Friday, May 10, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 2013

The Contenders:

Steve McQueen: 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell: American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron: Gravity (winner)
Alexander Payne: Nebraska
Martin Scorsese: The Wolf of Wall Street

What’s Missing

Once again, we’re in a position with an Oscar race where I don’t fully understand the nominations. There are plenty of movies from 2013 where I think the director could have earned some consideration. Of all of the directors left on the outside looking in, J.C. Chandor’s work on All is Lost was in many ways the bravest and the most interesting. Destin Cretton (Short Term 12) and Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) didn’t seem to have a great deal of buzz behind them, perhaps because of the size of the production. Richard Linklater potentially had a case with Before Midnight. Jim Jarmusch’s work in Only Lovers Left Alive was in the wrong genre despite how stylish it is. Foreign language movies are a tough sell, which probably left out Abdellatif Kechiche and Blue is the Warmest Color. The biggest miss in my opinion is Spike Jonze for Her.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. It seems like every year, at least since the nominations for Best Picture expanded, there’s a movie that gets a lot of play and a lot of nominations that I don’t understand. In 2013, that movie was American Hustle and its director, David O. Russell. It’s not a bad movie, but I don’t think it’s all that great, either. It’s fine. It’s serviceable. I enjoyed it well enough when I watched it and I have absolutely no reason to watch it again. It was, for whatever reason, a sort of flavor of the month—popular for a moment with no clear explanation why.

4. The issue I have with Alexander Payne’s nomination for Nebraska is one that I seem to have with relative frequency in this category. Payne certainly gets at least some of the credit for the stellar performances across the board for this film. But really, his main act as the director was to get out of the way of what was happening in front of the camera and let the story play out naturally. It was absolutely the right choice. Nebraska isn’t the kind of story that is going to be enhanced by anything fancy. But it also makes me question his presence here.

3. Steve McQueen is going to have a hell of a career, I think. I’m going to be very curious to see where his career takes him. With 12 Years a Slave, he tapped into something that Hollywood loves—a story where the bad guys are easy to spot, the good guys are obvious, and the audience can easily feel morally vindicated. This isn’t a knock (really) on the movie or on McQueen. It is, though, the Oscar version of low-hanging fruit. McQueen was virtually guaranteed this nomination by virtue of the film’s subject matter.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie where I like the way the story is told a great deal more than the story itself. This is, essentially, Martin Scorsese making a high-powered exploitation film. There’s a lot to like with it, not the least of which being its entirely over-the-top nature. But it’s also overwhelming. Watching the entire three-hour running time feels like a assault. Now, that might be evidence of Scorsese’s genius. But it’s also a good reason why I won’t put it at the top. It’s just too much.

My Choice

1. Of the five nominations, Gravity and Alfonso Cuaron is the only possible winner in my opinion. Taking this as not the best movie but the best storytelling of the year leads us to Gravity time and time again. Had Spike Jonze been nominated for Her, we would be talking about a much, much closer race, but I think I’m still putting Cuaron on top. Gravity is innovative in so many ways, not the least of which is the way in which that story is told. He was far and away the best choice, and I’m happy he won.

Final Analysis


  1. A little off-topic, but that picture from American Hustle is amazing as a demonstration of how big superhero movies are today in Hollywood. (Fortunately, I love the genre).

    You've got Lois Lane, two Avengers, Batman, and an X-Man, who were in a total of around 20 superhero movies. Wow.

    And you're right about Gravity.

    1. I still need to see the last couple of Avengers movies, and then I'm ready for a break from the genre. I'm a little overwhelmed by it.

      I suppose there are a couple of Marvel films I should go back and see. I think there's a couple beyond the last two--the second Thor and the third Iron Man specifically that I never watched.

  2. Steve,

    I get your remark about how "12 Years a Slave" is low-hanging fruit for Oscar, and I also understand why you find "Gravity" so compelling. I found it compelling, too, but in terms of which movie made more of an emotional impact..., dude, "12 Years" utterly wrecked me. I was a blubbering mess when the credits started rolling, and I still haven't been able to bring myself to review the film. At this point, I'd probably have to re-watch the movie if I did want to try and review it, and I'm not sure I'm ready to go through that harrowing experience again.

    1. That's entirely fair, and my choices here are always going to be subjective. It's exactly why I encourage the debate and don't tend to tell people anything stronger than that I disagree. Gravity is a movie that spoke to me in an existential way.

      It's an argument that I think might be more compelling for Best Picture than Best Director in this case, though. I don't know that there is a better way to tell Gravity as a story. Honestly, there isn't a great deal of plot to Gravity--it's all in the telling.

      I'm a huge fan of McQueen. Shame is an absolutely gutting movie and I am eagerly looking forward to Widows, which I hope to watch this week. McQueen will have an Oscar sooner than later, I think, and he'll have already earned it.