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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1985-1986)

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.

1985

Hector Babenco, Kiss of the Spider Woman

John Huston, Prizzi’s Honor

Akira Kurosawa, Ran

Sydney Pollack, Out of Africa

Peter Weir, Witness

Analysis:

Kiss of the Spider Woman. Really interesting film.

It’s about two men who are put in the same cell in a Brazilian prison. One is a revolutionary, and the other is a gay window dresser who had sex with an underage boy. William Hurt plays the window dresser and Raul Julia plays the revolutionary. At first, Julia hates Hurt and wants nothing to do with him, but eventually they begin to become friends.

It’s a solid film. The direction is pretty good. Not sure I’d put it any higher than fourth or fifth here, though. You can understand it as a nominee, but I don’t think anyone would actually vote for it.

Prizzi’s Honor. John Huston’s second to last film. It’s pretty terrific.

Jack Nicholson is a dim-witted mafia hitman who falls in love with Kathleen Turner, who he finds out is also a hitman. Meanwhile, Anjelica Huston is the boss’s daughter and has always had feelings for Nicholson which he is oblivious to. Nicholson and Turner fall in love and marry, and eventually she is under suspicion from the mob for stealing their money. So it eventually becomes husband hitman vs. wife hitman.

It’s a great movie. Really entertaining, great performances all around. That said, the direction is — just okay. Huston has hit that point, as all directors do, where they stop really doing anything with the camera and just sort of adequately direct their movies. You know, like the last few Clint Eastwood movies. They’re fine, but it’s not like he’s really doing anything there. Or Woody Allen movies all the time. I have him fourth or fifth in the category. No way would I consider him for a vote, even though the film is probably my favorite in the category.

Ran. Kurosawa. The only time he’s ever been nominated. This is basically a samurai King Lear. That’s really all you need to know about the plot.

The direction is good. Mostly it’s a samurai drama playing out in a field somewhere in Japan. There was a big push to get him nominated this year by a lot of filmmakers. I… never really loved the direction here. It has scope to it. It feels like a big, epic kind of movie. But it looks weird, since it was made in the 80s. So seeing 80s film stock for a movie that would have looked awesome in the Seven Samurai era just doesn’t really work for me. At least not for a vote. He does do a good job with it. There are a lot of well staged battle scenes and images in this movie. And he’s definitely worth a vote, but I don’t know if I would go so far as to vote for him. That said, I may not have any other recourse when all is said and done.

Out of Africa. “We’re all Out of Africa.” — Meryl Streep.

Way to be timely, Mike. That was a one day news story a month ago and no one’s gonna remember that in two months let alone two years.

This movie is about a white woman who goes to Africa. She moves with her husband in order to start a farm. Things don’t go well. Her husband cheats on her. But then she meets Robert Redford, a hunter, with whom she falls in love. So that’s pretty much the movie.

It’s fine. It’s big and romantic and stuff. Lot of nice nature shots. I get why Pollack won, especially given all the politics surrounding this category.

Witness. Awesome thriller.

Here’s the set up — an Amish woman with a young son’s husband dies. She goes to visit her sister (who is not Amish), and while at a train station, the boy witnesses two man murder another in the train station. He’s the only witness. The chief cop, Harrison Ford, shows the boy mugshots to try to identify one of the killers. Eventually, he realizes the killer is a cop. And that some of his superiors are corrupt and he doesn’t know who to trust. So he brings the boy and his mother back to Amish country and hides out there with him, pretending to be Amish, in order to keep them safe from the cop, who knows the boy has seen him. And of course he falls in love with the woman, etc. That whole deal.

The film is really good. Really entertaining, really well made. It’s actually cool that this was nominated for Best Picture. And I can definitely see someone wanting to vote for Weir for Best Director. I personally wouldn’t, but I understand it. Though again, in this category, me saying I wouldn’t up here means nothing when it actually comes down to voting. Because in reality I’d vote for none of these on effort alone. But given that I have to pick one, someone’s getting a vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s worth nothing that Steven Spielberg won the DGA for The Color Purple and wasn’t nominated for the Oscar. The most overt act of disrespect by the Academy toward him they’d shown. It’s actually kind of a joke that he wasn’t nominated, because he’d have been the clear best effort.

Oh, and Ron Howard was nominated for the DGA as well for Cocoon. Babenco and Kurosawa got on instead of him and Spielberg. But anyway…

I don’t like Babenco’s direction enough to vote for it, but he did a good job. I like Huston’s film the best, and I guess I could vote for him, but… I don’t know. Witness, solid film, good direction. But again, nothing I want to actually vote for. So that leaves me with Pollack and Kurosawa. They’re pretty much the two you get to every time you run through this category. Given what we have, they’re the only choices. And honestly, I have no idea how to split them.

For starters, I don’t really want to award someone for the career they’ve had before this. Because if I were doing that, then John Huston would also be in this, regardless of the fact that he won a Best Director Oscar and the other two hadn’t to this point. Plus, Pollack has just as impressive a resume to me as Kurosawa does, in a different way. So taking that element out, what am I really left with?

Ran — it looks nice, and he does some nice things with staging, but it’s not like I love the effort. I’m watching a master at work, and it’s impressive, but if I were voting for Kurosawa, I’d be voting for the other films he made and not this one. My heart’s not there.

Out of Africa — don’t love the film. It’s fine. It looks nice. If I’m going by my gut, this feels like the one I want to take. It has that feeling of something that should win this category. Which feels like a betrayal of my values in some way. Almost like I’m selling out. But honestly, that’s what I’m feeling right now. So, I’m gonna take Pollack. It feels like the best I can do with what I’ve got.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Sydney Pollack, Out of Africa
  2. Akira Kurosawa, Ran
  3. Peter Weir, Witness
  4. John Huston, Prizzi’s Honor
  5. Hector Babenco, Kiss of the Spider Woman

Rankings (films):

  1. Prizzi’s Honor
  2. Witness
  3. Kiss of the Spider Woman
  4. Ran
  5. Out of Africa

My Vote: Sydney Pollack, Out of Africa

Recommendations:

Out of Africa is probably an essential film for people. I guess if you just are a movie buff, you’re not required to see it. But, you know, Meryl and Redford. That counts for something. But otherwise, probably not a movie where, if you haven’t seen it when someone brings up, they’re gonna go, “Oh man, really?” I get it. It did win Best Picture and may be a controversial winner, so Oscar buffs must see this movie. That’s non-negotiable. But as just a movie buff, I don’t think I can rightly call it an essential film. And as such, I don’t think I love it enough to recommend that highly. I mean, sure, solid, good actors, famous romance, and for a while, at least in my growing up years, it was considered a great film. But quite frankly, it’s just solid. The only reason I’d really recommend it to people is because it’s a Best Picture winner and has those two stars and was directed by Sydney Pollack (all solid reasons to see it). In terms of pure love of film, I wouldn’t recommend this overly highly. So, for technical reasons alone, I think people ought to see it.

Ran is Kurosawa. That makes it essential for some but not for all. For the casual film fan, you don’t need concern yourself with it. For the hardcore film fan, yeah, you should see it. For Oscar buffs — 50/50. Could go either way. You’ll know best about whether or not you need to see this movie. No one will begrudge you if you haven’t. They’ll just recommend that you do if they love the film enough.

Witness is fucking awesome. It’s a great thriller, and will be the movie from this list the most people like. Highly recommended, even though it’s not essential. I would only call this an essential movie if we’re getting into specifics, like, essential 80s movie. But when you get macro, all-time essential, this is not that. But it’s awesome, it’s a great thriller, and definitely should be seen. It’s really great.

Prizzi’s Honor is John Huston. That counts for a lot for most people. And Nicholson. And it’s really awesome. Definitely like Witness in that it’s an essential 80s movie, but honestly if you haven’t seen this, the only thing I’m gonna say is, “Oh, but you should. It’s awesome.” I highly recommend this movie, but it’s not essential. It’s just really, really entertaining and has a fantastic cast. If you like Analyze This, you’ll like this movie. It’s a mob comedy. Though this one’s more of a romance with action than anything. But trust me, it’s really enjoyable.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is only essential if you’re into the Oscars. Otherwise not essential at all. It’s solid, but the only reason I’d really say you needed to see it is because Hurt won for it. Outside of that, I’d give it a “it’s good.” He’s good. Solid film. You’re under no obligation to see it, but if it’s something that interests you, go for it.

The Last Word: This is a compromised category, in context. If you just take the category as is, it’s kind of like 1983. There’s not really a choice there, so you have to use other means than usual. Fortunately, the efforts overall here are better than 1983, so it’s somewhat easier to pick.

I know a lot of people would take Kurosawa, sight unseen, because of who he is. I’m pretty sure I did that last time. Because when you don’t know what to do, “Oh, well, it’s Kurosawa, I’m supposed to worship him as a filmmaker. He’s the choice.” Especially when you’re 22 and have absolute opinions on things (I really didn’t like Out of Africa five years ago). That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But really — it’s not the choice you have to make. I think you could honestly make a case for most of the people in this category. I’m taking Pollack because that’s the effort that, in my gut, feels like the right choice and feels like the one I want to take. Nothing against Kurosawa, but I feel less compromised in terms of my own feelings by not taking him. But again, it’s open to interpretation, this category.

I guess what I’m saying is — with a category like this, all bets are off. Do whatever you want, and you’d be damned justified in doing so. Just… make a case for the effort and not the person. Don’t let the filmography be the reason for the vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1986

Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters

James Ivory, A Room with a View

Roland Joffe, The Mission

David Lynch, Blue Velvet

Oliver Stone, Platoon

Analysis:

Hannah and Her Sisters. Woody Allen has had only three of his films nominated for Best Picture. Annie Hall, Midnight and Paris, and this movie. Those are also coincidentally the only times he won Best Screenplay, despite all his nominations.

This is a movie that’s about a family, specifically (insert title here). It starts at a Thanksgiving dinner, and ends with a Thanksgiving dinner. Mia Farrow is married to Michael Caine. Caine eventually has an affair with Barbara Hershey, one of Mia Farrow’s sisters. Then there’s Dianne Wiest, the other sister. She’s a former coke addict who has her own relationship and career issues. She also starts dating Farrow’s ex-husband, Woody Allen. There’s a lot of stuff going on here.

I haven’t seen this movie in a long time. I’m due to watch it again. Because I remember thinking when I saw it that I did not like the movie but did like the supporting performances. So by the time we get to the performances, I’ll watch it again. Now, I don’t need to see it again to tell me that this is fifth in the category, because Woody Allen is almost always fifth in the category. I say it every time he gets nominated — his films are about the writing and the acting, not the directing.

A Room with a View. Merchant Ivory. They adapt classic novels and the Oscars love them. And most viewers find them boring as hell.

This is based on E.M. Forster’s novel (he also wrote A Passage to India). It’s about a proper English woman going to Italy and falling in love. And also critiques all the conventions of English society. That’s pretty much it.

It’s fine. The movie’s okay. Helena Bonham Carter stars, and you have solid supporting performances by Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott, and you also have a young Daniel Day-Lewis in there as well. I sure as shit would not vote for this, though. Merchant Ivory movies are the classical period piece Woody Allen movies. Well made, but the direction is just not there for a vote at all. I’d never vote for this, and I don’t think most people would either.

The Mission. I feel like most people remember this for the Morricone score than the film itself. I think I stumbled on it because I hit that age all film buffs do when they get into De Niro and want to see everything he’d ever done.

Jeremy Irons is a priest who builds a missionary in South America. De Niro is a mercenary who helps him out as he tries to educate and convert the local tribe. And eventually his efforts come into conflict with the colonials, who think religion might prevent their efforts to… you know… enslave these people. And of course it leads into a massacre at the end. You know how these religious films work. Religion loves a martyr.

The film is good. It’s well directed. Some people might vote for it. But I can’t help but feel like it’s an easy #3 in this category, and possible #2 in other years. Because the next two efforts are so iconic and so well done that it’s gonna be hard for a lot of people to take this one in the end. It’s definitely in the conversation though.

Blue Velvet. Kind of a miracle Lynch got nominated. The DGA left him and Joffe off in favor of Randa Haines (acceptable) for Children of a Lesser God and Rob Reiner for Stand by Me (what? Kinda cool, but also, what?).

How does one explain a David Lynch movie? Kyle MacLachlan finds a severed ear in a field. He takes it to the police. The detective on the case’s daughter, Laura Dern, tells him some info she’s overheard about the case. So MacLachlan goes and looks into it out of curiosity. So he ends up in Isabella Rossellini’s apartment, and then gets involved with Dennis Hopper (who is just a fucking force of nature in this movie), and a whole lot of weird and violent shit happens from there.

It’s a great movie. Weird as shit, but great. Everyone will remember the “In Dreams” scene, as well as just about any moment Dennis Hopper is on screen. Lynch does a great job directing this and is definitely right up there for vote consideration. I’ll get into specifics later, but he’s definitely up there.

Platoon. Oh yeah. What a fucking glorious film this is.

Charlie Sheen has enlisted to fight in Vietnam. And then he arrives at his new company, and very quickly is torn between two sergeants — Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. It’s almost like being torn between good and evil. So there’s that, along with some extremely intense combat scenes — it’s not something I want to give away, because I’d have to get into specifics. Just know that this movie is great.

Stone directs the shit out of it, and it’s an easy winner for me. Maybe not all, but definitely for me. The moments in this movie are so memorable, and the way Stone doesn’t shy away from showing the horrors of the war — this will always be my vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Allen and Ivory come off the top really easily. Joffe is someone you could definitely consider. Lynch is always gonna be right there. And then Stone.

I feel like Stone is easily the #1, but I understand if someone would want to go a different way with it. To me, Lynch and Joffe alternate for the 2 and 3 spot. Joffe probably has the better overall direction (though maybe that’s me being tempted by landscapes and nature and things of that sort), but Lynch’s effort is much more iconic, so that’s the tiebreaker there for me. I still take Stone, because of the intensity he brings to his film. I don’t feel that from the others.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Oliver Stone, Platoon
  2. David Lynch, Blue Velvet
  3. Roland Joffe, The Mission
  4. James Ivory, A Room with a View
  5. Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters

Rankings (films):

  1. Platoon
  2. Blue Velvet
  3. The Mission
  4. Hannah and Her Sisters
  5. A Room with a View

My Vote: Oliver Stone, Platoon

Recommendations:

Platoon and Blue Velvet are essential movies for film buffs. Blue Velvet, the minute you start looking up essential movies or movies you’ll like based on the movies you first got into when you start watching movies, you’ll see it come up pretty quickly. And then Platoon is a Best Picture winner, one of the most famous war films of all time, and is generally considered one of the great American films of all time. You need to see them both.

The Mission is a really strong film, and is definitely worth seeing. I can’t call it essential, but most people will get to it fairly quickly. It’s definitely worth a watch, as it checks a lot of film buff boxes.

Hannah and Her Sisters is one of the essential Woody Allen movies. It’s not all-time essential, but if you’re gonna see the Woody Allen movies that all film buffs should see, this is on that list. Plus it won two acting Oscars and is thought of as one of his best films.

A Room with a View is fine. Merchant Ivory. You know what you’re getting. Not essential. See it, don’t see it. Not gonna change much. Use your judgment. If you think you’re gonna hate it, and it’s not part of an Oscar Quest or something, you probably don’t need to bother with it.

The Last Word: I think there’s ultimately a compelling case to be made for Stone, Lynch and Joffe. I could understand someone taking any of the three. For me, it’s Stone. A lot of people will take Lynch because the appeal of Blue Velvet will be too strong. I get that. And Joffe will have his share of supporters as well. I think they can all be argued for. The other two, not so much. For me, Platoon is the film that sticks with me most and that I feel was the best overall effort in the category, so that’s my choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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4 responses

  1. Kiss of the Spider Woman was nominated for Best Picture.

    April 5, 2016 at 3:12 pm

  2. “Kiss of the Spider Woman. Really interesting film. I’m curious as to why it only got the Director nomination instead of the Picture nomination.”
    …..
    Kiss Of The Spider Woman *did* get a Best Picture nomination. It was Ran that only received a Best Director nomination, while The Color Purple only got a Best Picture nomination.

    April 5, 2016 at 3:52 pm

  3. Voting for Pollack instead of Kurosawa this time? That’s an objective decision? Okay…

    I’ll admit—having just watched the 4K restoration of Ran in theaters a few weeks ago—that the non-battle scenes in Ran can get a little tedious. Nevertheless, having the actors do their thing in one long wide shot is still fascinating because that demonstrates how much Kurosawa blocked his actors. If there’s one cinematic element which Kurosawa was always a master of, it was always his staging, not just of actors, but of the environment as well. Dust, wind, fire, rain—he was great at having mirroring the emotions of the actors in the production design and special effects.

    (By the way, I’m trying to emulate your conviction to not include directors that *should have* been nominated, but weren’t, i.e. Spielberg. He doesn’t matter here, even though he “should have”.)

    Pollack’s effort and his film looks nice. It all looks nice and classy. However, there really isn’t a sequence in Out of Africa that really blew me away. It just all looked nice and grand, almost to a bland, lifeless degree. On the other hand…

    …Ran had the Strike on Third Castle sequence! Remember that battle sequence? I can’t really recall any other sequence like it in Kurosawa’s previous films, so you can’t just chalk that up to “a master at work” as usual. And I certainly don’t remember any prior battle scenes in which he chose to mute the battle audio and just have the score as the only soundtrack element for an extensive period, up until the older brother is shot (and what a startling moment that was!). That choice, which I’m sure Kurosawa is responsible for, generated so much more emotion from that sequence than if he had just run the battle audio as normal.

    Furthermore, Kurosawa had the entire medieval castle, which he had built for the film, burned to the ground! On camera! Kurosawa had to have actor Tatsuya Nakadai walk out and down the steps of the smoking castle, like a ghost, to face the armies of his two eldest sons, whose movement mirrors that of the fire. And because that castle was burning down, Kurosawa pretty much only had one chance to shoot that moment. Tell me that the effort it took to get that moment wasn’t worth Best Director. I dare you.

    I’m sorry, but that sequence among anything else in the five Best Director-nominated films of 1985 is like—and I’m definitely going there— the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan among anything else in the five Best Director-nominated films of 1998. Not *as* good, of course, but it’s close, and the comparison is there—in a list of the ten or twenty greatest war sequences ever put to film, the Strike on Third Castle from Ran deserves as much of a spot there as anything else, including Omaha Beach.

    If the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan alone was good enough to win Best Director for Steven Spielberg in 1998, then the Strike on Third Castle sequence in Ran should’ve been good enough to win Best Director for Akira Kurosawa in 1985.
    (With Spielberg in the mix…ehh, that’s a different story, as you have noted above, but need I remind ourselves once more—He. Does. Not. Matter. Because. He. Was. Not. Nominated.)

    Plus, Kurosawa had the Lady Macbeth character killed in such a badass fashion towards the end. That massive splash of blood on the wall, while her body is kept off screen? Honestly, that’s just a bonus of an iconic moment, not to mention the quiet closing the film with the shot of the blind guy alone near the edge of what remains of Third Castle’s wall.

    Opening image—father and sons on horseback on a mountaintop, united, waiting for their game.
    Closing image—blind man, a victim of war, still alive as he stops himself from falling off of the still-standing wall of the burnt Third Castle, as the bodies of the father and his youngest son are carried away in solemn war procession.

    What contrast. What masterful contrast. ^_^

    April 5, 2016 at 4:39 pm

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