2013 Oscars: Best Directing

Michael Haneke (Amour)
Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of a Southern Wild)
Ang Lee (Life of Pi)
Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

This is, by far, one of the most screwed up list of nominees in Oscars history, and frankly, the list just doesn’t hold up upon viewing. While I generally try to discuss the race in and of itself, you can’t talk about the five nominees without discussing the four notable snubs.

Left out are four significant names, all of which received a Best Picture nomination for this year’s Oscars: Ben Affleck (Argo), Tom Hooper (Les Miserables), Katheryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained).

The Director’s Race for the Oscars is often an indicator of which five movies the Oscars nominators feel are the best films of the year; it’s been a couple of decades since the Best Picture winner didn’t have a Best Director nomination. Based on this, it seems to me that Tarantino and Bigelow fell victim to the various controversies surrounding their films (Django for racism, ZDT for torture, both of which I think are non-issues personally – if you tell those stories, you can’t exclude those items).

Of course the biggest snub here is Ben Affleck. Affleck’s Argo was an incredibly taut, stylish and exciting thriller. Not only did Affleck tell a great story, but he also created a visual marvel that looked like it was right out of the 70’s. To do this, Affleck shot the movie on actual film, then cut out a bunch of the frames and doubled the size of each of the frames to increase the graininess.

Frankly, Affleck got snubbed for an Oscars nominaton because it wasn’t too long ago that he was in Actor jail. Usually it only takes a couple of high-profile but poorly received movies to kill a career; Affleck had five in a row (Daredevil, Gigli, Paycheck, Jersey Girl and Surviving Christmas). Combined with his tabloid relationship with Jennifer Lopez, Affleck became a nationwide joke and a box office pariah. Deciding to re-focus on his craft and not willing to accept anything he didn’t feel was quality going forward, he was reborn as a director with Gone Baby Gone. Now Affleck has delivered three successive quality films as a director and is even experiencing a resurgence as an actor (albeit in large part thanks to Affleck the director), but the stigma remains. This isn’t his problem; this is the voters. It’s time to get over it, folks.

Hooper is fast becoming one of my favorite directors. He previously won at the Oscars two years for The King’s Speech, where he work was actually inferior to what he did for the John Adams mini-series for HBO. His method of live singing for Les Mis was frankly visionary. If you don’t know a lot about musical production for film, usually the actors come in and sing in a studio months before their actual performance. This makes the singing portion feel very stayed and stifled.

Hooper changed all this. He decided to let each of the actors sing on set, so they could make acting choices as they sang. In order to keep time to the music, each of the actors had an earpiece where someone was playing the music live into their ear. The musicians adjusted their music to the pace of the singing of the actor, allowing the actor full freedom to interpret the music however they liked. Finally, when Hooper went back and recorded the music you heard in the movie with a 70 piece orchestra, that music was adjusted to what the actor had done; making the music feel so much more natural than previous versions.

Though the introduction to the movie was relatively jarring and poor, and the film was about 20 minutes too long, Hooper should have been recognized with a nomination at this year’s Oscars for his contribution to film and musicals going forward as much as for his achievement in this particular film.

Haneke and Zeitlin I think get pushed up a lot more than their work in the films deserve. Not to say that both directors didn’t do a fantastic job, far from it. But there’s always a film or two that receives hipster/artist cred; meaning that it becomes cool to say you like it because it’s small or artistic or foreign (and, of course, people like to say they heard of it BEFORE the nominations).

Amour and Beasts both qualify for this in this year’s Oscars race. Amour is a fine film, but nothing groundbreaking or outstanding frankly. The pacing was awful and Haneke felt the need to beat you over the head with his point then leave you feeling drained, depressed and empty with little real point other than “life sucks, and then you die”. Beasts is an interesting film, but has some tonal problems and, despite its short run time, feels longer than it is. Beasts is a better film than Amour for sure and Zeitlin is a first-class director, but the film needed to be tighter.

David O’ Russell did fine work, as always, in Silver Linings Playbook, and he gets raised up due to the overall quality of the film. However, this isn’t a film where the overall directing raises the bar for the film; here, writing and acting takes center stage. O’Russell’s nomination indicates one thing: SLP is a serious contender for the top prize. Otherwise, he likely doesn’t make the cut.

So, all that said, here’s my personal list of director nominees for this year’s Oscars: Affleck, Hooper, Spielberg, Bigelow and Lee. So this reduces the choices for Best Director to two, in my view.

Of the two (Spielberg & Lee), I think Lee should win. Nothing against Lincoln, but what Lee accomplished with Life of Pi was nothing short of astounding. He created a compelling film which was mostly special effects but felt legit and real (as much as a fantasy can, anyway). He did a fantastic job of using the narration and flashback techniques to add good pacing and a sense of urgency to an otherwise slow story.

However, I believe Spielberg is going to take home the prize. There’s little discussion of Life of Pi as Best Picture (as there seldom is when there isn’t an accompanying performance), so that hurts the film. And it’s hard to argue with Lincoln; Speilberg created an engaging and taut film which was actually more political thriller than biopic, but yet managed to give us enough flavor of Lincoln the man. It was too long (like most modern day Spielberg films), but still very well done.

The dark horse is O’Russell. Not that I’m criticizing him; I think he’s a fine director, but as I mentioned, that film is one where the writing and performances take center stage, especially with the great cast he had. As a director, it’s almost as necessary to stay out of the way in a film like SLP. But if SLP is going to win Best Picture, and I think it’s the favorite right now, there’s a better than 50/50 chance O’Russell takes home the statue for director as well. Additional factors here are that the Academy generally likes to snub Spielberg on Oscars night. He has a ton of Oscars nominations but only one win; his Saving Private Ryan famously losing to the far, far inferior Shakespeare in Love. While Lincoln is a terrific movie, it is also not Saving Private Ryan.

Who will win: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Who should win: Ang Lee, Life of Pi