Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Director

The last time this category was even moderately exciting was in 2004, when Clint Eastwood won for Million Dollar Baby and held off Martin Scorsese for The Aviator, followed by Eastwood gunning down Scorsese outside a rain-soaked saloon and gravely intoning, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it". Here's to some actual suspense for once.

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

Ben Affleck. Just kidding. Though really, he has as much of a chance as Zeitlin. (Frankly, I think that Academy members were so confused with the new online voting system this year that they attempted to nominate Zeitlin's score but accidentally clicked on the wrong link.) But the remaining four nominees are all legitimately in play here, making this the most intriguing Best Director race since, well, ever. It's possible that the Academy's elder contingent was moved by Haneke's graceful but startlingly frank examination of death in Amour, and if the top two contenders wind up splitting votes, he could feasibly steal the statuette. Still, no director has ever won here for a foreign language film, and while the Oscars' worldview has become impressively more global over the past few years, I still don't see that barrier coming down without an accompanying Best Picture push. Haneke does have slightly better odds than Russell, as I believe Silver Linings Playbook is receiving more attention for its splendid cast – even though I'm ultimately predicting that it will walk away from the Oscars empty-handed and perhaps go out drinking with Zero Dark Thirty afterward – than for Russell's dexterous tonal control.

In the end, this appears to be a showdown between two former Oscar-winners in Spielberg and Lee. Coincidentally, both have already accomplished the rare, somewhat ignominious feat of winning Best Director but having their film lose Best Picture (Brokeback Mountain for Lee, Saving Private Ryan for Spielberg, though Schindler's List of course won both), a feat the winner will almost certainly replicate again this year. In any event, the challenge in predicting this category is that the precursor awards are virtually no help at all, as Affleck cleaned up at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, and of course the Directors' Guild of America.

That means we need to turn to the movies themselves, and it's here that I think Spielberg pulls ahead by a hair. It's true that Lee's directing of the oceanic voyage in Life of Pi is more visible than the quiet chamber drama Spielberg navigates in Lincoln. But I'm not certain that Academy members evaluate this category from that perspective. Rather, I think they look to the film itself, specifically its importance. For example, the last instance of a Picture-Director split (ignoring Lee's own win for Brokeback Mountain, which was the heavy Best Picture favorite) was in 2002 when Roman Polanski won for The Pianist, his sober, serious exploration of the Holocaust. And Lincoln, for all its scruffy charm and crackling humor, is undoubtedly an Important Film, whereas Life of Pi is, well, a story about a boy and his tiger. That doesn't mean Lincoln is the better movie (although, at least in this blogger's view, it assuredly is), but it does mean that voters are more likely to recognize its director. Spielberg takes Oscar number three.

Benh Zeitlin brings a distinctive, new voice to Beasts of the Southern Wild, but his commitment to scrappy, messy atmosphere sacrifices narrative drive, and while Zeitlin's appreciation for local custom is laudable, his lack of urgency ultimately grows wearisome. But keep your eye on him – if he finds a project that allows him to better channel his efforts into story development, he could do great things (well, beyond directing a movie that earns four Oscar nominations in major categories).

Zeitlin is still a relatively unknown commodity, whereas at this point in Michael Haneke's career, you know what you're going to get: extraordinary formal rigor, excruciatingly long tracking shots, studious detachment, an aroma of curdled immorality. What's astonishing about Amour is that all of those elements remain in place but are rearranged into the context of a love story rather than Haneke's typical condemnation of human impulse. Yet Amour is still a bit grueling to watch, and while Haneke's ruthlessly unsympathetic approach helps underscore the icky ugliness of his characters' decrepitude, it certainly doesn't do the audience any favors. There's nothing inherently wrong with movies that are depressing or unpleasant, but Haneke's pitiless technique – particularly in holding shots and lingering over scenes far longer than necessary – betrays a punishing instinct that, for all its heartfelt emotion, Amour struggles to shake. It's undeniably impressive directing, but "impressive" doesn't always equate to "best".

There's little that's immediately impressive about David O. Russell's direction of Silver Linings Playbook, a sharply funny, often scary story of love and depression that unfortunately bears the dreaded "comedy/drama" label, as though it's somehow indecisive about the type of movie it wants to be. But Russell displays a deft hand with the camera as well as the pen, and it's easy to miss how smoothly he manipulates viewers into various states of feeling. The film's signature scene, in which Jennifer Lawrence boldly confronts Robert De Niro while a host of onlookers watch in fidgety fascination, is a masterstroke of subtle tone-shifting, and Russell initially stages it for high melodrama only to imperceptibly nudge it toward broad comedy, a transition that shepherds his audience from apprehension to giddy ecstasy. It's the sort of emotional directing that's wholly absent from Michael Haneke's pictures, but Russell's uncanny ability to fluidly slide between moods marks Silver Linings Playbook as earnest and sincere rather than obvious or sentimental.

Where Russell operates mostly in the background, Ang Lee's directorial flourishes in Life of Pi are right out in the open. But there's no element of showmanship in his craft; it's more that Life of Pi is structured such that it places its life – which is to say, its ability to persuade and move its audience – entirely in the hands of its maker. Mechanically speaking, the movie's breathtaking central passage involves merely a single actor, some stunning effects work, and Lee's own vision of a young man's battle against an ocean. And Lee executes that vision flawlessly, focusing on the practical problems that plague his hero but also taking the time to bask in the stark, merciless beauty of nature itself. In fact, there's a riveting quality to these scenes that, paradoxically, makes the remainder of Life of Pi feel woefully ordinary. But Lee should nevertheless be commended for both his bravura technique and his overall audacity. In the end, Life of Pi is a film about spiritual ascendance, and while it might not reach the heights it strives for, its creator elevates it as best he can.

If Life of Pi is bold to the point of being operatic, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is intimate and even small-scale. Spielberg recently stated that it's the quietest directing he's ever done, and indeed the film lacks the grandiosity (not to mention the dinosaurs and aliens) that characterizes many of the Beard's more bombastic pictures. As fraught with importance as Lincoln's subject matter may be, the movie itself involves little more than people talking, but it's telling that as Lincoln steadily gathers steam, its meticulously staged conversations become charged with an aura of monumental consequence. In a sense, Spielberg is making a sports movie, only the big game's outcome – which he choreographs with lithe, supple camera movements and minimal fuss – is destined to shape the course of American history. It's a brilliant, hard-won achievement that's all the more impressive for appearing to have been made with such ease.

In the end, though, I'll go with Lee, thanks to my old friend VORP. Few directors other than Spielberg could have fashioned Lincoln into such a compelling and invaluable historical document, not to mention a funny and engaging dialectic, but at least they would have been armed with Tony Kushner's wily script and Daniel Day-Lewis' immense talent. For Life of Pi, Lee was essentially on his own, and he turned a potentially mundane adventure tale into something both invigorating and poetic.

Wes Anderson – Moonrise Kingdom
Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty
Rian Johnson – Looper
Christopher Nolan – The Dark Knight Rises
Joe Wright – Anna Karenina

Anderson brings his usual, unparalleled fastidiousness to the universe of Moonrise Kingdom, but for once he invests equal effort in developing his characters as he charts the course of their stirring union. Bigelow takes a contentious topic and transforms it into a vital, exhilarating thriller through pure craft. Johnson matches the lofty ambition of his ideas with bracing technique and sharply channeled energy. Nolan, with his electric pacing and disdainful dismissal of genre conventions, takes a so-called superhero movie and turns it into something transcendent. Wright transcends the cinematic form altogether.

My ideal winner: Joe Wright – Anna Karenina.

Also deserving: Sam Mendes – Skyfall (for proving that formal clarity and artistic ambition aren't antithetical to blockbuster entertainment); Gerardo Naranjo – Miss Bala (for observing his heroine's terrifying travails with masterful restraint); Josh Trank – Chronicle (for injecting fresh life into the found-footage formula).

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