Oscar Talk (VIII): The Best Director Race is Tightening

Throughout the history of the Academy Awards, usually the winner of Best Director has directed the Best Picture. Does it not make sense, that the best directed film be the best film of the year? It does to me. Yet there have been years, jaw dropping moments when the Best Director and Best Picture do not line up one of the most recent and still shocking was Shakespeare in Love (1998) being Best Film, while Steven Spielberg won Best Director for Saving Private Ryan (1998). How that magnificent war epic, deemed by the Academy the best directed, shot, edited and sounding film lost Best Film remains a stunner to the entire film generation, yet it happened.

It still happens.

Since 1970, eleven times the Best Director winner has not won Best Picture, and quite frankly it could happen again this year. Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) won eight Academy Awards including Best Director, meaning Francis Ford Coppola, the DGA winner directed the year’s Best Film, The Godfather (1972) without a Best Director Oscar. Nine years later Warren Beatty (Reds) directed the year’s Best Film, won the Best Director Oscar and then lost Best Picture to Chariots of Fire (1981). Oliver Stone won Best Director for Born on the Fourth of July (1989) but Best Picture went to Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Since 2000 it has happened seven times, seven times the Best Picture was not directed by the Best Picture winner. Just last year Alejandro Inarritu won his second consecutive Best Director award but then saw his film The Revenant (2015) lose Best Film to Spotlight (2015).

This year the major contenders are at this writing Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester By the Sea), Martin Scorsese (Silence), Denzel Washington (Fences), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), David MacKenzie (Hell or High Water), Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), Warren Beatty (Rules Don’t Apply), Pablo Larrain (Jackie), Denis Villenueve (Arrival), Clint Eaastwood (Sully), and Ben Affleck (Live By Night). Of that group, barring last minute surprises, five men will be nominated for Best Director. Four of them are previous Best Director winners, one is a Best Picture winner without a Best Director Oscar, and one is a two time acting winner.

Damien Chazelle must be considered the frontrunner at this time for his magical, energetic, and enchanting ‘La La Land’, a breathtaking new musical that begins with a startling opening that hurtles the audience into a wild ride that never lets up. The film has earned ovations at film festivals around the globe and those who have seen the film float out of the film on a cloud of bliss. Chazelle’s toughest competition will come from Kenneth Lonergan for his heartbreaking Manchester By the Sea, one of the most emotional and deeply felt films I have ever experienced. Lonergan guides Casey Affleck in one of the greatest performances of recent times, and gives us a film as realistic and powerful as anything I have ever seen. The ache in the film is at its core, and never depressing, one of the most devastating experiences I have ever had in a theatre.

The veteran in the mix — the most respected one, at least — is Martin Scorsese, nominated for Best Director for five of his last six films. He should have won years before, finally did for The Departed (2006) and should have taken it again for The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The Academy loves him, the DGA adore him, the actors revere him, he is the most beloved director on the planet. Why should he not win again? Now in his seventies, this passion project was a film he wanted to make for 28 years and he finally played hardball and stated he would not make another film until this was made. That the studio, Paramount, agreed with him and lined up to make the film is a huge bonus for him.

We are aware the Academy loves it when actors direct and make a good film. Robert Redford (Ordinary People), Warren Beatty (Reds), Richard Attenborough (Gandhi), Mel Gibson (Braveheart), and Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) are proof of that. There is a deep love for Ben Affleck in Hollywood that has not made it to the Academy and Best Director category yet, being snubbed for Argo (2012) which won Best Picture. Affleck is in the mix this year again for ‘Live By Night’, a noir that is generating excitement. Denzel Washington a two time acting winner has directed ‘Fences’, the long awaited adaptation of the August Wilson play that is earning rave reviews for the performances of Washington and Viola Davis, which could spell success for Washington as a director.

‘Moonlight’ has earned strong reviews, and if it does well with the critics awards (which it very well could) Barry Jenkins could land him in the race, though he is a long shot at best.

Pablo Larrain is coming on strong with ‘Jackie’, though I think the nominations for that film will focus around Natalie Portman’s exquisite performance, and less about his direction, though it is sublime. There is great support for ‘Hell or High Water’, and it is directed superbly by David MacKenzie, who could surprise everyone with a nomination.

Two veterans, two time Best Director winner Clint Eastwood is a possibility for ‘Sully’, and Oscar winner Warren Beatty cannot be counted out for ‘Rules Don’t Apply’, his long gestating Howard Hughes project.

I came out of TIFF thinking Quebec born Denis Villenueve was a shoo-in for Arrival, which I loved, but the film has confounded audiences with its depth, and the reviews have been strong, but not the raves I expected. He might deserve to be there but I am not sure he will be, not any more.

And finally Mel Gibson, will he be welcomed back into the fold as a Best Director nominee? If he is forgiven in every way, maybe, if his film is well enough liked, maybe. Gibson won for Braveheart (1995) but has made two better films since, The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) and was snubbed for both of them. A great deal depends on whether or nor people have truly forgiven Gibson.

The final five I think will be:

  • Damien Chazelle, ‘La La Land’
  • Kenneth Lonergan, ‘Manchester by the Sea’
  • Martin Scorsese, ‘Silence’
  • Denzel Washington, ‘Fences’
  • David MacKenzie, ‘Hell or High Water’

But hey, it is still early!

Read More: Oscar 2017 Predictions