Kenneth Branagh: Belfast
Ryusuke Hamaguchi: Drive My Car
Paul Thomas Anderson: Licorice Pizza
Jane Campion: The Power of the Dog (winner)
Steven Spielberg: West Side Story
I tend to look at Best Director is being the best storytelling of the year. It’s why, for instance, that I’m not going to talk about Fran Kranz and Mass here, despite that being one of the best and most important movies of 2021. Kranz, essentially, set down a couple of cameras and let four people perform at the height of their talent—the right choice, but not one that really demonstrates what Kranz can do behind the camera. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not a Guillermo del Toro fanboy, but even so I think his work on Nightmare Alley is worth talking about. I think there’s also something to say for Scott Derrickson’s work on The Black Phone, which is quite tense, and much of that from how the story is told. I found Don’t Look Up difficult to watch, but that’s more the story it wants to tell—that story, as unpleasant as I find it—is told very well by Adam McKay. Directors like Edgar Wright and Jason Reitman are never going to be beloved by Oscar for whatever reason, but I really like their work on Last Night in Soho and Ghostbusters: Afterlife respectively. C’mon C’mon was probably too small a film to get enough play, but I like what Mike Mills did with it; it’s a film that is enhanced by the way it is told. Ryusuke Hamaguchi took the “not in English” slot, which left out Joachim Trier and The Worst Person in the World. No nominations for David Lowery (The Green Knight) and Joel Coen (The Tragedy of Macbeth) are real surprises. The one that really surprises me is no nomination for Denis Villenueve and Dune, which I attribute to Oscar’s noted distaste for science fiction and fantasy.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. It’s probably unfair of me to stick a director as good as Paul Thomas Anderson in last place here, but I genuinely dislike Licorice Pizza in almost every possible respect. I don’t like the characters, I don’t like the story, and I really don’t like the pedophilia vibe that comes from the main characters. So, it might well be that I am punishing Anderson for something that is beyond his control in this case, but there are times when I can’t overcome my distaste for a project to look at the individual pieces of that project.
4. The same can probably be said of Steven Spielberg and West Side Story. This latest version of the musical version of Romeo and Juliet is actually well-made in a lot of respects, but it’s a story that I genuinely don’t like. I don’t like the source material of this at all, and that makes it hard to respect what is, honestly, a decent version of it. However, that said, I don’t know that there’s anything here that is better than the version from 1961. This has, essentially, been done better in a lot of respects, so why rehash it here?
3. I like Kenneth Branagh as a director, so it’s a little sad for me to put him in third place, but based on the nominations, it’s exactly where he belongs. He’s the first director here who I would at least consider being a nomination if the choices were all mine. This is a deeply personal film for Branagh, and I think that’s clear in the watching of this. The direction is handled deftly and tenderly, and the fact that that so clearly comes through in the final film is evident of how much of Branagh is in the film. It’s really a lovely film, and it’s some of his best work.
2. For a lot of people, the inclusion of Ryusuke Hamaguchi might be questionable. After all, Drive My Car takes a very long time to tell a story that could have been told much more quickly. However, the pace here is a big part of what makes the film work the way it does. Hamaguchi’s hand on this is what keeps things interesting despite the incredibly slow pace of the story. There’s real beauty here in allowing the story to unfold so slowly and peacefully and letting us live with these characters. I would not have been sad if Hamaguchi had won.
1. This is a rare instance where Oscar did right by the nominees and gave the statue to the right person. The Power of the Dog is a masterfully told story, one that unfolds slowly, but in a way that is clear and understandable. Some of that comes from the screenplay, certainly, but some of that is going to also come from the way in which Jane Campion lets the story unfold around the characters. This is a master class in filmmaking, and while there are directorial performances I liked a lot from 2021, Campion’s was head and shoulders above the competition.