The Best Director category has been a perennial favorite at the Academy Awards, honoring those responsible for creating a film’s look and developing its tone. This year, the five men vying for the directing trophy share two things in common — they are all Oscar veterans (winners or past nominees) and the films they are nominated for are complex character dramas.
It’s a long-held Oscar tradition that four of the five nominated directors are the ones behind the movies up for Best Picture. The fifth nominee is often a wild card, whose film is not up for the top prize but for smaller awards. This year, Academy members favored Mike Leigh’s helming skills on “Vera Drake” over Marc Forster’s manipulative and superficial style on the glossy “Finding Neverland.”
Leigh has been an Academy favorite for quite some time — even though he’s never won, Leigh has been nominated three times before: in 2000 he earned a Best Original Screenplay nod for “Topsy-Turvy” and in 1997 he received writing and directing nods for “Secrets & Lies.” With “Vera Drake,” Leigh has crafted a masterful, multilayered character study of a female abortionist in 1950s London. “Drake” is truly one of Leigh’s most heartbreaking and grim films but plays to his strengths — it features fully formed characters, flawless performances and controversial subject matter that is handled appropriately. Leigh won’t win the Oscar for directing, but there’s a strong chance the Academy will award him Best Original Screenplay for the film.
Taylor Hackford’s nomination surprised many, as did the overwhelming support his pet project “Ray” received from the Academy, with six nominations. Hackford, who won in 1979 for his short film “Teenage Father,” makes his portrait of the late musician Ray Charles an exercise in tedium. While the filmmaker is able to draw strong performances out of his actors and makes a competent narrative out of Charles’s womanizing and drug addiction, the movie is ultimately a conventional biopic and isn’t as inspirational as it seems. The only win “Ray” seems destined for is Best Actor.
By taking in two nods for “Sideways,” the dramedy following two friends through California’s wine country, Alexander Payne’s status as one of America’s best storytellers has been cemented. The brilliance of Payne’s directing is how he masterfully balances organic comedy with realistic, personal conflict — not an easy task. As fabulous as Payne’s directing is, it seems that like Leigh, Payne will win an Oscar for his adapted screenplay, which he co-wrote with Jim Taylor (the two were up for an Oscar four years ago for their “Election” screenplay).
However, this year’s race is really only between two filmmakers: the beloved but previously snubbed Martin Scorsese and industry veteran Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, who won two Oscars in 1993 for his western “Unforgiven” and was nominated last year for “Mystic River,” is the current front-runner for “Million Dollar Baby.” Eastwood won the esteemed Director’s Guild Of America prize, which has an outstanding track record: Out of its previous 57 winners, only six have failed to claim an Oscar.
Other than directing, Eastwood is up for two other honors this year — one for Best Actor and the other for Best Picture (Eastwood was a co-producer on the film). Out of the three, Eastwood deserves a golden statuette the most for his directing prowess. While “Million Dollar Baby” may seem like a boxing drama, Eastwood has actually made a riveting story about three desperate souls. The movie is a classic example of efficient filmmaking; each scene serves a purpose and not a single frame is wasted. Eastwood keeps the focus on the main characters, stages unflinching boxing bouts and uses lighting and shadows in perhaps the best form ever put to celluloid. Out of the 25 films Eastwood has directed, this is his best work behind the camera.
Scorsese’s nomination for “The Aviator” is his seventh, and that could prove to be a lucky number. His other nominations include four for directing, and two for screenplay writing. It would be nice to see Scorsese win an Oscar, since he certainly deserves one, but “The Aviator” doesn’t represent his absolute best work. With this biopic covering 20 years in the life of mogul Howard Hughes, Scorsese proves yet again that he is an actor’s director and is willing to tackle more difficult subject matter. While the film has plenty of intricate details, it is filled with too much visual spectacle. Scorsese undermines many of the film’s subtleties and lets the story go on for too long. Truthfully, the iconic filmmaker should have been nominated and won for “Taxi Driver” almost thirty years ago.
At this point, it seems like a lock that Eastwood will win for Best Director, and he certainly deserves it the most out of this year’s nominees — no other film this year comes close to capturing the same intense, raw emotion that “Million Dollar Baby” captures. However, Scorsese could pull an unsurprising upset that would most likely result in a standing ovation and one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Academy Awards.
And the nominees are…
Clint Eastwood – “Million Dollar Baby”
Taylor Hackford – “Ray”
Mike Leigh – “Vera Drake”
Alexander Payne -“Sideways”
Martin Scorsese -“The Aviator”
Clint Eastwood will win and should win