The Oscar Quest: Weakest Best Director Categories

Earlier today, we took a look at the Strongest Best Director categories of all time. Now, it’s time to flip the coin and take a look at the weakest.

Some years you can just tell. It just feels weak. Of course, the pitfalls with a list of the “weakest” anything are numerous. The big one is when the list is filled with several terrific individual efforts. Sometimes there two or even three great single efforts on a set of nominees, but because of circumstances (that person already had a couple of Oscars, or they were never going to win (David Lynch), or the film was too on the nose, or that effort was a shadow of that person’s previous/later work), it doesn’t really help make the category any stronger. When looking at who to vote for (and taking into account Oscar history — because you have to, as much as you don’t want to. Because even if you don’t, they do. You have to navigate through the waters), you’ll find that these years actually are really, really terrible.

Again, as I said with the list of Strongest categories — don’t go so much by individual rankings as much as the fact that the category is on the list. Think of it as these 10 (and extra 5) as being what I consider the worst (I think we can all agree these belong here), and then the rankings as my personal preference as to how I’d rank them after we’ve established that they’re weak.

All right, now let’s look at all these pieces of shit:

10. 1947

  • George Cukor, A Double Life
  • Edward Dmytryk, Crossfire
  • Elia Kazan, Gentleman’s Agreement
  • Henry Koster, The Bishop’s Wife
  • David Lean, Great Expectations

I think this is one of the weakest years in Academy history. It’s not necessarily because the films are weak, or because the efforts weren’t good. It’s more because — there’s nothing to vote for. Crossfire is a B-movie, and that’s cool that they nominated it, but you could never vote for it. And The Bishop’s Wife, in terms of directorial effort and this category, is pretty plain. A Double Life too. That would be an okay nomination in a stronger category, but here, it just keeps the category feeling weak. Then, Gentleman’s Agreement is one of those King’s Speech efforts — it’s solid and all, but it’s not like, “Holy shit look at this.” And Great Expectations, I feel, is the strongest effort in the category, which goes to show you how weak it is, when the best effort is one that will never win (having that win would be like having Romeo and Juliet win Best picture in 2011). Most of the categories this year are like that.

9. 1929-1930

  • Clarence Brown, Anna Christie Romance
  • Robert Z. Leonard, The Divorcée
  • Ernst Lubitsch, The Love Parade
  • Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front
  • King Vidor, Hallelujah

I almost hate to pick on the early years, but it speaks for itself. Outside of Milestone, this year is terrible. Imagine what would happen if, instead of Milestone, Lionel Barrymore was nominated for The Rogue Song? What would you do? Sure, we’d all vote for Lubitsch, but it’s not like the effort was so great that it screams “Best Director.” It’s just that the dude is a great director. Vidor too. But the efforts — this isn’t a strong list. It had to go on.

8. 1932-1933

  • Frank Capra, Lady for a Day
  • George Cukor, Little Women
  • Frank Lloyd, Cavalcade

Honestly, I should have put this in the top 3. Because we’re 6 years into the Oscars at this point. A category this weak shouldn’t happen. Three nominees? And these three? One is a lesser Capra film that he still couldn’t get quite right even after two bites of the apple (that counts as a pun, if you’ve seen the film), and the other is really on the nose. Cavalcade is a fine effort and all, but it’s perhaps the weakest Best Picture winner of all time (hence the reason almost nobody’s seen it). This is just a terrible category. To the point where I almost wish no one had won.

7. 1986

  • Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters
  • James Ivory, A Room with a View
  • Roland Joffé, The Mission
  • David Lynch, Blue Velvet
  • Oliver Stone, Platoon

You may look at this and go, “No way.” I’ve anticipated this. But pause for a second and think about the likelihood of David Lynch winning here. Honestly, they might as well have nominated Peter Faiman for Crocodile Dundee. As nice as it looks on the stat sheet, that’s still a blank nominee. Oliver Stone was the only person who ever had a shot here, and even if we consider Lynch a strong nominee, the other three are still terribly weak. You know my feelings on Woody Allen, and Merchant-Ivory films are just awful. And The Mission is one of those — it works if the category is stronger, but if its weaker, it shouldn’t be there. This year was brutal. (And you’ll notice a trend emerging with this decade. It’s not just this year.)

6. 1985

  • Héctor Babenco, Kiss of the Spider Woman
  • John Huston, Prizzi’s Honor
  • Akira Kurosawa, Ran
  • Sydney Pollack, Out of Africa
  • Peter Weir, Witness

God, I hate the 80s. They’re the worst Oscar decade, unless you want to count the first one (1928-1937). At least that decade had an excuse. This one doesn’t. Witness is a mainstream action movie. It should be nowhere near this list. Ran is a great film, but nothing near what Kurosawa did in his prime. And you know they’d never vote for it, even though he’s a clear winner in this category, to me. Pollack is a great director, but Out of Africa is a terrible film. It’s like The English Patient — it shouldn’t rank so high by default. Prizzi’s Honor and Kiss of the Spider Woman are good films, but those directorial efforts are not exactly standout. Add to that the Spielberg snub for The Color Purple and this absolutely deserves to go into the top five.

5. 1970

  • Robert Altman, MASH
  • Federico Fellini, Satyricon
  • Arthur Hiller, Love Story
  • Ken Russell, Women in Love
  • Franklin J. Schaffner, Patton

Here’s the reason I don’t like this one, more so than 1985 — there, you can blame the snub. This one, Fellini should not have been nominated at all. This would be like not nominating Martin Scorsese for Taxi Driver and then giving him his first Oscar for Kundun. Women in Love — shouldn’t be nominated. It just shouldn’t. I like Ken Russell, but the film should not be here. Then MASH — great film, but it didn’t need to be here either. It’s fine that it’s here, but I treat it almost like David Lynch — it’ll never win. I never liked Altman’s style, and I don’t really see how that made him worthy of an Oscar. But that’s me. I just felt this category shouldn’t have been so easy for Patton to win. It’s almost like 1987 with The Last Emperor — sure it’s gonna win, but it shouldn’t have been so easy. It’s like a blowout in the Super Bowl. Just give us a good game.

4. 1983

  • Bruce Beresford, Tender Mercies
  • Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander
  • James L. Brooks, Terms of Endearment
  • Mike Nichols, Silkwood
  • Peter Yates, The Dresser

It would have been funny if I just listed all of the 80s categories here. This category is terrible — outside of the snub of Philip Kaufman for The Right Stuff, which really should have won this category — because James L. Brooks’s effort is a default number one. Sure, the film is great, but what did he actually do there? Yates’s film is basically a stage play, Beresford’s is just kind of there, Bergman was never going to win, as nice as that film looked, and Nichols — he’s done better. You’re gonna give him an Oscar for this and not Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This category is terrible. I almost want to put it higher.

3. 1955

  • Elia Kazan, East of Eden
  • David Lean, Summertime
  • Joshua Logan, Picnic
  • Delbert Mann, Marty
  • John Sturges, Bad Day at Black Rock

I love Marty to death, but even I say it should never have won here. This is another one of those worst overall years in the Academy. Almost all the films this year are weak by category standards. Picnic is a fine film, but doesn’t help the category get stronger. Summertime is a boring ass film that’s basically a travelogue. Eat, Pray, Hepburn. Bad Day at Black Rock — good film, good direction, but it doesn’t help the category. And East of Eden, while clearly the best effort on this list, is a monkey wrench, because Kazan had two Oscars by this point and probably should have had a third for Streetcar. How many times you gonna let him win? That’s why this category is so weak. When you deliberately have to not vote for the best effort and vote for a weaker one (that’s a good film, but the direction is not something that needs to be recognized, kind of like Terms of Endearment), it’s a weak category.

2. 1984

  • Woody Allen, Bullets over Broadway
  • Robert Benton, Places in the Heart
  • Milos Forman, Amadeus
  • Roland Joffé, The Killing Fields
  • David Lean, A Passage to India

What a fucking terrible year. We don’t notice it as much because Amadeus is such a good film. But if you take Amadeus out of the running, this year is an abortion. Amadeus is the one sperm that you’re glad made it. Without Amadeus, The Killing Fields is a runaway winner here. That shouldn’t happen. What, are you gonna give David Lean a third Oscar for this film, and not the Oscars he probably should have won for Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, or Doctor Zhivago? (Seriously, look at those categories. He was a legit winner in at least two of those.) Places in the Heart is Oscar bait bullshit, and Broadway Danny Rose is laughable as a nominee. This year is terrible.

1. 1938

  • Frank Capra, You Can’t Take It With You
  • Michael Curtiz, Angels with Dirty Faces
  • Michael Curtiz, Four Daughters
  • Norman Taurog, Boys Town
  • King Vidor, The Citadel

Had to be. Absolutely had to be. When the year includes The Adventures of Robin Hood and Grand Illusion, and you nominate Four Daughters and Boys Town instead. Let’s also not ignore the fact that Michael Curtiz was nominated twice and was overlooked in favor of Frank Capra’s third Oscar. What the fuck, indeed. This was an easy #1.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

11-15, just because I know you like more.

11. 1996

  • Joel & Ethan Coen, Fargo
  • Milos Forman, The People vs. Larry Flynt
  • Scott Hicks, Shine
  • Mike Leigh, Secrets & Lies
  • Anthony Mignhella, The English Patient

This is just a terrible set of nominees to me. Mike Leigh’s film looks like it was directed for BBC Television. Shine is just way too plain a film to me to be considered a strong nominee in this category. The People vs. Larry Flynt, while a great film, is also one that’s not helping this category, simply because Forman had two Oscars and was never going to win, so it’s essentially a blank because of that. Not to mention the fact that it’s really not standout, I feel. And I just don’t like The English Patient at all. So, while it belongs here, the fact that it automatically becomes a top two entry on the list (before I even get into personal preference) automatically makes it one of the weakest categories of all time.

11. 1958

  • Richard Brooks, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  • Stanley Kramer, The Defiant Ones
  • Vincente Minnelli, Gigi
  • Mark Robson, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
  • Robert Wise, I Want to Live!

Another one of the weakest individual years in Academy history. The reason this category didn’t make the top ten is becauseI think all of the efforts are individually pretty strong. It’s just that they don’t add up to much. You can’t vote Wise, since the effort’s not worth a win, plus he’d win twice later. Robson is here simply because Delbert Mann directed another theatrical film, and I think they didn’t want to nominate him for that again. (Kind of like how Bruce Beresford wasn’t nominated for Driving Miss Daisy.) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, while amazing, is also very theatrical. A theatrical film only wins Best Director if it also wins Best Picture. And The Defiant Ones and Gigi are both strong films and strong efforts, but not exactly  automatic winners. Of course, Minnelli was an automatic because he didn’t have an Oscar and the film (somehow) won Best Picture. But the category is still pretty weak.

12. 1928-1929

  • Lionel Barrymore, Madame X
  • Harry Beaumont, The Broadway Melody
  • Irving Cummings, In Old Arizona
  • Frank Lloyd, The Divine Lady, Drag, and Weary River
  • Ernst Lubitsch, The Patriot

I know this is the big “transition to sound” year, but a weak category is a weak category. That’s why I didn’t put it top ten. It’s still weak regardless. Madame X, In Old Arizona, The Divine Lady — not that great at all. The Patriot is lost. Honestly, the only way you can vote here is either, “Go with the Best Picture winner,” or “Go with the dude nominated the most.” That’s clearly what they did. This category is weak as hell.

13. 2004

  • Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
  • Taylor Hackford, Ray
  • Mike Leigh, Vera Drake
  • Alexander Payne, Sideways
  • Martin Scorsese, The Aviator

Scorsese aside, of course, this category blows. I despise Sideways. This is established. And I hate Mike Leigh films. Those two, I feel, are a bias factor, which is why this didn’t make the top ten. Ray only gets nominated here because they nominated it for Best Picture. Really didn’t need to be here. And Million Dollar Baby — fine effort, but not exactly strong. Weak year.

14. 1954

  • Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window
  • Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront
  • George Seaton, The Country Girl
  • William A. Wellman, The High and the Mighty
  • Billy Wilder, Sabrina

Obviously — Kazan and Hitchcock. That’s why this isn’t top ten. But the other three — Sabrina is not exactly a film that screams “Best Director.” Nor is The Country Girl. And The High and the Mighty — how’s that nomination holding up? (Especially against an unnominated A Star is Born.) This is an example of, “Good films, but not really great efforts.”

15. 1988

  • Charles Crichton, A Fish Called Wanda
  • Barry Levinson, Rain Man
  • Mike Nichols, Working Girl
  • Alan Parker, Mississippi Burning
  • Martin Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ

I should have ranked this higher, but the quality of the films scared me off of it. I love A Fish Called Wanda and Rain Man. Their directorial efforts, however? Did not need to be here. They just didn’t. The quality of the films is clouding my judgment. Scorsese and Parker belong here. And Nichols? What the fuck was that? This is a really weak category, if you’re able to think objectively about it. Especially when you consider the fact that Scorsese was basically like Kubrick in 1968 — he never had a chance. Jesus.

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