Best Director is a tricky category with, like many awards bestowed at the Oscars, a questionable track record. Venerated filmmakers like Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Altman, for instance, never won the award. While it’s arguably impossible to objectively compare different works of art, Best Director is an especially elusive and subjective category that forces one to compare apples to oranges, especially with this year’s nominees. Where the evidence of what deserves a cinematography, editing, or screenwriting award is pretty straightforward and evident within a given film, it’s difficult to qualify what constitutes great direction.
Is great direction that which contains the most unique vision, or is it the best direction of actors? Does the award belong to the individual who possesses the best storytelling abilities, or the most striking aesthetic sensibilities? Does great direction reside in the ability to engage all members of the cast and crew to work together for a collective vision, or is it the best individual interpretation of a script? There are so many disparate factors that go into effective direction, and credit is hard to locate as the director is the center of an involved creative collaboration. We know great direction when we see it, but it’s nearly impossible to define.
And the nominees are…
James Cameron, Avatar
Why He Was Nominated: If there is a category aside from Special Effects that Avatar, without controversy, deserves to be nominated for, it’s for directing. Cameron displays a perfectly singular vision, using the tenable talent of his extensive crew to achieve the story he sets out to tell. It’s a joy to spend two and a half hours in Cameron’s endless imagination, and the sci-fi epic immerses us in a world that’s detailed in ways rarely seen these days in event filmmaking.
Why He Might Win: Yes, Avatar has major flaws, but Cameron’s achievement is unparalleled. Only history can be witness to this, but Avatar may prove to be, for better or worse, a benchmark in filmmaking and filmgoing, so the Academy may attempt the foresight to lay stake in this moment by giving The King of the World another Oscar. An Avatar sweep would make good on the Academy’s inferential promise of recognizing populist entertainment
Why He Might Not Win: “Another Oscar” is the operative term here, as Cameron has already won the award for directing the highest-grossing film of all time once before. Avatar’s evident flaws – the too-familiar story, uneven acting by Sam Worthington, and a lack of subtlety and nuance – may be a bit too evident to warrant another statuette for Cameron, as some voters may feel these things also fall to the responsibility of the director (one who, in this case, was also responsible for the film’s weakest aspect, its writing).
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Why He Was Nominated: Tarantino delivered a rare breed of movie this year: simultaneously entertaining and intelligent, a crowd-pleaser and a critic’s favorite. He captivated us for two and a half hours, restraining his typically overindulgent penchant for nonlinear storytelling and extraneous dialogue, keeping the movie tight and engrossing even in the Chayefsky-length monologues. This was pure Tarantino, an amalgamation of the best reasons that we see his movies.
Why He Might Win: The man deserves the directing statuette at some point in his career, as his work has defined so much in the evolving means of cinematic storytelling within the past decade and a half. His win would reward a thoroughly realized, unique vision while keeping in line with the ceremony’s supposed intent to reward audience-friendly films, and put a true cinephile on the same level with who he venerates. That, and this might very well be the best film he ever makes.
Why He Might Not Win: The Academy Awards have had a history of honoring directors who helmed war films (especially WWII films), but never anything as unconventional or farcically inaccurate as this. To me, all the power to Tarantino, as cinema, as DePalma once put it, is “24 lies a second.” But Inglourious Basterds may be (more appropriately, in the minds of voters) recognized and best represented instead for its impressive writing, or as a Best Picture upset.
Lee Daniels, Precious
Why He Was Nominated: He’s made an affecting, socially conscious film that features characters rarely represented on screen. He doesn’t pull his punches, delivering an unflinching look at Harlem poverty. It’s the type of independent-spirited filmmaking that awards season eats up, and it shows what American indie filmmaking is capable of that studios shy away from. He also directed an unknown, a comedian, and several musicians all to commanding, surprising performances. This film goes places that others don’t.
Why He Might Win: This is visceral filmmaking that can’t be ignored, and Daniels here shows an ability to direct performers that’s unparalleled in this category. The man made Mariah Carey act, and inspired Mo’nique to go to places we never thought she was capable of. These achievements certainly deserve attention.
Why He Might Not Win: There are problems with Precious. Daniels doesn’t pull his punches, but in some moments the film might have been better served if he showed some restraint. Furthermore, his visual style needs some honing. Daniels did an impressive job, but he’s still in his newbie shoes and his achievement is more visible in his direction of performances rather than in his vision.
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Why She Was Nominated: She delivered the first great Iraq war film, made a film in which explosions are not mutually exclusive to character development or artful storytelling, and she implemented suspense with a degree of control comparable to Hitchcock. The Hurt Locker is a film where the presence of a director operating in full form is tenable in every frame, yet at the same time she immerses us in each captivating moment. Bigelow is a natural-born filmmaker if there ever was one.
Why She Might Win: The Academy has a chance to make history here, and not just for history’s sake, but for a film in which she really deserves it. I stated earlier that even though it’s difficult to articulate, you know good directing when you see it – well, you know when you see The Hurt Locker that it’s the best directing of the year.
Why She Might Not Win: I would say the only thing standing between her and that statue is the possible interference of Cameron, but I think that even he – who was her creative collaborator far longer than they were married – wants her to win. The trophy is hers.
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Why He Was Nominated: With Up in the Air, Reitman silenced accusations that his talent was overrated and that he was a product of nepotism. Personally, I didn’t think he showed real directing chops with Juno, but with his third film I’m convinced he could be the closest thing we’ll have to a Hawkes or a Wilder in this century. The man can tell a story with the commanding wisdom of a director seasoned over the decades, and his talent is rapidly maturing.
Why He Might Win: He operates on all cylinders, with astute writing, a detailed knowledge of the challenging craft of eliciting the best from his actors, transitioning and sustaining moods whenever appropriate, and never letting any overt attempts at a signature visual style get in the way of telling a good story. By many people’s definition of what makes a great film (great characters and story, exhibition of sincere emotion), Reitman is a great craftsman.
Why He Might Not Win: Reitman shows amazing promise as a director, and Up in the Air is a great film, but he’s still got many great films potentially ahead of him, and this film never achieved the social resonance or struck the chord with audiences that was so buzzed about leading up to its release. Also, Reitman’s writing is where his signature lies, not in his direction, and his lack of a visual sense hurts him here in this specific category competing with these particular directors, even as it serves the film. And lastly, he won’t win because Bigelow will.
Who do you think will win?