Friday, July 15, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1984

The Contenders:

Milos Forman: Amadeus (winner)
Woody Allen: Broadway Danny Rose
Roland Joffe: The Killing Fields
David Lean: A Passage to India
Robert Benton: Places in the Heart

What’s Missing

There are plenty of directors worth bringing up for 1984, but as is often the case, these are directors who were working in genres that don’t normally turn the Academy’s head. It’s also worth noting that there are plenty of movies from 1984 like Dreamscape, Beverly Hills Cop, Night of the Comet, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension that I genuinely love that don’t specifically excite me in terms of what the director did, so I won’t mention them here. 1984 was formative for me in a lot of ways—this was late high school for me—so while the movies are important to me, this is about the director. Even with that caveat in mind, there’s a lot to bring up here. The “these aren’t Oscar-style films” would include Wes Craven’s work on A Nightmare on Elm Street, James Cameron for The Terminator, Rob Reiner for This is Spinal Tap, and Ivan Reitman for Ghostbusters. Truthfully, David Lynch probably doesn’t deserve consideration for Dune, but I do love it so. I think I’m on much firmer ground with Michael Radford for 1984, Jim Jarmusch for Stranger than Paradise, and Wim Wenders for Paris, Texas. It may have been too early in the careers of Joel and Ethan Coen for a nomination for Blood Simple, but I think it’s a hell of a great directorial debut. For me, though, the biggest miss is Sergio Leone’s work on Once Upon a Time in America. There’s no reason he shouldn’t have been in the running.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I like David Lean and I like a lot of his movies, but I really disliked A Passage to India, which I found to be dull and dreary. Oh, I’ll freely admit that it lives up to the standards of Lean in terms of spectacle; it’s a pretty film by any standard. But the story is weak, virtually all of the characters are weak, and I found the entire experience unpleasant. If all you need to do to get a nomination for Best Director is make an epic, then epics should be the only things offered here. It’s the only reason I can see for Lean’s nomination here at all for a film that is otherwise unpleasant, overlong, and telling a drippy story.

4. I tend to like Woody Allen as well, so I find it frustrating that I’m putting him fourth with Broadway Danny Rose. The truth is that I think the best parts of the film are Allen as actor and Allen as writer, but I don’t see a great deal specifically from Allen as director. It feels like he got this nomination based on reputation. There are plenty of times when I think Woody Allen deserved a nomination for director, but I have real trouble finding a reason to nominate him here. Leone, Jarmusch, and Wenders deserved to be here more. They did more with their stories from the director’s chair.

3. I liked Places in the Heart a lot more than I thought I would when I came to it, and certainly some of that had to come from Robert Benton. This is a story that has all of the earmarks of maudlin melodrama, and while there are moments where it flirts with slipping into easy emotionality, it never really gets there. I appreciate that greatly, and for a film with this name, I found it surprising that we didn’t end up there. This is the first of the nominations that I actually start to understand, even if in my own set of nominations, it would probably just miss. I don’t hate it as a nomination, but I’m satisfied that Benton didn’t win.

2. The Killing Fields is one of those films that truly defines the idea of “must-see.” This is a brutal and terrible film, but the only thing I can think of that detracts from it is that Sam Waterston’s accent isn’t consistent at times. Everything else here is terrible in the original sense of the word. There is a stark brutality to this film, and while it’s not easy to say that a film that contains these events contains beauty, it truly does in many ways. Roland Joffe made a film about terrible films, and while the audience might flinch, he didn’t. Here’s a film that would definitely make my short list, and the nomination is clearly deserved.

My Choice

1: Compare the work of Milos Forman on Amadeus with that of the other epic here. In every case, Forman’s work is head and shoulders above that of Lean. This is a huge, complex story that works on multiple levels at all times, and Forman holds the whole thing beautifully, keeping every moment of it working toward its inevitable conclusion. No one in the audience is ever confused and every moment is a joy. Amadeus is, for me, an example of what is meant by an Oscar film for all of the right reasons. Forman’s work is flawless and despite all of the movies I love from 1984, there is no better choice than Milos Forman for Best Director.

Final Analysis


  1. The best film of the decade ought to earn it's director some accolades. I saw the play early in the year before the film came out. Forman did so much to make this a visual and auditory experience, which is very far from what the play was. Plus career best performances from the leads.

    1. I may not call it the best movie of its decade, but it's definitely the best of its year, and it's one of my favorite Best Picture winners in history. I can't find flaws with it, and a lot of that is due to Forman.

  2. The right man won!

    I also really loved Allen's comedic touches though. I see so much craftmanship in Broadway Danny Rose. It feels richly 'showy' while still feeling so intimately 'Woody'...I adore it.

    Oscar dropped the ball with passing up Wenders, the Coens and Leone. Like...if Leone had been nominated, I'd be tempted to say he should have beat Forman.

    1. Leone would be in the running for me, but I don't think I'd give him the win. I always remember that I love Amadeus, but it's not until I watch it again that I remember just how much I love it and why.

  3. I was having flashbacks to "Amadeus" while watching Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins"—that scene in which young Bruce Wayne is at the opera, and he gets freaked out by the batlike demons doing their Cirque du Soleil thing on the ropes.

    "Amadeus" was a profound moviegoing experience for me; I'm right there with you in your love for the film. I'm also amazed by how well the makeup has held up over time: F. Murray Abraham looked, and still looks, convincingly old to me.

    What's funny is that Mozart's music isn't particularly deep: he had a fondness for peppy, predictably repetitive leitmotifs that were, in many ways, a shallow echo of those of his teacher Haydn, whose own music sounds somewhat more stately and profound. That said, director Forman does a magnificent job of elevating Mozart's music to an almost sacred level in the film, and it works, perfectly meshing with the story being told. If a director's job is to harmonize disparate elements into a single coherent story, then Forman performed his task expertly.

    1. Clarification: Haydn was likely one of Mozart's teachers. In any event, Haydn's and Mozart's styles are similar enough that I've sometimes confused one for the other—with my little brother Sean, a professional cellist, correcting me.

    2. Amadeus is close to a perfect movie in a number of respects. My "take" on the difference between Best Picture and Best Director is that Best Picture is in many ways the best overall production while Best Director is the award for best storytelling. Amadeus is masterfully told, with all of the different elements converging perfectly into something that transcends the medium.

  4. I agree fully on the merits of »Amadeus«, the shortcomings of »A passage to India«, plus the glaring omissions of (at least) Wenders and Leone.

    I'm also reminded that I still haven't seen »Dune«...