The most pleasant surprise of this awards season has been the widespread embrace of Her, a film that seemed a bit like a bland “Oscar movie” in its marketing, didn’t feel like one at all amid the actual experience of watching it, then wound up something of a guild darling with a heap of critical support. Both the Producers Guild and the Writers Guild have shown their love for this swoony, very-near-future heartbreaker, and it’s wildly admired by everyone from the National Board of Review to the Hollywood Foreign Press, who tossed it a Best Screenplay trophy at Sunday’s Golden Globes. But what of its adorably odd director, Spike Jonze? Having been snubbed by the Directors Guild, whose members nominated Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), David O. Russell (American Hustle), and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), can Jonze still sneak into Oscar’s final five? He’s done it once before, with 1999’s Being John Malkovich, and if he is indeed this category’s spoiler, he has the benefit of statistics behind him: Director nods from the DGA and Oscar have only matched up three times in the last 15 years, thanks to overlapping, but differing, voting bodies that number more than 10,000 and fewer than 400, respectively. A work of personal, consummate vision, Her may be the film whose maker shakes up this race come Thursday morning.
The head-scratchers, then, involve who Jonze is bumping out of the DGA’s quintet, and which other hopefuls he’s beating to the finish line. Last year’s shocking omissions of Ben Affleck (Argo) and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) may have marked some newfound boldness within the director’s branch, but I don’t think any pundit has the guts to count out Cuarón, McQueen, or Russell at this point, and it’s likely the first two will be duking it out for the win. The ever-revered Scorsese has a sharply divisive film on his hands, but it seems the notion of “satirical brilliance” is outweighing that of “debauchery endorsement.” That leaves Greengrass, whose Tom Hanks-starrer may well be liked enough to keep him in the game, but who seems to hold the most precarious position. If he’s to be unseated, I don’t think it’ll be by Joel and Ethan Coen, whose critically lauded Inside Llewyn Davis just doesn’t seem to be sticking with major awards bodies. It’s quite possible that another Academy favorite, Alexander Payne, could hear his name called for Nebraska, a film that will surely have multiple nominations elsewhere, but enthusiasm for that movie feels a bit middling too. So the edge goes to Jonze, who couldn’t be more deserving. And if I had a ballot, I’d also pencil in Cuarón for his spectacular minimalism; Russell for getting his gonzo groove back; Xavier Dolan for floridly helming Laurence Anyways, my favorite film of 2013; and Harmony Korine for composing the DayGlo masterpiece that is Spring Breakers.