Oscar Deep Dive: Best Directing

NOMINEES: Martin Scorsese, Todd Phillips, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarantino, Bong Joon Ho

The Short Take

The further we get into awards season, the more bellwether awards are handed out, therefore highlighting a clearer path to an Oscar victory. Coming out of the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) awards last week as the winner of its top prize, Sam Mendes is the clear favorite to take home the Academy Award for Best Directing for 1917. Why the certainty? In the decades-long history of the DGA, there have only been seven instances in which  the winner of the top prize has not gone on to win the Oscar. The most recent occurrence was in 2013 when Ben Affleck won the DGA prize for Argo (2012) but not the Oscar, yet it’s important to note that in that situation Affleck was not even nominated for an Oscar. Furthermore, with the feverish buzz surrounding 1917 and its status as the current Best Picture favorite, Mendes has the narrative and awards logic on his side. 1917 is an impressive filmmaking feat, and with Roger Deakins a lock for Best Cinematography, the Academy can be counted on to reward Mendes for his part in their creative partnership. 

On par with the takes I have posted throughout this series of Oscar Deep Dives, I see the most deserving winner, or winners in this case, of this award as being left out of the nominees. The directorial work that brothers Josh and Benny Safdie turned in for their fourth feature together, Uncut Gems, is an astounding cinematic achievement. Uncut Gems is hands down the most viscerally engaging movie I saw during 2019, and that is due to the fact that the Safdie brothers understand the vitality of balancing the aural and visual aspects of filmmaking that can engross viewers when they are calibrated to support storytelling. Put another way, this movie sounds as good as it looks. Every aspect of their aesthetic impulses propels you along Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) rapid personal dissolution, and paired with the most stress-inducing opening 20 minutes of sound design I’ve maybe ever experienced, Uncut Gems should make it clear to all movie-goers that the Safdies are here to stay. If only they had been given any sort of recognition for their outstanding work.

However, within the confines of the nominees, my hope is that Bong Joon Ho’s brilliance on display in Parasite can win out and send him in to surprise everyone and walk away with the Oscar. Throughout this series, I’ve made my undying love of Parasite clear, but in case you haven’t read the previous editions, here you are: Parasite is the most impressive movie that I saw in all of 2019. It is a breathtaking balancing act of tones and genres that coalesce to become a ferocious indictment of the class divide in South Korea, and the dark parts of humanity that emerge when those within such a structure must try to survive. Of the nominees, Ho is operating on his own level, redefining cinematic rules from scene to scene in pursuit of a unified vision of filmmaking that is a truly refreshing thing to behold. Ho has been a popular figure on the awards circuit, and while the DGA award indicates that it is Mendes’ award to lose, there is a part of me that holds onto the hope that Ho will walk away with Oscar gold and glory. 

 

The Long Take

In most other years, the idea that Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese were up against each other for the Best Director prize would mean that we could see it as little more than a two-person dead heat. Yet, even with Tarantino turning in some of the most celebrated work of his career and Scorsese turning in an elegy to the genre he helped define, this is not most other years. 2019 was an exciting year for cinema, even if Scorsese himself has consistently made a point of suggesting otherwise. During the past year, a multitude of developing cinematic voices from Lulu Wang to Mati Diop and Marielle Heller all released captivating movies, and established talents like Noah Baumbach and Steven Soderbergh kept doing what they do best. The nominees for Best Director reflect a measure of this growth while also revealing the ways that the Academy staunchly sticks by its guns. It is an equally exciting and beguiling group of nominees in a category that unfortunately seems all but decided at this point in the race. 

Martin Scorsese is one of the bona fide pillars of American filmmaking. His now six decade career has spawned an astounding number of masterworks. Whether you love his movies or not, it is undeniable that his work across genres and topics has exerted a Shakespearean level influence on other practitioners of his craft (more on that later). Scorsese is often simplified as the “mobster” filmmaker in relation to Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Departed (2006) being three of his most beloved works, but to abide by that absolutism is to miss the wider scope of his career. For every mob movie there is a Raging Bull (1980), The Age of Innocence (1993), or Silence (2016). In this regard, The Irishman can be topically seen as just another Scorsese mob film, but at its core it is a delicate fusion of the spirituality of Scorsese’s religious stories mixed with the knowledge of what happens to his beloved mob men as they age. Gone is the flashiness of Goodfellas, replaced by the meditative pace of a filmmaker coming to terms with his own age, and what it means to reflect on a lifetime of triumphs and grave mistakes. It is not my favorite Scorsese movie or his best work, but it is an engrossing piece of talented filmmaking that I feel lucky to have seen, especially considering its convoluted path to the screen. Scorsese won’t win because he already has his Oscar and the lead up awards have not been kind to him, but the nomination is a recognition of his continued importance to the craft. 

In a similar way, Quentin Tarantino is a towering figure of contemporary filmmaking. While he has only been a working director for a little over 30 years, his nine feature films have left a searing impact on a generation of young filmmakers. From the release of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) onwards, Tarantino’s snappy yet theatrical dialogue, his penchant for pastiche, and a tendency towards all things brutal have rippled out into any number of lesser imitators. Copy-cats aside, Tarantino’s career has unspooled in a fascinating series of directorial choices that reveal a cinematic mind navigating the space between an adherence to the styles and practitioners that inspired him, and a drive to tell his own stories. The results have been intermittently brilliant, but never anything less than entertaining and well-made. I may not be as much a fan of the Kill Bill movies or The Hateful Eight (2015), but for each of those there is the majesty of Jackie Brown (1997) or  Inglourious Basterds (2009). Through all of it, Tarantino has connected his stories to the filmmaking process like in Basterds, or locations around it, such as in Pulp Fiction. In this way, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is a culmination of his impulse to highlight the filmmaking process. It is a story fully enmeshed in filmmaking, from the stars like Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) to their lesser known stuntmen like Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). It also continues Tarantino’s recent interest in Westerns by making Dalton an aging gunslinger, at least on screen. Hollywood is a beautifully-made film that suggests a director on top of his game. I wouldn’t say it is Tarantino’s best film, but it is a lovingly assembled fairy tale of Los Angeles. Normally this would make the movie a favorite of the Hollywood crowd, but with 1917 in the mix Tarantino will have to wait a little longer for his Best Director win.

Now, I suppose it’s time to take a moment to consider Todd Phillips and Joker. There was a great amount of fanfare when the project was initially announced: Batman’s greatest foe getting the solo movie origin story treatment. When Joaquin Phoenix signed on and brought with him a high degree of performance pedigree, the excitement was palpable. The first sign of trouble should have been Phillips signing on to direct. The man behind such true works of American brilliance as Old School (2003) and The Hangover (2009) is not exactly known for having a thoughtful or inventive cinematic voice. The result is a Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1982) pastiche that lacks any style of its own, opting instead for a thin rehash of a style that Scorsese perfected decades ago. To quote myself from an earlier piece, Joker is “morally bankrupt, intellectually desolate, and does not deserve to be in the conversation.” There is no denying that Phoenix is magnetic in the lead role, but nothing happening around him matches his commitment to artistic dynamism. Phillips seems to have no interest in directorial inventiveness, filling the movie with images and sequences that have been done better elsewhere. It is a shame that he is included in this category when I can think of no fewer than five women who did more impressive work this year and were  left out in the cold. He won’t win, or so I have to tell myself.

I’ve gone on rather long-windedly at this point so I won’t rehash everything I said in the Short Take. What I will say is that 1917 is a technical marvel, a cinematically dexterous work on filmmaking. Does that credit rest more with Sam Mendes or Roger Deakins? It’s hard to say, but having seen the work Mendes has done without Deakins, and the mastery that was their work together on Skyfall (2012), I’m inclined to say that 1917 is more Deakins’ movie. In comparison, there is no question that Bong Joon Ho is a man on a mission in Parasite, armed with a story that he executes with wit and poise. 1917’s story is secondary to its technicality, but Parasite is a sublime merger of craft and idea. Nonetheless, if all is to be believed, Mendes will win this award, but I won’t give up on the hope that the #bonghive will strike and Ho will win out.

 

The Bottom Line

WILL WIN: Sam Mendes – 1917

SHOULD WIN: Bong Joon Ho – Parasite / Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie – Uncut Gems

 

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