Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Three times out of four, the Best Director Oscar is the marriage license on the way to the Best Picture wedding. The winning auteur strides onstage, and any suspense about the ultimate prize evaporates. But occasionally, and four times in the past 14 years, the Director laureate — Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan, Steven Soderbergh for Traffic, Roman Polanski for The Pianist, Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain — finds that Best Picture has gone to the wrong picture. i.e., not his: Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, Chicago and Crash, respectively.
Just once in the past 80 years, the top prize went to a movie whose director was not one of his category’s five nominees. That happened in 1990, when Driving Miss Daisy took Best Picture without its director, Bruce Beresford, being shortlisted. (Oliver Stone got the Director Oscar for Born on the Fourth of July.) That anomaly is quite likely to recur on Sunday, for Argo remains the prohibitive favorite for the top Oscar, though its director, Ben Affleck, was shut out of a nomination. Some other movie could win Best Picture, but some other helmer will win Best Director.
Who, then? Not indie prince Zietlin, 30, nor Austrian auteur Haneke, 70. Their nominations thrilled their films’ admirers (like Yours Truly, who placed Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild at the top of his 2012 10-best list). The choices also spoke well of the Academy’s small group of voting directors, who rewarded quality and were not hobbled by considerations of provenance. Zeitlin and Haneke, though, are like the NCAA basketball tournament’s unheralded colleges, the 15-seeds, that upset a national powerhouse in the first round. Through skill and luck, these two made it to the Final Five. But it would be a miracle — and to the Hollywood establishment, a scandal — if one of them won the championship.
David O. Russell: Why was he chosen as a finalist over Affleck — let alone Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Tom Hooper (Les Misérables), both of whom won Director and Picture for their previous films? Silver Linings Playbook may register higher than ZDT or Les Miz on the likability-o-meter, but so does Argo. We don’t underestimate the persuasive power of Harvey Weinstein, whose company distributes Playbook and has campaigned exhaustively for it. He has raised the movie’s gravitas by promoting it as a poignant depiction of mental illness, not the edgy-soapy rom-com that $100 million worth of moviegoers thought they were paying to see. But we’re betting that Weinstein — who godfathered the last two Picture-Director winners, The King’s Speech and The Artist — can’t secure a Best Director Oscar for Russell.
Spielberg, long shunned by Oscar voters as a kind of idiot savant with a nose for hits (Jaws a finalist for Best Picture but Spielberg not nominated for Director; E.T. losing Picture and Director to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, for Pete’s sake), has aged into an Academy eminence, winning Director Oscars for Schindler’s List and Private Ryan. For Lincoln he served, in a way, as the most gifted Second Unit Director: wrangling huge crowds of ornery men into tiny spaces, then getting them to deliver Tony Kushner’s dense dialogue with clarity and passion. (Hence the trio of Acting nominations, with the one for Daniel Day-Lewis in the bag.) Almost as important to Hollywood is that he got the mass audience to see this non-star talkathon: its $177-million North American gross makes it the biggest domestic hit of the nine Best Picture nominees. Yet the suspicion persists that the members think Lincoln is more head than heart — a civics lesson that may be too academic even for the Academy.
Life of Pi is bound to win some technical awards. Can it do more? Anne Thompson, the Oscar swami at Thompson on Hollywood, predicts Pi wins for Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Cinematography and Musical Score, to go with… Best Director. I agree — because the movie is more than the sum of its astounding parts. Lee experimented audaciously with 3-D and CGI, making a film that was simultaneously live-action and animation, while giving full emotional value to the depths of a boy’s isolation, fear and heroic resolve. Here is a picture that speaks to the heart of audiences everywhere; it has earned a solid $111.7 million in North America, but more than four times that ($465.1 million) abroad.
The magic that viewers around the world feel is purely one man’s achievement. Spielberg is the canny manager of Lincoln, Lee the bold visionary of Life of Pi. Spielberg directed his movie; Lee made his. He should win, and I think he will.
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