nod for his debut "Margin Call," is J.C. Chandor, whose "All Is Lost" is only his second film. Most of the attention on the film in advance has focused on Robert Redford's performance, and the actor will be a nominee whatever happens, but Chandor's achievement is just as impressive; he really demonstrates himself to be a first-rank filmmaker with an incredibly powerful piece of visual storytelling, and would be a worthy nominee (he's certainly be in our ballot at this point). But with the film underperforming at the box office, he has a harder road to walk, and his status as a relative unknown in a field of near-legends may see him missing out.

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  • bob hawk | November 1, 2013 3:11 AMReply

    How can you say that Alexander Payne's NEBRASKA "has not quite gained the momentum" when it hasn't even opened yet? And any talk about films not yet finished is unreliable conjecture -- mutterings from the editing room by a severely limited number of anonymous people.

  • Des Brown | October 31, 2013 11:32 AMReply

    What's unusual about this Oscar race is that it's late October and we've already seen all but two of the major contenders (AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET remain sight unseen). Some have been shunted to 2014 (FOXCATCHER, THE MONUMENTS MEN) and some have had a disappointing reception (THE FIFTH ESTATE, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY) and dropped out of the race.
    In the end it looks like Best Picture will be a three horse race between GRAVITY, 12 YEARS A SLAVE and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. McQueen the is the early favourite for Best Director. If he were to win, it would be a landmark moment for both the Academy and British filmmaking. but in recent years the Academy have made some odd omissions: no Christopher Nolan for INCEPTION in 2010; no Ben Affleck for ARGO, so the race is far from decided.

  • Joe Realism | November 13, 2013 4:11 PM

    Des Brown, I'm happy you enjoyed "12 Years A Slave"; it's a fine film and I appreciate your optimism, but to call McQueen the front runner (outside of your own opinion) shows astonishing ignorance re: How Things Happen in Hollywood. Your enthusiasm is admirable, however.

  • CraigK | October 30, 2013 3:03 PMReply

    Let's be honest, though. If Russell wins, it will be for SLP, as Hustle is a mess.

  • CraigY2K | October 30, 2013 3:14 PM

    That's a joke. It's not a mess. Trust.

  • Andrew | October 30, 2013 3:00 PMReply

    and when you mean "Silver Linings Playbook" I'm assuming you mean "American Hustle"

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