Oscar Predictions 2014: Best Director

Best Director is a strange category, particularly because of its tenuous relationship to Best Picture. Does it refer to the best cohesive film, under the assumption that the director is responsible for overseeing nearly all aspects of how that film comes to be? Or does the award refer to a film’s most conspicuous control of visuals, tone, and style – the things that we most associate as evidence of a director’s guiding influence?

The vague sense of what qualifies someone as worthy of honor in this category (we, of course, only assume what the director did by virtue of the finished product) is perfectly on display in one of this year’s most heated competitions: between Alfonso Cuarón’s enthralling real-time spectacle of a woman lost in orbit and Steve McQueen’s intricate, decade-long depiction of one man’s harrowing subjection.

But let’s take a look at how the five nominees shake out, with my surprise predicted winner in red

Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

Gravity Movie

Why He Was Nominated

Gravity is no doubt this year’s crowd-pleaser. For voters who simply love to go to the movies to have an experience they can’t have anywhere else, Gravity is the film that embraces cinema’s capacity for escapist spectacle. It’s a blockbuster that show’s what we’ve been missing from blockbusters, and Cuarón’s dedicated attention to the film’s technical capacities is essential to its effectiveness.

Why He Might Win

Cuarón has enjoyed a regard as an underappreciated visionary for some time, from his unrestrained examination of adolescent sexual awakening in Y Tu Mamá También and his long-take realization of a dystopic future in Children of Men. Gravity is likely seen as combining the best of his talents: delivering blockbuster entertainment (like the 3rd Harry Potter film) that feels exhaustively helmed by a director with a masterful control over style, delivery, and mood. If the Academy votes on grounds of technical innovation, Cuarón has this award locked.

Why He Might Not Win

Gravity wasn’t nominated for Best Original Screenplay for a reason, and if the director’s job is to execute the best overall vision of a film, then Cuarón’s own role as scribe of his spectacle might limit his chances in competition with McQueen.

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Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

Why He Was Nominated

Critics have praised McQueen’s work in both the museum and the arthouse for years, but 12 Years a Slave finds McQueen’s revisited interest in the politics of the brutalized human body met with an accessibly structured story that interrogates the worst aspects of American history. The Academy is familiar with stories about black suffering, but too few have come from black filmmakers. McQueen’s intricately realized depiction of history makes 12 Years a Slave far more than a corrective, but an incredible achievement that wrestles uncompromisingly with nearly impossible subject matter.

Why He Might Win

Because of what I’ve said above, not to mention the fact that the momentum is on his side: this film, and McQueen in particular, has picked up so many of the highest honors of the campaign trail so far. His work has been near-universally recognized in awards-season terms.

Why He Might Not Win

Invested audiences of McQueen’s prior work have called 12 Years a Slave too sentimental and conventional, while others have called the film too cold and brutalizing, a body horror film about American history. But none of these criticisms have really coalesced into a collective backlash, so really Cuarón is the only factor standing in his way.

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Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Nebraska Movie

Why He Was Nominated

Nebraska is arguably Payne’s best work since Election, and a film that trades in practiced cynicism for stark realism and a comically frank vision of ordinary life’s opportunities and consequences. Neither romanticizing nor belittling, Payne’s depiction of contemporary regional America shows how many stories we’ve been missing by ignoring so many parts of the US landscape.

Why He Might Win

Payne won’t win. See below.

Why He Won’t Win

Best Director, when not given to the Best Picture winner (which Nebraska also won’t win) is typically given to the award for most direction. And while it’s an expertly realized slice of middle Americana, in the terms of AMPAS’s past preferences, Nebraska seems slight even by Payne’s standards of scale.

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David O. Russell, American Hustle

American Hustle Cast

Why He Was Nominated

The Academy loves David O. Russell. He’s their new Stephen Daldry, except his movies actually have a tangible signature vision to them. And after making a sports movie and a recovery comic-drama, American Hustle sees Russell at his most gloriously indulgent and manic, with a film overflowing with his deliberately uneven style and his inimitable construction of a world of fascinating characters. Where some might not see American Hustle as the best of Russell, it certainly represents the most of him.

Why He Might Win

American Hustle is the best film Russell has made since Huckabees, but where critics see a relatively high watermark, the Academy sees a masterpiece (for some reason). A lot of love has been shown to this film throughout awards season, and it might signify the apex of Russell’s comeback story (which Hollywood always loves). If the Academy is voting on a director’s work with actors, Russell has this award locked.

Why He Might Not Win

While American Hustle is likely to shine in at least one acting category and in Best Original Screenplay, a directing award is a relative long shot, especially in a year that finds him competing with Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. American Hustle simply doesn’t have the spectacle or gravitas (respectively), not to mention the evenhanded execution, of Russell’s two major competitors. Finally, American Hustle has been accused of paying so much of an homage to Scorsese that it risks imitation, and it’s rare that a recognized director has to compete opposite his clear source of inspiration…

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Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

Why He Was Nominated

In a year that gave us so many movies about excessive practices of the rich, The Wolf of Wall Street makes Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, and Pain & Gain look like Merchant Ivory productions. A film that matches its subject with its style, The Wolf of Wall Street is the year’s most explicit attempt at confronting America with a mirror of the free pass it gives to parasitic wealth. It’s certainly not Scorsese’s most graceful film, but that’s part of the point.

Why He Might Win

The Wolf of Wall Street marks the end of a profane trilogy of sorts about the lawless exercise of greed with Goodfellas and Casino, so a surprise award here could be seen as yet another means of recognizing Scorsese’s career, and particularly its revival via his collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Why He Might Not Win

Scorsese is the only director nominated here who has won before, and whose win for The Departed had been interpreted as a career honor, making up for lost time. And The Wolf of Wall Street is hardly as beloved as The DepartedHugo, or The Aviator, having been taken to task for its excess and its own allegedly ambiguous position of the lives and activities depicted (though I contend that therein lies the film’s intelligence). In a year that finds him competing with McQueen and Cuarón, Scorsese will almost certainly not win.

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Who Should Win:

McQueen, obviously. It would be fitting for the Academy to (finally) give this award to a black director for a film that takes a decidedly anti-essentialist black subject position on an unforgivable chapter in our history, eschewing the cheaply comforting “past-ness” leveled at historical racism that’s plagued past Oscar favorites from Driving Miss Daisy to The Help.

Furthermore, because McQueen was formerly an instillation artist, and came to 12 Years a Slave via other challenging, largely anti-commercial work like Hunger and Shame, a win here could represent the possibility for more unconventional approaches to film directing to be seen as worthy of recognition. Yes, 12 Years a Slave is by far McQueen’s most accessible film, but it’s still a McQueen film through and through. His work is an artistry that deserves recognition.

But they’ll probably give it to the more fun movie about movie stars in space.

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Oscar 2014


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