If there are some new faces on this year’s best director ballot, don’t mistake their presence as being an indication that the Academy is finally thinking outside the typical A-list box. This year’s lack of worthy selections simply left Oscar little choice, reflected by the fact that each of these directors’ films was also nominated for Best Picture. And let’s be honest, in any other year, “Capote” and “Munich” would have ended up merely liked, not lauded, by critics.
But what’s done is done. At least the right man will probably take Oscar home at the end of the night. Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) currently stands as the far-and-away favorite and has been since Oscar talk started brewing. Lee pocketed nearly all of the other award season hand outs, emerging victorious from the Golden Globes, Directors Guild Awards and National Board of Review, as well as a multitude of various film critic associations. The platitudes, if abundant, are well deserved – Lee deftly steers “Brokeback” clear of the romance’s potential schmaltz. The film ends up patient and lyrically understated. Though Lee freely explores the relationship’s aggressive physicality, the so-called controversy of the movie’s content is driven more by the media than stirred by the filmmaker himself.
A victory by George Clooney (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) would be no tragedy either. Although he is this group’s other justifiable candidate, Clooney will probably end up overlooked due to his better chances in the best original screenplay and best supporting actor categories. Oscar generally doesn’t care to show one man too much love, but Clooney’s concise, finely paced “Good Night” certainly merits it. His artistic decisions on the film’s visual impact alone set the work apart, unrolling its haze of ’50s cigarette smoke in rich black-and-white cinematography.
The efforts of the other contenders, while commendable, are certainly weaker. Take Bennett Miller: Frankly, his “Capote” was solid but only mildly engaging, and while Miller’s work is composed and fluid, the overall product lacks the necessary punch for Oscar. Furthermore, “Capote” is just about the only noteworthy credit to Miller’s name, which – though making his award-season success remarkable in this most name-driven of industries – significantly lowers his chances against the larger Hollywood figures of Lee and Clooney. The nomination alone will have to serve as Miller’s award.
The tremendous power of sheer name recognition in Hollywood is made even more obvious in the disappointing nomination of Steven Spielberg for “Munich.” The same film by a less-worshipped man (Miller, for example) would have been dismissed by far more critics as the mediocre muddle it really was, rambling in plot and unsure of its own point. Without Spielberg’s name on the credits, “Munich” would have roused only a fraction of the decidedly meager controversy it did excite. Besides, Spielberg already has two directing Oscars for far more memorable films (“Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”), and the Thalberg achievement award to boot. A victory here would only be an empty, repetitive recognition of his long-cemented Hollywood deity status. The nomination is confirmation enough.
The last entrant on this short ballot is perhaps a few decades from Spielberg’s level of industry importance, though certainly promising. Paul Haggis’s nomination is already a bit of a surprise – “Crash” might be a good film, but in a less polished way than the graceful drama of “Brokeback” and “Good Night.” Haggis seems to be emerging as a rising star on the quality-film scene, having written last year’s critically celebrated “Million Dollar Baby” as well as “Crash” itself.
Like Miller, the nomination alone should be his award, though Haggis’s IMDb.com profile revealed a dirty little career secret so wonderful it almost makes him worth rooting for – back in the ’80s, Haggis served as one of the original creators of Chuck Norris’s outstandingly awful “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Yep, you read correctly: The guy who created one of the worst television programs in the history of the medium might leave the Kodak Theater with the highest award for filmmaking in the industry. Even Hollywood couldn’t dream up a more poetic indication of the industry’s increasingly downward slide – when the future’s hope for quality looks to the past’s paramount example of crap, the outlook is bleak indeed.
Oscar Race 2006: Best Director
Ang Lee Brokeback Mountain
George Clooney Good Night, And Good Luck
Bennett Miller Capote
Steven Spielberg Munich
Paul Haggis Crash