Oscars 2019: Best Director Race – Auteur Meets Relevancy

There are only 2 Oscar categories I care about this year: Best Director and Best Picture. The latter I’ll get to. The former I’ll jump right in. There are going to be some pretty divisive snubs come Tuesday, which seems like it’s always the case as the Oscars continue to toe between prestige and trendiness. Oddly enough, that’s what also makes this race so exciting, because more and more films are meeting at that precipice. 

What follows is a list of hopefuls and contenders in the running for Best Director, and a dive into what the Academy’s appetite might be like as the nominations are unveiled on Tuesday.


Dark Horse Pick

Steve McQueen, Widows
This one hurts me to say because I really loved Widows, but since it was marketed as a blockbuster that didn’t quite make blockbuster-sized receipts, Steve McQueen’s film was probably lukewarm on voters’ minds. This is the man behind 12 Years a Slave, so perhaps his auteur-ship will save him. The deftness of Widows as a socio-political ensemble piece is what makes the film so captivating as a crime drama. McQueen never loses sight of the characters in the sprawl of Chicago; he zeroes in. This is very much his Heat in more ways than one: epic, engrossing, and criminally overlooked.



Damien Chazelle, First Man & Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
These two are in the same boat in the sense that they were frontrunners 2 years ago who’ve come back with equally captivating films that somehow aren’t hot on people’s radars. After the sonatas of La La Land and Moonlight, Chazelle and Jenkins are completely shut out.

The space movie, in many ways, is the frontier that makes or breaks great filmmakers. (Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Alfonso Cuaron.) Chazelle inspiringly takes Cuaron’s lead by innovating the fore. He captures the terror and grandiosity of space travel through the keyhole perspective of astronauts being shot up in a tin can. It’s mightily controlled, and while it may seem like material out of Chazelle’s grasp, remember how visceral Whiplash was. If any filmmaker this decade was going to create a gritty, violent, and bruising space movie, it was going to be him.

Jenkins’ shut out is similarly befuddling. His empathetic touch as a filmmaker is all over Beale Street, a breathtaking ensemble romance lavishly told and devastatingly realized. The Academy is a sucker for period love stories (Brooklyn, Atonement) but often drops the ball as far as recognizing the efforts to create said romances. With Moonlight and now Beale Street, I trust Barry Jenkins all the way. But will the Academy?


Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Taxi Driver and Raging Bull-scribe Paul Schrader would normally seem like a lock. Perhaps the singularity of First Reformed’s character study might’ve left him out in the cold. At the same time, the Academy does honor well-crafted films from writers-turned-directors, especially accomplished writers like Schrader. (Frank Darabont, anyone?) Tony Gilroy, too, went from ‘90s scribe to the Bourne trilogy and then went on to write and direct Michael Clayton. First Reformed is similarly impeccably staged, with heady (and relevant) environmental and crisis-of-faith themes that make it impossible to forget. Even if he doesn’t get the director nod, he’ll most definitely land a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.



Peter Farrelly, Green Book & Adam McKay, Vice
Peter Farrelly and Adam McKay are also in the same boat because the reactions to their respective films are pretty telling. Since its potential candidacy, Green Book has been marred in controversy, from the Shirley family’s not-at-all-impressed response to the film’s dramatization, to the backlash against writer Nick Vallelonga’s tweets, and director Peter Parrelly’s past penchant for “flashing” himself on sets. And yet, Green Book is doing rather well in awards circles, suggesting all the fervor won’t exactly see to it becoming the next Birth of a Nation. But it does put a question mark over its Best Director prospects, if not Best Picture.

As does Adam McKay for Vice – a film that doesn’t exactly sing as well as it wants to. Bogged down by over-summary narration (which undercuts the scathing critique McKay is gunning for), Vice presents itself as a deep-dive into Dick Cheney’s tenure as VP, but turns out to be surface level at best. The performances, too, from a who’s who of cameos are let down by the film’s sprawling narrative. The reaction’s been rather muted and McKay’s intention has been hotly debated, but Oscar predictions have him down for a lock. Farrelly and McKay seem to have their foot in one way or another, but it’s tough to imagine both of them getting the nomination.


Debra Granik, Leave No Trace
If you read her name and said “who?” then that’s a problem. Granik directed a film in 2010 called Winter’s Bone starring a then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence went on to become a star while Granik (who nabbed a nod for Adapted Screenplay) struggled to find financing for a follow-up, which is sadly often the case for female directors. (Just ask Patty Jenkins.) 8 years later, Granik returned with Leave No Trace, a portrait of a shattered love and a life on the brink of society told with startling social-realism. Granik doesn’t sensationalize survival or homelessness, but hones in on the intimacy and privacy of a father and daughter desperately trying to connect. That tenderness is everything and it’s frustrating that a director like Granik struggles to make her films in a movie market that says yes to virtually anything. The Independent Spirit Awards graced her with a nomination and both the LA and San Diego Film Critics Association honored her with Best Director so, one can hope.


Marielle Heller, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
There is something inexplicably Coen Brothers-y about the film’s premise – a failed writer forging literary letters from famous authors and reaping the benefits of the con. It’s moody, ethically onerous, yet Marielle Heller keeps the story breezy and upbeat. What she’s really getting at as scenes linger is the sad life of the artist, one starved for fame and recognition and resorting to literally stealing from others to earn her way (if that’s not writing then idk what is), all of this laced with sass and a dark wit that keeps this tale of clever theft churning along like a play. Can You Ever Forgive Me? seems poised to nab acting and writing nods, while Heller herself is somehow out of the conversation. With Heller directing the Mister Rogers movie, I expect we’ll be seeing her again soon.


Ryan Coogler, Black Panther
It’s hard to gauge where the Academy stands on superheroes and blockbusters. George Miller got nominated for Mad Max: Fury Road, but Patty Jenkins’ work in Wonder Woman was given the cold shoulder last year and most infamously when Christopher Nolan didn’t get a nod for 2008’s The Dark Knight, both landmark comic book movies. But it’s silly to think that Ryan Coogler can’t stand a chance just because the Academy didn’t recognize his peers prior. Coogler is absolutely worthy of contention – a bold storyteller with a studio rise that’s unheard of. To go from low-budget indies to Marvel-Disney in just 3 films, and to imbue a superhero narrative with powerful political and emotional themes already makes him a strong candidate. Again, it’s unsure if the Academy will dismiss this as a “Popular Film” thus not worthy of serious consideration, but Damien Chazelle’s win 2 years ago does spell promise for new young filmmakers upending the status quo.


Lynne Ramsay, You Were Never Really Here
The more I watch You Were Never Really Here, the more I’m convinced we slept on this film. A quarter of the movie is the would-be revenge thriller we expect from the premise. The rest is an artful deconstruction of the unstoppable masculine hero that’s been engrained in our heads since Liam Neeson in Taken. Ramsay devises this ticking time-bomb narrative through the deteriorating psyche of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe – an Equalizer-meets-Daredevil do-gooder who does battle with his trauma. Ramsay succeeds by muting the violence and instead emphasizing the psychological experience of a character barely present and stuck in the past with no hope of a future a la Sharp Objects. The film’s ambivalence might’ve caused voters to skimp on this one, which is so strange to say given the past successes of psychological films like Black Swan or Mulholland Drive. I for one am pulling for Lynne Ramsay to get her long overdue day in court.


Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
The Academy LOVES a good costume drama. Extra points for a subversively stylized one. Lanthimos’ voice as a filmmaker indubitably shines through in this lushly rendered tale of ambition and deception, one that feels like a weird offspring of Jane Austen and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon with a bitingly modern sensibility. I just find this such a fascinating progression from the guy who made The Lobster – another film that demonstrates Lanthimos’ idiosyncrasies melding with dramatic substance. (Martin McDonagh comes to mind.) The Favourite is due to get nods all around, but will Lanthimos’ efforts be enough to edge out Adam McKay and Peter Farrelly for a nomination?



Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
And so we have our frontrunners. The three names that keep popping up in awards circles and predictions, starting with Bradley Cooper. My, what a debut. Imbued with an indie-authenticity and self-assured in its storytelling, Cooper already comes off like a pro. He cares deeply about the trajectory of his characters, and that’s what makes A Star Is Born such a force to be reckoned with. He doesn’t pity Jackson’s fall, nor does he shame Ally’s rise. They are two dualities of the artist told as one, and the Academy loves dramatic portraits of the artist. (La La Land, Birdman, The Artist) Cooper, of course, faces stiff competition here, but I suspect this will pave the way for a new stage directorial career for him, if it hasn’t already.


Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
BlacKkKlansman is a direct reaction (and fuck you) to the Charlottesville rally in 2017. Which is to say that not only is it timely, but it could’ve been a very different and very radical movie. The genius of Spike Lee is how he constructs this movie around a singular character (Ron Stallworth), a moral compass point in a world that implores you to radicalize one way or the other. Like Lee’s peers in this category, he too leans on tragi-comedy absurdism to supremely engaging results. Plucked out of the ‘70s blaxploitation crop, BlacKkKlansman lights an incendiary fuse to a politically explosive modern era. If Lee wins, call it his The Departed when he should’ve won for Do The Right Thing. Perhaps the Academy can finally make good?


Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
There is no stopping the Three Amigos this decade. We can call the Oscars divisive and racist all we want (with merit) but let’s not forget that Alejandro Inarritu won during the #OscarsSoWhite fervor. Even when Guillermo Del Toro won last year, it was seen as hardly a victory and only further evidence of the Oscars’ misogyny. There are points to be made for sure, but if we can’t even celebrate that Spanish directors have won out of a historical pool of white men, then we’re hurting our own cause for inclusivity across the board.

At a time when people are taking to the streets and chanting “Build the wall,” at anyone who isn’t white, Roma becomes all the more an important cultural touchstone. Using a literal black and white scheme, Cuaron thoughtfully illustrates how similar and searing our lives are filtered through this lens. Cleo is us. And we, all through the experience of the movie, are Cleo in both devastating and uplifting ways. At a time of glaring elitism and dismissiveness, Cuaron beckons us to empathize. At a time of profound, blinding arrogance, Cuaron bids us to do something cinematic and simple: watch. Cuaron’s watchful, pensive eye as a filmmaker has never been put to better use. He’s not just a lock, he’s the one to beat.


My Best Director nominees:

Steve McQueen, Widows
Debra Granik, Leave No Trace
Ryan Coogler, Black Panther
Lynne Ramsay, You Were Never Really Here
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma


Oscars Best Director nominees:

Peter Farrelly, Green Book OR Adam McKay, Vice
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma


6 thoughts on “Oscars 2019: Best Director Race – Auteur Meets Relevancy

  1. I’d really love for Lynne Ramsay to win. She’s been an incredible director with an amazing repertoire of work, including the much overlooked Ratcatcher and We Need to Talk About Kevin.

    1. Oh man, We Need to Talk About Kevin genuinely perturbed me and I mean that in the best way.

      It bothers me that more film fans aren’t big on Lynne Ramsay. Or worse, that they’ve never heard of her. Her and Chris Nolan are of the same generation! I didn’t see her name popping up all that much on these Best Director predictions, which truly bums me out. She continues to be overlooked and underrated. In my mind she’s a frontrunner.

      1. Couldn’t agree more, she definitely deserves more recognition. A real shame to see that You Were Never Really Here didn’t get a wide release in most areas. I’m hoping her next film, whatever it is, will spur more fanfare!

        1. Gleaning over the Oscar noms, it seems the nightmare has come true. Ramsay, even Ryan Coogler got shut out. Honestly, the Independent Spirit Award nominations are SO MUCH more exciting.

  2. This is as brilliant breakdown. The very possibility of McKay being nominated for “Vice” blows my mind. But I love your picks of Granik and Ramsay. I don’t feel it’ll happen but I would shout for joy if it did!

    1. Dude, I’m right there with you. In VICE he gets in his way far too often. I forgot the film was supposed to be a “scathing” portrait. It felt rather flattering for Cheney, I mean it’s Christian Bale! The DGA nonetheless increases his Oscar-nom chances.

      Indeed Granik and Ramsay are longshots. Few prediction lists even mention them, sadly. Let the snubs begin.

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