Friday, June 30, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1988

The Contenders:

Charles Crichton: A Fish Called Wanda
Martin Scorsese: The Last Temptation of Christ
Alan Parker: Mississippi Burning
Barry Levinson: Rain Man (winner)
Mike Nichols: Working Girl

What’s Missing

There are so many good movies from 1988 that were well-directed. Because of this, I’ll have to be summary at best here, and I’m certain I’m leaving a lot out. It’ll be a cold day in hell when the director of an animated movie gets a director nomination, but 1988 saw the release of Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, two of the best of any decade. It will be an equally frosty day in hell for John Waters to earn a nomination, but this is the year of Hairspray, his best and most accessible film. Directors like Tim Burton and David Cronenberg aren’t Oscar darlings, but this year saw the release of Beetlejuice, which cemented Burton’s visual style and Dead Ringers, which only solidified Cronenberg’s love of body horror. I should also mention John McTiernan and Die Hard if only because it's Die Hard. Directors who could more legitimately be here include Ron Shelton for Bull Durham, Martin Brest for Midnight Run, and Oliver Stone for the vastly underrated Talk Radio. The two biggest misses for me are George Sluizer for the terrifying Spoorloos and especially Stephen Frears for Dangerous Liaisons. It’s also worth noting that Cinema Paradiso was a 1988 release, but it got its nominations in 1990, so Guiseppe Tornatore was snubbed in ’90, not ’88.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. The nomination of Mike Nichols for Working Girl feels like a case where the film was nominated, not the director. I liked this movie more than I thought I would, but it would be a lie to say that I loved it. The things I liked about it, though, were wrapped up in the screenplay and not with the way in which that story was shown to us. I’d much rather have Stephen Frears here, since I think he did a lot more work and had a lot more work to do. Nichols really just needed to point the camera and let the characters be themselves. It’s a good movie, but it’s also nothing better than a standard directorial performance.

4. Mississippi Burning has genuine problems in the screenplay. That’s not specifically the problem of Alan Parker, except for the fact that the movie has his name on it. Parker was blessed with a fantastic cast and he got good performances out of them, but this is a case where, again, I think the movie was nominated more than the director. A movie about racism, set in the South and produced competently is going to get some play come Oscar time. I’m not even sure in this case that all of its nominations were undeserved. I’m just not convinced that this nomination was particularly deserved.

3. Martin Scorsese deserved an Oscar multiple times before he actually got one, but I wouldn’t give him one for The Last Temptation of Christ. The thing that makes this film noteworthy isn’t the cast (although it’s great and inspired in places) or the direction, but the controversy. It took a great deal of cojones to make this film, and I appreciate that. It was a risk, the sort of thing that could potentially destroy a career if it weren’t handled well. I think I’m okay with this nomination, although there may be a few more deserving directors who could be here.

2. I’m a little more torn on A Fish Called Wanda and Charles Crichton. I genuinely love this movie and have since the first time I saw it. It’s still funny and still funny for all the same reasons. Again, Crichton was blessed with a truly stellar cast all at the tops of their games, but he’s responsible for getting those performances and for making the movie work as well as it does. I love that he was nominated, since comedies tend to be ignored come Oscar time as well. I can’t quite get him to the win, though. Still, it’s the first nomination I really like.

1. That leaves us with the actual winner, Barry Levinson for Rain Man. The truth is that I tend to like the idea of Rain Man more than I like watching the film itself. However, Levinson managed to do something here that is absolutely worth seeing. Tom Cruise has made a career on being instantly likeable. In Rain Man he starts as someone we actively dislike and come to like by the end. Cruise gets a lot of the credit for that, but so too does Levinson. It’s all good work, and of the nominations, I think Oscar went the right way.

My Choice

But, as seems to be the case more often than not for the last few weeks, I’m going off the reservation and giving the Oscar to someone not even nominated. In this case, since I can’t hand the statue to Giuseppe Tornatore for Cinema Paradiso, since it technically wasn’t eligible in 1988, I’m giving it to Stephen Frears for Dangerous Liaisons. Nothing before or since has made this era of history so nasty, venal, sexy, and wonderful. I’m always surprised at just how damn good this film is, and Frears gets a great deal of the credit for that.

Final Analysis


  1. Of these five and the only one I'd nominate if I had the option is Crichton and A Fish Called Wanda. Whimsical comedy is devilishly hard to get right no matter how good the cast and it's to the director's credit that he accomplishes that. Rain Man annoyed me and while the others were decent films I didn't think "Who directed that?" either while I was watching or when it was over.

    For who is missing I completely agree about Stephen Frears and he might very well be my winner. But I'd also lean towards John McTiernan for the original Die Hard one of the best paced action movies ever which doesn't forget to engage us with its characters which strengthens and deepens the film and that's thanks to the direction.

    Besides them I'd include two women who helmed films of very different sensibilities but both expertly, Penny Marshall for the charming fantasy Big and Joan Micklin Silver for the quirky Crossing Delancey.

    1. I said at the top that I almost certainly missed a few just because of how many there were. Big is a great call-out, and one that benefited hugely from Marshall's direction.

      We'll clearly disagree on Rain Man, which I think is a much better film than you're giving it credit for being. Then again, there are plenty of movies that I dislike where people say the same thing to me, so I won't lecture you. You'd want to switch out four, I'd probably switch out three.

      I'd have loved to have seen Frears nominated (obviously), and McTiernan would be in my list of five. My third would depend on my mood.

  2. I think you meant Charles Crichton (not Michael). I admit you gave me a "that can't be right-I've got to look that up" moment. That being said, Frears is a good choice for a very competitive year.

    1. Yeah, you're right. In my head, I knew what I was writing, but sometimes muscle memory takes over. Thanks.