Thursday, February 14, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Director


Ah, Best Director. Or, as many others may call it, Best Picture, part. 1. It's true that sometimes this category gets misjudged because they confuse the two. Is there a difference between the best film of the year and the best made film of the year? I think there is. For instance, I believe Michael Mann makes some of the "best made" films of the last 25 years, though other than Heat, I can't see any of his films really being considered the best overall film of any particular year (that's something I'd have to go back and look over). That said, I was taken by pretty much every job the nominated directors did in 2007.

Paul Thomas Anderson, THERE WILL BE BLOOD

I am completely biased when it comes to P.T. Anderson, as he has probably been my favorite filmmaker for half a decade. Nobody today is more ambitious, nor does anybody make films as rich or intriguing, and I have been patiently waiting for him to make his masterpiece. I'm not so sure that There Will Be Blood is his masterpiece (Magnolia still holds that title for PTA), but what it did show was Anderson's continuing trend of creating incredibly interesting, sometimes polarizing, films. Anderson did two things for the first time here: one, he adapted the screenplay from a novel called Oil! by Upton Sinclair. Though the screenplay supposedly strays from Sinclair's novel by page 5, Anderson will be the first to say that Sinclair's muckraking spirit is all throughout the pages. The second thing Anderson did for the first time: a period piece. With the help of Jack Fisk's wonderful sets, Anderson recreates the world of the early twentieth century.

Much of the praise for this film has been bestowed upon the dazzling, but bruising lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, playing oil tycoon Daniel Plainview. Day-Lewis is the dominant force behind the picture, but he is still just a character in the world created by Anderson. The film's deliberate pace hearkens back to the films of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Mallick. All of the usual PTA motifs are there, from the well-written speeches ("I've abandoned my child!!!"), the mind-bending score (by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood), and long, languid takes that bring you evermore into the world he's created. Blood is Anderson's introduction into the world of big-time filmmakers, and he has definitely put himself in a class of one with the other filmmakers of his generation.

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Among the nominations, the Coens are probably the closest to being Hollywood insiders. It's an exciting statement, because it only enlarges the appearance of all the new talent. That said, it is the Coens who have risen above the dust and created the most praised film of the year. The Coen Brothers have always been an acquired taste, with their wacky films ranging from the hilarious Raising Arizona to the highly stylized Barton Fink. Of coarse, they also made a little film called Fargo which could easily be called the best film of the last quarter century, but we're here to talk about their work in No Country. Just like Anderson, the Coens made a film that was polarizing, and again like Anderson, many were complaining about the film's puzzling ending. The difference though, is that NOBODY who saw the film questioned the Coens' unbelievable job in showing this world.

The film paces along, hardly a score to speak of, and long (LONG!!) passages of silence in between scenes of abundant dialogue. The movie hits every beat perfectly, every actor saying there lines at the best possible time. Of coarse, the entire film deals with being pursued: Llewelyn Moss is being pursued by Anton Chigurh, and they're both being pursued by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. The tension built around these film-long chases is tantalizing. It helps to be aided by career performances by Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, but what the Coens have done is beyond the great work of their actors. It's their film that has given these actors the chance to be great. The incredible focus on every meticulous detail is something usual in a Coen Bros. film, but No Country maximizes that approach to the point that they were able to create a perfect film.


Gilroy has spent much of his career as a somewhat journeyman in Hollywood. He's penned the scripts for numerous hit films such as Armageddon and all three of the Jason Bourne movies. So, it's a bit of a touching story: long standing screenwriter finally gets his crack at making his own picture, and wouldn't you know: the guy really knows what he's doing. Michael Clayton seems to stay fresh in my mind, probably cause I feel that it was the first of many great films that I saw in 2007. The first that kept me up at night, wondering when I was going to be able to see it again. Clayton moves and feels like a John Grisham-esque story, leveled in a world where lawyers live on the morality chain in notch between child molesters and elected officials. As it grows, and it's labyrinthine plot unfolds, we are later reminded of those deep law thrillers of the 70's ala All The President's Men.

The underdog tale of Gilroy is inspiring, sure, but not as inspiring as his actual work on Clayton. Buoyed by a cast of excellent, veteran actors Gilroy makes a film that is tense, smart, emotional, and thrilling, sometimes all at the same time. The film is amassed different shades of black, white, and tons of gray (particularly in George Clooney's hair). It's can't be said enough, that a director is judged on how competently he presents the world of his story, and in this world of muted souls and constant backstabbing, Gilroy shows a world filled with fancy suits and sparkling restaurants, but nobody to speak of on the inside of any of them. The film just consistently makes the correct moves. Clayton is not nearly as hard-hitting as No Country or Blood, but Gilroy makes sure that the effect is still the same.

Jason Reitman, JUNO

Out of the five nominations in this category, Reitman is the closest one to being a "surprise". Many elements of Juno have been praised from Ellen Page's wonderfully delivered performance to Diablo Cody's clever script, but Reitman was never particularly honored before he was named on the director short list. That said, Reitman, son of comedic film guru Ivan Reitman, started his film career with the loved satire Thank You For Smoking. The film was a modest hit, but Reitman's name was out there. Then he came across Diablo Cody's incredibly wordy script and turned it into the most beloved film of the year. Say what you want about Juno, about it's pithy dialogue or the way it deals with pregnancy, no other movie in 2007 had more characters that you wanted to hug.

It's easy to underestimate the contribution that Reitman brings to all of this, cause it is so hard to judge how well a director has done when dealing with comedy. But many must remember how brisk and free-flowing Juno was. Part of the fun of watching the movie was trying to keep up with the words, which raged like they were being fired from a shotgun. The other fun part was the wonderful balance of all of the characters. No character overstayed his welcome (though I would have loved to see more from Bleeker), and the way they all coast together into the wonderfully funny storyline is all the work of Reitman. It takes someone special to understand the concepts of comedic timing, and I'm sure that Reitman learned from the best.


Ah, for the first time in a long time it seems, I'm able to talk about one of my favorite films of 2007, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. With it's breathtaking tale of humanity, and it's dreamlike approach, watching the film was one of the most transcendental experiences I'd had in a movie theater in quite a while. It's the incredible imagination of Julian Schnabel that brings everything in this movie together. Paired with Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Schnabel made what is probably the most wondrous film I'd seen since 2004's Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind with just as much innovation. But enough about how much I loved Schnabel's work, let's talk about the work itself.

The film, based on the true story of "Elle" magazine editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffers a stroke which leaves his entire body paralyzed except for his left eye. With his one eye, Bauby is able to blink out his life memoir and tell his story to the world, including family and friends who have a much harder time excepting his fate than he does. Schnabel's ability to show us Bauby's point-of-view is one of the most impressive things he accomplishes. Using irritatingly realistic POV shots, the paralyzed world of Bauby is brought to life. The other half of the film, though, is told in flashbacks in which Schnabel then holds back on the fancy camera tricks and captures the actors at work. Diving Bell begins it's story as a tale of pain and anguish, and though no circumstances change, what we are left with is a beautiful story of hope and the unwillingness to stop living. Schnabel's orchestrations all hit their target perfectly, and have us leaving the theater not only satisfied, but profoundly changed.

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