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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 2001-2002)

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.

2001

Robert Altman, Gosford Park

Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind

Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

David Lynch, Mulholland Drive

Ridley Scott, Black Hawk Down

Analysis:

Gosford Park is Robert Altman’s last “great” film. I don’t necessarily love it, but it was the last film he did that was universally received by the Academy and by viewers. It’s also basically a precursor to Downton Abbey. Without even looking and now knowing the answer, I feel like the two are 100% connected.

This is a mystery film. Kind of like Downton Abbey meets Clue. Starring: Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Tom Hollander, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Geraldine Somerville, Bob Balaban, Richard E. Grant and Alan Bates. Nice cast.

There’s a giant party of people gathering at (insert title here). One of them ends up dead. There’s a lot of class stuff going on and it’s very Robert Altman — conversations happening all over the place, very casually shot.

It’s well made. People love this film. I haven’t seen it in a while. I’m due to. And I will for one of these other categories. Doesn’t matter, since I wouldn’t vote for it in this category even if I completely reversed course on it (not that it would even be a reverse. Since I think it’s really good). At best it would be fourth for me. No way anyone can really have this higher than third. Look at the rest of this category.

A Beautiful Mind. Love this movie. Generally agreed as a horrible Best Picture winner. Not because it’s a bad film, but because it feels like a compromise choice in a year where there aren’t many choices. But we’re not here to talk about that, so let’s get into the direction.

The film is about John Nash, a brilliant mathematician who was also a paranoid schizophrenic. So we get the nice first half where he’s quirky but falls in love with a beautiful woman, and then he loses his shit and goes nuts, and then the medical treatment that fucks up his life, and then him overcoming that to… you know, get pens.

It’s a great movie. Russell Crowe had three years of The Insider, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. He’s great in The Insider, iconic in Gladiator, but his best performance is here. And Jennifer Connelly is also incredible in this movie. It’s really terrific.

The direction is solid, but no way you vote for it. At best it’s fourth. To me, this and Altman are flip flopped for fourth and fifth, however you want. There’s no way you can honestly say this was the best effort.

Fellowship of the Ring. It’s Lord of the Rings. You’ve seen it.

This movie might actually be the best of the trilogy. I can understand if you don’t want to vote for this. I don’t think you can honestly say this was lower than second in the category, though. You can take Lynch over him or Ridley, but not both. The amount of iconic imagery in this film and the way he created an entire world out of a beloved novel and got everyone on board with it is truly impressive.

Mulholland Drive. David Lynch’s surreal second masterpiece. Blue Velvet is the other. Fitting he was nominated for both.

He wasn’t nominated for the DGA, by the way. Neither was Robert Altman. Christopher Nolan was DGA nominated for Memento (I totally get why he wasn’t nominated here), as was Baz Luhrmann for Moulin Rouge (kinda crazy they left him off. But considering who got on… understandable).

This movie is impossible to explain. You just see it and go along for the ride. It’s… something.

Lynch turns this movie into a weird fever dream that somehow perfectly encapsulates the insanity that is living in Los Angeles. It’s really well done. It’s great direction, but also — not necessarily something that automatically has to win. You don’t have to vote for it. Don’t feel the need to because the pretentious people say this is one of the best movies of the past 20 years. It’s great, don’t get me wrong. I love this movie, but you do NOT need to vote for this. I can actually see how one would hate this direction and not have it higher than fourth. I don’t. I have him top three. Where he’ll end up in the end, no idea. This one is tough because all three top efforts are so different they’re almost incomparable.

Black Hawk Down. Ridley Scott is the best. He makes a movie and then moves onto the next one. He’s coming off a Best Picture winner, and what does he do? Right back to work. Comes back with this.

It’s about a military raid in Mogadishu that leads to a crazy battle between U.S. troops and Somali soldiers. Loaded with famous people and just wall to wall action. It’s like if Michael Bay made Saving Private Ryan. It’s a weird mix of those two dynamics.

Look at this cast — Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tim Sizemore, Ewen Bremner, Hugh Dancy, Ioan Gruffudd, Jason Isaacs, Tom Hardy, Orlando Bloom, Sam Shepard, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, Zeljko Ivanek, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Glenn Morshower, Jeremy Piven, Ty Burrell, oh, and George Harris. It’s hard not to see this and be riveted by the action. Scott directs the shit out of it.

This movie is a quintessential war picture. Starts with a bunch of soldiers being soldiers, setting up the conflict and giving you standard soldier moments you get in all of these movies. Then the operation goes down, goes bad, and then the action starts. And that’s really where the bread and butter is. The action scenes are really well crafted, and Scott absolutely deserves to be nominated here. Do I vote for it? Maybe. It’s definitely in the conversation. A lot of people would. But it’s a tough category, so let’s get into figuring it out.

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The Reconsideration: This is a weird year all around. They don’t nominate Nolan or Baz Luhrmann, yet they easily could have, and still this list feels solid, yet wide open. Howard is the most classic of the bunch. I can see why people’d have him fifth. I have Altman fifth. Because meh. Good film, don’t love the direction. He’s just letting shit play out. I prefer something like Howard, where he’s crafting a film out of a story. Not that I’d vote for him either, I’m just stating my preference.

The category feels like it’s between the other three choices. And honestly, of the three — Ridley Scott is the first off. I like the film and like the direction a lot, but it feels like a film that’s more about editing than direction. It’s very well directed, but it’s not exactly Saving Private Ryan. The only reason I’d want to vote for him is because he didn’t win last year. It’s a shame how Ridley always feels like he can’t win whenever he’s nominated. Every time I go through this category, I go back and rewatch the film, and I still don’t consider him any better than third in the category.

David Lynch — I love Mulholland Drive and really love what he did there. But honestly, if we’re being perfectly honest, and only taking into account the efforts and the category itself and nothing else… Mulholland Drive I consider to be greater than the sum of its parts, and Fellowship I consider to be the total package. I think the amount of images and moments that come out of Fellowship are too good to be ignored. I don’t care if Jackson is nominated three times in a row, two out of three, wins one out of three, all three… doesn’t matter. In this category, I consider him to have put forth the best effort, and he is who I’m voting for, even though David Lynch is a close second.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  2. David Lynch, Mulholland Drive
  3. Ridley Scott, Black Hawk Down
  4. Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind
  5. Robert Altman, Gosford Park

Rankings (films):

  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  2. A Beautiful Mind
  3. Mulholland Drive
  4. Black Hawk Down
  5. Gosford Park

My Vote: Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Recommendations:

How have you not seen Fellowship yet?

A Beautiful Mind did win Best Picture for a reason. It’s really well made and a great film. Terrific performances, and it’s incredibly well crafted. Essential for Oscar buffs, not essential for movie buffs, but you have great actors and great people who made it, so it’ll check a lot of boxes for movie buffs, so you should probably see it. It’s definitely worth seeing, and I do recommend it very, very highly.

Mulholland Drive is one of David Lynch’s three best movies. It’s fucking incredible. If you loved Blue Velvet, you’ll love this. If you hated Blue Velvet, you might also find this weird and hard to follow. This film has no real plot. Crazy shit happens, yet somehow it’s totally mesmerizing. It’s essential for movie buffs. You have to see it. You don’t have to like it, but you have to see it. (Also, don’t feel pressured to like it if you don’t get it. That’s perfectly okay. However, if you don’t like it on first viewing, and you’re under the age of 25, give it another shot in a few years. It is the type of movie that might not work for you until you hit a certain age. Don’t dismiss it forever if you don’t love it. Don’t do that for anything, really, but especially something like this.

Gosford Park is a classy film. Well made. Lot of nominations, lot of acclaim. If you love Downton Abbey you’ll love this. If you love Robert Altman, you’ll love this. The cast has so many people in it, it’s basically essential. It crosslists all over the place, so you’ll probably get to it eventually. Definitely a solid film worth seeing at the very least.

Black Hawk Down is a great war movie. Hard to see this and not love the action. The film itself is good, but the action is where it’s at. Overall, it’s just a really solid war film. Not all-time great, but definitely well-made. Historically, I’m sure there are loads of issues here. So I choose to see this as a really entertaining war movie rather than a historical picture of a specific battle. Still, you should see it. It’s awesome and has just about anyone you could want in it.

The Last Word: Honestly, I could see taking just about anyone in this category, if you love them enough. It’s almost impossible to truly equate any of the five choices. Altman does his own thing that’s very unique. Howard’s effort is classical. Jackson’s effort is big and epic and has a lot of different facets to it. Lynch’s is surreal and nonlinear. And Scott’s is very hyperkinetic and more about chaos and tension. They’re not direct comparisons to one another. So, doing this as best I could — I imagine most people wouldn’t actually pick Howard or Altman unless they really love the films or subscribe to the notion that Picture and Director should go to the same film. I think a fair amount of people are going to vote for him, and I completely understand that. Totally worth a vote. And Lynch — LOT of people will take him, and that’s perfectly reasonable too. And then Jackson — of course. It’s Fellowship. Hard not to love the film or at the very least respect the effort. I can see a lot of different ways to go with this one. To me, Fellowship is the perfect entity, and I’ll take Jackson. Lynch and Scott are two sides to that coin, and both are worth taking, but to me, Fellowship is the entire coin in one.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

2002

Pedro Almodovar, Talk to Her

Stephen Daldry, The Hours

Rob Marshall, Chicago

Roman Polanski, The Pianist

Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York

Analysis:

Talk to Her. Really shocked Almodovar got nominated here. No idea how that happened. Wasn’t even nominated for the DGA and got on over Peter Jackson, who was DGA nominated. Don’t get it.

I’m generally ambivalent about most of Almodovar. Haven’t seen a whole bunch, so I’m not claiming to be even remotely an authority. You should know that going in.

The film is a sort of dual narrative. Two men caring for two women in comas. And a lot of flashbacks detailing the relationships and all that.

I didn’t love it. I thought it was okay, but I was younger and probably wasn’t paying complete attention. I should watch it again, but I haven’t watched it for this. Haven’t felt the need to see it again so far. Either way, I wouldn’t put him any higher than fourth, even if I wanted to vote for him. I have him fifth. I don’t see why he needed to be nominated. But that’s just me.

The Hours. Stephen Daldry. Film number two. This time he gets a Director and Picture nomination. This is probably his most complete film of the five he’s directed.

It’s the story of three women. One is Virginia Woolf, played by Nicole Kidman. One is Julianne Moore, a married housewife who is secretly a lesbian in the 50s. One is Meryl Streep, who is throwing a party for Ed Harris, a poet with AIDS. And we follow the three stories. It’s good. I prefer the Julianne Moore segment. Don’t care so much about the Kidman section. The Meryl section is fine.

The movie is good. Don’t think it needed to be nominated here. But that’s the Academy. The effort is fine, nothing I’d call outstanding. Fourth or fifth in the category, easily. Take him or leave him, put him however you want at the bottom with Almodovar. No chance here.

Chicago. Great story, solid musical, good film.

Roxie Hart is an aspiring showgirl who kills her lover. She’s thrown into prison and the story becomes a sensation. Enter Richard Gere, a lawyer representing Catherine Zeta-Jones, the previous murderess du jour. Roxie gets him to represent her and he turns the whole trial into a giant circus in order to get her acquitted. It’s a really great story. Rob Marshall does a good job directing it. It’s colorful, has a lot of good images.

I don’t know if I think Marshall is a particularly great director. This is the best effort he’s had of all his films. I still don’t know if I’d vote for it. I’m actually kind of surprised he won the DGA this year. The effort to me has always seemed like a “good, not great” effort that’s an easy #3. It feels like a #3. That really solid one that some people could vote for that doesn’t really feel like the vote.

The Pianist. Took me a long time to come around on this. And that’s completely because I was young and stupid and held it against films that won when I thought something else should have.

In my youth, Marty should have won and Gangs of New York was the choice, and since Polanski won (and it was one of those ‘out of nowhere’ wins), it was a terrible choice and the film was stupid and I was going to do what I could to use any influence I had to call it a terrible choice. It’s that kind of behavior that’s the reason we’re doing this list again right now.

It’s about Wladyslaw Szpilman, (insert title here), who goes through World War II and the Holocaust. And we watch all the shit he has to go through in order to survive. It’s harrowing.

I watched this film again for the first set of categories, and I was able to appreciate it much more (though the biases were still there). And then I watched it again about a year and a half ago and really was able to watch it again with fresh eyes. And I have to say — I totally get it. Polanski was the choice. In a category like this that’s so fractured and divisive and without a #1, I completely get why he won and am totally on board for that. Let’s finish up the category before we get further into it.

Gangs of New York. One of the most important Scorsese films of his filmography. He completely reinvented himself with this one. This was to him what Mystic River was to Eastwood a year after this.

The film is a giant epic about New York. Irish gangs becoming politicians, but still feuding and being corrupt. And at its heart it’s a revenge story. Leo is a guy who watched his father be killed by Daniel Day-Lewis. He runs away and twenty years later, comes back for revenge. He becomes part of the gang, becoming really close to him, all the while waiting for his one chance to kill him. And the whole thing is set along the backdrop of 1863 Draft Riots.

It’s a really good film. It’s very ambitious, a bit overdone. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s one of those films that’s edited down into a 2 and a half hour narrative, but he could have gone and done the full four and a half hour cut and really just went all out. I’m sure that version is still out there somewhere. That could have been a hell of a film. This version is solid, but it definitely feels like a bunch of clay that never got fully formed into its sculpture. Which is why he wasn’t an automatic winner here. I actually understand why people didn’t vote for him. (2004… different story.) But he’s definitely a finalist in this category, there’s no denying that.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s not Almodovar and it’s not Daldry. It just isn’t. Maybe a small percentage of you would want to take Almodovar, go nuts. To me, I don’t see it. That leaves three choices. And then Marshall always felt like a #3 in the category. Solid, but not vote worthy. I guess you could take him, but I won’t. So that leaves Scorsese and Polanski. Two vets who’ve earned at least one win in their day. But here… Scorsese’s movie is a bit of a mess, and Polanski’s is powerful as shit. So honestly, and this is something I really should have done the last time, but I’ve finally reached the age where I can say this and mean it — Roman Polanski should have won this. He was the right choice. He’s my vote. I think we all knew this all along, but I’m finally mature enough to not only say it, but also think it and mean it for real.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Roman Polanski, The Pianist
  2. Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York
  3. Rob Marshall, Chicago
  4. Stephen Daldry, The Hours
  5. Pedro Almodovar, Talk to Her

Rankings (films):

  1. Gangs of New York
  2. The Pianist
  3. Chicago
  4. The Hours
  5. Talk to Her

My Vote: Roman Polanski, The Pianist

Recommendations:

Chicago is a Best Picture winner, a great musical, and is probably essential for a lot of people. Even if you hate musicals, this is on that list of best musicals of the past couple decades, so you should probably see it.

Gangs of New York is a Scorsese movie. They’re all essential. Especially the bigger ones. And this is a big one. You need to see it.

The Pianist is Polanski, a Best Director winner and Best Actor winner, and a really great film. It’s essential.

The Hours is not essential at all. Oscar buffs need to see it because Kidman won for it, but otherwise is just a very good movie. You don’t have to rush to see it, but given the amount of talent involved, you’ll most likely want to see it.

Talk to Her — it’s fine. Don’t love it. Haven’t seen enough Almodovar to know if I generally like his stuff or don’t. You should see some Almodovar at some point.

The Last Word: It’s a pretty open category. I don’t think anyone takes Daldry. Maybe a few people take Almodovar, but I don’t agree with that. Marshall is definitely someone you could take, but to me he feels like a weak choice. As I’ve said all along, he feels like a #3 in most categories. The one you like but not the one you vote for. Which then leaves Scorsese and Polanski. Scorsese, you take because the effort is big and ambitious (though kind of sprawling) and because he hasn’t won, and Polanski seems like the clear choice here, given the emotion and power of his film. To me, it’s Polanski, but you could take Scorsese or maybe Marshall. I think there are cases to be made for a few people with this one. 2002 is one of those years all around.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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