The Road to Oscar: Best Director

     February 22, 2013


For proof that 2012 was a nutty year for awards contenders, look no further than the Best Director category.  Over the past few days, we’ve been looking back how the ebbs and flows of the past 12 months have shaped the awards race in a number of categories, and one of the most dynamic shifts came with Best Director.  After the jump, we run down how the race for Oscar glory progressed over the past few months to give us the five nominees who will be vying for the gold on Oscar Sunday.  Hit the jump to read on.

the-dark-knight-rises-christopher-nolanPredicting the Best Director category normally goes hand-in-hand with predicting Best Picture, and it’s tough to get an idea of who the contenders might be until the awards season is in full swing.  That said, the summer did give us a couple of possible Oscar contenders, though their fate as viable candidates was far from sealed.  Following the hubbub over the Academy’s snub for The Dark Knight for Best Picture, we’ve seen a marked shift in how they approach awards season.  They expanded the Best Picture category to 10 contenders in order to allow more varied (read: commercial) fare to make the cut, and so all eyes were on director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy capper The Dark Knight Rises to see if it would be a major player in the awards race.

Though the film was met with generally positive reviews, The Dark Knight Rises didn’t receive the enthusiastic acclaim that The Dark Knight enjoyed, and most agreed that though it was a very good film, it wasn’t on the same level as Nolan’s 2008 superhero classic.  Pundits weren’t quick to write the film off completely with regards to awards season, but TDKR seemed destined to be more of a player in the technical categories rather than Best Picture.  While Nolan’s direction earned high praise, he was considered a longshot or dark horse for a Best Director nomination rather than a serious candidate.

ben-affleck-argo-set-imageAlso earning high marks in the summer was director Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.  Anderson enjoyed some of the best reviews of his career and, along with Nolan, became an early possible contender for a Best Director nomination.  Critics swooned for Moonrise Kingdom, praising Anderson’s singular vision for the tale of young love. As the fall season approached, however, Anderson and Nolan would soon find the Best Director field to be increasingly crowded.

After Argo’s premiere at the Telluride Film Festival launched it into early frontrunner status for Best Picture, director Ben Affleck was likewise lauded as the frontrunner for Best Director.  Affleck showed impeccable skill with his most accomplished film yet, turning in an incredibly well-crafted and intense thriller.  The film’s Hollywood aspects appealed directly to Academy voters, and while they love a good success story, the Academy isn’t always quick to recognize actors-turned-directors.  The question then became: Could Affleck really go all the way?

As the fall movie season marched on, a number of other serious Best Director candidates emerged.  Director David O. Russell’s romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook blew the roof off of the Toronto Film Festival and became the new Best Picture frontrunner, solidifying Russell’s status as a Best Director contender at the same time, though he was less of a threat to win given the film’s subdued and fairly straightforward nature.

paul-thomas-anderson-the-masterAttention was also firmly fixated on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master to see if the There Will Be Blood filmmaker had put together another serious awards challenger.  Response to the film as a whole was passionately polarized, and while the performances were universally praised, there was still a contingent of critics/pundits that found the film too convoluted or self-serious, placing the blame at Anderson’s feet.  Still, the auteur has legions of fans inside and outside of the filmmaking community, so he remained a possible candidate for a Best Director nomination slot.

October turned up a somewhat unlikely candidate, as previous Best Director winner Robert Zemeckis made his long-awaited return to live-action with Flight.  The film garnered generally positive reviews and Denzel Washington’s lead performance was rightly singled out, but the pic lacked the passionate fanbase needed to propel it to viable Best Picture contender status, which also made Zemeckis a longshot for a nomination.

Moving into November, all eyes were on two veteran filmmakers with previous Best Director wins already under their belt.  Ang Lee is one of the most beloved directors in the filmmaking community, and after a long, passionate development process, he finally brought his adaptation of the novel Life of Pi to the big screen.  The pic was met with an enthusiastic response from critics and Academy members, with heavy praise heaped on Lee’s masterful, innovative, and gorgeous direction.  Lee very well could have secured his frontrunner status right then and there if it weren’t for The Beard.

life of pi ang leeIt was widely known that Steven Spielberg had been trying to get a biopic of Abraham Lincoln off the ground for a decade, and so anticipation for Lincoln was incredibly high.  When the film first screened, not only did Daniel Day-Lewis enjoy rave reviews for his performance, but Spielberg was hailed for his restrained, grounded, and powerful approach to the story.  The film really was a marriage between Spielberg’s direction and Tony Kushner’s verbose script, and The Beard jettisoned his somewhat melodramatic style and sweeping tone in favor of a more straightforward approach that almost felt theater-like.

Though Spielberg’s War Horse earned its fair share of criticism the year before, Lincoln was hailed as the director’s best film in years, and a majority of the praise was aimed squarely at Mr. Spielberg, making the veteran director our new Oscar frontrunner.

Heading into December, anticipation for director Tom Hooper’s musical adaptation Les Miserables had been high for months.  Given its pedigree and overall Oscar-friendly nature coupled with the fact that Hooper was coming off a Best Director win only two years earlier, many assumed that Les Miserables would be a major awards contender.  When the film finally screened, response was surprisingly polarized.  Those that loved it, loved it, but those that hated it, haaaated it, and the disdain was aimed squarely at Hooper for his atypical directorial choices—namely, his over-reliance on extreme close-ups.  Though it had previously been a safe bet that Hooper would be a major player for the eventual Oscar gold, he soon was relegated to “possible nominee” status.

kathryn-bigelow-zero-dark-thirtyAs one contender dipped, another rose.  There was so much secrecy surrounding The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow’s new drama Zero Dark Thirty that early pundits didn’t really know what to make of Bigelow’s awards chances.  Based on the logline, the film seemed like it could be a straightforward thriller with some slight topical undertones.  However, when the film was finally shown to critics and Academy members, it was clear that Bigelow had crafted an incredibly smart commentary on America’s place in the world post-9/11.  Oh, and it was also a highly effective and wildly entertaining procedural thriller.  By providing a powerhouse follow up to The Hurt Locker, Bigelow was poised to give Affleck and Spielberg a run for their money at the top of the Best Director contenders’ pile as it looked entirely possible that she could nab her second Best Director trophy in just three years.

Of course, in the weeks following Zero Dark Thirty’s release the film became bogged down in controversy.  Numerous talk show segments were devoted to discussing whether or not the film advocated the use of torture and Bigelow was forced to defend the film’s intentions time and time again instead of discussing the larger issues that the pic raised or the intense process of putting it together.  As the weeks went on, Bigelow started to look less likely as a potential winner, and she might have to settle for a mere nomination in lieu of a win by Affleck or Spielberg.

benh-zeitlin-beasts-of-the-southern-wildWhen the Directors Guild Awards nominations were announced, it looked as if the contenders for the Best Director Oscar had been solidified.  Ben Affleck, Steven Spielberg, and Kathryn Bigelow were considered near-locks for a nomination, with Ang Lee and Tom Hooper assumed to occupy the vulnerable seats.  How wrong we were…

When the Best Director Oscar nominations were announced, virtually everyone was shocked to see that neither Affleck nor Bigelow had made the cut.  Steven Spielberg landed a nomination for Lincoln and Ang Lee—an Academy favorite—was recognized for Life of Pi.  Filling out the other three spots were possible candidate David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, unlikely contender Michael Haneke for Amour, and nearly impossible contender Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

These unexpected Oscar nominations for Best Director were likely the result of a scheduling shift.  This year, Oscar nomination ballots had to be submitted before the Directors Guild Awards nominees were announced, which meant that Oscar voters were no longer influced by the DGA shortlist.  As a result, we saw the director’s branch of the Academy voting straight from the heart.

michael-haneke-amourRussell’s nod made sense given how widely loved Silver Linings Playbook was, and Michael Haneke had been a dark horse candidate leading up to the nominations as most considered Amour the “artsy favorite” of the 2012 awards season much like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in 2011.  Zeitlin admittedly came out of left field, but Beasts’ bounty of Oscar nominations made it clear that the Academy really fell for the Sundance indie.

As we look towards Oscar Sunday, a rare scenario has materialized.  Ben Affleck won the DGA for Best Director, so for once the winner of the DGA is not even nominated for the Oscar.  That leaves the field fairly open, and any one of the five candidates has a genuine shot at the win: Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, David O. Russell, Michael Haneke, and Benh Zeitlin.  We’ll discover the victor in just a couple of days.

Check back tomorrow as we close out our Road to Oscar feature with a look at the Best Picture category.  If you missed any of our previous articles, peruse the links below:


Latest News