Sunday, March 2, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Director (where Alfonso Cuarón can breathe easy)

It's curious that, in a year that features the most compelling Best Picture race in nearly a decade, this category is virtually sewn up. So it goes in a strange, exciting year at the Oscars.

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

You know the rule: The victor here is usually the director of the ultimate winner for Best Picture. Well, except for last year, when Ben Affleck wasn't even nominated for Argo. Or in 2005, when Ang Lee won for Brokeback Mountain, only to see his film inexplicably lose to Crash. Or in 2002, when Roman Polanski won for The Pianist despite not having set foot in the country since the 1970s. Or in 2000, when Steven Soderbergh won before Traffic fell to Gladiator. Or in 1998, when Steven Spielberg scooped up his second Best Director trophy, then watched in horror as Shakespeare in Love pipped Saving Private Ryan.

O.K., you get the point: The synergy between the winners of Best Picture and Best Director is significant, but it isn't sacrosanct. And this year, we could be looking at another split, because although 12 Years a Slave appears to have a slight edge for the top prize (though that's no sure thing—more on that in my next post), Alfonso Cuarón is the overwhelming favorite here. He triumphed at the BAFTAs, the DGA, and the Golden Globes; the only two filmmakers to pull off that triple feat and fail to win the Oscar are Ang Lee in 2000 (for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the aforementioned un-nominated Affleck last year. More importantly, whereas the four nominated films in this category are ensemble efforts that spread the credit around, Gravity is undeniably the work of an auteur at the height of his powers. That's the kind of movie that wins Best Director.

If I were contractually obligated to back a challenger, I'd probably go with either McQueen (in the event that 12 Years a Slave dominates the night) or Russell (who's becoming something of a mainstay in this category). Thankfully, I am not so contractually obligated. Cuarón takes his first, well-deserved Oscar.

This is a somewhat amorphous category in that there's no real consensus about what "Best Director" really means. That's one of the reasons there's such strong historical overlap with Best Picture: When in doubt, voters just pick their favorite movie. For my part, I tend to ask two questions. First, to what extent is the nominated film a byproduct of directorial vision? Second, how successful is the director in executing and articulating that vision?

Evaluating the nominees by that standard, Alexander Payne is the only one who doesn't really belong. Nebraska is a fine film, and it shares a kinship with some of Payne's earlier pictures, particularly About Schmidt. But there's no strong sense of authorship here, no distinctive flair or personal signature. Again, that doesn't make Nebraska a bad movie—it's a sharply observed tale of family loyalty and dysfunction. But its success derives as much from its sensitive performances and well-constructed screenplay as from Payne's overall command.

The remaining nominated films are all indubitably the work of forceful personalities, for better or worse (mostly better). Martin Scorsese has never done anything halfheartedly, and The Wolf of Wall Street is arguably the apotheosis of his lifelong commitment to chronicling American greed. Ironically, it's this steadfast devotion to excess—and outright disdain for moderation—that holds him back from greatness, not because he inappropriately glorifies his protagonist's unconscionable behavior (if anything, he condemns it), but because The Wolf of Wall Street is far too bloated and self-indulgent to be a truly great movie. But it is a greatly entertaining one, and it's gratifying to confirm that as this legendary director enters his seventies, he has lost none of his moviemaking verve.

David O. Russell isn't ashamed to honor (or rip off?) Scorsese in American Hustle, most notably in the movie's opening passages, which use voiceover to trace the narrative development of three different characters. But despite the two films' structural similarities, their makers pay tribute to different gods. Where Scorsese worships at the altar of controlled excess, Russell is an avowed believer in chaos. American Hustle, like Silver Linings Playbook before it, is unashamedly freewheeling and frenzied, and to wander down its rabbit hole is an experience both bracing and exhausting. But this should not suggest that Russell is undisciplined. On the contrary, he maintains just the right measure of control over his proceedings, and the result is a movie that feels liberated and committed to artistic freedom but never spills into outright anarchy. It's a breathtaking and daring gambit, and that American Hustle succeeds as thoroughly as it does is testament to Russell's continuing confidence as a filmmaker.

There is nothing so unruly or exciting about 12 Years a Slave, an exacting, merciless depiction of a dark period in American history whose arrival feels long overdue. What is exciting is that Steve McQueen surprisingly proved to be the perfect man for the job. I wasn't a huge supporter of McQueen's first two features, Hunger and Shame, primarily because his ruthless, dispassionate approach to filmmaking resulted in a callous disregard for his characters. He applies the same formal rigor to 12 Years a Slave, but this time his unforgiving style feels deeply compassionate as well as intellectually scrupulous. Slavery is such an emotionally heated and combustible subject for a movie that to sensationalize it would feel tawdry and manipulative. McQueen wisely takes the opposite tack—he simply lets the horrors speak for themselves, observing them with an anthropological detachment that, paradoxically, seems like a form of kindness. It's a marvel that such an unrelenting display of cruelty can feel so humane.

But McQueen is still just playing for second. In my earlier breakdown of Gravity's Oscar chances in various technical categories, I suggested that even those viewers who take issue with the movie's storytelling and dialogue seem to acknowledge that it's a phenomenal piece of actual filmmaking. That's because they aren't willfully blind. Gravity is just a 90-minute movie about a couple of astronauts who get lost in space, but it's also something much more than that. From its ravishing opening shot—in which a spacecraft slowly orbits into our view while the camera glides and dances around it—the film forces us to expand our preconceived notions of cinematic possibility. It seems implausible that a movie like this even exists, yet here it is, in all its big-budget, high-concept glory. Virtually every frame is rendered with exquisite, painstaking care, and that nurturing attention to detail, combined with its director's staggering ambition and revolutionary technique, transforms something as mundane as a movie into visual poetry. Watching Gravity made me feel slack-jawed, the kind of unique awe that only watching moving pictures on a screen can produce. Alfonso Cuarón, more than anyone else, is to thank for that experience. Giving him an Oscar seems a rather trivial way to celebrate such a monumental accomplishment, but it's the best we can do.

Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity
Paul Greengrass—Captain Phillips
Spike Jonze—Her
Steve McQueen—12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell—American Hustle

Three of my five ideal selections landed on this year's Oscar ballot, which is a rare but welcome occurrence. Greengrass ratchets up the tension in Captain Phillips early on, then sustains it through sharp cross-cutting and a restless (but not overly shaky) camera. Jonze brings just the right melancholic touch to Her, a soaring love story that is nevertheless beautifully, sadly grounded in reality.

My ideal winner: Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity.

Also deserving: Joel and Ethan Coen—Inside Llewyn Davis (for turning one musician's bad week into a moving commentary on human failure); Abdellatif Kechiche—Blue Is the Warmest Color (for bottling heartbreak); Park Chan-wook—Stoker (for infusing his pulp narrative with magnificent craft); James Ponsoldt—The Spectacular Now (for observing his characters' foibles with both compassion and discipline); Denis Villeneuve—Prisoners (for not holding back); Edgar Wright—The World's End (for puncturing his bawdy humor with sly insight and dark pathos).

Previous Oscar Analysis
Best Actor
Best Actress
The Best of the Rest
Best Supporting Actress
The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

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