Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, Babel
If Guillermo Arriaga's screenplay is the foundation on which Babel is built, director Gonzalez-Inarritu is the architect who made it stand. He's famous for his multiple-storyline ensemble films and his miserablist approach, and though Babel does take all of its characters to the brink, the film is ultimately about hope and the human need for connection. Gonzalez-Inarritu pieces everything together well, and he brings out some truly great performances, especially from Oscar nominees Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza, as well as the amateur Moroccan kids. He had been climbing the world stage for a while, but Babel finally proved to be his Oscar breakthrough.
Martin Scorsese, The Departed*
Going into the 2006 Oscar race, Scorsese had a reputation as one of the best American working directors. He had built this reputation over decades of terrific films, and yet he still had not received a Best Director Oscar. Sure, he had five nominations in the category at that point, but year after year he lost to another director. 2006 marked the year in which he finally had the same number of Oscars as Three 6 Mafia, and his work on The Departed marked a return to the mean-streets gangster films that he has become most synonymous with. Indeed, Scorsese does a fantastic job in directing the film, leading some phenomenal performances from a great ensemble and setting up some thrilling scenes. Ultimately, though, it's not one of his very best films, and it's hard not to think of this as a consolation prize for not rewarding his superior efforts.
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Eastwood has never been known for having a particularly flashy style of direction. Letters from Iwo Jima proves to be no exception. Rather than going for impressive battle scenes that feature heavy special effects and thousands of extras, Eastwood focuses on the story and the performances, making for a low-key war film that examines the human toll of the war. It's great work from Eastwood, certainly the better of his two Iwo Jima films and perhaps his best film in several years. He's proven himself to be among the best working directors in Hollywood, and he deserved this nomination.
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Also not known for having a flashy style? Stephen Frears, who earned his second career Oscar nomination in 2006 for The Queen. As I've stated in my screenplays post, the script is only decent at best, but Frears takes it up a few notches with his smart command of the performances, especially, of course, Helen Mirren. Visually, he tends to rely on some heavy-handed visual metaphors, particularly the hokey device of a stag (it's profound in a very shallow way, and kind of disappointing for a director of his talents). Overall, compared to some of Frears' previous films, this one feels like it was meant to grab Oscars, and he's lost some of his visual playfulness here. It's not bad work, but it seems like it could have been better.
Paul Greengrass, United 93
Of these five directors, Greengrass has made the most visible impact on mainstream cinema during the past five years, as his shaky-cam realism was popularized in his two Jason Bourne films and oft copied by action movies to present dizzying, whiplash-inducing action sequences. These films have diminished the technique's better qualities, which Greengrass put to powerful use in United 93. In the film, Greengrass wisely uses the technique to add to the disorientation, confusion, and mayhem of September 11, 2001, a brilliant decision that pays off terrifically. In fact, all of Greengrass's decisions for this film pay off: the casting of unknowns, the balancing act that makes the film a tribute rather than exploitative, and switching between the flight and the ground control in panic. This is bravura work, the kind that should have won him an Oscar. He's never been better.
1. Paul Greengrass, United 93
2. Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
3. Martin Scorsese, The Departed
4. Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, Babel
5. Stephen Frears, The Queen