The big question surrounding this category this year isn’t whether the Oscars are just finally catching up to what Entertainment Weekly was calling a new cinematic renaissance back in 1999, especially now that the directors of Fight Club and Three Kings seem so much more willing to sublimate their own personalities (to the point that the director of the former recently insinuated he’s not all that big a fan of the movie that’s eventually going to win him the Oscar). The real question is what exact atrocities Christopher Nolan fanboys will be inflicting on themselves if their dark knight isn’t nominated yet again. Until they expand this category to 10 nominations too, we’re having a hard time seeing him being anything other than a potential spoiler for those last few slots. Certainly not the David Fincher-esque frontrunner everyone else seems confident he is.
Famous last words, but when predicting the nominations in this category over the last few years, we’ve far more often erred by underestimating the directors’ branch’s capacity for embracing tedious, middlebrow efforts from crowd-pleasing “tradition of quality” candidates than we have by overestimating their willingness to smuggle renegade talent into the mix. In other words, we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe Bennett Miller, Jason Reitman, Ron Howard, Stephen Daldry, and Lee Daniels would earn their citations, but we at least knew Alfonso Cuarón, Jonathan Demme, James Gray, and Michael Haneke weren’t exactly in the thick of the conversation. Luckily for us, this year’s invisible director supreme is attached to a project so fulsomely over-promoted by the brothers Weinstein that even we can’t imagine Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, in case you needed a reminder) not sealing the deal for, best we can tell, considering that Jackson Pollock-like wallpaper in Geoffrey Rush’s studio to be worth more frame space than Colin Firth’s face.
Now, to be clear, Inception, which makes the juggled alternate realities of Back to the Future Part II seem complicated in comparison, is about as “renegade” as the Golden Globes’s lineup for Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy, which is why we’re not saying Nolan has no hope. Quite the contrary. We’re not stupid enough to ignore the fact that he got nominations from the DGA, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs, a feat also matched by Hooper, Fincher, and Black Swan’s Darren Aronofsky. David O. Russell came close to completing a hat trick for this category, but BAFTA opted to backslap Danny Boyle’s reliably OCD work on 127 BPM. The surprisingly robust box office numbers for the Coen brothers’ winningly linear western True Grit probably make them a far bigger threat to Russell’s berth in that fifth slot. Those two—er, three—duke it out for the last slot only because, while any other year we’d have regarded Aronofsky’s nomination chances about as good as Brian De Palma’s were for The Black Dahlia, Mr. Ass-to-Ass is an improbable lock. I guess we missed the memo that lesbian cunnilingus is the new Holocaust.