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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 2007-2008)

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.

2007

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men

Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton

Jason Reitman, Juno

Julien Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Analysis:

There Will Be Blood. This is a masterpiece. It’s a perfect film.

Daniel Day-Lewis is an oil man at the turn of the century. And… he’s got his eye on a town, so he goes about trying to buy up all the land. And it’s just great. I don’t even know how to explain it if you haven’t seen it. This is a perfect film.

I will always vote for this film in this category, and I’m pretty sure this has held up as the better film from 2007 over No Country, and will continue to be as such over time. But that’s the part that’s debatable. I totally get the Coens winning and will never argue it. My argument is simply — I like this film better. Neither of us are wrong.

No Country for Old Men. The amount of great films that came out this year is crazy.

The movie is essentially about three characters. Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin. Josh Brolin is a regular dude who happens to stumble upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong. Sitting there is a bag with two million dollars. He takes it and gets away. Stupidly, he tries to be decent to the one survivor and bring him water, however that alerts the people behind the whole thing who he is. So now Javier Bardem is on his tail. And he’s this psycho killer (qu’est-ce que c’est?) who lets people live or die based on a coin toss (as I’m sure you’ve seen in clips). And then there’s Tommy Lee Jones, an older cop dealing with all this madness and trying to follow the trail. The movie is so good.

This film is amazing, and the Coens were well overdue for one of these by this point. And the effort is well worth a vote. Completely. I just… I will always take Paul Thomas Anderson in this category. So that renders them second for me, even though they’re totally worth the win.

Michael Clayton. I remember when this movie was coming out. I kept thinking, “They named this movie after the second string wide receiver on the Buccaneers?” Now, sure, nine years later, people remember this movie and not the wide receiver, but it was weird at the time that they named this movie after its main character and didn’t give it any other title. And I’ve noticed that a lot of films have followed suit over the past decade. It’s weird that a movie about all this stuff has its main characters name as the title. And then for us to just not care or think about it.

Anyway, George Clooney is a “fixer.” The lawyer who’s not really a lawyer. He takes care of problems. He takes care of all the dirty work you don’t want people to find out. He tried to open a restaurant, it didn’t take, and he lost a lot of money. He gets involved with his mentor, Tom Wilkinson, who is the lead lawyer working for a pesticide company who is alleged (but really) to have all these chemicals that are killing children and stuff, and one day during a deposition, he takes off all his clothes and seemingly loses his mind. So Clooney is tasked to figure out what’s going on. And this leads to the uncovering of layers and layers of corruption and shady shit. And it’s great. This movie is so good. A throwback 70s thriller all around.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough, and I’m really happy they nominated it for Best Picture. Don’t think it needed to be a Best Director nominee, but I’m totally fine with it. And as it stands, he’s clearly fourth choice in the category. Gilroy does a good job with it, there are a lot of great images. The way he stages a few scenes is really well done and different from how we’d normally see these scenes play out, and he maintains tension and handles character really well. So I think he’s worth nominating. I just can’t put him above the top three efforts. It’s not the effort, it’s the category. The effort is strong, but it’s not winning against the competition.

Juno. Remember this film? I saw it early on and loved it. And then it came out and caught fire and everyone fucking hated it.

I’ll mention this when I talk about 2009, but Jason Reitman is one of those directors whose strength is more in writing than directing, and there’s no apparent style involved with his films, the kind of style that will earn a vote in this category. The only real way he’s gonna end up winning one of these things, it seems, is if his film manages to get over the top and win Best Picture, the way Ben Affleck would have won for Argo if he were nominated. It’s not that his effort was the best, it’s just that he competently made the film that people voted for, and that usually takes someone to the top of the category. Like James L. Brooks. A writer who won Director because his film won Best Picture in a relatively weak category. That’s what’s gonna happen with Reitman, if it happens.

Juno is a film that I think everyone knows. Teenage girl who speaks with a lot of witty pop culture references gets pregnant. And she deals. That’s pretty much the movie. It’s lovely. Charmed a lot of people. Really enjoyable movie, home skillets.

I like this film. The strength is in the writing (even though he didn’t write it), and his direction is solid, but when you put him against this competition, he comes out as fifth every time. And depending on the strength of the movie (see: 2009), he only really can climb up to fourth or maybe third if you want to slight someone else. Such is usually the curse of the writer-director. And here, it’s very apparent that he’s fifth in the category. He actually snuck on even without a DGA nomination, which is interesting. Sean Penn got nominated for the DGA for Into the Wild, which would have made the category way more interesting (not to mention, Joe Wright for Atonement), because at that point, who’s number five? Here, Reitman is clearly #5 and there’s no way anyone votes for him in this category.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. This is the wild card for the category. The other films are better remembered, but this effort is… damn.

It’s about the editor of Elle who has a stroke and can only use his left eye. So My Left Eye. That’s not a biopic of the woman from TLC. Anyway…. he can only use his left eye, so the majority of the film is shot from the perspective of that left eye. It’s quite extraordinary.

The direction here is absolutely astounding. Most people would vote for this based solely on the fact that it’s so different from what you’d expect in a film, and it’s so beautifully shot. And I couldn’t agree more with anyone who wants to go that route, but, as beautiful as this film is, and as amazing as Schnabel’s direction is – this film is not going to be remembered as much as There Will Be Blood is going to be remembered, or No Country, and for that reason alone, I can’t vote for Schnabel. Because to me, all three are right there bunched up for the vote. So I need to break ties somehow.

– – – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s always Anderson for me. The Coens are deserving winners, and Schnabel would have been a deserving winner. But I will always vote for Anderson, and there’s really nothing for me to reconsider here. All my thoughts about the category will pretty much always be the same, and most of it has to do with what was or wasn’t nominated this year (specifically a certain Best Picture nominee and a certain western as well). The nominees speak for themselves. Take Coen, take Schanbel, take Anderson. All solid choices. Great year.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
  2. Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
  3. Julien Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  4. Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
  5. Jason Reitman, Juno

Rankings (films):

  1. There Will Be Blood
  2. No Country for Old Men
  3. Michael Clayton
  4. Juno
  5. The Diving Bell and the Butterly

My Vote: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

Recommendations:

There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton and Juno are all essential films. Michael Clayton is the least essential of the group, among the group, but it’s still an essential movie because it’s a throwback to an era that was just better. You need to see them all if you love movies.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is also essential, but I wanted to separate it from the others because the other four are all in name alone essential. This one is essential, but you need to realize that it’s essential, even if you may have not heard of it. The majority of this movie is shot from the point of view of an EYE. ONE EYE. It is such a beautifully made film and really pushes the boundaries of what cinema can accomplish. It’s a really incredible film that everyone who loves film needs to see.

The Last Word: For me, it’s always Anderson. The Coens are a perfect choice and Schnabel is a perfect choice. All are great, all are worthy. You can’t compare them, so as long as you can acknowledge they’re all worthy, you can take whatever you prefer and not be wrong. I don’t think anyone would take Reitman (or should, really) and Gilroy is interesting, but I don’t know if he’s a good choice above the other three. You might want to make a case for him, and I would listen to that case. Otherwise, any of the three major contenders are all worthy choices. And for me, There Will Be Blood is always the choice for me.

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2008

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Stephen Daldry, The Reader

David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Analysis:

Slumdog Millionaire. It’s kind of an unorthodox Best Picture choice, but the film is just so damn likable and so well-made that it works.

It’s about a guy who has made it to the Indian Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and keeps racking up all this money. He’s poor, uneducated, and somehow gets all these questions right. And this is intercut with the police interrogating him, thinking he cheated, and flashbacks to how he managed to know all the answers. And it is revealed that, in some strange way, fate, or destiny, his entire life has built to this moment, and the entire thing is being done for the woman he loves. And it’s just a great movie. It’s hard not to love this movie.

In this category, this is the film with the most life, and color, and energy. It really does fit as a winner. Fincher has the overall resume, and Van Sant has the showiness, but Boyle really does blow them both out of the water with the energy of this film. Benjamin Button is a bit too sterile, and Milk is a bit too low-key. This film just pulses with life, and I think that’s what I respond to the most.

The Reader. Daldry, by the way… not nominated for the DGA. Christopher Nolan was nominated for The Dark Knight instead. So… yeah.

This is about a young boy who encounters an older woman in Germany. They have a passionate love affair. He teaches her to read. We find out later that she’s a guard at a concentration camp. And she’s later put on trial for war crimes. There’s other stuff going on, but mostly — he teaches her to read. That’s what the movie is about.

It’s not that the film is bad. It’s not. It’s really solid. It’s kind of a joke that the film got nominated for Best Picture in a year like this. Even the Academy acknowledged this by adding extra nominees to Best Picture, a change that’s still going on.

I’m not sure this should be here, but since it is, we go with it. And honestly, I don’t think anyone can claim this is anything better than fourth best in the category. I have it fifth. I can see maybe putting it above Ron Howard, but no one else. No way.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This is an interesting one. I remember seeing this back in 2008 and LOVING it. Unabashedly loving it. And I was really torn as to what to do for Best Picture, because I loved both films so much (and really liked the third contender). And I have to say… not sure if this film has held up as well as it seemed at the time. Maybe I’m wrong, it’s been a year or two since I’ve seen it. But I remember at the time that Fincher was one of the great unheralded film directors who finally managed to direct something that got the Academy’s attention. So I was rooting for him for this.

The film is based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novella about the man who aged backwards. That’s the story. It’s a marvel of special effects and is a love story at heart. It’s really well done. Though very much takes its cues from Forrest Gump (same writer, same.. aww fuck it, here).

I think Fincher does a great job with the film, but I think, over time, the effort has felt a little cold. It’s well crafted, but there’s nothing that makes me love it as a choice, the way all of Boyle’s energy makes me love his film. I think they’re both worthy, both solid efforts, but I’m not as in love with this effort as I am with Boyle’s and it’s because (as is usually the knock on Fincher), the whole thing feels a bit detached and sterile.

Frost/Nixon. Crazy going back to think this got nominated. It’s good, but even then it’s like, “What?”

It’s about the David Frost, Richard Nixon interviews, which were the first time Nixon sat down in front of a camera post-impeachment, and they picked Frost because they figured he’d throw softballs. And of course what ended up happening was that he got Nixon to admit all the illegal shit he did while president. It’s well done. Based on a play, well translated by Ron Howard, who turns it into a bit of a Reds, docudrama kind of thing.

Howard does a good job directing it, but I can’t help but feel like this film got here purely on reputation and because Ron Howard directed it. People in the Academy loved it at the time, but the minute it gets nominated it’s like… ehh. It’s solid, but no one would ever vote for it for Best Director. At best, fourth choice. And you can potentially even make an argument for fifth.

Milk. It does a body good. This is a great film about the nutritious beverage. From its first discovery in a freak cow accident in the dark ages to… oh, wait. Wrong movie.

This is about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official. That’s all you need to know. And maybe that Sean Penn is absolutely wonderful in it.

Gus Van Sant does a great job directing it. There’s definitely a sense of style here. He’s probably someone who would be a fourth choice most years, but this year isn’t overly strong, and he pulls a solid third out of this. I don’t think I’d vote for him. I guess a few people could make the case for him, and I’d be okay with that, but for me, it’s Boyle and Fincher and then Van Sant, even though I really love this movie.

– – – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s essentially a three horse race. A case can be made for Van Sant. And Fincher and Boyle are clearly right there. I was much closer to voting for Fincher back in 2008, and even in 2011, when I wrote this Quest up the first time. But now, it’s all Boyle for me. The life and energy that he brings to that movie — you can feel it. And this was a movie that was a minute away from going straight to DVD. I feel like this category is between analytics vs. scouting. You know how certain baseball managers are all about the numbers and what the percentages are? On paper, Fincher might be the choice. But if you’re looking at gut and feeling, that’s Boyle. That’s where I’m going with this, even though I totally get voting for Fincher or even Van Sant. I just vote with my gut, and my gut (and heart) says it’s Boyle.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category and films):

  1. Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
  2. David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  3. Gus Van Sant, Milk
  4. Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
  5. Stephen Daldry, The Reader

My Vote: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Recommendations:

Slumdog Millionaire is essential. It’s great, it’s a Best Picture winner, and it’s hard to love. And it introduces you to some other cultures, you ethnocentric fuck. See it, because it’s terrific.

Benjamin Button is essential, because pretty much every David Fincher movie is essential. Plus it’s just a fantastic movie.

Milk is essential too, because it contains one of the great lead performances of the past twenty years. And because the film is incredible and important and just really entertaining all around. You need to see this.

Frost/Nixon isn’t essential, but it’s damn entertaining. Lot of great character actors, great lead performances. Ron Howard is someone whose films end up getting seen by most people simply because they’re all at least solidly good. So it’s highly recommended.

The Reader — I guess. I’m kidding. It’s really good. And she won Best Actress for it, so Oscar heads have to see it. Otherwise, it’s worth seeing, but you don’t need to rush out to see it. Mostly it’s important for people who want to talk Oscars. Otherwise take it or leave it. It’s just a solid film that you don’t need to see if you don’t want to.

The Last Word: Boyle, Fincher and Van Sant are all worthy. The other two I don’t see anyone really ever voting for. You can make the argument for any of the three, and I’d be fine with seeing them as a choice. For me, it’s Boyle, but honestly, the other two are also great. I just feel like Danny Boyle is the one that has held up best and will continue to hold up best.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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