Ranking the Nominees and Predicting the Winner for Best Director

Each day leading up to the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday, February 26 Shrink Tank will profile one of the major categories, ranking the nominees for their work and predicting who will walk away with a shiny gold statue.

Today we profile the Best Director nominees.  I would not put Mel Gibson or Denis Villeneuve on this list.  I think both of their films are fine achievements, but I would have nominated Garth Davis and Kelly Fremon Craig.

Davis took an inspiring but somewhat idiosyncratic premise (orphan kid finds his family with the help of Google Earth) and made a completely satisfying and emotionally charged movie-going experience.  That is no small feat for a directorial debut.  Kelly Fremon Craig wrote, directed, and co-produced The Edge of Seventeen which I thought was one of the best films of the year and one of the most realistic films dealing with grief, friendship, and the high school years.  The film was also Craig’s directorial debut.  I get how the Academy wasn’t going to recognize two first-time directors with a coveted directing nomination.  But I thought their films were more complete and satisfying than two of the films represented on this list.  Here is how I would rank the nominees.

5.  Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge

I liked Hacksaw Ridge more than I thought I would, but from a technical and filmmaking aspect, there was nothing new that Gibson brought to this film.  The strengths of the film lie in the humanity found in Andrew Garfield’s performance and not in Gibson’s direction.

4.  Denis Villeneuve – Arrival

I thought Lion and The Edge of Seventeen were both superior films to Arrival, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishments that Villeneuve brought to his film.  Villeneuve does a fantastic job of integrating sci-fi elements into a film that inhabits our world here on earth.  Villeneuve also tackled the difficult task of depicting a non-linear storyline that jumps back and forth.  Some folks don’t connect with his directing style, finding it cold, mechanical, and detached.  I get why some people don’t warm to his style, but I find his minimalist ascetics very satisfying and compare it to Kubrick and early Ridley Scott.

3.  Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

I am a big fan of Lonergan and have been following his work since You Can Count on Me.  I think he has grown leaps and bounds in his directing skills.  In the past, his strengths were only in screenwriting.

Manchester by the Sea is his greatest script and greatest film to date.  Lonergan utilizes all the dimensions of filmmaking (score, editing, performances, location) to communicate the story of a man so wounded and broken that any type of emotion is frightening and risks him losing control.  The way that Lonergan employs pauses, inflection, and glances requires the viewer to pay special attention to what’s being communicated on the screen.  Denzel should study Lonergan’s film to learn how to translate what essentially could be a play into a fully formed cinematic experience.

2.  Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

What Jenkins creates in Moonlight is nothing short of miraculous.  Shot for $5 million and filmed over a 25-day shooting schedule, Moonlight is a sparse and unflinching film about identity, loneliness, and belonging.  Jenkins make numerous directing risks that ultimately paid off.  First, his screenplay broke the source material into three sections.  Second, he cast actors that could best portray Chiron in each of those three time periods without consideration to their physical appearance.  Third, he did not allow those actors to meet, preventing them from trying to mimic what the other was doing in the film.  Finally, Jenkins used long, uninterrupted takes, minimal music, and silence.  He allowed the audience to generate their own emotions about Chiron rather than emotionally manipulating the audience in his filmmaking.

1.  Damien Chazelle – La La Land

What more can be said about La La Land (except the proverbial backlash) that hasn’t already been said.  The film is charming and a feat for the eyes and ears.  Chazelle has created a musical that employs modern filmmaking techniques for the audience to inhabit a romanticized depiction of Hollywood.  A casual viewer will probably miss all the ways that Chazelle shoots long, uninterrupted takes in non-musical scenes.  They are used to allow Mia and Sebastian to have conversation and get to know one another and don’t draw attention to the filmmaking process.

And while many would disagree, Chazelle deserves the directing award for the spectacular feat of all the musical numbers in the film.  They are not stagnantly shot or stagey in their choreography.  The camera employs just as much movement as the performers, making the camera another performer in the piece.

PREDICTION:  I really would love for both Lonergan and Jenkins to be recognized on Oscar® night for their achievements in filmmaking.  But I think their best chances are with original and adapted screenplays.  While I think Chazelle could tackle the other genres and filmmaking styles represented from this list, no other director nominated could pull off what Chazelle did with La La Land.  And I think the academy members know this and are ready to reward him.

WINNER:  Damien Chazelle

Next up tomorrow: Best Picture.

The 89th Academy Awards® will be held on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre® at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood, and will be broadcast live on the ABC Television Network at 7 p.m. EST/4 p.m. PST.

MORE ON THE OSCARS

Oscars® 2017: Best Actor

Oscars® 2017: Best Actress

Oscars® 2017: Best Supporting Actor

Oscars® 2017: Best Supporting Actress

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