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.
Steve McQueen—12 Years a Slave
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
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
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.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
Paul Greengrass—Captain Phillips
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
The Best of the Rest
Best Supporting Actress
The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song