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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Best Director

Although not unheard of (it happened as recently as 2005), it’s unusual that all five Director nominees match the Picture nominees. More often than not there’s usually one director who is nominated for making a film that’s admirable, but perhaps not Academy friendly enough to secure a Picture nomination. What’s interesting to me about this year is that there are two directors – Boyle and Fincher – who have built careers making acclaimed films that are too dark, too weird, too subversive, too whatever for AMPAS, and whom you may have expected, at some point, to get that lone Director slot; who are responsible for the two films most widely embraced by the Academy this year.

The nominees:

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

At this point it seems impossible that anyone other than Boyle could win, but of course it isn’t over until it’s over. As a filmmaker, Boyle has been something of an acquired taste up until Slumdog, arguably the most accessible of all his films. Of the picture nominees, Slumdog is the one that stands out as least like its four companions, a colorful blast of energy standing shoulder to shoulder with films that can perhaps best be described as staid. Boyle has won a number of awards leading up to the Oscars, the most important of them the DGA. This is his first Oscar nomination.

Stephen Daldry, The Reader

Did anyone see this nomination coming? Even if you predicted The Reader for Picture, would you have guessed Daldry as a Director nominee? In hindsight, of course, it makes more sense as Daldry has a history of making handsome, Academy friendly films, including Billy Elliot and The Hours, both of which earned him Director nominations. I doubt very much that he’ll win, especially in light of the aggressive tactics lately adopted by Harvey Weinstein in pushing the film (which I’m starting to fear may hurt Kate Winslet’s Best Actress chances), which I think may alienate the Academy against The Reader.

David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Fincher is undoubtedly a great director, nominated this year for the film he seemed least comfortable directing. Compare the sleekness and assured storytelling of his previous films with the ungainliness of Button (and I say that as someone who liked the film), and you see a director cautiously stepping out into uncharted territory. Button is unlike any of his other films, but it’s very much the kind of film the AMPAS likes to honor: a big, Hollywood epic. If anyone is going to steal Boyle’s thunder, it’ll be Fincher. This is his first nomination.

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Howard is probably the safest choice of all the nominees, a Hollywood friendly, middle of the road filmmaker who makes inoffensive, unchallenging films. I’m kind of surprised that this is only his second nomination (I was sure that he’d been nominated for Apollo 13), but then again his films tend to be a little hit and miss. He has won previously (for A Beautiful Mind) and I wouldn’t expect that he’ll bring his tally to 2 this year.

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Van Sant is sort of like the point where Howard and Daldry meet Boyle and Fincher. He’s a director best admired for the smaller, more subversive films with which he began his career (and to which he’s returned in the last few years), but most awarded and honored for the period of his career where he leaned more towards the mainstream. Milk fits in more with those mainstream efforts, which I’m sure played no small part in the film garnering so many nominations. This is Van Sant’s second nomination, the first being for Good Will Hunting.

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