From Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron to American Hustle’s David O. Russell to Inside Llewyn Davis’ Joel and Ethan Coen, writer-directors seem to dominate this season. And with so many in the race, there’s likely to be at least some overlap when Oscar nominations in the screenplay and directing categories are announced January 16. But these two categories can also be sources of surprise.
Last year saw the directors branch come up with one of the most astonishing twists of fate in Oscar history by trading Bens—Ben Affleck for Benh Zeitlin. Affleck was considered a frontrunner for Argo, but he was completely snubbed by his fellow helmers. Instead, the directing branch threw a curve ball into the race by nominating Zeitlin, the director of the indie darling Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Although Argo did go on to win best picture (and Affleck received a statuette for that as a producer), it became only the second film in modern times to achieve that feat without a directing nom, the other being Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. It makes you wonder what the quirky branch has in store this year.
Shocking surprises aside, we are almost certain to see Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Awards directing nominee Cuaron among the final five at the Oscars. The sheer technical achievement and challenge of Gravity can’t be denied. Plus, Cuaron is a veteran who has proven he can take on wildly different films and genres, from Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (2004) to Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). That kind of track record should impress his peers and bring him his first-ever nom in this category. Close behind is Brit and fellow Globe and CCMA nominee Steve McQueen for the widely praised 12 Years A Slave. After warming up with Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), McQueen should earn his ticket to the big party with this film. Plus, he has been very effective on the campaign circuit, shaking hands everywhere from endless Q&As to the Governors Awards. If the branch chooses to serve up another Affleck-style shocker, it would be passing over McQueen. I doubt that will happen, despite mixed feelings among some Academy members over the level of brutality on display in the film.
David O. Russell, who has appeared in the category for two of the past three years with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), could easily make it a third time with his late-breaking, well-reviewed December release, American Hustle, which earned 7 Globe and 13 CCMA noms, including director, and was named best picture by the New York Film Critics Circle. While Russell also won best screenplay, the group passed him over for best director in favor of McQueen. But Russell’s fellow directors love the character-driven, edgy style he brings to the set, and in Hustle it was on full display.
Also likely to be in contention are four former winners in the category, Joel and Ethan Coen for Inside Llewyn Davis, Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine and Martin Scorsese for The Wolf Of Wall Street. All are perennial nominees here with Oscars on their mantels, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one of them, or maybe all, round out the category. In Scorsese’s case, Wolf drew passionate responses across the board in its initial screenings. Everyone seems to agree it was a dazzling directorial achievement for the iconic director, who finally won an Oscar in 2006 for The Departed.
Among those who are looking for their first directing Oscar are Globe nominees Paul Greengrass for his virtuoso work on Captain Phillips and Alexander Payne for his humanist touch on the black-and-white Nebraska. Spike Jonze, whose Her screenplay earned a Globe nom, is another possibility.
Lee Daniels could make a return to the category after his previous nomination for Precious, with Lee Daniels’ The Butler. But likelier, if perhaps more surprising, nominations could come from an exciting new generation of directors looking to break into this pack. J.C. Chandor, after getting an original screenplay nom for his first film, Margin Call (2011), went in a different direction with All Is Lost, a story about a man stranded at sea that presented enormous directorial challenges. Canada’s Denis Villeneuve also scored with the harrowing Prisoners, a particularly strong achievement from a directorial perspective. And perhaps filling the Zeitlin spot, if the directors are so inclined to honor a first-timer again, is Ryan Coogler’s very fine debut behind the camera with Fruitvale Station, a movie that has already won him a number of breakthrough artist awards.
If voters want to honor something with a little more heart, John Lee Hancock is just the ticket for Saving Mr. Banks. He took what could have been saccharine and made it complex. Veteran Stephen Frears achieved the same results with the funny and dramatic arc of Philomena and could make a return for the first time since 2006’s The Queen. For sheer technical bravado and storytelling expertise, don’t discount Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing drama, Rush. Even if it wasn’t a champ at the box office, Rush remains one of Howard’s finest, and most independent, films. And there’s also Peter Berg, coming off the disastrous Battleship (2012) and returning to the promise of his work in Friday Night Lights (2004) with the stunning Afghanistan-set war drama, Lone Survivor.
Often the branch likes to recognize foreign-language films as it did in rewarding Michael Haneke with a nomination last year for Amour. This year, the likeliest international recipients of a nomination might be Abdellatif Kechiche for Cannes Palme d’Or winner Blue Is The Warmest Color or even Paolo Sorrentino for Italy’s official foreign-language entry, The Great Beauty, a wonderfully realized homage to Fellini and La Dolce Vita that recently swept the European Film Awards and is among the nine finalists in Oscar’s Foreign Language Film contest.
Many of these aforementioned films could also turn up in the writing categories, and for the same people. Allen, Cuaron (who co-wrote Gravity with his son Jonas), the Coens, Jonze, Coogler, Berg and Chandor also wrote their films and could be multiple nominees. Some helmers who are less likely to be nominated for directing could instead find themselves nominated for their writing, including Nicole Holofcener for her very moving and funny Enough Said in the original screenplay category. On the adapted side, director Richard Linklater—working with his stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy—could again get Academy attention for Before Midnight (the trio previously was nominated for their prior collaboration, Before Sunrise, in 2005). Also, Derek Cianfrance could find himself up for co-writing, rather than directing, The Place Beyond The Pines, an underrated drama from earlier in the year that deserves to be remembered.
Among the other writing possibilities are a number of scripts that started out with different writers but were radically reworked, resulting in possible nominations for both scribes. Scott Cooper, who also directed the well-regarded box office underperformer Out Of The Furnace, might grab a nomination for the original screenplay he inherited from Brad Inglesby. Russell could find himself nominated with Eric Singer, the original writer of American Hustle. Singer wrote the first iteration as a procedural about the 1970s ABSCAM scandals until Russell took it in a different, more character-driven direction. And Kelly Marcel could be joined by original writer Sue Smith, who in 2002 wrote a straight biopic of P.L. Travers before Marcel turned one aspect of it—the making of Mary Poppins—into Saving Mr. Banks.
Among the other adapted script contenders are Globe nominee John Ridley’s 12 Years A Slave, Terence Winter’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, Billy Ray’s Captain Phillips, Globe nominees Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena, and Tracy Letts adapting his own Pulitzer Prize winner August: Osage County. Longer shots could include Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s The Spectacular Now, Michael Petroni’s The Book Thief, Steve Conrad’s The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, Jason Reitman’s faithful adaptation of Labor Day, and William Nicholson tackling the late Nelson Mandela’s autobiography in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
Other films likely to be considered for original screenplay but not previously mentioned are Bob Nelson’s brilliant CCMA and Globe-nominated screenplay for Nebraska, which took a decade to get to the screen; Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s Dallas Buyers Club, which took two decades to see fruition; and Danny Strong’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which was turned down everywhere before hitting its stride and becoming a late summer hit for The Weinstein Company. Rounding out the list are The Way Way Back from The Descendants Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Prisoners by Aaron Guzkowski, Mud from Jeff Nichols, Rush by Peter Morgan and maybe the animated Frozen, from Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris. There should also be a shout-out for Destin Daniel Cretton’s affecting and emotional Short Term 12.
With less than a month to go before Oscar noms, it’s just a matter of time before we see what surprises Academy voters have in store and the unpredictable directors and writers branch usually have a few in store.