2014 Oscar Race: Best Director

It’s February, and that means its Oscar time around this blog. This is the seventh of nine blog pieces set to roll out between now and the Oscars on Sunday, March 2, all of which will be breaking down (what I consider) the eight major races – Picture, Director, both writing and all four acting categories.

Like with most things on this blog, this will be a mix of fact, popular opinion and my opinion – the three of which don’t often intersect. Then I’ll post my Oscar scorecard right before the show as best I can – I’ve seen each of the films in the eight categories I’m covering, but not across the board.

On to today’s posting: Best Director.

The Nominees
Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Who Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Who Could Win: David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Who Should Win: Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Who Should Be Here: Spike Jonze (Her)

I had a very difficult time filling in that last one “Who Should Be Here”. There’s a lot more great films than there were Best Director slots. I could have made a good argument for J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost), whose direction and obvious working chemistry with Robert Redford made a single-man survival movie with maybe 50 words fully engaging and compelling. One could argue for Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) whose deft handling of his story ratcheted up the tension with each passing scene to the inevitable tragedy. Also, Richard Linklater (Before Midnight) who patented the Walk and Talk long before The West Wing hit the airways, and continued to show himself as the master of the technique in perhaps the best overall film of the year.

But I chose Spike Jonze for “Her”. If you don’t know the story, lead character Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a sentient operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The challenge of directing their interaction is huge, because they literally HAVE no interaction. Jonze moved the film at a slow pace, allowing us time to buy into Samantha (the OS), even at times forgetting that she wasn’t in the room. The choices he made; the colors, the music, even Phoenix’s subtle change in clothing as his character progressed – it was almost perfect.

While it’s easy for me to argue Jonze’s inclusion, it’s much harder for me to pick someone to leave off the list. If I were forced to rank them, I’d probably leave off Russell (American Hustle), but that’s really just a personal preference. I didn’t respond to his film as much as I did the other four, but it’s still high quality and he still deserves the nomination – if for no other reason than he directed some of the finest film performances in recent memory. None of this to say that Russell isn’t in the race – he very much is. But he likely only wins in two circumstances. (1) American Hustle sweeps the awards and the momentum pushes him over the top or (2) The spread-the-wealth theory I’ve been pushing pervades, but in a completely different way than I (and a lot of others) are expecting.

Unlike Russell, Alexander Payne’s (Nebraska) nomination is the real award for him; it would be a huge upset for him to take home the Oscar and many thought he wouldn’t make the cut. This, despite delivering his most subtle an nuanced film yet (one which I gave four stars). Usually when you see a black and white film at an independent movie theater (or an “art house”), you’d expect something a bit pretentious whose decisions were made more on artistic vision than trying to enhance the story. But not in this case; Nebraska’s black and white shots were almost of a practical nature. Payne was trying to convey the starkness, emptiness and coldness of small-town Nebraska – and the black and white shots do that so much more than even faded color would have. Not to mention the performances he drew from leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, as well as June Squibb – two of whom received Oscar nominations as well.

In reality, the race is really between Cuarón and McQueen, with McQueen needing to overcome a great distance with little time to go. Cuarón is a director I’ve been waiting to break out since watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (not Y Tu Mama Tambien, which I saw much later, but a lot of hipsters would tell you they saw first. They are lying to you). In the days of quick cuts, Cuarón goes the other way, moving the camera and constantly adding all sorts of visuals in the background to give you a kinetic energy that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Pre-Gravity, I always think back to the scene where Harry was riding the Knight Bus, which you can watch below. See how he is constantly moving the camera and shifting perspective? I knew Gravity would be special in its opening scene, when George Clooney was flying circles around Sandra Bullock in space – not only was it visually terrific, but it said so much about their characters at the time.

Cuarón has swept through many of the preseason awards, leaving McQueen far behind. This isn’t to say anything of McQueen’s work which, as I’ve mentioned, will go down in the Hollywood lexicon as the defining film of the slave experience in America. McQueen hit every note exactly as he needed to: brutal when he needed to be and introspective when it was called for. In most years he wins, but unfortunately this isn’t likely to be his year as Best Director.