The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 2011-2012)
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, Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
I like Midnight in Paris. Quite a bit. It’s one of my five favorite Woody Allen movies. Maybe six. It’s been a while since I thought about them. And while I get how Woody Allen movies work with the Academy, I’ll say up front that I have no idea how he got nominated here. What effort was there to be had?
The film is about Owen Wilson, a struggling writer in Paris with his fiancée. He stumbles upon a magical spot where, if he sits there at midnight, he is transported back to Paris of the 20s, where he gets to hang out with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali (you get the idea). It’s a fun, whimsical movie.
I’ve never considered Woody Allen much of a director. He puts the camera there and shit happens. There’s no direction in this movie, and compared to the other four movies on this list, there aren’t really any signs of great direction there. It’s screenplay and screenplay alone. He’s clearly #5 on this list. It’s shocking to me when that isn’t apparent to everyone. Maybe in earlier days you’d rank him higher, but not here. Not in this category, against these other films.
The Artist is a perfect film. It’s a perfect entity.
It’s a black and white silent film about a silent film actor’s struggles during the advent of sound filmmaking. It is so fucking good and charming and it’s hard not to fall in love with it.
Hazanavicius directs the shit out of it. He perfectly recreates silent cinema. Did he need to win? I don’t know. Do I love the film and the effort and think he’s worth voting for? Absolutely. Do with it what you will.
Tree of Life might be Terrence Malick’s masterpiece. The perfectly realized vision of both content and form. Terrence Malick has a defined style. This movie captures that.
It’s two films. One is the creation of the world. Shots of primordial nature and dinosaurs and things like that. Intercut with what is essentially the story of his own childhood growing up in Texas. Two parents, one the stern father, the other the ethereal mother. Images that feel like things one would remember from childhood, and moments that are fleeting and timeless for all children. And then we see Sean Penn as an adult, walking around a cold business atmosphere, longing for those days of his youth.
It’s quite a film. I can easily see people taking him in this category. It’s a gorgeously shot film. Malick has only been nominated twice, and this is the one where he’s most set up for a win.
The Descendants is a great movie. Alexander Payne is one of those guys who knows how to tell a story people love.
George Clooney is a Hawaiian man (no, no, hear me out, it’s not as stupid as it sounds) whose wife got into a jet skiing accident and is now in a coma she will never wake up from. He has to suddenly take care of two daughters by himself. The older one is rebelling for reasons we soon find out (mom was cheating on Dad) and the younger one is a handful because she’s 10. So we watch the three come together and deal with the fact that mom isn’t going to make it, watch him deal with the fact that his wife was cheating on him (and go look for the guy she was cheating with) and also deal with the sale of some land his family had in their possession that was part of a trust with all the siblings that he is the head of.
Like most Alexander Payne’s films, the story sounds borderline stupid, but the way he tells it, you can’t help but be really engaged by it and the characters. However, like all Alexander Payne films, the direction isn’t exactly the strong suit. I think he’s a good director, but he’s one of those guys who will probably win an Oscar one day, but that’s because his film hits the perfect Oscar groove and not because the effort is the best thing that year. This effort is really solid, but not something I’d vote for. You can tell the effort is strong by the way he chooses to show certain moments. Like when Shailene Woodley finds out her mother isn’t going to wake up from her coma, and he chooses to show her reaction entirely underwater. Or how he shoots Clooney going to his neighbors’ house in that one shot, having him run in flip flops all the way around the bend. It’s really well shot, but I would never have him higher than fourth. The way you put him higher than fourth is if you really love the film. Otherwise, he’s just a solid entry that you wouldn’t vote for. I think this is more screenplay than direction.
Hugo is a masterpiece. It’s a complete masterpiece. I can’t believe this movie wasn’t seen by more people at the time, and still remains underseen by
and for me, this is Scorsese’s category all the way, with Hazanavicius right there in second place. Just watching this movie is like getting a master class on directing. And he shot it in 3D! This is clearly the vote.
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The Reconsideration: Solid year. Fincher got a DGA nomination for Dragon Tattoo over Malick. (Also, no Tomas Alfredson, who was also worthy of being nominated.) The category holds up for the most part.
Woody Allen is clearly fifth for me (and for everyone, I’d hope). Payne is fourth for me. I just can’t see taking him over any of the other three. Maybe if someone really hates The Artist they put that fourth. But even then, there’s no denying the effort that went into it. I can’t see Payne not being fourth unless you just really love that film and effort.
The other three are all worth a vote, and I’ll leave it at that. Because everything from here on out is personal preference.
Malick is my #3. I love the film, but I constantly feel, since I’ve seen him do it every time, that his way of directing people is just letting his actors walk around in nice locations and then editing it all together into a story. So I’m torn between whether I think that’s good directing or good editing or both? I honestly have no idea. Either way, I just wasn’t in love with the effort enough to want to vote for it.
The category was, at the time, and still is for me, between Hazanavicius and Scorsese. On style points, it’s Hazanavicius. He made a silent film in 2011. That’s cool. And then Scorsese gets the veteran/career vote easily. Plus, what Scorsese does with that film, recreating silent films and adding a touch of magic to the whole thing, and the way he makes what to this day is still the most astounding 3D film I’ve seen (what he does with the frame is a thing of beauty)… I honestly don’t know what the hell to do here.
No, you know what? I’m sticking with what I felt at the time. I think it was Scorsese, and I think it is Scorsese. The appeal of the silent film is one thing, but when you really break down the two efforts, it’s all Scorsese. I could (and kinda did, a few years ago) write a dissertation about how well that film was directed. Hazanavicius’ film I just really love. Now, I’m totally cool with him having won, but in the end, it’s clearly Scorsese’s film that boasts the better effort, and he’s the one I need to vote for.
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- Martin Scorsese, Hugo
- Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
- Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
- Alexander Payne, The Descendants
- Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
- The Artist
- The Descendants
- The Tree of Life
- Midnight in Paris
My Vote: Martin Scorsese, Hugo
The Artist is probably not going to be all-time essential, but it is a Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor winner. So any movie/Oscar buff worth their salt will consider it essential. And I think it’s absolutely wonderful, so I would call it essential.
Hugo is Scorsese, and everything he’s made is essential. You need to see it, even if it doesn’t sound like something that you’d like based on his other films. By the time it’s over, you’ll understand.
The Tree of Life is 100% essential for all film viewers at some point in their lives. It’s gorgeous, and it’s the quintessential Terrence Malick film. Everything he made through this film is essential. This one perhaps most of all (though Badlands and Days of Heaven have this on time, having had 40 years of a head start).
The Descendants is Alexander Payne, and all his films are essential as well. They’re wonderful. Everyone sees them because they are so beloved and cross list everywhere, you will encounter them pretty early on.
Midnight in Paris is one of the Woody Allen movies that everyone loves. It’s probably not essential, but it’s fun, it’s Woody Allen, and it’s got a hell of a cast on it. So you should probably see it. You’d be okay not to, but I don’t see why you’d deliberately skip it. Not essential just means it’s okay if you haven’t seen it yet. That doesn’t mean don’t see it. Because you really should see this. You’ll enjoy it.
The Last Word: No one should take Woody Allen in this category. That would be a waste. Alexander Payne also doesn’t feel like the right choice. I could understand putting him as high as maybe second (but would anyone do that based on effort?) but taking him for the vote would really seem illogical, based on the efforts we have in this category. I can get not voting for Hazanavicius. That’s totally understandable. I can even see putting him third. (Fourth would be stretching it a little bit.) But there’s no denying what he accomplished is worth a vote for some. And then Terrence Malick — nuff said. Worth a vote, you couldn’t even argue that. And Scorsese too. What he accomplishes here is a thing of beauty. And even if you don’t see why Scorsese is worth a vote on an initial watch, study the film and how he constructs it and you’ll understand why he’s worth it. That’s why I took him. I can get taking Malick over him or Hazanavicius over him. They’re all worthy. I think this is clearly Marty’s though. It’s a masterwork.
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Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
I have to start this category with some discussion. Because this was the year where some crazy shit happened. I don’t know if anyone can explain it. The Directors branch is known for making some bold choices, but usually it’s only one per year. 2012, they went way off the board.
The DGA nominated Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Tom Hooper (Les Mis), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Ben Affleck (Argo). Three — three of those nominees weren’t nominated at the Oscars. And Ben Affleck won the DGA, marking the seventh time ever that a DGA winner didn’t go on to win the Oscar. He swept every Best Director award that year as well.
Instead, Michael Haneke was nominated for Amour, which is a kind of surprise, given that he’s a foreign nominee, and those don’t happen as much. But it fits with the one “surprise” nominee the Academy usually gives us.
The David O. Russell nomination makes perfect sense, given their love for him and love for the film. Effort-wise, maybe not as good as the others, but I get it.
And then Benh Zeitlin shocked the shit out of everyone by being nominated. I don’t think anyone quite saw that coming. Especially over someone like Bigelow or even Affleck.
This was a really weird year, and we need to discuss that before we can get into the category. And then we also need to mention that when talking about this category — all of that has to go out the window. We have to take the category as it stands and vote for what we’ve got.
Amour. It’s a gorgeous movie. There’s no denying that.
It’s about an eighty year old couple who are still very much in love. However, their bond is tested when the wife has a stroke and is no longer able to move or communicate.
It’s a really beautiful and tragic film. It’s one of those that will grow on you the older you get. You’ll have that period of being a teenager where you think you get it, but you won’t. And then the 20s years where you may respect it, but still won’t get it. I think the older you get, the more this will mean something to you.
That said… I don’t think I need to vote for this. I don’t love the effort that much. I get it if people feel the need to vote for Haneke here. Because the category is so compromised, all bets are off. It’s the wild west. You can take any of the five here and be completely justified in doing so.
Life of Pi. I was very against the idea of this film when it was coming out. It sounded so stupid. Plus it was a religious allegory, which doesn’t exactly make me thrilled. Plus, I saw it, thought it was fine, and then it started getting nominations. So I was especially disdainful of it. And then, by Oscar night, I had mellowed out. I was cool with the film, overall, and thought Lee was a deserving winner.
The film is about a boy who, after a shipwreck, ends up in a lifeboat with a monkey, a tiger and a zebra. Seriously, that’s the story. Don’t worry, it’s all an allegory.
The film is exquisitely directed. In my mind, he was the right choice, but I’m not sure why. I remember not loving the film at the time, thinking the subject matter was slight, being turned off by the religious angle, and also thinking the whole thing felt very CGI. I’m actually about to go back and rewatch this just so I can figure out who I’m gonna take, because in this category, I really need to decide where my priorities lie, four years later. He’s definitely in contention. Since everyone is in contention this year.
Silver Linings Playbook. David O. Russell took what he learned from The Fighter and did it again. It’s quite literally a playbook.
Bradley Cooper is a dude who’s just out of a mental institution after a post-divorce breakdown. He’s back and living with his parents, and still thinking he can get back with his ex-wife (who was cheating on him). He meets Jennifer Lawrence, a young woman reeling from the death of her husband, and they hit it off, in a kooky sort of way. And the film is mostly about the crazy interaction between characters and the familial atmosphere of the whole thing.
It’s a wonderful film. Russell purists hate this movie. I think it’s one of his best. I also think Three Kings is one of his best. The answer can be both.
In terms of pure direction, he’s probably fourth or fifth on this list. I don’t think anyone really vote for him. But kudos on getting here. Sucks though that he can never crack that top three for a vote. It’s because his strength is in the script and there’s not so much of that visual stamp and splendor in his movies. If there were, it would dilute the product. But here, you can honestly make a case for him as the winner on pure love of film. There’s no one in this category that runs away with it.
Lincoln. It’s Spielberg. It’s Lincoln. The beauty of this film is in the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis. Without him, this film is just really good and not outstanding.
It’s about the passing of the 13th Amendment. Freeing the slaves. All sorts of dirty politics that go into it. The line that says it best: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” This movie is so wonderful. It’s hard not to love it.
In terms of direction, I’ve cooled considerably on it. I think it’s really solid, but I don’t know if I’d out and out vote for Spielberg. Then again, I don’t know if I ever was really high on the direction. I think it’s definitely something that can easily be voted for in this category. With some other people (who were DGA nominated), I don’t think he’d be top three (maybe third. Maybe). Here, easily top three, maybe even top two. It’s strong. It’s definitely a safe vote, since the film looks good and is a classy choice and it’s Spielberg and all that. But I don’t know if I feel any particular love for the effort or it’s just respect.
Beasts of the Southern Wild. I had a really contentious relationship with this movie at the start of it all. But we don’t need to get into that now, because this movie is the film from 2012 that people will recognize the least and deserves to be talked about the most.
It takes place in Louisiana, in a place called the Bathtub. It’s called that because the entire place is cut off from everywhere else by a levee. And eventually, the entire place will flood, and all the people living there will drown. But they don’t care, because it’s home. And we follow a six year old girl as she lives in this place with her father.
I’ve watched this film a few times since the initial watch and my opinion of it has grown considerably. To the point where I’d actually consider him a legitimate second choice here, if not a first choice. The film is so lively, and so vibrant and full of energy. It’s the one effort of the bunch whose direction makes me feel something. Like with Slumdog Millionaire. That’s not to say the other films don’t make me feel anything, it’s just that this direction made me feel something. Which carries weight to me in this category. It’s a wide open race, and Zeitlin is in it as much as anyone, even if he doesn’t have the resume the other four directors have.
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The Reconsideration: I don’t know if I’d vote for any of these efforts in another year. But that’s what we have. You have the play the hand you’re dealt.
Russell is fifth for me. His effort is solid, but doesn’t hold up as well as the others and just isn’t as strong as the others. I think he’d be fifth for all, no matter how much we love that film. Maybe you put him fourth. No higher than that.
Haneke is fourth for me. I don’t think the film was that exquisitely directed. I’m fine with the nomination, but no way would I actually vote for him. Fourth is high enough for me.
The other three — no idea. Lincoln is the most classical entry in the bunch. It fits most with how you’d think the Academy votes. Zeitlin has a great effort that feels fresh and different. And I respect the shit out of that. And then Ang Lee… it’s very CGI, but it’s also a gorgeously shot film.
Yeah, I don’t know. I like the grace with which Ang Lee shot his film. I like the skilled hand with which Spielberg shot his, and I like the vigor and poetry with which Zeitlin shot his.
At the time, I thought Spielberg was too easy a choice, Lee was a decent choice because of what happened to him in the past, and Zeitlin shouldn’t have even been nominated because I thought the film was overrated and had some kind of weird dislike of it for whatever reason (that I overcame within six months of the Oscars). Now, I can honestly say… I’m taking Zeitlin.
I know, I’m surprised too. But going back, I feel like Life of Pi, while it has some gorgeous images… I’m bored by the frame story. I don’t care about that. And I think a lot of the shots in the boat and with the animals look too much like CGI for me. I’m not going to equate good shots with good directing. I like the film, but don’t love it, and without such a compromised category, I wouldn’t consider taking Ang Lee any other year, so why do so now? Especially when I don’t really love the effort and only want to take him for outside reasons.
Spielberg, I think did a great job and would normally be my choice, but I don’t see anything that makes me want to take the effort. At least with Zeitlin, I can feel the energy of the film and I feel him creating a world and an atmosphere, and without anyone else to take, I’d rather vote for him.
Maybe the vote for him is me saying I wash my hands of this category, but that’s what I have. I’d have taken Tom Hooper if he were here. I’d have strongly considered Kathryn Bigelow again. I’d have taken Tarantino in a second. I’d have potentially even taken Affleck here. I don’t love Lee’s effort enough to take him on that alone. Spielberg’s effort I could take, but I don’t think I consider that effort strong enough for a vote. The other two I wouldn’t vote for no matter how many times you gave me this category (maybe one out of a hundred I’d take Russell as another “I’m done with this” choice, but even then, I’m not so sure). So that leaves me with Zeitlin. And at least I really enjoyed what he did with the effort. So, that’s where we’re at. This is a year of compromise. You gotta do what you gotta do.
P.S. I’d also like to point out, because I did go back and see what the hell I did here back in 2012 (because this was the first year post-Oscar Quest where all the votes were made on the night of the Oscars. So everything decided was done so in the moment, like it should be). Here’s what I wrote:
“Uhh… Russell? Because he never won? Or Spielberg, given his filmography? Fuck it. Spielberg. Lincoln. I’ve voted for him a bunch and he hasn’t won. I’ll give him one now to make up for it. (Look at me, I’m just like everyone else.) But I’m totally cool with a Russell win or a Lee win. (Honestly, though, at this point, I might just want to vote Zeitlin because at least I felt something from his direction.)”
So, honestly, I was right there with how I’m feeling now, only this time, I went with the effort that made me feel something over the one that you vote for because of who did it. (I somehow thought I took Ang Lee this entire time. I think because I at the last minute told everyone to take him as the winner even though most people assumed Spielberg would win, and then him winning made me really happy so it felt like a deserving win.)
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- Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
- Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
- Ang Lee, Life of Pi
- Michael Haneke, Amour
- David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
- Silver Linings Playbook
- Beasts of the Southern Wild
- Life of Pi
My Vote: Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Lincoln is Spielberg directing Daniel-Day Lewis. That’s movie buff porn right there. You must see that.
Silver Linings Playbook is David O. Russell at his Best, Jennifer Lawrence winning an Oscar, and loads of great performances. This is a movie future film buffs will see early on because of the amount of great actors in it. This will cross list everywhere and people will see it and fall in love with it very early on. It’s essential, but people will find it and see it without me having to tell them that. Life will tell them that.
Life of Pi is a great film. Ang Lee. Looks great, a hell of an experience. All time essential? No. But it won Best Director, the director made a lot of movies people love. You should probably see it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a beautiful, beautiful film. Not essential in terms of objective film history, but essential in my eyes because you should see what one can accomplish with the medium of film. This will transport you into a community and will give you a sense of wonder and joy that most seasoned film viewers don’t even really feel anymore. It’s absolutely wonderful, and I cannot recommend seeing this movie highly enough. Put it this way — if you’re reading this, you probably value my opinion in some small way. And I voted for this. What does that tell you?
Amour is really great, and is probably essential for film buffs. It’s a film that… it’s like The Sweet Hereafter. You should see it because it strikes a certain chord within people that may not resonate as much at certain ages, but everyone should see this movie regardless, because it’s really, really terrific.
The Last Word: It’s such a compromised category, all you need to do to be right with your choice is to make your case without lessening the cases of the other nominees. Any one of the five is worth taking. In my mind, the ones that I lean to most are Spielberg and Zeitlin. Russell made a great film, but I don’t think the effort was strong enough to vote for. Haneke I understand intellectually but wouldn’t vote for, even though he’s totally worth one. Lee — I just don’t like how CGI the whole thing looks. That detracts from my experience of seeing it. But again, worthy winner. Not gonna diminish what he accomplished here. Spielberg made the classy film with the master’s touch. Which is why I lean toward him. And Zeitlin made the only film whose direction actually made me feel something. Which is what swayed me in the end. I feel like I should take that over Spielberg, because one, my gut says to, and because two, I don’t want to take Spielberg just because it’s Spielberg, especially if I’m not in love with the effort. So again, make your case for any of the five. You wouldn’t be wrong. This year is defined not by who wins, but by who they didn’t nominate.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)