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The Early Gems: Notable Films From 2013's Best Director Nominees

Awards
by Oliver Lyttelton
February 15, 2013 1:08 PM
9 Comments
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Over the last couple of days, as part of our build up to the 85th Academy Awards on Sunday, February 24th, we've been highlighting some of the best and most undersung performances by the Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress nominees this year. Everything from Christoph Waltz's appearance in a 1990s British comedy about the European Commission, to Anne Hathaway's turn as a promiscuous would-be gangbanger in "Havoc."

To send you into the long weekend, we're gonna take a break from the on-screen talent momentarily and focus on the early work of the 2013 nominated directors. The five nominees (particularly controversial, thanks to the exclusion of Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow) are a mixed batch – from one of the most beloved (and most nominated) directors in history to a 70-year-old European veteran with his first nod to a debut filmmaker less than half their age. But all have something in common: they showed promise at the beginning of their careers with films that we've highlighted below. Let us know your own thoughts, and who you think will win out in one of the toughest Oscar categories this year.

Steven Spielberg - "The Sugarland Express" (1974)
While Steven Spielberg's first full feature "Duel" (made for TV, but released in cinemas in Europe and elsewhere) is perhaps better known and more typical of the director's future output, the real gem of the director's pre-"Jaws" years is his first theatrical feature proper, "The Sugarland Express." The director's smart, sweet, human take on films like "Badlands" and "Bonnie & Clyde," which won Best Screenplay at Cannes in 1974, toplines Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean Poplin, who breaks her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of the joint in order to get their child back from his foster parents, taking a state trooper (Michael Sacks) hostage in the process. They head out on the run in a caravan, with the law (led by Ben Johnson) in hot pursuit. Blending a slightly caperish feel (the couple become local celebrities, mobbed by fans) with a more serious, tragic tone that Spielberg wouldn't return to for over a decade, it's a supremely confident film, but more impressive than the crash zooms and tricksy camera moves is the way he juggles tone. By the time the film reaches its downbeat conclusion, it's as affecting as anything the director would ever go on to make. And while, famously, no actor has ever won an Oscar for a Spielberg film (a streak likely to be broken in 2013 by "Lincoln"), he's always been a good director of actors, demonstrated here by one of Hawn's best performances, and a lovely supporting turn by Johnson. It's arguably the most undervalued picture in the filmmaker's canon.

"Sense and Sensibility"
Ang Lee - "Sense & Sensibility" (1995)
Spielberg's career might have gotten off to a stellar start, but there's one filmmaker nominated this year who had an even more meteoric rise early on, with two Foreign Language Oscar nominations for his first three films, and his first English-language film earning seven nods in total (though he himself missed out). And yet "Sense & Sensibility" remains curiously underrated on Ang Lee's resume. On first glance, the Taiwan-born filmmaker was far from the obvious choice to direct an adaptation of the Jane Austen period classic, which had been adapted by Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson. Indeed, Lee had never heard of Austen, and later said, "I thought they were crazy... what do I know about 19th century England?" But it's easy to see what Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran saw in Lee off the back of his previous films, and the gamble paid off as "Sense & Sensibility" is one of the best cinematic Austen adaptations ever made, with Lee's sense of manners and family life, as well as his warmth and humor, shining through. The plot might be staple Austen fare, but Thompson's screenplay is exceptional, and arguably funnier than the source material. And in Lee's hands, it never feels stuffy or dusty. The director brings out the heartbreak, thanks to an exceptional cast, featuring Thompson, Kate Winslet (in her first role after breaking out in "Heavenly Creatures"), Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Gemma Jones, Harriet Walter, Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton. Almost single-handedly reviving interest in Austen (it was the first English-language film based on the writer's work for half a century), it doesn't exactly reinvent the medium, but it's hard to imagine a better take on the novel than what the director comes up with here.

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9 Comments

  • Ted | February 18, 2013 9:27 PMReply

    David O.Russell's Silver Linings Playbook is outstanding and Jennifer Lawrence shows a pretty strong good performance but that's no surprise she is a good actress

  • Jimbo | February 16, 2013 2:41 AMReply

    Code Unknown is such a good film about communication or lack of it: bookended perfectly by scenes of deaf children playing charades. What's more - and surprisingly few people have noticed this - it's connected to many of Haneke's other great films in that the two lead characters (one played by Binoche) are called Georges and Anne Laurent. Fast forward to Funny Games and the two lead characters are called Georges and Anne Laurent, then in Hidden they're called Georges and Anne Laurent again and in Amour they're called... yes... Georges and Anne Laurent. The films may not be about the exact same two people, but they are essentially about the same kind of people.

  • DG | February 15, 2013 6:22 PMReply

    It probably doesn't count as early Haneke but would have liked to see The Piano Teacher on here as it is my favorite movie of his and the one I wish had the same amount of renown as Funny Games

  • DG | February 15, 2013 6:20 PMReply

    It probably doesn't count as early Haneke but would have liked to see The Piano Teacher on here as it is my favorite movie of his and the one I wish had the same amount of renown as Funny Games

  • yer | February 15, 2013 2:47 PMReply

    Code Unknown is pretty bad. It's just as blatantly obtuse with it's message as Crash. IMO you should have included something like The Seventh Continent .

  • yod | February 17, 2013 9:43 PM

    its not it's.

  • sp | February 15, 2013 2:35 PMReply

    I still feel Flirting With Disaster and The Three Kings are David O.Russell's best films. Silver Linings Playbook is highly overrated ( especially Jennifer Lawrence's weak performance) . Ang Lee has such a vast range, and he is the most brilliant director on this list. Their is nothing he cannot do. I adore Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman. That movie should have been listed ; instead of , Sense And Sensibility, because that was the first film that revealed some of his genius.

  • Yod | February 17, 2013 9:44 PM

    there not their.

  • Superzoom | February 15, 2013 6:20 PM

    I too adore "Eat Drink." It's a master class in creating great drama without the directorial tricks that make other directors seem pretentious. No fancy camera work, no flashy editing or temporal play, no cheesy actor improv... Just great story telling and great acting performances. There is more heart in one scene directed by Ang Lee than some entire movies.

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