The importance of a good director for any film is often underestimated given they are just the ones behind the camera versus in front of it. And let’s be honest, without a solid director, these Best Picture nominees would not be here. Sure, only five get nominated, but rarely do you see an eventual Best Picture winner without a corresponding nod for directing. So rare in fact it’s only happened four times with the most recent being in 2012 when Ben Affleck was snubbed for “Argo.” Before him it was Bruce Beresford, the director to 1989 Best Picture winner “Driving Miss Daisy.” And before Beresford, it was Edmund Golding in 1931/32 for “Grand Hotel” and William Wellmon in 1927/28 for the eventual Best Picture winner “Wings,” which also to date is the only silent film to win the night’s biggest award. With odds that low, we might as well eliminate a few films from the Best Picture race right now. Say goodbye to “Lion,” “Hell of High Water,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures.” Still an accomplishment to be nominated, but sadly those producers will have to look for Oscar gold in other categories. Amazing how fast the landscape can change, but this is why looking back at history provides so much clarity when it comes to this ceremony. Granted not all categories are as decisive as Best Director and Best Picture, but these are the facts I love to bring out this time of year. Speaking of which, since the birth of this great ceremony back in 1928, we have watched 62 out of 88 directors take home the Oscar and then later watch their film win Best Picture. That’s over 70% of the time, meaning there is a good chance it goes that direction this year. Then again only once out of the past five years we have seen this and it was in 2014 when Alejandro G. Inarritu and his film “Birdman” were awarded both.
Now, when looking at this year’s list of nominees in this famed category, it’s hard to not get excited for guys like Mel Gibson, who has not been nominated since 1995 when “Braveheart” was taking this ceremony by storm. Or Damien Chazelle, who previously was nominated for writing with “Whiplash,” but not directing. We even have two first-time nominees in Denis Villeneuve for “Arrival” and Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight” on the ballot. So in many ways, this is a unique list of director’s including Kenneth Lonergan, who before “Manchester by the Sea” had only been nominated for his writing in “Gangs of New York” and “You Can Count on Me.” But, let me start with the two rookies who will look to do something we haven’t seen in over 17 years, which is win this Oscar in their debut. The last one to do so was Sam Mendes back 1999 for “American Beauty,” a film that also won Best Picture, a feat I still argue to this day. Pretty amazing, but save the accolades as we won’t see either of these two win this year. And it’s not for a lack of trying, although I can understand the Jenkins nomination a little more than Villeneuve. “Moonlight” took you in and out of the streets of Miami in a way that felt extremely raw. So kudos to Jenkins for what he did, as I would bet we see him again in the near future. I can’t say the same for Villeneuve though, who really should have been left of the ballot. While I liked “Arrival” for the most part, the story is why this was nominated, not the filmmaking. That’s why it will have a fighting chance to get the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay, which I will get into next week when it’s all about the writing.
On to the three guys that actually have a chance at winning the Oscar for directing this year, Kenneth Lonergan, Damien Chazelle and Mel Gibson. I almost didn’t include Lonergan in this group, simply due to how easy his film looked compared to the other two. But, I think that’s the brilliance of it and why he should be included as he made a heart wrenching film about one family’s turmoil stand out. Whether it was with his long shots of the small New England town or the candid moments between characters, Lonergan was able to really draw you into the drama unfolding. So kudos to him as he very much deserves this nomination. I just don’t think he will win, as the other two guys were simply better. On one side of the spectrum you have a 61-year-old Mel Gibson who hasn’t been seen or heard from since 2006 while the 32-year-old Damien Chazelle on the other side just received his 3rd nomination in as many years. And I will be honest, before watching “Hacksaw Ridge,” I thought this Oscar would easily go to Chazelle. But, what Gibson was able to do with his biographical war drama was truly remarkable. Mixing in love, war and religion is never easy, but Gibson did it in a way that not only kept you interested, but made you want more. The action sequences alone were brutal and so realistic that you almost couldn’t believe what you were watching. And what’s crazy is Gibson shot this film in 59 days, so the fact we are talking about it in this realm is unreal. That’s why I give him a chance at stealing this Oscar away from Chazelle. Hollywood likes a good comeback and this might just be the one we never expected.
Two years ago I marveled at the job the young Damien Chazelle did with the low budget sensation “Whiplash,” so to be singing his praises yet again for a completely different type of film like “La La Land” is impressive. But, he’s that good and way ahead of his time given his attention to detail and colors. Sure, his technical crew helped him shine, but what they started he finished off in style making this musical his own. Because it’s like he noted in an interview with EW, “The full-fledged idea of people breaking into song is something that I love, but the challenge was to make that seem accessible and relevant.” What a view from a guy who also penned the well-crafted script, which I would imagine he wins the Oscar for if he doesn’t win for Director. Then again, with “La La Land” the likely Best Picture winner, maybe it doesn’t matter when you figure it will be draped in gold anyway. That’s how marvelous of a job he did with this film, one that allowed his two stars to literary do their thing over and over again in colorful spaces they never could have imagined.