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The nominees:

  • Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
  • Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
  • David Fincher, The Social Network
  • Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
  • David O. Russell, The Fighter

Adam

Film Director: a person who directs the actors and crew in the making of a film. They control a film’s artistic and dramatic aspects, while guiding the technical crew and actors. They often develop the vision for a film and carry the vision out, deciding how the film should look.

This is the definition of what a film director’s job is from the source of all knowledge – Wikipedia. I see a director as the story teller. Screen writers write the story, but they are brought to life by the director’s vision. The better the story, the easier it is for the story teller to make the story real/interesting/good. Ultimately, it is the director’s decision how the shots are setup, how the actors act (through endless takes if necessary), and how the final version of the movie works.

I have come to the conclusion, after years of experience, that less than 5% of the Academy has any idea of what a director does or what a good one looks like. One has only to look at the movies nominated this year to see the truth in this. The Academy also has a strong case of envy when it comes to Christopher Nolan. Regardless of how original you think the script is, Inception was easily the best directed movie of the year. Of course, that makes no difference to the Academy as it doesn’t even make the top 5 in their eyes. Let’s take a look at who they thought did better.

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

Let me first say that I really liked The Wrestler. I thought Aronofsky did a terrific job of creating a compelling character study of a washed up pro wrestler. Black Swan was less impressive. Part of this was due to a weak script, but it wasn’t that bad. The acting is really what saved this movie from failure. Natalie Portman did an amazing job and absolutely deserves an Oscar. Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel (as usual) both put on very strong performances – I actually like Mila more than many of the Supporting Actress nominees. That being said, this isn’t a very good movie and most of it is due to Aronofsky’s directing. Portman’s decent into madness seems almost sloppy. There were definitely compelling scenes (e.g. the finger/toe nail and dressing room scenes), however in an effort to raise audience tension/ anxiety, Aronofsky resorts to directing and camera techniques that lead more to motion sickness than to tension.

David O. Russel, The Fighter

This is possibly the worst directed film of the year. There are really only two options when considering how this film was nominated: a.) Academy members thought they were voting for the Razzies, b.) the Academy is populated by a bunch of morons. The script for this film was atrocious, but that only excuses you so far. The fight scenes in this movie (barring the final one) are utter garbage. It’s like Russel has never seen a well done fight scene…ever. I can only assume this was nominate to piss off Christopher Nolan that much more.

Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech was one of my favorite movies of the year. An extremely entertaining movie that succeeded despite the fact that the premise is overcoming a speech impediment (not exactly gripping material). However, as much as I liked the film, its real strengths are in the script and the acting. I am thrilled it was nominated, but one of the most impressive things about the direction of this film is that Hooper managed to not ruin the movie. That may be a disservice to Hooper, though. He did a tremendous job of pulling this movie together and making it the entertaining production that it turned out to be.

David Fincher, The Social Network

What can I say about David Fincher? In the 1990’s, he made three movies I really enjoyed (Seven, The Game, and Fight Club). In the 2000’s, he made two movies I was not impressed at all with (Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and one I didn’t see (Panic Room). After going back and thinking about these movies as a whole, I came to one conclusion: David Fincher is completely dependent upon the script he has been chosen to bring to life. Now, some may argue that that is the fate of any director. My rebuttal is that Fincher doesn’t seem to bring much else to the table, and, in fact, may even negatively impact any production he is associated with. After watching his movies, I would pay good money to see what a more talented director could do with Seven and Fight Club. The Social Network falls into that same category. I really liked this movie despite hating Facebook and rarely being impressed with Fincher. This is due solely to Aaron Sorkin’s script. We’ll talk more about that in a later post, but it is important to note that any success that The Social Network has is entirely the result of a fantastic script. This year, Fincher is once again saved by (and lauded for) being associated with an award winning script. Great job, David, not completely ruining this movie. (That’s about the biggest complement I can give him as the directing in this movie was uninspiring to say the least, and, in my opinion, negatively impacted the movie.)

Joel & Ethan Coen, True Grit

I appreciate the Coen brothers. I may not always LOVE their movies, but I can almost always appreciate what they were trying to accomplish. The way in which they approach and execute their movies is very impressive. True Grit is no exception. It is rare that a remake is better than the original, but the Coen brothers were able to accomplish this feat handily. Their re-envisioning of the beloved John Wayne movie is impressive – I enjoyed their version a lot better than the original. Joel and Ethan excel at giving their movies scope and depth using the locations and sets of their movies. Shots are meticulously planned and executed to get the most of both the action and the backdrop. This movie was no exception. The biggest flaw was the ending. The last 5-10 minutes of the movie were horrible. This is the only aspect of the movie that was far inferior to the original.

Who Should Win: Christopher Nolan

However, since he can’t win: Toss-up between the Coens and Hooper, but I probably give it to the Coens. Either would be fine with me, though.

Jared

The Fighter is one of the worst-directed films of the year, and I’m stunned so few people seem to be on the same page as me here.  Sure, David O. Russell was working with a crappy script.  But take any boxing scene from the film, other than the final fight.  Take it and burn it because it is nothing less than an insult.  At best, they are cut scenes from a low-grade boxing video game.  They alone should have prevented Russell from getting a nomination.  While it is hard to blame Russell too much for the rest of the movie’s failures, I do think he heavily contributed to the repeated references, to the point of being really obnoxious, that the family was lower class.

I’m clearly just not on the same page as the Coen brothers.  If one of the major roles of a director is establishing a compelling tone, then the Coens have missed the mark on that front.  With True Grit, as perhaps other of their films of late, I never really felt drawn into the story.  And while a lot of that is on the script, I think some of it has to be thrown at the feet of the brothers’ directing efforts.  Similarly, Aronofsky’s directing in Black Swan was fine, but not awards-worthy.  He had a difficult task, at there was a lot of incomplete thoughts going on, to be sure.  But I think the film would have had a significantly stronger impact if, for example, it had been directed by someone with more of a feel for horror films.

So we’re down to the big question, Hooper or Fincher? The two films are pretty different and demanded quite different styles.  Sure, The King’s Speech is a lot less showy than The Social Network.  But I think it is a testament to Hooper that he didn’t get in the way of the story.  Starting with that cast is a big leg up.  Hooper’s straightforward style runs with that advantage, creating a crisp, efficient feel that is quite effective for the film.

But I’ll join in with the chorus who say that it was Fincher‘s directing that made Sorkin’s script something truly special.  I wasn’t in Fincher’s camp at first, when I mainly though of the regatta scene, and how odd it was.  Instead, take the scene in the bar with Justin Timberlake.  Other directors may have turned that into artsy, clubby nonsense.  Instead, Fincher rather effectively creates an atmosphere that furthers the story.  Really, the shifts in tone from location to location are pretty remarkable, and I think a good chunk of the credit there goes to Fincher for effortlessly weaving together the different parts of the story while maintaining a consistent overall tone.

John

I’ll leave the vitriol and verbosity to my colleagues. I quite liked all the nominees. When talking directing, there’s no better indicator of greatness than simply making a great movie, but I also look for things like vision, style, tone, and pacing.

A few of these nominees stand out from the others. The Coens create what I would call a well-crafted movie. It’s one of those films where all the technical elements come together so well: camerawork, acting, sets, costumes, music. I wish it added up to a bit more. Aronofsky produces the flashiest work of the group. Black Swan is intense and frenetic and his capable hands. I’ve loved all of his films I’ve seen so I’m glad to see him finally get some Oscar love.

My winner, fairly handily, is Fincher. Adam is too uncharitable here. The script simply establishes the dialogue and structures the story. The shot composition that follows a complex narrative and rapid fire dialogue, the film’s cool aesthetic, the varying but always spot-on tone, the breathless pacing: these have Fincher’s fingerprints all over them. There are an unlimited number of directions the exact same Sorkin script could have gone in someone else’s hands. It’s great with Fincher at the helm.

Snub: The best directed film of the year is Inception. What creativity! What vision! What style! What does Christopher Nolan have to do to get a directing Oscar nomination??

Oscar nominees are announced on the 25th.  Yay!  So let’s summarize what we (the royal we, at least) know.  Keeping in mind, of course, that when it comes to the Academy, no one knows anything.  Especially me.  This time: Best Director.

VIRTUAL LOCKS

  • David Fincher, The Social Network
  • Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
  • Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

Confession time: I don’t really have any clue how to discern exactly what the director’s contributions to a film are.  And I don’t think many other people know either, other than a general assumption that good movie=good directing.  People are saying that David Fincher was exactly the director to make Aaron Sorkin’s script shine.  Maybe that’s true, I just hope the evidence is stronger than that regatta scene.  This’ll be Aronofsky‘s first Oscar nomination, an honor for which he’s probably overdue.  I don’t really see what others do in the movie, but given the script’s weakness, sure, I’m happy to pass some credit to the director for elevating the film into something better.  I really liked The Damned United, and the film was different enough from the book that I’ll begrudgingly pass some credit to screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Tom Hooper.  His follow-up, of course, has been a bit more successful.  I look forward to seeing his work in the future and I imagine that’ll only increase once I get around to watching Prime Suspect.

LIKELY IN

  • Christopher Nolan, Inception

Like everyone else, I do believe there’s a spot for Nolan, I’d just feel a little more comfortable if the buzz for the film was a little more palpable.  Still, it’d be shocking if he gets snubbing after creating such a visionary, successful film.

LAST ONE IN

  • David O. Russell, The Fighter

I’ve always heard that if you can’t say something nice, you should shut your big fat mouth.

FIRST ALTERNATES

  • Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, True Grit
  • Danny Boyle, 127 Hours
  • Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right

I was really tempted to put the brother Coen in that last spot, but since I haven’t seen that anywhere else, I figured it is just my bias against that film in the fifth spot.  The Academy loves them some Coen Bros, but they do only have the one directing nomination (for No Country for Old Men, which they won).  I dunno, I won’t be surprised at all if they get the nomination.  The claustrophobia of 127 Hours sure is different from the vastness of Slumdog Millionaire, huh?  Maybe Boyle‘s film was released just a little too early to hit at the Oscars, or maybe it wasn’t quite as good as originally expected.  I hope to see Lisa Cholodenko get a directing nomination someday, but this year is just so tough, with so many well-respected auteurs in line to get their due.

DARK HORSES

  • Ben Affleck, The Town
  • Debra Granik, Winter’s Bone
  • Mike Leigh, Another Year
  • Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island

Affleck‘s two for two in critically acclaimed directing successes and this one even made a nice chunk of a change.  This kid may just have a career in the industry.  After what Down to the Bone did for Vera Farmiga and this film did for Jennifer Lawrence, if I were an agent with a starlet on my hands, I’d be busting my balls to get her an audition for whatever Granik has next on her plate.  As I mentioned elsewhere, it is always dangerous to count Mike Leigh out with the Academy.  But maybe next time he should make sure his film’s trailer doesn’t make it seem like the most boring film ever.  Shutter Island just edged out The Departed as Scorsese‘s highest-grossing film (in worldwide dollars).  What, now that’s he mainstream the Academy has no use for him?

SHOULDA BEEN A CONTENDER

  • Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I missed out on the free screening of The Social Network that Brian and John saw, I instead caught the film last weekend with Adam and Gavin.  From the very second the film begins, there’s no denying this is an Aaron Sorkin joint.  Full disclosure: I’m passionately in love with Aaron Sorkin’s writing.  Well, except for Malice, we won’t talk about what happened there.  I’m one of the few who will proudly defend Studio 60.

Anyway, I’ll freely admit that generally speaking, Sorkin only writes one character.  He writes that character very very well, of course, and his characters have minor nuances.  But in his world, characters are basically good people who adhere very strongly to their moral code, strongly protective of their team/group/substitute family, and are often boxed into situations where they are forced to question their ethics.  And who are intelligent, talk really fast and walk down lots of hallways.

The brilliant part here is that Mark Zuckerberg is unlike any character Sorkin has written before.  The Facebook (co-?)founder is unabashedly self-centered and would be wholly out of place in any of Sorkin’s dramas.  He’s decidedly not part of any team, and there are very few hallways at all.  Which means Sorkin gets to soften a character who would probably be unlikeable in the hands of a different screenwriter, but also is forced to explore a new venue for his creativity.

The end result is pure magic.  Sorkin and Fincher combine to tell a really interesting and engaging story.  As much as I may hate to admit it, I find myself agreeing with John here.  I’m utterly fascinated by the attempt to ascribe larger questions to the film.  I’ve seen people question the movie’s take on race and gender, not to mention positioning the film as generation-defining.  Because to me, this movie is much smaller than all that.  If you want to say it starts some discussion on ideas and intellectual property in the digital era, fine.  But mostly, it is simply a well-told story and something of a character study of a (kinda) genius.  Never overly dramatic or broadly funny, the film adroitly exploits Sorkin’s gift for dialogue to have drama and be funny, but not distract from the underlying story.

The only complaint I have was with the ending of the film.  Not entirely the fault of the filmmakers, I think, because I’m not really sure there is any good way to end the Facebook story, but it did feel abrupt.  I’m also not sure I would have framed the story with the two interview rooms.  I see why they did that, and it certainly allowed for some great lines, but I’m not entirely certain it was necessary.

I’m really curious to see how the film does come Oscar time.  A Best Picture nod is all but set, it seems like.  David Fincher is a good bet for a Director nomination at this point.  There’s been some hubbub over whether the script should be adapted or original (apparently Sorkin was writing the screenplay at the same time as and largely independently from Mezrich), but I’m fairly confident it will get an Adapted Screenplay.  I’m a big Jesse Eisenberg fan.  The Squid and the Whale was probably my favorite 2005 movie and Zombieland was obviously my favorite 2009 film.  So I’d love to see him get a nod, but I personally don’t see it.  His performance wasn’t flashy and I couldn’t point to any single Oscar scene.  His competition this year is shaping up to be a bunch of Hollywood vets and James Franco commanding a movie to himself, so Eisenberg may find himself just on the outside.  I’m between Brian and John on Andrew Garfield.  I thought he was fine, a good fit for the role, nothing spectacular.  He’s got a good shot for a Supporting Actor nomination, not sure he’d be my pick, but I won’t argue too much against it.  Especially if it will help the Spiderman reboot, which I increasingly think will be the greatest thing ever.

Last week, John and I got to see a preview screening of The Social Network. Our thoughts, below:

JOHN: The Social Network is an immensely entertaining film. I was totally skeptical of the concept of a Facebook film, but the advance raves piqued my interest. Good thing it did because I had a hell of a good time.

I hesitate to give it any sort of higher significance as a lot of other commentators have. It’s not the film that explains our generation or anything like that. It’s an inherently interesting story about a driven kid and a business dispute, deftly constructed and full of entertaining dialogue. Truthfully, the fact that it’s about a game-changing website barely even matters. It does sort of dwell on themes of obsession and honor, but it’s primarily a plot-driven film and is better for it.

Come Oscar time it could certainly find a spot in the Picture, Director, and Screenplay races, and probably deservedly so. I’ve soured on Sorkin over the years as his contrived dialogue does less and less for me. It’s still quintessentially Sorkin, but the characters don’t feel like they came from some sort of smooth-talking alien planet like in Studio 60. Interestingly, it may end up in the Original Screenplay race since it was apparently written separately although concurrently with the Ben Mezrich book. And David Fincher brings an interesting enough visual style to the table, though there’s one totally bizarre rowing scene that stands out whose flair I didn’t get at all.

I liked Trent Reznor’s score, but not as much as I hoped. As for the cast, I love Jesse Eisenberg but he’s got the Michael Cera syndrome of playing the same character in every movie. Here he tightens his lips and alters his body movements, but it’s sort of the same old performance. Justin Timberlake is turning into a very good actor but if he ends up in the Supporting Actor hunt it’s only because he’s Justin Timberlake. The acting revelation here is Spider-Man-in-waiting Andrew Garfield as Mark Zuckerberg’s screwed business partner Eduardo Saverin. If audiences come out of the theater sympathizing with Saverin over Zuckerberg more than the creators intended, it’s probably because Garfield nails it.

Go see The Social Network when it comes out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

BRIAN: Like Jared, this film was high on my list of movies to see. Probably would have been my answer to our Question of the Week of the Oscar movie we are most looking forward to. Having been a relatively early Facebook user, and been on the perimeter of the perimeter of the entire Facebook creation story (Hi Alice!), I was fascinated to see how it translated to the screen. And then there’s the pedigree behind it. Aaron Sorkin on the script, David Fincher behind the camera and Jesse Eisenberg in front of it.

Verdict? Highly entertaining and enjoyable — funny in parts, depressing in others. Watching Eisenberg work through the Machiavellian scheming was a joy — here is a character whose brain is always working. The gem of his performance is that you never know if he’s thinking about the next release of Facebook or if he actually cares about the people he’s screwing over. The early sequence of the implementation of Facemash, Facebook’s predecessor, really sets the tone and allows Sorkin’s script to shine. The whole first hour was a perfect example of Sorkin at his best: heavy exposition with a light touch that gives you just enough insight into the characters to be drawn in for the next sequence.

My only trepidation going in was that Sorkin was working off of a book by Ben Mezrich, a fiction author who pretends to write non-fiction. Notorious for playing fast and loose with his facts, Mezrich devises a backstory to the Facebook narrative that doesn’t really exist. Yet as I watched The Social Network, I realized that in the end, it doesn’t really matter, because even when movies are based on just-the-facts sources, they inevitably alter the story for cinematic convenience.

For this, and other reasons, The Social Network reminded me a lot of one of my other favorite (and underrated) movies, Shattered Glass. In both, you have a narcissistic prodigal genius who has little ability to interact with others. The difference, of course, is that Stephen Glass got caught. But what I appreciate out of both films is their ability to let you sympathize with and despise its central character — not an easy feat. And each of them finds a way to make what should be boring, exciting. For Shattered Glass, its fact-checking and editing a magazine (and believe me — its not that exciting), and in The Social Network, it’s coding the back-end of a website. Aaron Sorkin makes programming look cool.

Unfortunately, I’m worried that this film is going to bomb, and bomb badly, and the box office. The screening was half-empty and the few friends I’ve talked with have little to no interest in seeing it, which is a shame. It’s a very good movie that deserves to be seen — and I hope that Sorkin gets his much deserved screenwriting nod. Eisenberg, and the film itself, are deserving of recognition too, but it’s too early for me to say if it’s my front-runner.

And just to disagree with John — I thought Garfield hammed it up and was actually distractingly bad in this. I’ll be curious to see what he’s like in Never Let Me Go.


It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices. Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions. And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least. But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees. So, we watched all the nominees. Quixotic? Maybe. Fun? Almost always. Here’s what we thought of the Best Director category:

JOHN

Well, the directing nominees completely overlap the Best Picture so it seems a little hard to separate the best directed from the best picture overall. I guess I’m looking for overall concept, tone, pacing, etc… But I guess most of my in depth comments should be saved for the Best Picture discussion.

I’ve said it before but I had some big problems with Stephen Daldry’s The Reader that I couldn’t get around. Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon has a fun tone but it helped detract from making me, well, care. I enjoyed David Fincher’s Benjamin Button and he does a good job steering a sprawling story filled with special effects. I don’t think it achieves the depth it strives for, but it’s quite an interesting story.

But now for the best. Slumdog Millionaire may well be described as director’s movie. Fairly straightforward and simple plot, shallow characters, and some less than stellar acting are turned into something magnificent in Danny Boyle’s hands. He has a great vision for the film that comes through in the photography, editing, scene composition, and music. I liked Milk better than Slumdog and therefore feel the need to choose Gus Van Sant, but Boyle’s vision made it tough.

Van Sant is my choice. He helms a film that says a lot in just the right tone without preaching and with this subject matter that’s a tough job. The opening montage is worth the price of admission by itself and sets the stage perfectly. The film has an incredible sense of time and place so that it’s part an exploration of the gay experience in 1970s as well as a look at Harvey Milk’s life. Maybe it’s not hard to do so when working with the likes of Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, and James Franco but he elicits great work from his actors. And the interesting creative choice to mix in archival footage works perfectly when I never expected it to.

Snubs: I’m beating the same drums here again and again. Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight and Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler. Both brilliant with interesting and engaging styles.

BRIAN

Director: Danny Boyle. Whatever.

JARED

I really don’t have any confidence in my ability to determine what effect a director had on a movie, so it seems silly to say anything about the nominees or snubs.  Instead, here’s some other stuff directed by the nominees:

David Fincher – music videos for “Freedom ’90” (George Michael), “Straight Up” (Paula Abdul), “Vogue” (Madonna), “Janie’s Got A Gun” (Aerosmith), and, of course Sting’s “Englishman In New York” and an incredible array of other awesome 80’s musicians (Eddie Money, The Outfield, Rick Springfield, Foreigner, The Motels, Loverboy, Mark Knopfler).

Ron Howard –  Night Shift, Willow

Gus Van Sant – the Psycho remake, music videos for Deee-Lite, Candlebox, “Under the Bridge” (Red Hot Chili Peppers), “Fame ’90” (David Bowie).  And, of course, “Weird” (Hanson).

Stephen Daldry – BORING

Danny Boyle – 28 Days Later

ADAM

Will Win: Danny Boyle

    Danny Boyle stole the front-runner position from David Fincher when he began winning all of the non-Oscar awards.  Between the two of them, Boyle’s film and directing is the clear winner.

I Want to Win: Christopher Nolan

    As with Best Picture, I realize that Christopher Nolan was not nominated, but in my opinion there was no movie better directed this year.  It is a travesty that he was excluded and my opinion of the Academy has reached an all time low (no small feat).

Dark Horse: Gus Van Sant

    Van Sant is the sleeper in this category and could very well steal Boyle’s limelight.  However, it is a long shot at best.  Should he receive the award, at least it will be well deserved.  He missed out with Good Will Hunting, but Milk is a film he can be proud of.

Random Notes:

    It is distressing to me that Ron Howard was able to beat out Christopher Nolan for this nomination.  Frost/Nixon was a decent movie, but it was no where near the caliber of The Dark Knight.  Nolan’s handling of the film shows that his is one of the preeminent directors today.
June 2017
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