Tuesday, June 17, 2014

OVP: Director (2009)

OVP: Best Director (2009)

The Nominees Were...

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Lee Daniels, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

My Thoughts: The thing I remember most about the Best Director race of 2009 was how uniformly locked-down it was.  I find it absoulely bizarre that the year that they launched the Top 10 system for Best Picture was one of those years EVERYONE knew who the true Top 5 were.  In years since, you couldn't quite feel out the split (since usually one director didn't get a Best Picture nomination), but here there was no quibbling over it-these five grabbed the five biggest Academy movies of the year, and just sort of ran with it.

There's something deeply claustrophobic about the films of Kathryn Bigelow's career renaissance.  Both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are desperately reliant on building a closing wall around their principle characters.  I love the way that she tightens the scope throughout the movie, frequently having us get inside of the characters shifting worlds.  We've discussed this film to death I feel at this point (I realize this every OVP, but the Academy as a general rule over-nominates certain movies and as a result other interesting work in different films gets left in the cold), but I haven't talked too much about the way that Bigelow builds tension.  There's something very clean and clear about this movie-every scene isn't revolving around escalating drama with rising music and "the next big fight with the bad guy," but instead it's getting inside of our slowly deteriorating main character.  Bigelow juxtaposes quite wonderfully William James with the action around him, making tension rest in how we handle war and not simply what happens next to the character.  It's a neat trick, and something she used to even better effect three years later with Zero Dark Thirty.

Everyone in the known universe with a magazine, blog, or newspaper commented at the time about Bigelow fighting against her ex-husband, and so I will do that right now as well (mostly because we'll almost certainly never see something like this ever again), and the real fun was that even though Bigelow was winning in a blow-out, Cameron was certainly her biggest competitor.

Cameron's films frequently suffer from stilted dialogue and occasionally the overindulgence in editing, but from a director's perspective, he has few equals.  The way that he handles some of the action scenes (like Jake's first flight), so well-timed with the music and perfectly shifting the camera angles, it's a complete thrill ride.  Cameron also has the good sense in Avatar to know when to pull back on the love story (this is really a story about Jake's (and our) immersion into the world of Pandora, and not quite about him falling in love, though that's the catalyst), and the visual spectacle of the film has no equals-the film hasn't aged particularly well in the collective pop culture memory (very few people talk about it today in a way you'd expect for the highest-grossing film of all time), but it's an absolutely stunningly paced, well planned movie, mostly because of Cameron behind the wheel.

Quentin Tarantino, like Cameron, has a distinctive style that few could confuse with any other filmmaker.  You always know when you're watching a Tarantino film, and while his movies are always insanely watchable, he frequently needs to find a balance between what he is so good at (crisp, vivid characters, extended conversations filled with rich dialogue, elaborate action sequences) and what he can't balance (putting himself in the movie, too much tongue-in-cheek, annoyingly elaborate action sequences that take you out of the movie).  Tarantino's best film will probably always be Pulp Fiction, which is different than most everything he's done since, but in the new world of his movies, Inglourious Basterds reigns supreme.  I love the way that this film always feels essential-there are no scenes that aren't well thought out, and each act seems to link quite nicely to the next, while always having its own distinct flavor.  There isn't a lot of excess (the penultimate scene in the theater aside being the only exception), and he keeps his actors from washing each other out with over-the-top performances.  There's finesse in what he's doing, but unlike something like Django three years later, there's restraint there too-the only major scene with indulgent violence happens in the theater, even though there's opportunity for it in most other scenes.  It's a film that takes a drop from early Tarantino but mostly focuses on his larger-scale later work.

Jason Reitman also suffers from the occasional over-winking at the audience.  Think of something like Thank You for Smoking, a clever film that has something legitimate to say about the tobacco industry, but occasionally finds itself a bit over-in-love with its own script.  That's not the case with Up in the Air, a movie that could quite easily fall into the trap of just oozing adoration for George Clooney's Ryan Bingham, but instead decides to say something a bit bigger about the culture of layoffs and how much of our love and soul go into our careers.  Reitman's work isn't quite as revolutionary as some of his competitors, admittedly; there's nothing here that's particularly cool or outstanding (the empty offices seem to probably be the most jarring thing you see in the film, but that's not a directorial choice that anyone else would have made), but I do like the way that he treats his characters, particularly Ryan, never giving us over entirely to liking them but still making us invested that they are in fact people.

Lee Daniels is occasionally ridiculous (this really was a sea of five directors who have a sharp vision in their films).  Watching something like The Paperboy is a lesson in what-the-fuckery, with excess shooting out from every angle the film (that movie, while fascinating, was in desperate need of a better editor).  Precious, in the light of The Paperboy and The Butler, seems hauntingly restrained and though I love the idea of Lee Daniels, his later films haven't worked for me so I still cling to the tight, trapped Precious.  The movie's best asset is Mo'Nique as Mary, and Daniels is smart enough to make her a true supporting character, shoved away at the sidelines for scenes at a time (he knows that, like Precious, she stays and haunts us even when she's not onscreen).  He also knows when to puncture the film with a gut punch (think of the scene where Mary tells Precious that she doesn't have HIV because they never had anal sex-I remember the entire audience gasping at her ignorance), and to keep the film grounded in reality even when the performances seem so large and almost Shakespearean.  It's a wonderful way to find a balance between the excesses of the film and the hauntingly brutal and life-inspired moments of the movie.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Globes love themselves an actor-turned-director, particularly if your name is Clint Eastwood, and so he managed to score the only change in the Oscar lineup here over Daniels (it's worth noting that James Cameron ended up winning and not Bigelow if you thought you remembered her blowing out the entire field).  The DGA Awards, like the SAG Awards that year, were completely in-line with Oscar, both with the five nominees and the eventual winner.  The BAFTA Awards also skipped Precious (apparently Lee Daniels was in fifth place), but also Reitman's very American Up in the Air (instead, they went with the far more international Neill Blomkamp for District 9 and Lone Scherfig for An Education).  Kathryn Bigelow won the award, however.  This now begs the question of who was the sixth place finisher.  Common sense would dictate the AMPAS-friendly Eastwood, but Invictus missed in the Best Picture race, showing it had a lack of support.  The Coen Brothers are normally a good bet, but A Serious Man was obviously in tenth place in the Best Picture race.  John Lee Hancock is too cookie-cutter, Lone Scherfig probably too little known, and animated films don't get Best Director nominations for some reason.  Therefore, I'm going to guess that it was Blomkamp, who could have been in a Paul Greengrass sort of position here, but missed due to the solidarity of the main five nominees.
Directors I Would Have Nominated: It's worth noting that there's not a "bad" nominee in this bunch-all things considered, Oscar put together a pretty strong list of achievements.  I would have substituted in Michael Haneke, though, for sure, with his brutal and chilling White Ribbon, and I was SO onboard with the excess that was A Single Man that I think I would have put in Tom Ford on his feature film debut.
Oscar’s Choice: I think that Barbra Streisand was going to give it to her no matter what it said in that envelope, but no matter who presented the trophy, there was no denying that Kathryn Bigelow, glass-ceiling shatterer, was winning that Oscar.
My Choice: I'm going to side with the Globes here and give it to Cameron.  There's a lot of great work here and something to appreciate for all five, but Cameron's towering achievement is the most impressive of the bunch.  I'll follow him with Tarantino, Bigelow, Daniels, and finally Reitman.

Those are my thoughts-what are yours?  Where did you stand on the Bigelow v. Cameron battle (or did you side with the other three)?  Do you also think it was a year that would have been a 5/5 matchup with Best Picture?  Who was the sixth place finisher?  And what was the best directed of 2009?  Share in the comments!

Past Best Director Contests: 201020112012

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