Thursday, February 11, 2010

Best Directors: 2009

I'm going to apologize in advance for my blogging laziness. Going into this, I had grand notions of intricate posts full of cinematic wisdom. Then, as usual, reality intervened, and instead of getting The Alien trilogy interpreted as a treatise on an evolving cinemascape, or the effects of the Hays Code on Rebel Without a Cause, I'm just going to talk about directors for a little while; specifically, the five directors nominated for this years Best Director Oscar. So, I suppose you can consider this part of my continuing Oscar miniseries. I'll let you know who they are, what they've done, what I think of them, and why their achievements this year merit awards consideration. So, here we go, in alphabetical order:

Kathryn Bigelow
Films (in bold are the ones I've seen):
The Hurt Locker
K 19: The Widowmaker
The Weight of Water
Strange Days
Point Break
Blue Steel
Near Dark

What I think:
I honestly wasn't overly familiar with Ms. Bigelow before The Hurt Locker. I was aware of her, mainly due to her relative fame as a female director of stereotypically 'male' movies. Most of her films operate within a genre (usually action or horror), though they tend to subvert the cliches inherent to their specific fields. For me, watching The Hurt Locker was a complete revelation: it was almost shameful that I was hitherto unaware of such unadulterated talent. Obviously, I can't speak on Ms. Bigelow too well, as I've only seen one other of her films, but that one (Near Dark) is very much worth seeing. Near Dark poses as a vampire movie, while quietly sneaking away to play in the Western playground. Her take on the cowboy-mainstreet-shootout trope is absolutely priceless (hint: it involves a Semi and a flaming Bill Paxton with razor-sharp spurs).

Why she deserves the nomination:
The Hurt Locker is one of the most effortlessly tense and draining films I've seen in a while, and a large part of that is due to Bigelow's stylistic sensibilities and unbeatable sense of pacing. Plus, in the middle of all the action, she draws forth virtuoso performances from her three leads (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty), and never allows the story elements to be usurped by the action set-pieces. She doesn't just deserve the nomination: she deserves to win.

James Cameron
True Lies
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The Abyss
The Terminator
Piranha 2: The Spawning

What I think:
It seems like I spend at least half of my life defending James Cameron these days. So, let me put it this way: he's not a great director. His movies can be hackneyed and cliched. He prioritizes concept and visual conceit over emotional substance and nuance. That being said, he's been redefining the medium of film since 1986. The man may be arrogant, but his arrogance has led to some of the most awe-inspiringly insane movie stories of the past 30 years (seriously, if you haven't seen any of the making-of footage for Titanic, youtube that crap: he literally rebuilt the friggin' Titanic. That's a big ship). In his later years, his writing has become dreadfully sub-par (though the scripts for Terminator 2 and Aliens are, in my opinion, tightly wound and proficient enough), but he has yet to sacrifice his artistic notions for easier work, and that endears him to me like crazy.

Why he deserves the nomination:
Avatar may not reinvent the story-telling wheel, but it does redefine what is possible for movies to show, and I respect that. Keeping a film of this size on the tracks and managing to make it both understandable and entertaining is one hell of an achievement. Plus, he's one of the most hands-on directors working: youtube footage of Cameron running through sound-stages, steadicam belted on, and see what I mean.

Lee Daniels

What I think:
I really don't have anything intelligent to say here, as I think it's just about impossible to speak on a director having seen only one of their films. I thought Precious was competently directed, even if it strayed into overly stylistic territory at times. Not that there's anything wrong with style: the film just felt as if it were trying too hard to be a 'director's movie."

Why he deserves the nomination:
Anyone who can coax such amazing performances out of a debut performance (Gabourey Sidibe) or a BET talk-show host (Mo'Nique) deserves some recognition.

Jason Reitman
Up in the Air
Thank You For Smoking

What I think:
Jason Reitman is solid. I can't say it any better than that. He's a very meat-and-potatoes sort of director: he gets the story told without unnecessary flourishes, and that's admirable. His films are always smart, quickly paced, and sharp as a tack. My one qualm would be that, every now and again, he seems to be trying to hard to be quirky. It could be the material he tackles, it could be the actors, but I can't help but think that Reitman embraces his 'indie director' a little too tightly. That's a tiny complaint, however: he's on a three-for-three role, here, and has yet to make a bad film.

Why he deserves the nomination:
Up in the Air is almost minimalist in its spare storytelling style. Reitman effortlessly evokes the life of a man with nothing to tie him down while subtly introducing contemporary relevant themes, and never tipping the balance of comedy and drama.

Quentin Tarantino
Inglorious Basterds
Kill Bill
Jackie Brown
Pulp Fiction
Reservoir Dogs

What I think:
I think it's embarrassing that I haven't seen Jackie Brown. I'll try to get on that. Quentin Tarantino is an auteur by any definition. His films are completely distinctive, unique pieces that both embrace and subvert the genres in which they occur. Think about it: Pulp Fiction is technically a gangster/crime movie, Kill Bill is technically a kung-fu movie, and Inglorious Basterds is technically a WWII movie. But none of them really feel like it, do they? Tarantino's visual style is endlessly inventive and wickedly, maniacally gleeful. No other director working today can use violence as a comedic punchline the way Tarantino can. He's easily my favorite director on this list.

Why he deserves the nomination:
Well, he's Quentin Tarantino, for starters. All levity aside, Inglorious Basterds is fresh, witty, and hugely entertaining, as well as dark, gruesome, and incredibly tense. It's a completely unique vision that deserves a reward.

Can I just take a moment to point out how diverse this lineup is? Normally, Oscar nominates five middle-aged white men. But this year, we have:
-a woman, only the fourth in Academy history, after Lena Wurtmuller (Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (The Piano), and Sophia Coppola (Lost in Translation)
-a black man, only the second in Academy history (after John Singleton (Boyz in da Hood). That's right, Spike Lee has never been nominated. Not even for Do the Right Thing.)
-a young man: Reitman is only 32. Fewer than ten directors have been younger than he is for their nominations.
-a gay man (Lee Daniels). Though this is one of the Academy's more welcome minorities, it's still relatively rare. Famous out directors who have scored with the Academy include Pedro Almodovar (Hable Con Ella), Steven Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader), Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk), Rob Marshall (Nine), Franco Zefferelli (Romeo and Juliet), and John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy)
-a Canadian (James Cameron). I'd insert a Canadian joke here, but there are quite a few Canadian directors worth their salt (Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley are the first that come to mind, but there are others. I just haven't done the research on this one).

Honestly, not a bad slate. If I had a ballot, it wouldn't look like this (I'd leave off two of these directors for two different ones. Who gets left off is a mystery we won't solve until my Best of '09 post comes out...Which is late, I know, but I'm still missing some movies), but I can't complain. At least Clint Eastwood didn't make it on here, right?

What do you think? How familiar with these directors are you, and do they deserve to get the nominations? Which directors do you think got left out this year?

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