Oscar Beat: The Best Director Race – Is the Cuaron vs. McQueen Showdown Inevitable?

     November 28, 2013


The Best Director Oscar category quite often mirrors the Best Picture category, with the winners in both matching up year after year.  That being said, it’s not wholly uncommon to see a split for one reason or another—in fact, it’s happened 22 times.  Sometimes the director of the Best Picture winner gets snubbed out of a nomination (see: Ben Affleck), sometimes heavy backdoor campaigning results in a split (see: Shakespeare in Love take Best Picture and Saving Private Ryan getting Best Director), and sometimes the Academy is simply not willing to award difficult material the grand prize (see: Brokeback Mountain losing Best Picture).  This year, however, we have a different scenario that could simply be boiled down to an incredibly tough choice: two excellent, groundbreaking films that both showcase directing at its finest.

The Best Picture showdown appears to be 12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity, and that same showdown is mirrored in the Best Director race.  Will there be a split?  Can someone like Paul Greengrass or David O. Russell pull an upset?  After the jump, we take a look at the current state of the Best Director race in the latest installment of Oscar Beat


gravity-alfonso-cuaron-george-clooney-set-imageAlfonso Cuaron – Gravity 

The word “masterpiece” gets thrown around much too often these days, but Gravity is a film that has garnered a hefty amount of well-deserved effusive praise.  Cuaron crafted a technical marvel that made even the most discerning of audiences feel the magic of moviemaking once again, and the Academy will no doubt be taking note of this spectacular accomplishment.  Moreover, this is very clearly a director-driven film.  Simply put, Gravity would not exist if it weren’t for the wonderfully innovative mind of Cuaron and his patience throughout the film’s nearly four-year development, production, and post-production.  A Best Director title would not be ill-fitting. 

Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave

With 12 Years a Slave, we have a wholly different yet equally impressive accomplishment.  British director Steve McQueen’s unflinching portrait of slavery is a devastatingly emotional experience brought to life brilliantly through his signature style, and, like Cuaron, the Academy will surely recognize the effort.  It’s no coincidence that Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are currently the two frontrunners to take home the Best Picture trophy, and it seems highly possible that we could see a split in which one film takes Best Picture and the other takes Best Director.  How it splits is anyone’s guess at this point.

Paul Greengrass – Captain Phillips

nebraska-bruce-dern-alexander-paynePaul Greengrass has been nominated for Best Director once before for his harrowing work on United 93, and he has a very good shot at landing a second nomination for this year’s Somali pirate drama Captain Phillips.  The film is shot in Greengrass’ signature documentary-like style that puts the audience right in the middle of the action, and he brings shades of grey to a story that could have—in the hands of a lesser director—been a straight good guys/bad guys/”hooray USA” story.

Alexander Payne – Nebraska

A five-time nominee and two-time winner (both for writing), Alexander Payne is a bit of an Academy favorite.  The director is back in the race once again with another character-driven story filled with equal parts humor and heart, and considering Nebraska’s focus on life in older age, it will likely be a hit with the Academy—a demographic that is largely made up of older white men.  Nebraska is a considerably smaller film than the others in the Best Director race, but it’s wise to keep an eye on Payne. 

David O. Russell – American Hustle

Though David O. Russell dabbled in more esoteric and obtuse territory with his earlier filmography, his last two pictures—The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook—have been considerably more commercial, and each garnered Russell a Best Director Oscar nomination.  American Hustle combines the casts of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and while early reactions are bit more reserved than the effusive praised heaped on SLP after its first screening, Hustle is no doubt a serious player in the race to come.  Whether the Academy will honor Russell with a third straight Best Director nomination remains to be seen, but his chances will become clearer as the film screens for more critics and Academy members. 

Major Threats

Joel and Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis

the-wolf-of-wall-street-leonardo-dicaprio-martin-scorseseIt’s best never to count out the Coen brothers, and that’s the case with this year’s Inside Llewyn Davis.  Though the film has had a long road to the awards campaign (it premiered back in May at the Cannes Film Festival), response remains positive.  It may not have as many passionate fans as Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, but the film remains a genuine contender in multiple categories, including Best Director.  The Academy sparked to the Coens thrice before with Best Director nods, and awarded them the trophy for 2007’s No Country for Old Men.  Some are describing Inside Llewyn Davis as a minor film in the brothers’ oeuvre, but a heavy presence in the impending critics groups’ awards could boost the brothers’ chances of landing a fourth Best Director nomination. 

Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

It’s also best never to count out Martin Scorsese, though it took the Academy decades to finally hand the legendary filmmaker a Best Director trophy.  The Wolf of Wall Street sees him navigating black comedy territory for the first time in a long while, and Wolf very much looks to be in the vein of the director’s classic Goodfellas.  That film earned him a Best Director nod, and while The Wolf of Wall Street hasn’t yet screened for critics (it will very, very soon), it sure looks like a similarly wild ride. 

John Lee Hancock – Saving Mr. Banks

The Academy is not above patting itself on the back, and indeed the past two Best Picture winners have portrayed Hollywood in a positive light.  As such, the Walt Disney/P.L. Travers story Saving Mr. Banks could be a favorite among Academy members, which means director John Lee Hancock also has a shot at a Best Director nomination.  Critics have been more restrained in praising the film and its merits, but it’s definitely one to keep an eye on as the awards season rolls forward. 

Possible Dark Horse

all-is-lost-robert-redfordJ.C. Chandor – All Is Lost

Last year the Academy surprised many by giving the young Benh Zeitlin a Best Director nod for his feature directorial debut Beasts of the Southern Wild.  As such, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for the Academy to recognize another young filmmaker for a daring piece of work, and J.C. Chandor certainly fits that bill.  The Margin Call director went out on a limb with All Is Lost by making a film with one character and almost no dialogue, but he stuck the landing and critics have taken notice not only of Robert Redford’s performance but of Chandor’s direction.  Looking at the lay of the land right now, Chandor feels like a very strong Dark Horse possibility. 

Spike Jonze – Her

Though more traditional filmmaking and stories are most often awarded by the Academy, every once and a while they’ll recognize something a little offbeat.  Spike Jonze landed a Best Director nomination for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, and he’s taken his offbeat storytelling by way of a romance between a man and his operating system in Her.  The film has been a huge hit with critics, and selling a love story between a man and a voice is no easy feat.  Her is a little out there for sure, but don’t be surprised to see Jonze’s name crop up over the next few months. 

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine 

It’s strange to consider a talent as large as Woody Allen a “dark horse” candidate for anything, but the very crowded 2014 Oscar race means stiff competition.  Blue Jasmine is sure to be recognized in the Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay categories, and though Allen shuns the Oscar ceremony altogether (he opts to stay home and watch basketball instead), the Academy continues to reward the legendary filmmaker.  There are plenty of other strong candidates for sure, but Allen remains a serious possibility for a Best Director nod for the excellent and affecting Blue Jasmine.


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