THE CONTENDERS: Best Director

ON

Those hilarious “What I do?” expressions Sadaam Hussein has given us from his trial aren’t the only good thing to come from the war in Iraq (of course there is that little thing called democracy which we have done an absolutely sensational job of forcibly and militarily installing over the last 20 years). No, the artists have responded to the times. There may not have been a lot of great movies this year, but the ones that were great, were bold the-hell-with-this-type ventures. This is promising. The ’70s were jam-packed with great music and great films. Artists respond. Just look at Tom Jones. So what’s new, pussycat? This year, it’s voices. It’s re-found vigor.

For example, Syriana, an ambitious and dense work that tries to put the pieces of the world together for the audience and the result is not pretty. Good Night, And Good Luck was not only about a time when our government abused its powers, but an echo for events occurring today. And the number of politically-edged documentaries are enough for a its own column. Don’t look at me, I’m busy.

Hell, even our “entertainments” have been affected. Crapfests like The Island are not only about how hot Scarlett Johansson is (okay, maybe it was, but work with me), but how used and distracted we feel today. This should be a message to us all: Stand back next time Michael Bay decides to stretch out his legs. But seriously, who has time to watch the Alito hearings (or “Aliato” hearings if your last name is Kennedy) when NFL playoffs, NCAA basketball, NBA freak show, “Desperate Housewives”, “CSI Miami”, “New York”, “Vegas”, “North Dakota”, “Texas”, “Hawaii”, “Puerto Rico”, “Kalamazoo”, “Sardinia”, “Mississippi”, “Shady Acres”, “Mayberry” and “Venice” are all on TV, not to mention “Law & Order” (see…I can control myself)? Gee, Clinton news or Duke versus UNC…Um, ESPN. Which gets me angrier as a citizen of the United States, Abramoff or that terrible end zone call in the New England game? The answer: THAT WAS CLEARLY INTERFERENCE ON THE OFFENSE!!! I think you get my point.

The a-political Jarhead says more than a little about a nation’s war machines. Gore-fest Hostel is about the world’s richer population paying top-dollar to torture and kill Americans! These are real responses.

In recent years there have been one or two hot-bed films that were serious contenders for Academy recognition. Look at last year’s Best Picture nominees: Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Sideways, Finding Neverland and The Aviator. Not to take anything away from the nominees, they were all very good films (except for the ridiculously overrated Ray), but out of all of them, the only movie that had people talking in spirited discussion over the subject matter was Million Dollar Baby.

2004’s nominated films? LOTR: ROTK, Lost In Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World, Mystic River, and Seabiscuit. Not exactly a hot topic movie in the bunch.

2003: Gangs of New York, Chicago, The Hours, LOTR: The Two Towers and The Pianist. The Hours had lesbians. Wonderful. We’ve long accepted lesbians. In fact we damn near encourage them. You have to go back to 2000’s Traffic for the last real hot-bed film. Then there was 1999’s The Insider and so on.

Now let’s look at this year’s potential Best Picture nominees:

2005 was not a great year, but it was a year where, great films or not, directors tackled brave material, took stands and produced films worthy of discussion. At least half (not even including Capote, despite its lead character being gay) of those films are worthy of some Hardball action. Let’s look at a few movies that got some people talking:

Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain – The triumph of Ang Lee is that he manages to make heterosexual males – who give the film a chance – eventually forget the sex of the love story at hand. This is the bravest gay-themed film because it is one of the biggest and it is the only big film of its kind to really focus on a love story. Philadelphia is about a gay man dying of AIDS. Even right-wingers have a heart about that kind of stuff. There’s been a bunch of gay-themed comedies but it’s been okay for a while now to laugh at or with gay people (from The Birdcage to In & Out or in the case of “Will and Grace“…not at all). Ang Lee isn’t just going to win Best Director this year for being brave enough to tackle material as difficult as a gay cowboy movie, but because he nailed the material in a way no one anticipated. He’s going to win because the acting feels true, because the film is beautiful to look at. The film’s leisure pace gives it a simmering and emotionally explosive quality. Brokeback Mountain may not be my favorite film of the year, but it is certainly one of the most admirable.

Ridley Scott for Kingdom of Heaven – I still want to see that director’s cut. As it stands, this movie isn’t an entirely successful venture. However, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven is a decent look an era of the Crusades. Like so many, this is a war about land that has been in dispute as far back as Joan Rivers’ very first plastic surgery. Believe it. There is a fairness in Scott’s film that makes the film frustrating because the movie isn’t strong enough to make the final act work. You root for neither the Christians nor the Muslims, but rather for individuals to make it out alive. This is not one of Scott’s best films but I think there is a reason a film like this took so long arrive and why there was so much passion in finally making it happen.

Stephen Gaghan for Syriana – There is a lot more talk about Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay than directorial effort and there’s a lot of talk out there that Syriana is just Gaghan’s second Traffic. But in many ways, Syriana is better than Traffic. Syriana is JENGA. It builds, and builds, and builds and you’re not sure all the pieces will hold together until you look down at the foundation from which they were built and then the whole thing comes tumbling down anyway. We’re left with all the little pieces and all we can say is “Damn!” That’s pretty much the Syriana experience. No other film has more accurately nailed the cause-and-effect nature of the West on the Middle East and vice-versa. Gaghan’s film is chaotic and that is exactly as he intended it to be. Whether you think the film is cold or too choppy, there is no denying the voice screaming from within. But Gaghan doesn’t scream his message at you. Instead, it lets you scream at it. That’s a good thing.

Fernando Meirelles for The Constant Gardener – Fernando Meirelles, the amazing new talent behind that masterpiece City of God, pulls off a really neat trick. He manages to make a paranoid quasi-thriller while maintaining the film’s artistic and emotional integrity. One of the film’s greatest accomplishments is how authentic it feels. I’m not sure there was a real set designer for this movie, I think there was only a location scout. This is exactly how I felt about City of God. Both movies’ locations and cinematography truly give you a “you are there” vibe. This film is about two stories but they both are entrenched deep within Africa- a country of people abused, condescended and corrupted in ways passed off by your nightly news as acts of charity. Oh yes, this is a film that makes one angry. Exceptionally acted and surprisingly effective as a conspiracy thriller, Meirelles made one of 2005’s best films while exposing the possibilities of corporate and governmental corruption by way of blind synergy.

Steven Spielberg for Munich and War of the Worlds – Don’t be surprised by the War of the Worlds inclusion. The film is merely a piece of well-made entertainment, true. But it is a film that Spielberg could only have made post 9/11. Spielberg himself acknowledged he used some images he saw on the day of September 11, 2001 in his alien disaster film and the result is creepily evocative. This is an artist responding to the world he inhabits and he took things a step further in Munich, a film that is a thriller, a political dialogue and a meditation on revenge.

This last aspect of the movie is the most important and reminds me of Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which pulled the rug from under the western genre. Munich does the same for the revenge film. It takes the harder path. How many people would have complained if this was just a men-on-a-mission revenge story that ends happily when the surviving members return home (something akin to the always entertaining Tombstone)? Not many. Ultimately, I think the film’s statement is: “Look, this is something the Israelis had to do, but we are not going to let it go unexamined.” This movie has the mind to portray characters with emotional and intellectual complexity, not to mention the complexity involved with cause and effect in the world of terror. Directing is about choices and Spielberg’s last shot of the Twin Towers isn’t about answers, but about questions and that is a choice that works for me.

Paul Haggis for Crash – It’s funny how Paul Haggis’s film has been both increasingly praised and shitted on the last few weeks but I guess it just goes with the territory. When I saw Crash in the theatre many moons ago, it was the best film I had seen in 2005 so far. It wasn’t much praise at the time and since then I have seen many better films. But Haggis’s screenplay and direction are still two of the most surprising elements of the year. Well, maybe not the screenplay. Haggis showed everyone he had the stuff with Million Dollar Baby, but his graduation to director wasn’t merely a smooth transition or a debut of promise: Haggis is a damn good director. He knows how to work with his actors and he tightly cuts a large ensemble into a completely cohesive, challenging and undeniably entertaining! look at racism. Nobody is a complete monster in Haggis’s film. Everyone is just angry. If there was a better-directed scene in cinema this year than the car crash involving Matt Dillon‘s character, I’d like to know what it is. More and more it is looking like a nomination for Haggis’s directing may be in order.

George Clooney for Good Night, and Good Luck – I’ve written a lot about George Clooney in my Contender columns this year. I promise you, it’s warranted. Look, you know he did something right when that fascist (I’m not above name-calling) Ann Coulter is making just plain bizarre revisionist statements like “Joe McCarthy was a hero!”. Senator Joe McCarthy…hero. Yay!!!!

I can just see Coulter watching Arthur Miller’s The Crucible doing an “Arsenio Hall Show” – like “Whoo-Whoo-Whoo!” when Abigail Williams falsely accuses Elizabeth Proctor of being a witch. Joe McCarthy…hero.

I can see Ms. Coulter’s publishing company now:


“Hey, your girl Coulter is really racking up those sales, Bob.”

“She sure is! Money, money, money, baby!”

“Yeah, but when are you going to have her committed?”

“Well, I’m still waiting for that take on how Hitler was the only true friend to the Jews. Then I’ll pull the plug.”

“Didn’t you already edit that out of one of her books? You told me she was certifiably insane at the time.”

“Dude, she was a lot younger back then and a whole lot hotter.”

“True dat!”

High-five.

In the end. Clooney pissed people off because his film is inarguable, factual. This film is important because whether it is Joeseph McCarthy, Ari Fleischer, Anne Coulter, John Ashcroft or Bill O’Reilly (all whom have either called Americans who question the government’s tactics or policies “traitors” or that they are “aiding terrorists”), the branding of “traitor” because you have the temerity to question something, is just as real today as it was in the 1950s. Clooney shoots the film in black and white and immediately throws you into not only the era, but the actual rooms the events took place. The film rarely leaves the CBS newsroom and it gives an almost claustrophobic sensibility. and there is a very real artistic integrity on display in Good Night and, Good Luck. Clooney chooses to have no score. There is no triumphant music when Murrow aces an outwitted and outmatched McCarthy. Lights fade and there are sighs of exaltation, including your own.

Of the above films mentioned, I expect only Ang Lee and George Clooney to be locks. I suspect no matter what happens with Munich, Steven Spielberg’s name will be announced on January 31st. And because of the steam Crash has gained, you can probably count on a Paul Haggis nomination. Once again, this leaves the last slot up for debate.

How about David Cronenberg who made one of my favorite films of the year, A History of Violence? Now he gets docked serious points for the baseball scene in the beginning. That scene is one of the worst and most unrealistic depictions of sports I have ever witnessed. It’s actually shockingly bad. It was constructed totally from a tonal and character standpoint from a director who must surely be clueless in the area of sports. Now I’m not The Schwab or anything, but it was almost inexcusable. Who runs the bases that way? Especially when the ball is such an obvious pop-fly! And the kid’s reaction to the caught ball is, shall we say…a bit over the top.

Having said all that, nominate David Cronenberg, Academy. This is his best film and the reason I did not include him in the list of directors above is because Cronenberg’s films have always examined violence. A History of Violence is his best study in this area and also his most satisfyingly entertaining. Cronenberg is a tough pick because I could see the film getting nominated Best Picture but the Academy stranding its director for some reason. Hmm…

Bennett Miller may get nominated if Capote sneaks in with a Best Picture nomination. He doesn’t have a shot otherwise, but at the same time it is looking more and more like Capote gets nominated Best Picture. I don’t know what to say here, I may be the only person in the world that thinks the movie, a solid telling on Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” origins, is just okay. I thought Miller did a good job but that’s it, I’m sorry. There was nothing here that really grabbed me, other than the acting. Good movie, okay. But Best Director? Really? Can anyone point out one truly great scene in the entire film?

I don’t think Gaghan has gotten enough support and though Meirelles’s nomination for City of God was a wonderful shocker, what are the odds of that happening again being that the film isn’t looking like a likely Best Picture candidate? Slim and none.

Of course, if it were really up to me, Peter Jackson would be a shoe-in for his outstanding job on King Kong. How do you not acknowledge his work on Kong? It’s an unfunny joke, but Jackson will be ignored.

Match Point may not be political, but it is purposely cold and strong in a way its director has not been in a very long time. You have to wonder just what stirred this in Woody Allen who hasn’t challenged himself this much in ages. He is an artist who responded this year, but was it to his times or his critics? If Match Point gets nominated Best Picture, Woody Allen gets nominated Best Director. But he could also steal a directing nod from someone whose film was nominated even if Match Point isn’t (like Cronenberg?). Final verdict: The Academy loves a Woody enough to fill in the last spot.

So this year the directors responded artistically. The actors mostly delivered. The screenwriters were full throttle. Let’s just hope 2006 carries a much larger dose. And that Hussein gets gassed.

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Weekend: Sep. 27, 2018, Sep. 30, 2018

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