It’s a good thing the Best Director category didn’t go the way of Best Picture to accommodate more nominees, because this year’s campaign has only ever been a three-man race even in its most competitive stages. The two non-contenders are Alexander Payne (Nebraska) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), who’ve each enjoyed a nearly spotless recent track record for landing in the category. Payne has received nods for his last three films, while five of Scorsese’s last six non-documentary films have earned the legendary director an aisle seat at the ceremony. But with only one win between the two filmmakers (Scorsese’s The Departed) in that stretch, their nominations likely speak more to the compulsory voting habits and pre-digested tastes of Academy voters than to the merits of either Nebraska or The Wolf of Wall Street. And though David O. Russell has been on a nomination hot streak of late, with American Hustle capping a trio of Best Director nominations over the last four years for the filmmaker, his chances, which seemed much higher back when his crime caper stormed onto the scene last December, have since fizzled along with the film.
Alexander Payne (#1–10 of 21)
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.
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Lately, the conversations I’ve been having with people about Alexander Payne’s Nebraska keep coming back to the same thing: Payne’s depictions of Midwesterners, which, in his latest, are more ostensibly—and, to many, offensively—cartoonish than ever before. I’ve heard some folks describe the characters in Nebraska as loving renderings of those in and around the auteur’s home state, while others have announced outright that Payne’s employment of stereotypes make his movie truly hateable. I personally found that the deplorable decisions Payne does make (such as planting his viewers inside a g-darn TV set, and making them gawk at lounging Nebraskans with voyeuristic judgment), are eventually alleviated by the layered character revealed by the film itself. But what matters in regard to this movie’s awards potential is whether the naysayers have loud enough voices to counter the din of approval. And, at this point, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Even critics and pundits left squirmy by Payne’s captured-in-grayscale rednecks have largely not allowed the caveat to ruin the party, and as for industry types, most seem over the moon about Payne’s well-intended, yet characteristically barbed, heart. Moreover, enthusiasm for the film’s performances, particularly that of “long-overdue” and “under-appreciated” Bruce Dern, appears strong enough to eclipse pesky, nitpicky hang-ups (you should have seen the film’s rapturous reception at the New York Film Festival).
There’s homage, and then there’s the new poster for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which couldn’t be more evocative of David Lynch’s Eraserhead if it featured a lizard-baby’s scissor-stabbed organs. It’s supremely interesting that the folks behind Nebraska turned to the world of Lynch for inspiration, since few would think to connect the surrealist auteur to Payne’s deadpan Americana. But maybe there is something here, beyond these one-sheets’ high-contrast black-and-white, and beyond the shocks of hair that respectively define Jack Nance and Bruce Dern’s characters, that link the filmmakers’ works. Though more darkly and elliptically inclined, Lynch is as much a surveyor of Anytown, USA as Payne will ever be, and the latter has offered his share of bluntly ironic, borderline-Lynchian character quirks. What’s most interesting here is the implication that Nebraska, like Eraserhead, is, on some level, a nightmare.
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The men in Alexander Payne’s movies are on a constant journey. In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson’s Warren experiences late-life enlightenment when he travels cross-country to his daughter’s wedding. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church’s characters experience an entire midlife crisis as they explore central California’s wine country. Most recently, George Clooney’s Matt King traveled the Hawaiian islands in an attempt to reconnect with his daughters and reconcile with his seriously injured wife in The Descendants. (You have to go back to Payne’s first two features, Citizen Ruth and Election, to find female protagonists who were also seen at difficult crossroads.) In the process, Payne has become one of American cinema’s most respected chroniclers of male discontent and awakening. If his latest, Nebraska, doesn’t alter the formula, it also does so on a more refreshingly modest scale than that of The Descendants.
Conventional wisdom suggested that adaptations of the biggest bestsellers would make up much of this year’s shortlist—barring, perhaps, the sourly gynecidal Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its nightstick-in-the-naughty-hole vengeance. So it’s something of a blessing that the 100-odd-page translations of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, whose own wisdom is quite conventional indeed, weren’t counted among those movies’ recognized achievements. The best-known tome to see its adaptation make it into the final five is John le Carré’s inimitable classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, just one reason this category boasts one of the 2012 Oscar season’s finest lineups. Since politics can never be ignored, it’s worth noting that Tinker Tailor has an extra edge here considering nominee Peter Straughan’s wife and co-writer, Bridget O’Connor, passed away before the film hit theaters. But then again, such a sad truth may be precisely what got the unsure hopeful over the nomination hump, and a second sympathy-boosted triumph doesn’t seem likely.
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- Peter Straughan
- steve zaillian
- stieg larsson
- the descendants
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- tinker tailor soldier spy
Less a race than a ping-pong match, this year’s battle for Best Director has shifted favor from an obvious lock to a popular spoiler and back again, leaving us one more not-quite-certain category to pay attention to on February 26. Not long after The Artist stormed out of Cannes, Michel Hazanavicius established a surge of directorial momentum that hardly let up, its reach even cracking the Indie Spirit lineup, which isn’t exactly known to invite the Oscar frontrunner to the party. But as the season stretched on, and a certain genre-defier (kids’ flick? Biopic?) began performing exceedingly better than expected, a Picture/Director split seemed more and more probable, with Martin Scorsese potentially benefiting from Hazanavicius’s lack of notoriety. A Golden Globe win strengthened suspicions about the Hugo helmer, as did a subsequent tally of 11 Oscar noms for the 3D cineaste fantasy. Could this be the year the Academy honors both men who blew the industry a nostalgic kiss? One of them certainly has the firm voter support to make the generosity possible. Still, as everyone from the DGA to the folks at BAFTA will testify, odds are the rise of Hugo was a mere bump on The Artist’s fated path to glory, which now looks like it may encompass Best Actor too.