The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1977-1978)
The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.
I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.
This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.
Woody Allen, Annie Hall
George Lucas, Star Wars
Herbert Ross, The Turning Point
Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Fred Zinnemann, Julia
Annie Hall. Arguably Woody Allen’s masterpiece.
It’s about a man who’s trying to figure out why his relationship ended. And a whole lot more than that. There’s no easy way to explain this movie.
The film is great. Of all of Woody Allen’s movies (he’s approaching 50 at this point in all), I generally only really like about ten of them. And there are a good number that I outright do not like. This one I think is one of his best.
As a Best Director winner — ehh. I don’t see a whole lot out of the direction that makes me want to vote for it. Everything in this film that’s interesting has to do with the writing and the acting. At best I consider this a third choice in terms of pure effort.
Star Wars. Really? Do you really need me to talk about Star Wars?
The Turning Point. This film, I always like to say, was the presumed frontrunner for all the Oscars this year. Which is funny since, on this list, it’s probably the least remembered of the bunch.
It’s about the friendship between two ballerinas, played by Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft. MacLaine left the company after she got pregnant and Bancroft went on to be a very big star within the community. When the company is in the town where MacLaine is living, twenty years later, the two reunite. And all the old feelings are stirred up and things of that nature. Added to that, MacLaine’s daughter wants to be a dancer, and Bancroft takes her under her wing.
It’s mostly a drama about ballerinas. That’s basically the story. It’s engaging, and it’s well made. But going back and watching all these nominees, there’s no denying this is the slightest of the bunch. Funnily enough, Herbert Ross had two nominees for Best Picture this year, this movie and The Goodbye Girl. And he got nominated for this, since this was the more “serious” of the two. So, added up, he’s probably maybe fourth for a vote, between the two. But he doesn’t go that high. Since, they’re well made, but there’s nothing that makes me go, “Oh yeah, I want to vote for him.”
Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I sometimes forget about this movie. We always think of the half dozen really famous and iconic movies that Spielberg made, and then the other half dozen normal famous movies (and then all the other very good movies and only like one or two mediocre ones. Which is truly impressive), but the truth is — man made a lot of really great movies.
Richard Dreyfuss (who did win Best Actor for The Goodbye Girl this year. I bet this performance was also taken into account) is an electrician who sees a UFO fly by and becomes obsessed with it. His fascination with it starts to ruin his marriage. He has this mental image of a mountain in his head and tries to figure out what it means. Culminating in the very famous ending scene with all the lights and perhaps the most famous five notes in movie history.
The direction is great. Classic Amblin Spielberg. In this category, he rises to top two. Maybe you put someone else over him for personal preference, but based on the effort, I don’t see anyone except Lucas going higher than him. It’s a pretty weak and boring year.
Julia. This is an interesting movie. No one really remembers it from this year. Yet it won something like three Oscars (two acting) out of ten or eleven nominations.
It’s based on a chapter of one of Lillian Hellman’s books, that may or may not be based on fact, but still makes for a good movie. It recounts her friendship with a woman named Julia. They were really close growing up and then grow apart when Julia goes off to medical school and Lillian begins to write plays.
Cut to years later, when Lillian is writing one of her plays, living with Dashiell Hammett, and she gets a letter from Julia, who is now fighting against the Nazis, asking her to help smuggle money for her into Nazi Germany. Thus begins a really tense sequence where Lillian travels by train with something that could get her killed, trying not to be noticed or questioned by any officers. Which is the bulk of the movie. There’s also one terrific scene where she and Julia sit down at a cafe. The only time we see Julia on screen.
It’s a really strong film. Well made, well-acted, really enjoyable. There’s a reason it got 11 nominations. As for the direction — it’s fine. Pretty standard. Maybe third, maybe fourth, maybe fifth. Not gonna get a vote over the big two in the category.
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The Reconsideration: I guess we’ll start with the obvious — Star Wars. The way this (and to an extent, an unnominated Jaws two years prior) revolutionized the film industry, it’s hard to fathom how it didn’t win. Especially since these kind of films tend to win Best Director but lose Best Picture. Though, I know at this point (and for the next decade), the Academy tended to look down at films like this. They openly snubbed Spielberg on a number of occasions. They held onto the belief that “Oscar” movies were a certain type of film (see: The Turning Point). That said, no one has seen a movie like this before, and quite honestly, I don’t see how people wouldn’t vote for it here, since the effort was so far and away more imaginative than anything else that had been seen on the screen. So that’s my vote, and it seems like a clear no-brainer, especially in a category like this, where two of the films are all but forgotten.
Now, as for the others — Julia and The Turning Point. They’re well made and well-directed, but they’re not Star Wars. I’m not sure if anyone would actually try to make a case for either of those movies for a vote unless they’re conceding they just like them the best. Then — Annie Hall. Great film, but Best Director? I’ve never been a fan of Woody Allen’s directorial abilities. It’s always his writing that’s his strong suit. Even if Annie Hall is your favorite film of all time (at which point I wouldn’t argue with the choice), do you think it was actually the strongest effort in the category?
Spielberg is the only one I could see voting for over Lucas. That, I could understand. But even so, Close Encounters is great… but it’s not Star Wars. That’s how I see it. It’s just not the same level of iconic. Maybe you think the nuts and bolts part of the direction is better, in which case, I won’t argue. But what Star Wars did for cinema — I can’t not vote for Lucas.
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- George Lucas, Star Wars
- Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind
- Woody Allen, Annie Hall
- Fred Zinnemann, Julia
- Herbert Ross, The Turning Point
- Star Wars
- Annie Hall
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind
- The Turning Point
My Vote: George Lucas, Star Wars
First — Star Wars. If you need me to tell you to see it, then we have a problem.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Annie Hall are essential movies. As a film buff, you need to see them. Close Encounters is such, though I don’t know how much so anymore, that you pretty much just see it growing up. I grew up with parents who saw it in the theater and would watch it on TV and show it to me from a young age. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. So I can’t quite call it life essential, but I can say that if you do love movies, you need to see it. And Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s most beloved movie. And he’s a major figure in cinema, and if you’re going to see any of his films, this one is at the top of the list.
Julia is a very good film. Good performances out of Fonda, Robards, Redgrave and Schell (all nominated), really tense train sequence in the middle — a really strong film. No one remembers it, but it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s well made, and won both Supporting Oscars this year.
The Turning Point is fine. Bancroft and MacLaine. Good performances. Kind of a melodrama. Not overly essential, but solid. Worth seeing because it was thought of as a top contender this year and because in order to really analyze this year from an Oscar perspective, you need to have seen it. This is one of those movies I respect but don’t love. You know, like in those period pieces, when the man marries the sensible but boring wife who has almost no personality but looks good out in society as a wife. And then there’s the fiery, crazy woman he has the affair with that he loves much more even though she doesn’t seem like a fit with how everyone else does their business? That’s what this movie is to Annie Hall and the others. I love the others more, but this is a perfectly respectable entry whose only flaw is I don’t love it as much as the others.
The Last Word: Seems like a slam dunk choice of Lucas. I wouldn’t argue if you wanted to make the case for Spielberg instead. I feel like if you’re making the case for Woody Allen, you’re doing so out of love for the film and not because you think the direction is actually the strongest. Which I can accept as long as you acknowledge that. And Zinnemann and Ross both turned in fine efforts, but I don’t think anyone would actually vote for them in this category against the other three.
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Woody Allen, Interiors
Hal Ashby, Coming Home
Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter
Warren Beatty & Buck Henry, Heaven Can Wait
Alan Parker, Midnight Express
Interiors. Woody Allen makes an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama. So, if there was a checklist of things guaranteed to make me not excited about a movie, those would be two really big boxes to check.
Geraldine Page and E.G. Marshall have three daughters. One is a poet, one is an actress, and one doesn’t have her shit together. The father tells the daughters he’s divorcing the mother because she’s unwell. And then the mother tries to kill herself, which then causes a whole bunch of drama to happen between the sisters. It’s a slow drama about depressed people. Decidedly not my kind of movie.
Woody Allen got nominated a bunch, and they just really like him. So I’m not going to argue and say he shouldn’t have gotten nominated. But I will say that I really don’t care for this film or this effort very much at all. And looking at the rest of the category, I don’t see how anyone puts him higher than fourth, if not fifth altogether.
I’m really starting to like the DGA. Every time I see a nominee that seems weird, I go back and see that they didn’t nominate them. Allen wasn’t nominated for the DGA Award for this movie. Paul Mazursky was nominated there instead for An Unmarried Woman, which was a Best Picture nominee and also a great movie. So that’s interesting.
Coming Home. Hal Ashby made six films in the 70s that are all incredibly good. Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, this and Being There. Hell of a run, right? This was the only one he got recognized for in this category.
It’s about Vietnam, much like the next film on this list. Jon Voight is back from fighting and no longer has his legs. So the first half of the film is him in a veterans hospital, bitter and coming to terms with how he now has to live his life. Jane Fonda is the wife of Bruce Dern, a charismatic soldier who is about to leave to fight in the war. While he’s gone, she volunteers at the hospital and starts a relationship with Voight. Not sexual at first, but of course it becomes sexual. And then Dern comes home, completely fucked up from PTSD, and no longer is charming and becomes very distant and sometimes violent. Driving Fonda closer to Voight, who is starting to become more of an activist over the government’s mistreatment of veterans.
It’s a strong film. Great performances all around. Voight and Fonda both won for it. There’s no denying how good it is, but I personally don’t think it’s as strong as the film that ultimately won, and in terms of the direction, it’s solid but not high enough for me for a vote. I’d put two others over it. But I could understand if you wanted to make the case for it.
The Deer Hunter. The other Vietnam movie. I feel like there are some people who don’t think this movie is a masterpiece and think it’s a bit overdone. But growing up, and I imagine this is the case with most people, you see this movie at a young age when you’re starting to get into movies, and it just blows you away.
It’s about a group of steel workers in Pennsylvania who are all good friends. De Niro, Walken, Cazale, Savage — we see them at work and then at the local bar afterward for a drink after a hard day. Their friend is about to get married, and they’re celebrating that. And the war is coming, so three of them are all going to enlist. We follow them around town and get to know them, then we see the wedding and the goodbye party for them all. And then they all go hunting one last time. De Niro is the hunter of the group, and Walken takes it sort of seriously, but the rest of them are there to drink and hang out. And then boom, Vietnam. We see the three men go through hell. The Russian Roulette sequence is one of the most intense ever put to film. And then we see the aftermath of that, how the war fucked with all three of them, and then we see what happens to them afterward when they return home (or don’t).
It is an incredible movie, and for my money, is by far the best choice in the category. It’s hard not to get completely tense during that POW/Russian Roulette scene. And then the way it handles all the characters — it’s a beautiful film. One of my all time favorites. It is my vote, and it is definitely worth a vote.
Heaven Can Wait. You’ve seen this movie. Maybe not this specific movie, but you’ve seen this story. It was made as Here Comes Mr. Jordan originally and then later remade as Down to Earth with Chris Rock.
Here’s the story. I’ll give you this specific version. Warren Beatty is the backup QB for a team about to go to the Super Bowl. One day, he gets into a horrible car crash and dies. He gets to heaven and argues that it wasn’t his time to die yet. We find out the angel who pulled his soul from his body was on his first assignment and actually messed up. He wasn’t supposed to die in the crash. Problem is, they can’t put him back in his body. He’s already been cremated. So they have to fix the error by getting him another body. In the meantime, they’re gonna put him in the body of someone else until he can get a permanent body. Kind of like when you get to rent a car after an accident.
So he gets put in the body of a millionaire who was just murdered by his wife and her lover, his assistant. So, to their great surprise, he wakes up. Only it’s actually Warren Beatty. He just looks like the millionaire. So Beatty goes around, acting as the millionaire. He buys the team and inserts himself as QB for the Super Bowl. And in the mean time, he falls in love with an activist who was coming to the millionaire to protest some of the deals he’s made. And of course the problem is, he’s getting somewhere in this body and will eventually have to give it up.
It’s a great, great movie. This is my favorite version of this story. The direction is fine, but not something you vote for. Fourth, maybe fifth in the category. I put him over Allen because I just really don’t like that movie, but I don’t think it jumps over any of the top three, no matter how you slice those two.
Midnight Express. Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?
That’s what this movie is. Guy smuggling hash in Turkey gets arrested and thrown in prison for some crazy amount of time. So we watch him do time in one of the harshest, most sadistic prisons in the world. It’s — intense.
This movie is terrific. It could easily be the vote here. I wouldn’t argue with this for a second. I just have a preference to another film.
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The Reconsideration: For me, this category begins and ends with Cimino. Just watch that movie and you see why it’s such a good winner. Alan Parker is a fine alternative, but I don’t have the passion for that film that I do for The Deer Hunter. Ashby could maybe be the vote, but I don’t see it. And the other two are definitely not ones I see as being worth a vote. Cimino seems like a slam dunk winner all around.
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- Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter
- Alan Parker, Midnight Express
- Hal Ashby, Coming Home
- Warren Beatty & Buck Henry, Heaven Can Wait
- Woody Allen, Interiors
- The Deer Hunter
- Heaven Can Wait
- Midnight Express
- Coming Home
My Vote: Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter
The Deer Hunter and Midnight Express are essential movies. You need to see them if you even remotely care about movies.
Coming Home — not essential, but you should see it. It’s a classic movie, one of the best movies about Vietnam, and it won Best Actor and Best Actress. You should see it. It’s also really good. Look at that list of Ashby movies up there. They’re all great, and you should see them all.
Heaven Can Wait — you need to see one version of the story. It’s almost impossible to escape one of them. This is my favorite, and arguably the best version of it. Also, loads of nominations, really terrific film — you should definitely see this. Not top tier essential, but you should get to it.
Interiors — one of the Woody Allen movies I like the least. So I can’t recommend it highly. But even though I am not the biggest fan, I did make it a point to see all of his movies. Because I do like to be fair and balanced. I just didn’t like this. So if you don’t like the Woody Allen dramas, and if you don’t like Bergman films, then this won’t be for you.
The Last Word: To me, Cimino is the vote. Parker also would be a fine choice. Beatty & Henry and Allen don’t seem like they’re someone you vote for. And Ashby — maybe you could make the case, but I don’t know. Depends on how well you can argue the decision over the others. Still seems like Cimino no matter how you slice it. But Parker also is someone I wouldn’t argue against. (I’d just argue for Cimino.)
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)