The Oscar Quest: Strongest Best Director Categories

Today we’re starting a whole new section of what I’m calling my “Oscar Quest Pages.” Since this whole thing is drawing to a close soon (seriously, almost five months to the day from now, it will be completely finished), I wanted to make some lists for stuff, to give people some resources for actually seeing the movies in question. It’s one thing to look up who won what year, or look at who won and was nominated based on all those giant lists I have, but when it comes to actually finding movies to watch, I wanted to provide as much pseudo-analysis and suggestions as possible.

This doesn’t so much have to do with movies to watch as much as it does analysis of the Quest itself. I wanted to see which years were the absolute best and worst in the history of the Oscars. Some years (like the one we’re in) just feel weak. Others feel insanely strong (like many of the ones in the 70s, which you’ll see are a recurring theme at the top of most of these lists).

So, starting today, I’m going to single out what I think are the best years for each of the individual Oscar categories. Today, I’ll be listing the strongest and weakest Best Director categories of all time. And I’ll work through the rest of the categories over the next few days. Keep in mind, these are only the categories. Just the sets of nominees. We won’t be concerning ourselves with what won, just — how strong was the list of nominees?

Also, since what won is just as important as (if not more important than) the categories themselves, in between listing the strongest and weakest categories, I’ll also be listing what I think are the strongest and weakest of the decisions in those categories. Those articles will be more along most people’s lines. That’s basically where we go, “These decisions were fucking amazing/awful.” You know — all that complaining we like to do when it comes to the Oscars.

Today, though, we’re listing the strongest and weakest Best Director categories of all time, as I see them. The weakest ones list will go up in a bit. Now, let’s look at the years where the categories were fucking stacked!”

Seriously though — look at these lists and picture the directorial efforts. Think of it in terms of quality of film, quality of directorial effort and iconic nature of the films. Full package. If you think like that, you’ll see why I put certain years ahead of other ones. (Also, before I take shit for #1, just know — this is all my preference. The point is to get all of these on the list. The specific rankings don’t matter. As long as we can all agree these ten belong here, I don’t care what order they go in. This is just my ordering of them.)

10. 1946

  • Clarence Brown, The Yearling
  • Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life
  • David Lean, Brief Encounter
  • Robert Siodmak, The Killers
  • William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives

I love this list. You get the gorgeous Technicolor of The Yearling, the stark noir-ness of The Killers, the emotionally vibrant Brief Encounter, the classiness of The Best Years of Our Lives, and then the iconic nature of It’s a Wonderful Life. Not only are all five of these efforts beautiful and brilliant in their own way, but they’re also a perfect snapshot of Hollywood as it was in 1946. I love that.

9. 1936

  • Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  • Gregory La Cava, My Man Godfrey
  • Robert Z. Leonard, The Great Ziegfeld
  • W.S. Van Dyke, San Francisco
  • William Wyler, Dodsworth

This category is deceptively strong. Obviously Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and My Man Godfrey are bona fide classics. And The Great Ziegfeld is a great film and a Best Picture winner. Not to mention — it’s big. In terms of films of this era, it’s of a scale that is almost unmatched. The musical numbers here are just big. I’ve watched a lot of films of this era, and very few feel as grandiose as that one. Then, San Francisco — that’s a film I say, it’s average for the first 90 minutes, and amazing for the final 25. That earthquake sequence is breathtaking. It’s another example of a film that stands out from the other films of its era because it just does it bigger, and better. Those special effects are better than almost anything you’d see on screen until — well, for a nice little while. Add to that Dodsworth, which is one of the great hidden gems for all time — and you have a really strong set of films. A really strong set.

8. 2010

  • Darren Aronosky, Black Swan
  • Joel & Ethan Coen, True Grit
  • David Fincher, The Social Network
  • Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
  • David O. Russell, The Fighter

2010 felt special even when it was happening. (Not the whole year — the Oscar year.) That Best Picture field was just incredible. It’s gonna age really well, too. But — Black Swan, True Grit, The Social Network — incredible. Even the other two. As much as I bitch about The King’s Speech — it’s actually an amazing film that’s really well-directed. I think the only thing that kept me from placing this higher was because of how recent it was. What makes most of these categories strong is the passage of time, and the films becoming classics, as all the stuff made around it fades into bolivian.

7. 1982

  • Richard Attenborough, Gandhi
  • Sidney Lumet, The Verdict
  • Wolfgang Peterson, Das Boot
  • Sydney Pollack, Tootsie
  • Steven Spielberg, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Another one — wow. I think we understand E.T. and Gandhi. Then, Tootsie is one of the great comedies of all time, and The Verdict is one of the great trial films of all time. What really makes this one work so well is Das Boot. There’s a film that’s so well-directed. In fact, I think it should have even won the category, it’s that well made. This is one of those years that could very easily go higher. They all are.

6. 1939

  • Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Victor Fleming, Gone With the Wind
  • John Ford, Stagecoach
  • Sam Wood, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  • William Wyler, Wuthering Heights

Ah, the “Golden” year. I have to fight the urge to just put 1939 first on every list of the strongest categories. Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — these three alone should have this in the top three. The reason I kept it back to 6th was because of the other two. They’re great films, and are well-directed, but they’re just lesser films than the other three. And I feel like all the ones I placed above this, while their top three weren’t necessarily as big as these top three, the other two were strong enough to where the overall list felt like it should have gone higher. But still — wow.

5. 1967

  • Richard Brooks, In Cold Blood
  • Norman Jewison, In the Heat of the Night
  • Stanley Kramer, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
  • Mike Nichols, The Graduate
  • Arthur Penn, Bonnie and Clyde

I love this list. It’s completely self-explanatory. Also, again, history counts for a lot here. At least, for those middle two films. The bottom two are both historically great and technically great too. And In Cold Blood — that’s just a great directorial effort. It really rounds off the list quite well. Though If they’d went with Cool Hand Luke instead of In Cold Blood, I’d totally have made this top 3. I fucking love that movie.

4. 1974

  • John Cassavetes, A Woman Under the Influence
  • Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather Part II
  • Bob Fosse, Lenny
  • Roman Polanski, Chinatown
  • François Truffaut, Day for Night

Here’s one I almost switched out for 1939 a bunch of times. And it’s because I don’t really love Day for Night. But I felt — since the other four efforts are so good (The Godfather Part II and Chinatown are two of the top directorial efforts for all time, Lenny speaks for itself, and A Woman Under the Influence is so raw and powerful, not to mention a classic), and since everyone else thinks Day for Night is a brilliant film, it actually makes sense to put this here. It’s one of those where — I think everyone else will find this more appropriate than I actually do (some of the time).

3. 1961

  • Federico Fellini, LA Dolce Vita
  • Stanley Kramer, Judgment at Nuremberg
  • Robert Rossen, The Hustler
  • J. Lee Thompson, The Guns of the Navarone
  • Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, West Side Story

Here’s one where — at first glance, you’d go, “No way.” Because #s 4, 5 and 6 all seem to be stronger. But again — I think this works here. I don’t know — I think all of these films are wonderfully directed in their own way. I’m flip-flopping on this as I write it, but I think this definitely belongs in the top five. Since I don’t really care so much about the specific rankings as long as thees categories are on the list — I’ll leave it. But this is a really strong category.

2. 1991

  • Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs
  • Barry Levinson, Bugsy
  • Ridley Scott, Thelma & Louise
  • John Singleton, Boyz N the Hood
  • Oliver Stone, JFK

Honestly, I almost put this one #1. The only reason I didn’t is because I felt weird putting something relatively recent as #1. I don’t know. It just feels like there should be a classical Hollywood film as #1 unless the #1 is so unmistakably #1. And this doesn’t feel like an absolute #1. That, plus, #1 to me are 5 films that are perfect, and ones I love very, very much. Here, two of them I think are solid, but I wouldn’t want to watch them all the time (as compared to #1). Still — this is an amazing category.

1. 1953

  • George Stevens, Shane
  • Charles Walters, Lili
  • Billy Wilder, Stalag 17
  • William Wyler, Roman Holiday
  • Fred Zinnemann, From Here to Eternity

God, I love this category. I feel the reason not everyone would put this as #1 is because of Charles Walters being on here. But as I’ve said many times over the course of this blog, I am so in love with Lili — I think that holds its own against anything. I’m positive not everyone will feel the same way, so fortunately the rest of the category puts this in the top 3 anyway, I don’t feel so bad. This category is terrific.

– – – – – – – – – –


11. 1975

  • Robert Altman, Nashville
  • Federico Fellini, Amarcord
  • Milos Forman, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Stanley Kubrick, Barry Lyndon
  • Sidney Lumet, Dog Day Afternoon

Another one that got left off because of personal preference. I don’t love Amarcord (especially knowing Jaws was left off), and Nashville, I recognize as a great directorial effort, but — honestly, I love classical Hollywood, so the prospect of putting 1946 on there was too exciting to pass up. (But, as I’ve been saying — I think we can all agree this bunch are the strongest categories. Once you get down to specific rankings, then it comes down to personal preference. That’s all this is.)

12. 1979

  • Robert Benton, Kramer vs. Kramer
  • Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now
  • Bob Fosse, All That Jazz
  • Édouard Molinaro, La Cage aux Folles
  • Peter Yates, Breaking Away

This is one — the films are great, but, when you look at the actual efforts, Kramer vs. Kramer an La Cage aux Folles — they’re not exactly as great as some of the efforts ranked higher. Still, though, it’s really great.

13. 1965

  • David Lean, Doctor Zhivago
  • John Schlesinger, Darling
  • Hiroshi Teshigahara, Woman in the Dunes
  • Robert Wise, The Sound of Music
  • William Wyler, The Collector

Love this category. I think the lack of outward recognition of some of the films kept me from ranking this higher. But just know — this is one of the strongest categories ever. All the efforts are incredibly strong. All five of them.

14. 1962

  • Pietro Germi, Divorce, Italian Style
  • David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia
  • Robert Mulligan, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Arthur Penn, The Miracle Worker
  • Frank Perry, David and Lisa

I personally think #15 is stronger than this one, but I put this higher because three of the films are so incredibly iconic that it just pushes it over the edge.

15. 1952

  • Cecil B. DeMille, The Greatest Show on Earth
  • John Ford, The Quiet Man
  • John Huston, Moulin Rouge
  • Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 5 Fingers
  • Fred Zinnemann, High Noon

Some Academy years are just incredible. They really are. Wow.

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