Monday, February 10, 2014

A Closer Look at the Best Director Nominees

*Note: While I had previously publicized that I was covering all of the categories in a look at the Best Picture race, I have decided to dedicate posts to each of the main categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Acting, and Writing fields). I will be critiquing each nominee as well as ranking them in order of preference.

One of the more exciting things about this year's Oscar nominations is that there is uncertainty in the front runner. While speculation has it that American Hustle may be a potential upset, there is still Gravity and 12 Years a Slave proving to be roadblocks. Even The Wolf of Wall Street, despite controversy, is capable of thriving on its notoriety into some unforeseen glory. A lot of that has to do with the directors behind the camera. This year's selection is an impressive mix of fast-paced adrenaline to meditative slowness to stylistic nostalgia. Each of the five Best Director nominees have something unique to offer, and that may be the most exciting of all.

While I would like to share that 12 Years a Slave is going to be the dominant force, I am growing increasingly skeptical of those chances. Maybe it is an Oscar Buzz curse that selecting a front runner in early September will result in disappointment. Still, betting on the most artistic, poignant, visually impressive film of the bunch isn't an embarrassing stature to run on. As it stands, I am incredibly surprised that Gravity ended up becoming a cultural phenomenon that leaves many speculating on how its legacy will play out, specifically in the home video market. Will the vivacious blockbuster element really translate to a smaller screen?

There are a lot of questions on each of these film's legacy. 12 Years a Slave is definitely the one most likely to be culturally relevant, but was the direction memorable? Yes, the moments were intense and slowly drawn to discomfort, but that is what the story called for. Even American Hustle with its break neck editing and improvised sequences of hilarity are its strengths, but compared to its competitors, it feels like leftovers from the Silver Linings Playbook race of 2013. 

There's some expectations of who will win, but definitely not a definitive lock, especially with American Hustle's popularity keeping it close to the top of most people's consciousness. Here is a dissection of the five nominees in order of my preference as well as an actual analysis of what their chances are.

Alfonso Cuaron - Gravity

From the moment that the film starts, Alfonso Cuaron seemed to be the lead favorite. Even if you disliked Gravity, there is little doubt that the technical craft and brilliance kept a rather mundane story tightly wounded. The first two cuts of the film alone are integral to the story as well as pushing forward directorial style into unknown territory. One needs to not look further than the scene in which Sandra Bullock is spinning out of control. The camera zooms in on her, follows into the helmet and shows the chaos from her point of view only to zoom back out onto her figure. It is a technical achievement that has to be recognized. Cuaron has always been audacious and many are considering that this win could largely be due to compensation over Children of Men receiving little to no nominations (with far more impressive camera shots, mind you). Even with that considered, this isn't a terrible consolation prize. It is a new kind of blockbuster likely to influence a new directorial style and an exciting reinvention of cinema.

ODDS: If the Academy votes the same way that it has, Gravity is a lock for the win. Despite most of the anticipation last year being over Steven Spielberg's historical character study Lincoln, it went to Ang Lee for the visually amazing Life of Pi. While Gravity isn't quite as great as Lee's film, the technical element shows a progressive nature towards recognizing films with more technical merit mixed in with its artistic and dramatic statements.

Steve McQueen - 12 Years a Slave

Here is where the nominations become tricky. While there is plenty of definitive faith that 12 Years a Slave will continue its streak and win Best Picture, it is looking less likely that it will win much else. This includes Best Director. Despite it being a gorgeous, haunting, and empowering film, it isn't nearly as flashy or noticeably stylized like its competitors (save for Alexander Payne - Nebraska). It could win on historical significance, as the film is likely to hold up over time better than any other nominee, but keep in mind that the Academy Awards have shifted a little in recent years. With last year's Best Director winner not coinciding with the Best Picture winner (notably because director Ben Affleck wasn't nominated in the Best Director despite winning Best Picture). It has happened in the past where the top two don't line up, and this looks to be another one of those years. Steve McQueen's biggest threat remains Alfonso Cuaron and with the publicity angle reflecting McQueen as more of a modest person in the vein of "the film is the campaign" approach, he doesn't quite have the showmanship to compensate a win based on junkets and being a stand-up interview subject.

ODDS: They remain rather high, if only for the historical relevance factor that is likely to drive any and all of its wins. Still, it needs to make a persuasive case against Gravity in order to actually win the category.

David O. Russell - American Hustle

I have this crazy theory that sometime within the next 20 years, David O. Russell will win Best Director and Best Picture. It seems imminent as long as his career trajectory remains this prominent. With each of his past three films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) being critical darlings, he has somehow become the quintessential prestige director. While I do feel like his style is sometimes problematic, American Hustle overall is an enjoyably candid and fun film that hits all of the right marks. The only question really is that if this back-to-back praise is going to be the surprise adrenaline shot necessary to overpower the ceremony, or just be another impressive batch of nominees. His profile is only rising and despite not quite being as recognized as either Steve McQueen or Alfonso Cuaron, it does feel like he has the audience vote. It isn't nearly as technically impressive as his competitors, but with a film this enjoyable, it is important to not count out the most interesting dark horse in the category.

ODDS: Note likely due to its direction neither feeling as groundbreaking as Cuaron nor as relevant as McQueen. While it could win on overall appeal, it will be quite a controversial move and would only be done to recognize Russell for three back-to-back films that have dominated the Oscars (not to say that American Hustle is bad, but the Academy has been known to do that).

Martin Scorsese - The Wolf of Wall Street

He is the veteran filmmaker on this list and the only previous Best Director winner (Best Director - The Departed). His love for films alone is something so admirable that it is likely to make any of his films get him a nomination. Of course, The Wolf of Wall Street isn't a slouch either with the most popular consensus being that it is a three hour film that feels more like two. It is wild, obnoxious, provocative, and excessive beyond compare. This is likely why it is very controversial and also likely why it will lose. Scorsese remains as vibrant a filmmaker as ever, but in a year when American Hustle is being called "Scorsese-lite," it almost seems like he was nominated just to remind audiences of who he is. Despite grossing over $100 million in America alone, it is clouded too much with naysayers who misunderstand the film to really get any respect in most of the categories, save for Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

ODDS: As unlikely as the odds that he was even nominated. While I admire Scorsese and this is a well deserved nomination, the controversial factor is just too much for it to replace more universally accepted films as well as the far more technically impressive work by Alfonso Cuaron.

Alexander Payne - Nebraska

I LOVE Nebraska. Love, love, love it. However, when trying to speculate the chances of it actually doing so well at Oscar nominations is baffling. The film isn't all that flashy nor does it have any exceptionally impressive directorial flourishes. It is a humble film with impressive performances by Bruce Dern and June Squibb. I am aware that Alexander Payne has had nominations for films going back to Sideways, but even that feels like a stretch for this little film getting recognized in this particular category. My theory lies in the theory of the Oscar voters being predominantly older and white, which this film predominantly encumbrances. I would love to see this film win, but it would only cause it to be shrouded in bias and hatred via The King's Speech for the rest of its life, specifically as all four other competitors feel more universally important. I don't want that.  I am just fine with it getting nominated.

ODDS: Practically zero.

Who do you want to win the Best Director race? Is Steve McQueen or Alfonso Cuaron the front runner at this point? Is Martin Scorsese capable of pulling a surprise win despite having a highly controversial film?

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