Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars Predictions 2014: Best Director

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.

2014 ACADEMY AWARDS PREDICTION:
ACHIEVEMENT IN DIRECTING

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1. GRAVITY
Alfonso Cuarón

2. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Steve McQueen

3. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Martin Scorsese

4. NEBRASKA
Alexander Payne

5. AMERICAN HUSTLE
David O. Russell

 Should’ve been here: Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips

We all thought Paul Greengrass would be here for his suspenseful helming of Captain Phillips, but one of the surprises come nomination morning was Alexander Payne’s nod for Nebraska. The film has suffered criticism for its depiction of midwesterners, but you don’t have to be from the midwest to recognize this type of family and these taciturn people. Nelson pulls off a neat reveal with his characters late in the game, and that, along with his choice to film in black and white the plains and prairies  that form the poetic backbone of these people, is what elevates the film from comic caricature to a deeper rumination on the middle American family. It’s his best work to date, and though this is his third directing nomination, it won’t be his first win (he has won twice, however, for screenplay).

Marty, Marty, Marty. It seems safe to say that the Academy loves Scorsese — hence the nomination — but not enough to reward him for this, one of his most divisive works. There’s nothing subtle about The Wolf of Wall Street, but as big and loud and brazen as it all is, it strangely, compellingly, doesn’t pass obvious judgement. Scorsese’s camera zooms around and above bare bodies and frantic frat boys yelling into phones, confetti and cash blurring it all in a whirlwind of sex, booze, and stocks. His gaze captures riotous excess, but while Jordan Belfort and his crooked cohorts aren’t caressed by the camera, their reprehensible behavior isn’t admonished either — and that’s exactly why this won’t be his second win.

Overwrought Oscar bait is David O. Russell’s specialty, and he doesn’t disappoint with American Hustle. His direction is loud and shaky, creating a tone that waffles between drama and comedy. While he seemed to be aiming for a kind farce, it never really works, because where there is uncertain tone, there’s uncertain character. The result is a scattered emotional tone that never really pays off — it’s all just a bit manic. While there was big talk in the beginning that this could be his first Oscar, it’s now very unlikely. The buzz is centered on two other nominees, and one is all but a sure thing at this point.

12 Years a Slave could easily lean toward melodrama, but it does the opposite, capturing both the beauty and cruelty of the mid-19th century South. The best example of this is the lynching scene: We are kept at a physical distance, but the horror is unrelenting, if of a unexpectedly quiet kind, just as the horror of Solomon’s existence was unrelenting. It’s a wonderfully calibrated film, with kudos to Steve McQueen. The director has an exquisite eye for capturing the contrast of slave brutality in the foreground of the weeping beauty of Cypress trees and expansive, delicate plantation homes. But each scene is directed with artistic aesthetic the first priority, and affecting character, the second, and though McQueen is considered a close #2 in this race, it’s that cool, observational distance that will ultimately keep him from winning.

And, really, who else could this award go to but Alfonso Cuarón? His tension-building techniques and character crafting — even within the constraints the simplest of conceits — is nothing short of edge-of-your-seat masterful, and it’s practically all done in front of a green screen. Gravity is one of the most visually innovative films in cinematic history, and there’s no doubt that the man who pulled it all together is going to take this one home.

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