OSCAR: Best Director Race May Surprise

At the last Academy Awards, Barbra Streisand ripped open the envelope and revealed that Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman ever to win Best Director. No such groundbreaking moment is expected this year, but the category could offer up several surprises. With a wide open Oscar race, there’s probably a split in the offing between Picture and Director, two categories which traditionally pair up three-quarters of the time. But not always. Voters in the earliest Oscars didn’t believe strongly in a correlation between the Best Picture of the year and the person directing from behind the camera. Since then, there have been scattered years where that aberration occurred (such as for Hamlet, All the King’s Men, An American in Paris, and The Greatest Show on Earth). For Driving Miss Daisy, its director Bruce Beresford wasn’t even nominated. Going by recent history, the split has happened fairly frequently, culminating when Ang Lee took Best Director for Brokeback Mountain but Crash proved an upset Best Picture winner. Will another director be left at Oscar’s altar this year? Will The King’s Speech or The Fighter triumph, while David Fincher for The Social Network or Christopher Nolan for Inception wears the directing crown? An early signal will be the Directors Guild of America choice on January 29th. That group has a strong track record predicting the Director Oscar. Only six times since the DGA awards began in 1948 has the Guild and Academy not aligned. Here’s the alphabetical lineup of likely contenders and their chances this year:

BEN AFFLECK, The Town (Warner Bros.) – This Best Original Screenplay co-winner earned impressive notices for his first directing gig, Gone Baby Gone, and this year’s box office success, The Town, which he also co-wrote and stars in. He has won strong industry respect for his work behind the camera, but is a long shot to make the magic five. However, it looks like he’s becoming the new Clint, and that could eventually lead to his second Oscar — as a director.

DARREN ARONOFSKY, Black Swan (Fox Searchlight) – His intense indie films pull no punches. Now his dark and twisted Black Swan has dazzled the autumn fest circuit and became Fox Searchlight’s biggest box-office opener ever. Although its critical reception has been strong, it may be too much for more conservative Academy members. Nevertheless, Aronofsky’s eye-popping work here could impress enough of his peer group to land a spot in the top five.

DANNY BOYLE, 127 Hours (Fox Searchlight) – The well liked Boyle comes off his 2008 Oscar triumph, Slumdog Millionaire, with this unexpected follow-up. Using dazzling directorial tricks, styling with visual invention, and guiding star James Franco, Boyle pulls off this virtual one-man show. But some voters may be too squeamish to pop the DVD in their players after reports of faintings at early screenings. Plus, he just won, so it may be someone else’s turn.

LISA CHOLODENKO, The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features) – Previous films High Art and Laurel Canyon didn’t prepare the Industry for her confident work as director and co-writer of this warm and perceptive comedy. Showing she could assure superlative performances from major stars should further impress colleagues. But the notoriously male dominated directors’ club may not be ready to make it two in a row for her. An Original Screenplay nod is her best shot.

DEREK CIANFRANCE, Blue Valentine (The Weinstein Company) – This very personal study of the disintegration of a marriage was 12 years in the making for Cianfrance. His first feature, he elicited no-holds-barred acting from leads Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Problem is, it may be too raw and intimate, which could overshadow the achievement. But here’s hoping it doesn’t take as long for this promising director’s second movie to reach the screen.

JOEL COEN & ETHAN COEN, True Grit (Paramount) – The Academy loves this prodigious writing/directing/producing team and have already honored them with four Oscars each, including one in this category. Can a remake of a John Wayne classic put them in contention again? The execution is flawless, and they have returned to Charles Portis’ original novel for inspiration while drawing first-rate performances. But Westerns don’t usually score for directors.

SOFIA COPPOLA, Somewhere (Focus Features) – Coppola lost Best Director for Lost In Translation in 2003 but won for her original screenplay. This latest film represents her second original screenplay and should be put in the writing category, but not necessarily in the directors’ circle again — although she did take the top prize at the Venice Film Festival (amid controversy because her pal Quentin Tarantino was head of the jury). No such problems now.

CLINT EASTWOOD, Hereafter (Warner Bros.) – A two time Best Director winner for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood can never be counted out. He didn’t make the cut for his last two attempts, Gran Torino and Invictus. His latest, Hereafter, drew mixed reviews and disappointing box office, so he’s a Director’s category dark horse at best this year. Though, never underestimate the respect from his peers for this 80-year-old icon.

DAVID FINCHER, The Social Network (Sony Pictures) – The director behind such dark but acclaimed films like Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac finally found an Oscar nod with the challenging crowd-pleaser The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and now this successful Facebook-founding flick. Critics’ plaudits are piling up, and he’s back in the heat of the race, this time going for the win from Sweden where he’s rebooting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

DEBRA GRANIK, Winter’s Bone (Roadside Attractions) – Her austere, even bare bones, filmmaking is why she has attracted much critical notice for her first two films, Down to the Bone and now Winter’s Bone, which already has won critics’ honors and film awards. It promises to earn strong Oscar attention for Granik, although the small film, filled with authenticity, still has an uphill climb competing against studio juggernauts helmed by bigger names.

TOM HOOPER, The King’s Speech (The Weinstein Co.) – If ever a movie seems tailor-made for the perceived tastes of the Academy, this is it. But Hooper’s warm and brilliantly acted story of a royal friendship breaks through to become snob-free entertainment with wide appeal. His no-flash direction could deter his chances, but it’s classic helming to the core. Meanwhile, The Weinstein Co. has made Hooper a strong presence on the awards circuit since Telluride.

ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU, Biutiful (Roadside Attractions) – From Amores Perros to 21 Grams to Babel, and now to Biutiful, Inarritu has become a staple on the awards circuit. Previously nominated in the foreign language category for Amores Perros and the directing category for Babel, Inarritu could find himself in contention for both with the Spanish language Biutiful. This talented director is back in the race for a disturbing and personal film.

MIKE LEIGH, Another Year (Sony Pictures Classics) – This four-time screenplay nominee has also been in contention twice in this category (for 1996’s Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake in 2004). Obviously an Academy favorite (sometimes even more than in his home country), Leigh’s unique improvisational style for developing characters from a simple script outline has made a big impression among Oscar voters. Another Year is probably his most accessible work.

DOUG LIMAN, Fair Game (Summit Entertainment) – Liman won good notices from the main competition at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, but no prize. Since then, the heat hasn’t been on for this political thriller, so his chances for his first directing Oscar nomination are minimal at best. But the film has shown him capable of things other than the smashhit, popcorn- entertainment of The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and that will set up a future nomination.

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL, Rabbit Hole (Lionsgate) – Who would have guessed the director of such quirky and out-of-the-mainstream work as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus would have even been interested in an award-winning play about a couple dealing with the sudden death of their four-year-old son. Yet, he directed three of the year’s best reviewed acting turns, and also made himself a Best Director contender
for the first time.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, Inception (Warner Bros.) – With a handful of films, Nolan is a major force in the film industry, a cash cow for Warner Bros., and a superstar among directors. Still, he has only been nominated once for Oscar, and that was Best Original Screenplay for his breakthrough Memento a decade ago. Does the Academy owe him one for The Dark Knight? If he’s snubbed this time for his risky, original, and complex Inception, just wait for the outcry.

TYLER PERRY, For Colored Girls (Lionsgate) – The prolific Perry’s films, with strong ethnic appeal, have been cash cows for Lionsgate but haven’t won him critical plaudits or Oscar attention. This adaptation of an iconic play is the closest he has come to “award worthy” work, but the critics still pounced despite an outstanding ensemble cast. Chances are likely he’ll still be standing on the sidelines as far as Oscar is concerned, but this is a good start.

ROMAN POLANSKI, The Ghost Writer (Summit Entertainment) – Polanski’s well-documented legal troubles and fugitive status often overwhelm the power of his remarkable talent. But critics wrote he was working at the top of his form with this Hitchcock-like thriller. Still, the 2002 Best Director winner will be waging an uphill climb this time around, though he’s helped by the fact that The Ghost Writer did just sweep the European Film Awards.

DAVID O. RUSSELL, The Fighter (Paramount) – He won’t win any popularity contests in Hollywood if past behind the-scenes stories (especially during the filming of Three Kings) are any indication. But he pulled together this long in-the-works passion project for Mark Wahlberg and delivered a crowd-pleasing character study that is more than a fight film. The movie had more traction for Oscar than Russell before it opened in December: not anymore.

AARON SCHNEIDER, Get Low (Sony Pictures Classics) – This indie sleeper success from August is probably more likely to land acting nominations for its stars Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek or Bill Murray, than a nomination for its debuting feature director. If Schneider, who started out as a cinematographer, is passed over, he can still take solace in the fact that he already has an Oscar for his 2003 liveaction short Two Soldiers.

MARTIN SCORSESE, Shutter Island (Paramount) – Perhaps the most admired living helmer, Scorsese finally received his Best Director Oscar in 2006 for The Departed, so the onus is off the Academy for failing to celebrate this major talent. The early release of Shutter Island doesn’t help Marty’s chances, although Paramount is campaigning hard for him and Leonardo DiCaprio, so don’t count them out. And Shutter Island is their most successful release at the box office.

OLIVER STONE, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Twentieth Century Fox) – Stone won two directing Oscars: Platoon in 1986 and, three years later, Born on the Fourth of July. His only other directing nomination came in 1992 for JFK. In fact, he wasn’t even nominated for the first Wall Street 23 years ago. It would be a major upset if he landed one now for the sequel. Best bet for this one is in supporting actor for Michael Douglas, who reprises Gordon Gekko.

LEE UNKRICH, Toy Story 3 (Disney/Pixar) – No director of an animated film has ever been nominated outside of the Animated Feature category (where the helmer actually receives the Oscar). Will this be the first year the directors’ branch actually acknowledges the work of an animation director on a toon? After all, Toy Story 3 is the best-reviewed film of the year and the top grosser if that counts for anything here. The answer: don’t hold your breath.

RANDALL WALLACE, Secretariat (Walt Disney Pictures) – Wallace was Oscar nominated for his 1995 screenplay Braveheart and went on to direct The Man in the Iron Mask and We Were Soldiers. His current Disney film, Secretariat, is his third period piece but a significant departure in style, tone, and substance. It’s well-liked but didn’t come out of the box-office gate strongly. Wallace remains a real long shot to land in the Best Director race for the first time.

PETER WEIR, The Way Back (Newmarket) – Weir is a four-time directing nominee (Witness, The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, and Master and Commander, his most recent film from seven years ago). Popular with his peers, he is surely overdue for a win. But even though The Way Back is the kind of epic made for Oscars, its year-end run with a severely limited campaign may make his own Director’s bid too insignificant to challenge higher-profile entrants.

ED ZWICK, Love & Other Drugs (Twentieth Century Fox) – Zwick moves away from his historic bent of recent years—films like Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond and most recently Defiance —to take a walk on the light side with this dramedy. He drew engaging performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, but the movie has been a box-office under-performer, and comedy generally doesn’t nail nominations here.

  1. no to ben affleck, jon cameron mitchell, and tyler perry.

    directors who should be nominated: roman polanski, david fincher, and rodrigo garcia.

      1. I’m sorry, but Christopher Nolan makes the most overrated movies of the last quarter century. Both The Dark Knight and Inception are weak, poor stories. TDK was heavy-handed, had repetitive dialogue that was given credit for being deep, and the only good thing about the movie was Heath Ledger. Inception was just crap.

        Fincher and Aronofsky know that the most important elements are story, dialogue, characters. Batman was not a great character. No depth, but the fanboys or people who think they’re a lot more intelligent than they are, really believe that it was this deep, thoughtful film. Pass.

  2. Aronofsky should win. No bullshit cgi overwhelming his narrative ala Nolan. I can’t think of a more artistic and creative film this year than Black Swan. His direction was fantastic.

    1. Ditto. Black Swan is so artful that I seriously thought I was in Cannes or someplace as the film progressed. Just balls-out splendid direction. And what a great call on the verite hand-held style.

      This guy has balls for days and days!

    2. CGI? Inception only used CGI for the city folding and buildings crumbling on the beach. Nolan is as anti-CGI as one can get. The whole zero-gravity scene was custom built. Aronofsky’s directing was great, but don’t bash Nolan for NECESSARY use of CGI. Heck, Fincher used CGI in his film which was not necessary at all, and will most likely win the Oscar. Move along.

      1. The CGI in The Social Network wasn’t necessary at all?

        I’m assuming you’re talking about the use of CGI to place Armie Hammer’s head on Josh Pence’s body. If so, I can’t imagine why that would be considered an unnecessary use of CGI. The twins needed to look alike.

    3. Umm, Nolan barely used CGI and Aronofsky DID use CGI.

      If you’re anti-CGI, why would you back Aronofsky? Did you not see The Fountain which was one giant CGI film?

    4. You’re clearly uninformed if you think Nolan relied on CGI on Inception. Pick up the bluray and watch the special features. They built an entire set that rotated on hydraulics for the zero G scenes, they used air cannons for the flooding scene and for the Paris blowing up scene and outside of the Limbo and city folding scenes there wasn’t much CGi at all. I would argue a lot of his techniques in Inception were as original as Cameron’s in Avatar. He definitely deserves at least a nod in this one. Cinematics and visuals are a very big part of directing and deserve credit in the directing category.

  3. Nolan should win Best Director. Inception and The Dark Knight reinvented the summer blockbuster, just as Star Wars and Jaws did. Nolan has now made six excellent films in a row – how many other directors can boast that?

  4. Just say no to Lisa Cholodenko. That movie is a radio play that someone decided to film for some unknown reason. Visually incompetent, and ignores every aspect of production except for the writing and acting. This isn’t Brokeback Mountain for lesbians — it’s just broke.

    Polanski, Scorsese or Weir get my vote.

    1. You’re way off about Cholodenko. “The Kids Are All Right” is a tremendous film, and she killed it. I wouldn’t give her best director either, necessarily, but it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year. (I still haven’t seen “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “The King’s Speech” or “Somewhere,” however.)

      1. The Kids Are All Right was the biggest piece of pretentious crap film ever made. And the directing was a joke. Shocking that’s she even nominated. Are all the voters from Santa Monica or Venice? And im surprised they took 15 minutes away form composting their trash to even vote.

        Nolan is the new Spielberg. He should win. Consistent, groundbreaking, and re-booted a dead franchise.

    2. “Visually incompetent, and ignores every aspect of production except for the writing and acting”

      What the hell does that mean? The film was an indie that had a budget of 3 million. What did you want the director to do? Load up with CGI and film at historical land marks?

    1. Agreed!

      Screw the mediocre films that are over hyped and overrated due to them being released so close to the Awards season.

      Inception was an overall masterful piece of work and I dare Fincher and Aronofsky to come up with an ORIGINAL piece of work like what Nolan came up with for Inception.

      The Coens may be able to pull off something original….but not Aronofsky or Fincher!

      1. You’re aware this is about directing, right?
        So, whose idea is more original is an absolutely worthless piece of information.

  5. It’s Nolan and Fincher’s year.

    I did get a good chuckle about anyone considering Scorcese, Aronofsky, Affleck, Zwick, Stone, Wallace and Perry for those films. Obviously a weak year, we’re lucky to have 2 or 3 U.S. made films in each category, looking forward to busting out of our doldrums.

    1. I don’t think Fincher deserves an Oscar at all. The Social Network was easily one of the best films of the year, it should win for Best Picture, but what did Fincher do that was so Oscar-worthy? I mean, the film was virtually all dialogue, which was delivered by the superb acting, and that is pretty much it. TSN could have been directed by someone else and still have turned out almost the same. On the flip side, if Fincher was still the director but he didn’t have Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant script, the movie would not have been anywhere near as good. Without Sorkin’s script nobody would even be considering the film for any kind of awards.

      My money is on Aronofsky or Nolan, but I would love to see the brothers Coen win too.

      1. I`d be exstatic if The Social Network and Fincher get upset by Nolan/Inception or Aronofsky/Black Swan but fat chance. Bloggers and critics overhyped TSN and Fincher like Hurtl Locker/Bigelow and Slumdog/Boyle before them, so it`s going to be a never-ending sweep for one movie only. Movie that only rabid fanboys will remember in the future and nobody else. No, seriously, nobody outside of Internet oscar blogs is talking about Locker, Slumdog and The Social network. people are talking about Inception and Black Swan. So, yeah, another forgettable winner is happening.

        That said, Nolan and Aronofsky are locked for nominations. Inception and Nolan are too big to ignore, and Nolan and TDK snub in 2008 caused the infamous global meltdown that many consider the primary reason for AMPAS opening 10 BP spots instead of just 5. So he`ll be nominated. he may even win best oriignal Script unless they go conservative and award The King`s Speech in this category.

        Aronofsky and his amazing weird movie are doing too well with critics and boxoffice and SAG nom in Ensemble gave it a major boost.

        So three locks for Director are Fincher (likely winner), Nolan and Aronofsky. The other 2 spots are between Cohens (recent winners but True Grit is phenomenally successful at the boxoffice and there will be 2 acting noms), Tom Hooper (King Speech will have 3 acting noms), O`Russell (he may be a major d*ck but his movie is playing like gangbusters with critics and audiences and there will be 2-3 acting noms) Cholodenko/Granik (after so much hype over first female director win last year, AMPAS may feel oblige to nominate a woman again, but no win). IMO, Boyle and 127 Hours lost considerable buzz with the arrival of Black Swan, Fighter and true Grit and Boyle is a recent winner. Perry has ZERO chance unless DGA pulls a major surprise don`t think so).

  6. No way Coppola is getting awarded for that Turkey. Talented girl, but she needs to get her head out of her ass.

  7. I liked The Town,Secretariat, Social Network and The Fighter. Who gets the credit I’ll leave to the “experts” but all have worthy candidates from top to bottom in my humble opinion. Good to see Affleck back and Christian Bale’s performance in The Fighter was excellent. He made the damn movie.

    Can’t forget Toy Story. Great brand and even greater storytelling.

    Of the rest I saw Inception, Shutter Island and Hereafter. Big names and even bigger hype. Not impressed.

    Tyler Perry. Is this a joke? He gets an award for delivering the most bang for the buck… whenever they create that one.

    Still gotta see Wall Street, Black Swan and The King’s Speech. On first glance I didn’t think I should, but the buzz is pretty damn deafening on all three.

    1. Aronofsky makes the same type of dark and depressing films over and over again and he uses the same type of camerawork for each film and Black Swan was rather boring at times.

      Finchers Social Network is easily the most OVERRATED film of them all!

      Nolan or The Coen Bros should win Best Director for their great OVERALL films.

  8. if there was any sense of justice in this town, Edgar Wright would be getting a nom for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World- one of the best directed movies of the year. it’s akin to Baz Luhrmann’s work on Moulin Rouge… seeing a vision of a world and perfectly directing it to the screen. But as Whoopi said the year she hosted the Oscars: “I guess Moulin Rouge! just directed itself.” But yeah, instead let’s give a nom to Ben Affleck. Sigh.

    1. I agree about Wright and Scott Pilgrim, the direction was some of the most poised, energetic and inventive out there, but the movie’s lack of underlying substance will probably keep him out of contention. Which is is shame because directing prizes often go to weightier movies where the material provides 90% of the director’s glory.

      My front-runners so far are Black Swan and True Grit (but why are the Coen brothers so leery of proper endings?). Though with Inception this year and Avatar last, it’s good to see the screen finally catching up with ’70s science fiction writing.

  9. If one of the female directors snags a spot (which probably won’t happen), I hope it goes to Granik and not Coppola.

  10. Re: Lee Unkrich, everyone I know laughed and misted up during Toy Story 3. It was the third in a series. There was a pretty good caper/stalag break sequence in there too. How may children’s toys affect us so, except through superior achievements in writing, editing, and directing?

  11. Give me a break. I don’t think anybody expects anyone else other than sure things Aronofsky, Hooper, Fincher, & Russell, and Cholodenko, the Coens or Nolan taking the fifth spot.

  12. Love and Other Drugs did not just underperform. It was a critical failure. Why is it even in contention at this point?

  13. Aronofsky & Nolan are the two best. I hated Social- it was ok , nothing more . and certainly not best director

  14. Pete: Derek Cianfrance has made SEVERAL features prior to Blue Valentine, and has been plugging away at the festival circuit since 1998. BV is simply his first indie to actually break through and get some attention. You should check out some of his earlier films.

  15. As far as direction goes, Nolan really did put everything he had into inception and did some beautiful and creative work.

    Fincher has been a favorite of mine for years, yet his simple but solid direction is most likely going to win the gold this year.

    1. Difference is Black Swan used cg subtly and gracefully, in service of story and character. Whereas Inception used it in a rather masturbatory fashion.

      1. Nah…I don’t think so.

        Inception was an exceptional piece of filmmaking OVERALL!

        Black Swan was rather dark and depressing…it was rather boring at times also.

      2. Nah….Inception and True Grit were better OVERALL films than yet another one of Aronofskys’ depressing, disturbing and often times boring Black Swan film.

  16. COPPOLA ?! — “Somewhere” is one of the worst films I have seen in a long long time. Not only is it devoid of emotion, story or interest — there is no style. its not interesting. a total joke. she’s lost.

  17. Even people who didn’t like Black Swan admire the hell out of Aronofsky. Russell is far from a sure thing–people like the film but the direction hardly stands out. The Academy loves the Coens. I’m thinking the sure things are Aronofsky, Coens, Fincher, and Nolan. Fifth slot goes to either Affleck, Boyle, Cholodenko, Hooper or Russell.

    1. I find it hilariously interesting, yet pathetic at how much the corrupt Academy looooves the Coens when they release a film so close to awards season, and they love snubbing the genius of Chris Nolan.

      Weird.

  18. Black Swan was cheap thrills and gimmicks for 2 hours and I failed to see what was so impressive about either Portman or Kunis who are being showered with awards and nominations.

    Oh but they had a sex scene. So young. So brave.

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