Denis Villeneuve: Arrival
Mel Gibson: Hacksaw Ridge
Damien Chazelle: La La Land (winner)
Kenneth Lonergan: Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins: Moonlight
First of all, sorry this is late. I’ve had a rough couple of days and I more or less crashed very early last night before I got to this. It happens. That said, dealing with Best Director can sometimes be very difficult. For me, this award isn’t about whether or not I like the movie in question, but about the storytelling that brings me the movie. Plenty of bad stories can be told well, and there are a lot of great stories that are so without the embellishment of a director. This is essentially to say that there are plenty of movies from 2016 that I liked that aren’t necessarily that interesting from the director’s chair. However, there’s a lot of room for improvement over our list. Garth Davis’s Lion is a case where I think a very basic story is enhanced by the way in which it was told. The same is true of the patience shown by Oz Perkins for I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts. Horror and horror-related movies are never high on Oscar’s list, so Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane and Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper were certainly easy to overlook. Swiss Army Man from Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan was probably just too weird for consideration, and Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople too underknown. How Park Chan-wook was ignored for The Handmaiden, I’ll never know. The biggest misses for me are David Mackenzie for Hell or High Water and William Oldroyd for Lady Macbeth. Finally, documentarians are never nominated here, but Ava DuVernay could be argued for 13th.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. I’m hugely disappointed in the nominations for this category and year overall, but none are more disappointing than seeing Mel Gibson here for Hacksaw Ridge. One of Gibson’s signature moves as a director is depicting the “bad guys” in his films as little more than animals. It’s always struck me as offensive, but Gibson loves to dehumanize anything he finds personally distasteful. Moreover, Hacksaw Ridge is preachy and pretty full of itself, honestly not unlike Mel Gibson himself. He shouldn’t be here.
4. Kenneth Lonergan’s nomination for Manchester by the Sea is perhaps a little more forgivable, but only a little. He does manage to bring out some great performances in his cast, but given the cast, that’s not necessarily that exceptional. This is a slow film, and Lonergan’s decision to film it as a slowly unfolding emotional drama is the right way to go, but also seems to be a single choice made and carried through for the length of the film. It was the right choice for the story, but making a really good initial choice on how to film something seems like a pretty low ante for this field.
3. With Barry Jenkins and Moonlight, I’m more comfortable arguing for inclusion on the nominees. Jenkins might not make my final cut of five nominations, but he’d at least be very much in the conversation. This is a film that required a light touch from the director’s chair, and one that allowed this story to be told essentially in three very different parts to make a cohesive whole. Jenkins managed this seemingly effortlessly. The fact that it looks so effortless is a huge part of what makes this such a good performance in the director’s chair.
2. I genuinely didn’t like La La Land. In fact, I haven’t really liked much of anything Damien Chazelle has done so far. However, I can’t deny that La La Land was directed within an inch of its life. This will sound cruel, but Chazelle’s greatest work in this film is that he covered up as much as he could his stars’ inability to really perform in a musical. While that’s admirable, it also demonstrates some potentially poor decision making in getting that cast. If you need actors who can sing and dance, maybe find singers and dancers who can act, not actors who can’t really do either.