John Singleton: Boyz n the Hood
Barry Levinson: Bugsy
Oliver Stone: JFK
Jonathan Demme: The Silence of the Lambs (winner)
Ridley Scott: Thelma and Louise
The Academy didn’t do too badly with the nominations for director for 1991. I’d happily nominate three of these films, and could be argued into a fourth. The majority of the other movies I like from 1991 aren’t the type that normally find themselves recipients of Oscar nominations. I think I can argue Terry Gilliam’s work in The Fisher King. The strength of films like Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life and Mick Jackson’s L.A. Story are the screenplays and the performances. This is also true with Kenneth Brannagh’s Dead Again. Gus Van Sant might deserve a nod for making Keanu Reeves mildly watchable in My Own Private Idaho, but then we’d have to give credit to James Cameron for not killing Edward Furlong on the set of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. On the foreign front, Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen), and Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Veronique) could all be argued as deserving of a spot.
Weeding through the Nominees
5: I didn’t have a serious problem with Bugsy as a film, but I can’t for the life of me figure out exactly what Barry Levinson did to deserve a nomination for Best Director. In fact, I think he may have actually damaged the film in significant ways. There’s a great deal of potential in this story, but it bogs down terribly in the second half and draws out for far too long to stay as interesting as the first half. All of the elements are there, but Bugsy overstays its welcome. Blame the editor if you like, but it’s still Levinson’s name on the film. Given the chance, I’d swap him out for Jeunet or Kieslowski.
4: The most interesting thing about Thelma and Louise is that Ridley Scott made a straight-up action film with a female main cast and (depending on how you look at it) launched the career of Brad Pitt. Other than that, what exactly did he do? I like Thelma and Louise a lot and would rank it pretty high on my list of films from this year. I just can’t specifically pinpoint exactly what makes Ridley Scott worth a nomination. Anyone got anything here? It feels like he got the nomination because the film was good and a surprise hit and not because he did such a great job of it.
3: JFK is another ultra-long film, but in this case, I give Oliver Stone a great deal of credit for holding the whole thing together. There are a lot of people and a lot of egos on this set, and even getting the film made is something of an accomplishment. The summing up sequence at the end is hugely risky and yet works nearly perfectly. I like this film quite a bit and rank it high on the filmography of Stone. Unfortunately for him, there were two better director performances in 1991, despite the fact that this was one of his strongest efforts behind the camera.
2: This is going to be a strong statement, but it’s one that I stand behind completely: John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood is one of the five best directorial debuts in history. This is such a strong film, a story so beautifully told. It’s also incredibly mature from the director’s seat. It still surprises me that this was his first film; in fact, it feels like his filmography is kind of backwards. Nobody talks about the M. Night Shyamalan-iness of his career. He showed such promise, and in a lot of other years, Boyz n the Hood would’ve won.
1: But there was no stopping the juggernaut that was The Silence of the Lambs. In the case of Best Director, this is not a juggernaut that I would want to stop. This movie is almost perfectly directed. It’s tight and brutal, never shows its hand early, never hints at what’s to come, but always makes perfect sense at any moment internally. Jonathan Demme’s work on this film is the sort of thing that can be, has, and will be studied far into the future. This is how you do a thriller that manages to cross over from just the thriller crowd into the mainstream. This is how you make a film that works its way into public consciousness and that stays there forever.