Thursday, February 4, 2010

Oscars 2009: Best Director

Tonight I finally had the opportunity to see Up in the Air, which was a fantastic film. However, I'm going to do a write-up on it tomorrow, when it's had more time to sink in. Instead, it has provided me with another opportunity: I have now officially witnessed the work of all five directing nominees at this year's Oscars. For those who don't know, I don't live in the kind of market where Oscar nominees tend to play, so anytime I get the chance, I have to take it. It's a pity, to be sure, for a cinephile like myself, but I do the best I can.
Now, on to the directors. The one word that everyone has been using in regards to this year's race, even in the beginning, is "diversity." When the awards season first started, it was pretty obvious that this wasn't going to be the usual five-older-white-men category that it usually is. There were not one, not two, but three women with significant chances of being nominated (Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Lone Scherfig), a first for the category. And in the end, demographically, the nominees include three white men, one white woman, and one openly-gay black man. But the point I want to make is that the category is refreshingly diverse more than just demographically; this year's nominees represent five different directing styles, each unique to the director. In a way, it's a year of auteurs, when studio mainstays like last year's Ron Howard and Stephen Daldry (the first of whom I do admire, don't get me wrong; the latter, not so much) give way to directors whose films are instantly recognizable as just that: their films.
Take, for example, James Cameron. One can argue that Cameron does not fit the auteur bill, because his films are usually very expensive (Titanic and Avatar both required two studios to fund), and are definitely products of the studio. But Cameron has his own unique fingerprint: you can tell that you are watching a Cameron film because it's so grandiose and expansive. Cameron, as a director, injects every film he makes with a head-on stylistic attitude, crafting worlds one never would have expected. Though his films do not always feature incredible performances, they are visual feasts. Just think about the Hallelujah Mountains in Avatar, the ship sinking into the ocean in Titanic, or the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Cameron's style is one of epic, vast proportions, and this grand scale characterizes all of his films. In short, he is basically a modern-day Cecil B. DeMille.
On the flip side of the action coin is Kathryn Bigelow, who coincidentally is Cameron's ex-wife (its point that the media makes sure is bludgeoned into our skulls). Whereas Cameron's motif is exhilarating action sequences, Bigelow layers her action with enough tension to make one's heart stop. As evidenced in The Hurt Locker, the action may not be grand displays of flair, but the stakes are just as high, if not higher. Bigelow's direction involves precision acting and tight camera control; the audience doesn't just watch the action, but becomes a part of it. We feel the thrill of adrenaline Jeremy Renner's SFC James feels, as well as the nerve-wracking anxiety that Anthony Mackie's Sgt. Sanborn feels. And this isn't just in The Hurt Locker; all of Bigelow's films, from Near Dark to Point Break to K-19 have had this same tension-driven direction.
Perhaps the truest auteur of them all, Quentin Tarantino's style is certainly one of the most distinct in cinema. In fact, its impossible to watch a Tarantino film without being conscious that what you are watching was made by Tarantino. His films are characterized by how heavily stylized they truly are, a combination of French New Wave, American B-movies, and whatever else he happens to like at the time of filming, whether it be heist films (Reservoir Dogs), blaxploitation (Jackie Brown), or kung-fu movies (Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2). And his trademark style and quick-witted, pop-culture-reference-laden dialogue are all over Inglourious Basterds, his gonzo revisionist World War II movie. However, his films aren't just about style; there is great substance behind each one, most notably in the stellar performances he elicits from every member of his cast.
Jason Reitman, too, is a very stylistic director. One look at Thank You For Smoking, Juno, or Up in the Air and you'll see his pop-art influences shine through. He always manages to bring out the best of his actors, and his style fits the serio-comic tone of his films. What sets Reitman apart is that he doesn't use his shots for ironic purposes; rather, his images of planes taking off or high school track runners are imperative to the atmosphere he is creating. Reitman film's are also thematically similar in that they all deal with a character who is living in a state of disconnect from the rest of the world, and in order to be happy must make a connection to another human being. Reitman delivers indie-style films without the irony that marks so many of today's indie films.
And finally there is Lee Daniels, who has one of the more interesting backstories of this year's nominees: he starting working in Hollywood as a casting director, later moving up to producer before finally becoming a director (Precious is only his second film; interesting, if random, fact: no director among this year's nominees has made more than ten films). His history shows in his method of directing, too. Daniels is not a visual director; though Precious contains some fantastic visual sequences, they are more achievements in editing than in directing. Rather, Daniels' strength as a director lays in his ability to bring out career-topping performances from his actors. Every actor in Precious is at the top of his game, from newcomer Gabourey Sidibe to the awe-inspiring Mo'Nique; even Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz give fantastic performances (and we've seen how bad they can be). Precious' great acting is a testament to Daniels' understanding of how to direct actors, allowing the characters to breathe and focusing on them rather than on their environments.
Who do I think is the best director of the bunch? The diversity of styles here makes that a difficult question to love, because honestly, I love them all. Comparing Daniels to Cameron is like comparing apples to oranges. Which is why I think this year, no matter who actually takes home the statuette, all five of these fantastic cinematic voices are winners.

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