OSCAR BREAKDOWN: BEST DIRECTOR
Danny Boyle, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
How does the man that made Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Shallow Grave create the feel-good movie of the year? It's puzzling, sure. Boyle has been notorious for his techno-style, energy-induced, almost anarchic style of storytelling. There are still fragments of the usual Boyle-isms in last year's Slumdog Millionaire, but its safe to say he may have mellowed out in his older age. Of course, for those unfamiliar with Boyle's films may see Slumdog Millionaire as a steroid-pumping, non-stop blow-by piece of cinema, and with its incredibly distinct style, it makes sense that Boyle has been collecting critics awards like teenage girls collect Jonas Brothers paraphernalia.
His work on Slumdog is truly inspired to say the least. Traveling into Mumbai (with the help of a 2nd unit director named Loveleen Tandan), Boyle attempts to capture the energy of one of the most trafficked areas in India. It pokes fun at Bollywood films--that great dance sequence--but never in a mean way. I sometimes worry when a filmmaker decides to capture a culture he has nothing to do with (you'll occasionally see something pretty messy, like Rob Marshall trying to express Chinese culture in Memoirs of a Geisha), but Boyle became incredibly intimate with this material, contracting young non-professional child actors from the area that create some of the warmest moments of the film. The film is seldom recognized for its rough aspects--what's Boyle without rough?--because its sweet moments that stay afloat in our consciousness.
Stephen Daldry, THE READER
Stephen Daldry is quite a lucky man. He enchanted audiences with his debut film, Billy Elliot, and got himself a Best Director nomination. He allowed three great actresses (Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman) to give wonderful performances in a wonderfully crafted film entitled The Hours--and got another Best Director nomination. Now, his third film, The Reader was the big sleeper when the Academy Award nominations were announced, and he got another Best Director nomination. That makes him three-for-three for Best Director nods. Let's put this into perspective: Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alexander Payne only has one; Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch don't have any at all.... And Stephen Daldry has three in three films.
Daldry makes incredibly droll films--and save for The Hours, incredibly boring films (and The Hours is only a treat because of those fantastic actresses). He tackles incredibly provocative material, but has the never-before-seen talent of making the material seem drawn-out and uninteresting. He makes films that incredibly self-award of their own quality, and they frequently are well lit and edited, they just lack emotional punch for the most part, because even subtlety has its moments of transparency. I won't knock Daldry for being nominated, he choose who gets nominated. The only thing I can pick on Daldry about is his average filmmaking.
David Fincher, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
David Finch has been a beloved filmmaker in many movie-lovers' circles. Se7en is a suspense masterpiece on par with The Silence of the Lambs, and Fight Club has become perhaps the most popular cult film of the late 90's. Then he made Zodiac last year, a film that many thought was the best film the filmmaker ever made. Of course, it was universally ignored come awards time, but they're trying hard to make up for this year. Benjamin Button was seen as a pretty large "event" at the movies: "Come see Brad Pitt look old! And Cate Blanchett!! Oh God, Cate Blanchett!!". Did it live up to the hype? Depends on how you look at it. The film got thirteen nominations overall, by far more than any movie, so that's good. Unfortunately, the film is seen as pretty mediocre thematically, so that's not too good.
History may not be kind to Benjamin Button, because it really does fumble its fascinating premise on more than one occasion. That, though, does nothing to effect how beautiful the film looks. Using breakthrough special effects, and fascinating cinematography by Claudio Miranda, Fincher does an exceptional job making the world seem fascinating, even if the characters are complete emotionless cyphers. It's the kind of movie that people try to convince themselves they enjoyed because they appreciate the filmmakers involved. Fincher's attempt to build upon Eric Roth's sloven screenplay is one of the main redeeming characteristics of Benjamin Button, and hopefully this isn't the last Oscar nod in Fincher's future.
Ron Howard, FROST/NIXON
It's incredibly interesting to watch Ron Howard's movies. He's made a good deal of great films like Splash, Cinderella Man, and Apollo 13, and won his only Best Director Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. He is the ultimate professional, and none of his movies will ever be bad because they're poorly made. He's skilled without being a perfectionist, and he is able to add warmth to his movies, without losing any of the edge. It's a testament to Ron Howard's popularity that Frost/Nixon was such an Oscar hit. I say "Oscar hit" because close to no one has actually seen the movie in the theaters, and given the material--David Frost's attempt to completely foil Richard Nixon during a television interview--I can see why few of the movie-going public (mostly teenagers) wouldn't be interested in seeing it.
Frost/Nixon was based upon a Tony-winning play, and brought in the play's two big stars to reprise their roles in the film. I really feel that the heart of Frost/Nixon is the monster two-headed performance by Michael Sheen (as Frost) and Frank Langella (as Nixon). Those two actors gel so well together, even when they're supposed to be antagonistic toward each other. Howard, always a swell director of major acting talent, does not disappoint in this aspect. There is major adjustment when coming from a stage play to the movie screen, and Howard guides the actors splendidly in creating performances that are beautifully subtle, and rarely escalating into the melodramatic, theatre-style of acting. It's always nice to see Howard at the Oscars.
Gus Van Sant, MILK
What an interesting career Gus Van Sant has had. He started as a promising independent filmmaker with such small films as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. In the mid-90's, he starts working more within the Hollywood studio system with films like and To Die For and Good Will Hunting (for which Van Sant also received). He made an embarrassingly bad remake of Psycho, and then retreated back into independent filmmaking, relying more on auteur styles in films like Elephant and Last Days. Now, Van Sant is back in the big leagues, directing Sean Penn in Milk. Many say it may be his best film, but how can you make that distinction when you have a man who has had so many distinctive stages within such a short career?
Van Sant's films certainly don't lend themselves toward award recognition, but its good to see it noticed here. His work with Milk is phenomenal. I don't wish to be presumptuous, saying that Van Sant's homosexuality brought him closer to the subject, but in post-Prop 8 America, the movie is totally unapologetic about its homosexual leanings. Sure, Penn is fantastic, but what Van Sant does that is so fascinating is develops a biopic that does a great job of creating a beautigul vigil to a beautiful civil rights leader, while still allowing other characters take the spotlight.