2017 Oscars: Directing

So it’s that time again – when I blow up your social media feeds with a flurry of Oscar posts that talk about films that most of you haven’t heard of. I’ll do this right up until Oscar night, then take the entire month of March off because, let’s face it, after 350 blog posts over the years, it’s hard for even me to come up with a well-thought out opinion 52 times a year (however, half-baked ones are in long supply).

I wanted to save this for later, but as I’m still finishing up some of the other large categories, today we’re going to talk (write?) about Best Director.

ARRIVAL – Denis Villeneuve
LA LA LAND – Damien Chazelle
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – Kenneth Lonergan
MOONLIGHT – Barry Jenkins

Who will win: Damien Chazelle
Who could win: Barry Jenkins
Who should win: Kenneth Lonergan
Who should be here: Denzel Washington, Fences

Best Director is is very often seen as a pairing with Best Picture – many years they go the same way, and when they don’t, it’s often seen as a “split”, where the Academy voters couldn’t decide which Picture they wanted to win, so they voted for a different director. Of the 89 films that have been awarded Best Picture, 63 have also been awarded Best Director. About a quarter of the time, however, in Academy history, the Best Picture and Best Director winners have been for different films.

2017 will also be the first year since 2014 that the winner of the Best Director statue isn’t named Alejandro Iñárritu who, like his friend Emmanuel Lubezki over in Cinematography, didn’t have a film come out in 2016. So the winner of this year’s Best Directing Oscar will be a first-time winner. (Mel Gibson, who won in 1996 for Braveheart, is widely considered as lucky to be in the running given his litany of scandals over the last decade, and this is the first stop in rehabilitating his image).

Damien Chazelle is the most likely to take home the gold this year for La La Land. Chazelle managed the somewhat surprising feat of both bringing back the 1940s major Hollywood musicals and somehow making it not only palatable and story-driven to keep non-musical people like me interested. Frankly, I thought Chazelle should have been nominated for 2014’s criminally underrated Whiplash, but Hollywood’s wunderkind more than makes up for his slight this year.

The guy (and they’re all guys this year – again) most likely to take Chazelle down is Barry Jenkins, whose visceral and gritty Moonlight is making a late run in a variety of categories. Despite this, I still say Kenneth Lonergan is the guy in 2017. Lonergan took a movie that should be near impossible to film – lots of talking, none of it about what’s actually happening, a massive amount of internal struggle, guilt and depression – and somehow made it compelling despite its 2 1/2+ hour run-time. That’s special directing and award-worthy. Denis Villeneuve, who really needs to make more movies, did the same for Arrival – giving us one of the first significant actual sci-fi films in years.

If I were going to add anyone to the list, it’d be Denzel Washington, who delivered a tightly-wound powerful adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. It’s kind of hard to separate Washington’s contributions of actor and director though, and that’s probably why he fell down the list a little bit.