Friday, January 8, 2021

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 2019

The Contenders:

Sam Mendes: 1917
Martin Scorsese: The Irishman
Todd Phillips: Joker
Quentin Tarantino: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Bong Joon Ho: Parasite (winner)

What’s Missing

So many interesting possibilities for Best Director for 2019. Directors like Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s work on Swallow is very much a longshot, of course, but in a perfect world, I’d put some consideration there. The same is true for Jordan Peele and Us and Robert Eggers for The Lighthouse, both of which would be longshots for an actual nomination, even though I like both films a great deal. Ari Aster’s work on Midsommar deserves a look even though Oscar hates horror, something that could equally be said of Mike Flanagan and Doctor Sleep. The foreign language entry is taken by Bong Joon Ho, which will leave out Pedro Almodovar and Pain and Glory. There’s a part of me that would love to consider Greta Gerwig for Little Women. I love Gerwig’s work even if I didn’t love that movie. Lulu Wang’s work on The Farewell would be much more likely to get my attention. Taika Waititi and Jojo Rabbit I think should be here. Finally, I’d very much want to consider Rian Johnson and Knives Out.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I said in my review of Joker that I think there are two ways to interpret this movie. One is to see it as an elaborate fantasy where almost all of the events that occur actually happen only in Arthur’s head. I think that’s how Joaquin Phoenix sees it. There’s also the version where everything is actually happening and Arthur is actually at the center of everything. That makes the movie far worse than it should be. Sadly, I feel like this is the version of the film in Todd Phillips’s mind, and that’s pretty sad.

4. I thought for a long time about whether I wanted to put Scorsese or Tarantino here. Both of them produced films that are arguably too long for the stories they tell. But I ultimately am going with Tarantino here in fourth because, despite the fact that his movie is considerably shorter than Scorsese’s, it’s also a movie that has proportionally more fat in it than it needs. Tarantino, as good as his stories often are, has a tendency to be incredibly self-indulgent. That’s absolutely true of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which has a lot of trimmable fat.

3. Based on the previous entry, it’s not a shock that I’m putting Martin Scorsese and The Irishman here. I don’t think there’s a great deal of fat in The Irishman. Still, at a skosh under 3 ½ hours, sitting down with this one is quite the commitment. I liked this movie a lot, but it’s also not one that I’m likely to watch again any time soon. Part of that is the length, but not all of it is. As with The Godfather, it’s just not something that I find myself wanting to watch again, like I don’t know I’ll ever be in the mood for it again.

My Choices

2. I don’t mind that Bong Joon Ho won this Oscar, and anyone who wants to give it to him will get no argument from me. Parasite is a hell of a movie, and a lot of that comes from the top. This is a movie that very much trades on the story, and while Bong Joon Ho’s work is certainly responsible for a lot of why this film works, he’s not responsible for all of it. That’s literally the only thing that keeps him off the dais for me. Like I said, if he’s your pick I don’t have any complaints and I won’t even really disagree with you that much.

1. So, ultimately, my choice is Sam Mendes and 1917. His work here is as good as that of Bong Joon Ho for one thing. There’s so much less plot here, though, and it’s ultimately so much more about the storytelling than it is the story itself. I’ve long maintained on this blog that Best Picture is about the best story and movie of the year, but Best Director is about the best storytelling of the year. Bong Joon Ho had the best story in 2019, but it was Sam Mendes who did the best work telling the story he had. He’s my winner.

Final Analysis


  1. You've got a good argument for your #1, especially in relation to your #2. Truth be told, going into the Oscar ceremony, I thought Sam Mendes had Best Director wrapped up, and it was when Bong Joon-ho's name was announced that the possibility of Parasite winning Best Picture became an actual real possibility in my head. Still, like you, I wouldn't have been surprised or really all that disappointed had Mendes won the Oscar, especially with him winning basically every major guild/critic prize for directing going into the ceremony.

    1. I'm fine with Bong Joon Ho winning this--he did deserve it, and while I would have voted differently, I'd have applauded for him just as hard. It would be a difficult choice between the two of them for me.

  2. For me, the Oscars made the right choice as Bong Joon-Ho I think is a better filmmaker can do more with the camera. I haven't seen 1917 yet but I'm sure Mendes did something incredible. Putting Todd Phillips was just wrong. Terrence Malick, Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, Noah Baumbach, Rian Johnson, and Joe and Anthony Russo should've gotten the nomination instead of Phillips. Plus, I can't root for someone who chooses to use a music piece by already disgraced pedophile for a key scene.

    1. 1917 really is more about the way the story is told than the story itself, at least for me. That's the main reason I picked him as my winner, but I won't disagree on choosing Bong Joon Ho.

  3. I think Oscar got the winner right, but they got all of the nominees minus Bong and Mendes wrong. I would've put Rian Johnson, Marielle Heller and Taika Waiti in the other three spots.

    1. I liked but didn't love A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but only because I thought it was misfocused. I agree on Johnson and Waititi, who would both probably be on my list and would definitely make my shortlist.

  4. I haven't seen 1917 yet, so Joon-ho is my winner to this point. I'm a fan of Joker, and of both interpretations. Not sure what that says about me. That said, I probably wouldn't nom Phillips.

    I wouldn't nom Tarantino or Scorsese, either. Tarantino did a helluva lot of directing. Unfortunately, it feels like he did, or probably more accurately, allowed very little editing. It's a collection of elaborately crafted scenes showcasing all of his talent and pop-culture knowledge. They don't work together, however, because so many of them just don't need to be there. He severely hampered good storytelling in favor of showing off his big brain. So much trimmable fat, indeed.

    I feel Scorsese is in a similar boat. The Irishman feels like it's 3 and a half hours long only because Scorsese wanted to make another gangster epic, not because this particular gangster story required the runtime. The cast gives it their all, including De Niro, but he plays perhaps Scorsese's least compelling lead character. The director's decision to digitally de-age him and others backfired in certain scenes. Whether or not the faces look good (it's debatable), De Niro just can't move like Travis Bickle, or even James Conway, any longer, so seeing him in action was a distraction.

    Watiti, Peele, Aster, Johnson, Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), and Josh and Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) would all be on my shortlist.

  5. I still need to see Queen & Slim and Uncut Gems, but I'm looking forward to both.

    Your complaint about Tarantino in Once Upon a Hollywood is exactly my complaint about Tarantino in general. It's exactly--to a T--what I mean when I say that Tarantino would be a lot better if he stopped trying to be awesome and instead just tried to be good.

    Mendes is my choice, but I really don't hate the pick of Bong Joon-ho. I wouldn't want to be the one to take the statue out of his hands.