Oscars Watch 2017: The Less-Depressing Campaign: Best Director

Alright, Best Picture, let’s talk…

What? This is Best Director? But they look the exact same…

Really? Well, okay.

So, Best Director. The dirty secret of this category is that it’s oftentimes “Best Picture 2,” less about recognizing the specific voicings and skills that go into Directing and more about “Well, that was pretty good, so they must be good too, right?”

You’re usually picking from among the Best Picture list to the point where it is considered rare to pick up a Best Director nomination without being nominated for Best Picture. It usually happens with foreign films that aren’t usually put in the Best Picture race and has grown less and less common over the years. 2014’s Foxcatcher is one of the few American films to receive the honor and at the time it had been 6 years since the last time a film had received the nomination without consideration for Best Picture.

The other rub with this category is that the relationship goes both ways. It’s also rare enough to win Best Picture without winning Best Director (63 out of 88 have won both Picture and Director) to the point where we have a term for it. That would be the Picture/Director split. In recent memory, Ang Lee is the king of this, having earned both his Directing Oscars on a split. We also had it happen last year with the Directing Oscar going to Innaritu (Seriously!?) and the Picture Oscar going to Spotlight. 

Usually, a split occurs when the Best Director favorite is a more technically able achievement, the often accused Most Director award. These are films like Gravity or The Revenant which may not have had strong and relatable stories like the Best Picture nominees, but whose technical achievements or difficulty are too hard to deny for the Academy to give it to the more workman or less openly impressive directorial work of the Best Picture favorite.

But I don’t think we’ll see that this year, as I explain below.


Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Martin Scorsese, Silence

So, for this one, I’m combining the list of who I 100% think is getting a Best Picture nomination with the clearly big sort of directorial efforts that get these nominations.

The easiest to explain is Silence. Like, I said on Best Picture, it’s Marty. Young directors wish they could be as vital as he is, I’ve got absolutely no doubt he gets put in here.

Next up, Lonergan. Manchester by the Sea is a critical darling and a work attracting a lot of attention. While a quieter piece in terms of pyrotechnics, I’m assuming, Lonergan could get in on the strength of his work with the actors as well as the tone management. The Academy likes putting in a smaller one in terms of what it makes the director manage, and the much-loved Manchester by the Sea could be the one.

Jenkins is a current hot topic thanks to the surprise success of Moonlight (I hate that we say surprise. Making good movies for audiences that don’t see themselves on screen? Recipe for success). Moonlight is an extraordinary and very technical work, the kind of thing that, while never showy, keeps Jenkins’ steady hand right up front. The effusive praise for this film and the challenging structure and constantly in motion poetic nature of the camera, combined with announcing the next great Director, is a recipe for success.

Then, of course, Damien Chazelle. Look, I made all the case up there that Best Director usually correlates with Best Director. I’ve made no small noise that I think La La Land is the odds-on favorite for Best Picture, so of course, I think its director is the odds-on favorite for Best Director. I think the film is definitely a technically impressive enough work (considering the buzz he already had for the lower-budget Whiplash) and the Academy is dying to reward another musical. Obviously, a lot could change, but it’s Chazelle’s to lose this year.


Denzel Washington, Fences
Pablo Larrain, Jackie
Jeff NicholsLoving
Garth Davis, Lion
Ben Affleck, Live by Night

So, for those of you paying attention, I said there were four locks for Best Director, which is a five-person category. That means everyone here is competing for the last slot, so let’s go over their cases.

Denzel is a Hollywood favorite and Fences looks to be ready to make a splash this Awards season. If it’s well-liked enough, I see no reason it won’t go in. Denzel has never been particularly distinguished as a Director, so if his work is anonymous, that might end up as the only thing that keeps him from this slot over someone louder.

Larrain is a big question mark. I’m still curious how the Academy receives Jackie as a film and receives Larrain’s style on this movie. If the reception is rapturous for it, Larrain might be someone to keep an eye on. This isn’t necessarily a thought he’ll get in, but like Jackie, it’s something to keep an eye on.

I think Davis is similar to above. Top of the Lake is gorgeous, so you know the guy can direct.If Lion is well-received, then he might ride a sort of middle of the road consensus vote to make his way in. Not necessarily a maybe, but worth keeping an eye on.

Nichols is a long running favorite director’s director and Loving‘s simple, muscular work might be what it takes to get him in the conversation. I think this one is gonna end up being an Oscar darling. The only rub is if Nichols’ film and its apparent domesticity ends up failing to inspire voters over something bigger and flashier.

Then Ben Affleck. I would certainly be down, mostly because Affleck is a fantastic director who seems to have made a prestige career out of really well put together meat-and-potatoes genre pictures and I can think of nothing I’d more want to support. We’ll see how Live by Night is, but the need to compensate him for not getting a nod for Argo might kick in here.

If you ask me now? I’d say Denzel, but let’s see how these films shape up.


Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation
Seriously, any woman

For all the talented folks vying, this race isn’t gonna have room for complicated men. So, Parker and Gibson aren’t looking talented enough to overcome that. There’s no absolute need to recognize them.

I’m just as shocked about Ang Lee. The man has been a perennial Best Director nominee, but the queasiness of his Billy Lynn’s experiment is going to ultimately do him more harm than good. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

Also, by this point, you’ll probably notice I haven’t put any women. Yeah, that’s fucked up. There have been some great films by women this year. American Honey, The Invitation, or Queen of Katwe just off the top of my head and I’ve heard great things about the upcoming Edge of Seventeen and the currently released Certain Women and White Girl. But the films aren’t the “important” kind that the Academy recognizes because women aren’t given the chance to make those. Queen of Katwe was the closest, and should be in this conversation, but appears to have come out with a tragic whisper. So support your director ladies so that one day I’ll actually be able to talk about something besides a whole bunch of dudes here.


Best Picture:

Add Hell or High Water in to the Maybe Things column: I’m still not necessarily sold that this movie doesn’t become a Sicario, a well-loved genre film that ends up being ignored for the big ones come Awards time. But a lot of reputable sources think this could be a major Best Picture contender, so let me put it in that slot.

NEXT TIME: Best Animated Feature Film