Oscar Breakdown: Best Director

By  · Published on February 25th, 2011

If there’s one thing that’s really great about the Academy Awards it’s the manner in which they decide who gets nominated and, ultimately, who wins for each category. It makes little sense to have directors vote on who did the best acting, or musicians deciding on who had the most splendid photography, or screenwriters deciding who made the best non-scripted picture. Professionals in their field decide on which other professionals in their same field did the most exemplary work to represent their profession.

And thank God, because I can’t imagine how you would define what constitutes great directing. The job encompasses so much that great directing can be equally applied to someone obsessively anal about their “vision” just as much as someone who relies on spontaneity and ad-lib to achieve the best results. It can be applied to someone with incredible photographic technique and an eye for scene setup, and another who seems to have little regard for visual appeal. As the matter of fact, as of last year it no longer even matters whether you have a penis or not.

I absolutely have no clue what constitutes great directing despite having my own opinion, which carries no weight because I’ve never done it in my life. I probably couldn’t direct traffic let alone tell someone to film me doing it from a specific spot and focus on my anxiety in close-up and then cut to a slow-mo clip of me weeping when drivers don’t pay attention to me. If I could do that then maybe I’d have an idea what a great director really does.

Thankfully, I don’t have to as the Best Director is decided upon by others who have been there, done it and conquered it in their own way to acknowledge how difficult it must have been to focus all collaborators’ attention to the right areas at the right times to arrive altogether at the same, desired destination; which is ultimately arriving at a final product they can all be proud of.

Here are this year’s nominees for Best Director, with my prediction in red:

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

Why He Was Nominated

Telling the story of a troubled ballerina struggling to find her inner place of pure passion to express as the characterization of Swan Lake’s Black Swan, Aronofsky employed a very reserved usage of visual effects to intersperse within this psychological tale as the lead character gradually becomes further consumed by her own sexual repression and torment, until it finally escalates to being uncontrollable.

Much like his prior pictures Aronofsky lets the performances take center stage, and he works his visuals around them to form a beautiful, and dark complementary experience of performance and spectacle.

Why He Might Win

Though this is his first official nomination at the Academy Awards his name and presence has been felt to make him almost seem like a veteran of the ceremony. His pictures tend to get recognized (though usually in acting) and represented in a major category and he’s often considered as amongst, if not the most interesting filmmaker of his generation. Considering there really doesn’t seem to be an absolute shoe-in for Director and considering the power of the almost impossible to explain box-office success for Black Swan, (considering it’s an R-Rated psychological thriller about ballet) it’s hard to overlook how much of an imprint Aronofsky left on his film turning out the way that it did. He’s certainly representing the film that’s much more difficult to try and forget and that lingering feeling is what has served other filmmakers in the past who walked away with a directing trophy without the Best Picture statuette.

Why He Might Not Win

Even though he may have created the more unforgettable picture, it’s still a psychological thriller which rarely wins anything of major significance at awards shows, even if they were incredibly successful at the box office and have a lot of fan support. Throw in that Aronofsky is still considered a young talent with a lot of potentially great films to come; there’s always the feeling that they can award him later. He’s finally broken in to get his name in the mix. Once that happens it gets much easier to remain in the conversation and continue to get noticed with future projects.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

David O. Russell, The Fighter

Why He Was Nominated

Where many filmmakers have an ability to insert good comedy into situations they don’t appear easily inserted into, Russell has an ability to find comedy in places you wouldn’t think they could be found. While The Fighter probably doesn’t fall into a comical category it’s not without its fairly hilarious moments that are honest and natural. Combine that embracing of comedy intermixed within a tragic story about family dysfunction by excessive trust and drug abuse, and an uplifting one about the rise of a hard-working professional boxer and his brother – all without feeling at all the shift in tone from one extreme to the other – and you have a prime example of a filmmaker who understands the nuances of what can work, and how it can.

Why He Might Win

Possibly more so than any other filmmaker on this list Russell showed an ability to command and tame subject matter that flew every which way, but always seemed to remain precisely on course – which is remarkable and not to be understated. Factor in also his being able to manage a relatively large ensemble cast and capture some dynamite performances on top of some expertly choreographed boxing sequences and you have an achievement that isn’t easy to look right through.

Why He Might Not Win

To put it in boxing terms Russell, unfortunately, doesn’t earn any style points. The naturalism of the picture and focus mainly on the characters doesn’t help him in that you don’t necessarily “see” something spectacular. Despite it not wanting to be the fact that the picture isn’t showy, or flashy makes it more difficult not to look at something as visually splendid or unique as the other films in this category and associate the visuals with the work of the director.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

David Fincher, The Social Network

Why He Was Nominated

Long considered as one of the most exciting filmmakers to come from the 90s generation he’s displayed an aptitude to apply a signature bleak visual aesthetic in a wide array of genres from serial killer police procedurals to time spanning romantic fantasies, making each one compelling and stylistically his own.

With The Social Network he was able to hone in on a story to entertain audiences about a subject and personality that on paper is worthy of a heavy eye-roll. Yet, with a sure hand and provided with an engagingly verbal script he was able to help lead his actors to a performance well of unforgettable dialogue exchanges while molding his eye for dreary lighting compositions to fit the tone of the story and feel unobtrusive.

Why He Might Win

Right now, all things point to Fincher. He took home the Golden Globe, Online Film Critics, and National Board of Review for Best Director and he falls right in between the range of newcomer and veterans that have already won, making him the easiest of a relatively close bunch of competitors representing equally strong films to want to give the award to as he’s been nominated already and not won. It’s also likely that this may be his best shot at an award as this may end up being his most Oscar-friendly picture.

Why He Might Not Win

Oddly, this may not make much difference but I feel like him winning here may depend on how much The Social Network was voted for as Best Picture. This year feels similar to the awards of 2000 when there were a trio of pictures (Gladiator, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Traffic) alternating between them as winners without one dominating over the other. The idea is that a voter may vote against Fincher if they voted for The Social Network for Best Picture because they want to see another of the films they feel strongly about receive its due credit.

Previous Nominations: 1

Previous Wins: 0

Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

The relative newcomer/new name in the group, Hooper made his biggest marks thus far in his direction of some widely acclaimed television mini-series (John Adams, Elizabeth I). With The King’s Speech he continues his apparent fascination and interest in period dramas and his working with well regarded, seasoned actors with dazzling on screen chemistry to fit into his attractive representation of WWII era Britain.

The actors may be the showpiece of this heartwarming, touching, and often quite funny picture, but a keen sense of focus of where the story needs to go and how to get there through both visual expression and story progression lies heavily on the shoulders of the filmmaker and Hooper did a marvelous job of recognizing necessity and not being over-indulgent in any area where things could have easily gone sappy.

Why He Might Win

Somewhat for the same reason why David Fincher might lose. The King’s Speech is going in to these awards with some big momentum. It’s an audience favorite, a critical favorite, it’s memorable, warm and leaves you with a positive and light feeling of pleasure when you leave the auditorium. Therefore, if voters feel The Social Network (or another film) deserves the award for Best Picture I can see the director voters giving Hooper his due as helming the other film they feel equally as strong about.

Why He Might Not Win

His sheer lack of notoriety. Of all of the names on this list his is the least recognizable as he’s been mainly doing (stellar) television work for the majority of his career. The King’s Speech is only his 3rd motion picture and neither of the first two were highly acclaimed and sought out films. Of the 5 nominees he probably isn’t the least likely to win because of the powerful attraction of his film, but he’s very much the John Madden (Shakespeare In Love) of this year’s group in that his picture is very well regarded. However, there are certainly more standout directorial efforts in this group.

Previous Nominations: 0

Previous Wins: 0

Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit

Once again the Coens are back in the mix of stellar directorial achievements, only this time (for the first time) they’re associated with what is undoubtedly the most popcorny flick in the group. For years they’ve been arthouse darlings due to their somewhat eccentric and irreverent flavor of humor, toying with classic narrative structure, and displaying some striking and beautiful photographic compositions with the aid of a few highly regarded cinematographers on their films.

Now, the Coens have finally found that story that gave them the pleasure of being themselves and doing things their way while appealing to the masses, and they appealed to the masses massively with True Grit as it’s become one of the highest grossing pictures of the year despite having one of the smallest budgets of the year. For the first time in decades the American Western is not only strong, it’s popular.

Why They Might Win

They’re familiar to the Academy, they’ve once again proved their unique ability to produce a great looking picture that’s as engaging verbally and story-wise as it is hypnotically gorgeous, and True Grit is coming in to the ceremony with American public fan support at the box office and critical acceptance rivaled only by Toy Story 3.

Why They Might Not Win

They’ve already won and with other equally deserving filmmakers in this group with equally impressive films (arguably) The Coens and True Grit will probably get overlooked this awards season in nearly every category except for cinematography. Their real victory is that their film made a crapload of well-deserved money. I never thought I’d be able to say this, but The Coens can basically use the Steven Spielberg form of coping by just telling the other nominees “Yeah, you won, but we not only got nominated, our film took your film’s lunch money.”

Previous Nominations: 2 for directing (one was technically Joel Coen only for Fargo) 4 for writing, 2 for producing, 2 for editing.

Previous Wins: 1 for Directing, 2 for writing, 1 for producing

Who do you want to win?

Check out our predictions for:

Best Adapted Screenplay

Cole’s $100,000 Oscar Predictions

Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actor

Best Original Score

Best Animated Feature

Best Lead Actor

Best Lead Actress