Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 2016

The Contenders:

Denis Villeneuve: Arrival
Mel Gibson: Hacksaw Ridge
Damien Chazelle: La La Land (winner)
Kenneth Lonergan: Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins: Moonlight

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

1. I could be accused of simply putting my favorite movie from the year in the winner’s position, and that might be a fair assessment for anyone who disagrees with my giving this to Denis Villeneuve for Arrival. I do love this film, though, and while much of that is because it’s a science fiction film about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, much of it comes from the style in which it was done. This is a gorgeous film to look at, and one with potentially difficult concepts to impart to the audience. That it does so with any coherence is a marvel. Sure, the screenplay gets a lot of credit for that, but it’s Villeneuve who keeps it coherent. He’s my winner.

Final Analysis


  1. Really surprised to see "Manchester by the Sea" down so low, instead of up where "La La Land" is. Then again, I haven't seen "La La Land," aside from some random clips on YouTube, so I have no basis on which to judge it. I also suspect that the true appeal of "Manchester" is the acting and the screenwriting, not the direction, and I recall your understandable discomfort re: Casey Affleck as a person.

    1. For me, best screenplay awards are for best stories. Best director awards are for the best storytelling. As much as I might not like the stories Damien Chazelle tells, I can't deny that he tells them well. I didn't like La La Land at all, but he managed to cover up a lot of the inherent problems of the cast--like the fact that they can't dance and that Ryan Gosling can't sing. For that, he gets some credit.

  2. I'd be very seriously interested in finding out just how much of Arrival's unique style and presentation of storytelling is either inherent in the script by Eric Heisserer or was realized for the screen by Denis Villeneuve; that line between the two and how far Villeneuve's work ends up being beyond it would be the only hesitation I'd have in giving him this award for Arrival. Far be it from me to take the award out of the hands of, in a humorous insight I had after Bong Joon-ho won this year, the only American to win Best Director in the past decade, but Arrival was not only supremely entertaining as a film, it reshaped how stories in the cinematic medium could be told, and again, if that's more on Villeneuve than the structure of the script, even with the obvious style of Chazelle's work, Villeneuve should've ended up winning this.

    1. That's a much more coherent and cogent version of what I was trying to say. I don't know what the screenplay looked like, of course, but even with a tremendous screenplay (and it is a very good one at least), a lot of this has to have come from Villenueve.

      La La Land was well-directed and I won't take that away from it. Arrival was potentially game changing in a lot of ways.

  3. Honestly, I would've gone with Barry Jenkins for Moonlight though my real choice is Chan-wook Park for The Handmaiden while I definitely agree with you on David Mackenzie for Hell or High Water. I saw some of Hacksaw Ridge and I couldn't take it seriously at all once there was that bit with the naked guy as well as the way the Japanese are depicted as it displays Gibson's lack of real context as a filmmaker.

    1. Park Chan-wook would absolutely be in my list of nominations. That's a brutal film, but he pieces out the information brilliantly--it's a great example of what I mean when I look at storytelling for Best Director.

      That is my issue with Gibson as a director. He did the same thing with the English in Braveheart. He did the same thing with the Jews in The Passion of the Christ. It's as if the only way he can see someone who disagrees with his protagonist is as a subhuman monster.