As usual, the five directors nominated for Best Directing did so with unconventional projects that did not exactly scream commercial success. In the case of the science fiction drama Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve took the alien genre and turned it inside out. For Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson came back from being a Hollywood outcast to direct a World War II story that remarkably had never been told.
Damien Chazelle had a dream of bringing back the musical form in a contemporary way, and boy did he ever do it. Kenneth Lonergan, after a horrible experience trying for years to bring his previous film to theaters, finally found the perfect match in a searing drama set in Massachusetts. And Barry Jenkins realized a dream to make a very personal movie in a very personal way. Here’s the handicap on how the race is now shaking out.
La La Land
In the days before his musical love letter to Los Angeles and dreamers everywhere had its world premiere at Venice, Chazelle told me of his passion to tell a contemporary original movie musical that harkened to the films of Jacques Demy and Gene Kelly. In fact, he said he really only came up with Whiplash as sort of a simpler, less expensive calling card. Of course, Whiplash went on to earn five nominations, including Best Picture and Screenplay for Chazelle, and won three Oscars. Now La La Land, with a record-tying 14 nods and a record-breaking seven Globes, has made him the one to beat here.A DGA and BAFTA win don’t hurt his chances a bit.
Gibson’s directorial career includes an Oscar for Braveheart in 1996, a cultural touchstone with The Passion of the Christ, and the exquisitely violent but mesmerizing Apocalypto. Unfortunately his personal demons got in the way of his career for the last decade, but Mel is clearly back now with an expertly-made war film he actually calls a love story. Whatever it is, this true story of WWII hero and conscientious objector Desmond Doss has been superbly directed by this man who has as much undeniable talent behind the camera as he does in front of it.
Taking a little known theatrical project that never saw the light of a stage, and turning it into a very personal and deeply human coming-of-age story makes Barry Jenkins’ second film in eight years an indie gem. He had the audacity to cast three sets of actors in major roles, separating each by 10 years in the life. It was a directorial gamble that could have fizzled but instead gives this critical darling its heart and soul. That it also reflects some of what Jenkins experienced himself growing up in Miami makes it all the more poignant and a real contender to become a spoiler on Oscar night.
Manchester by the Sea
The list of awards and nominations for writing this film is already endless, just as it was with Lonergan’s 2000 directorial debut You Can Count On Me. Lonergan, a master writer who has now joined that talent with equally impressive directing skills, has found the perfect vehicle with this heartbreaking and wrenching story of a man whose life is nearly destroyed by unspeakable tragedy. Getting superb performances and letting his script lead the way, Lonergan does not go for flash but instead lets the actors, the words, and more importantly the silences lead the way.
Having been nominated once before for Best Foreign Language film with Incendies, Villeneuve went on to two more films that were equally worthy in my opinion: Prisoners and Sicario. Either of those could easily have brought him into this rarefied circle, but finally his latest film, Arrival, could not be denied. As the kind of human and intimate film rarely seen in the science fiction form from a major studio, Villeneuve has made something that feels like Close Encounters of the Third Kind as directed by Ingmar Bergman rather than Steven Spielberg. It’s uniquely original.