As we approach the Academy Awards on March 4, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar front-runners like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less heralded—but possibly more deserving—Oscar nominees.
In a year of milestones for the Best Director category at this year’s Academy Awards, one fact stands out above the rest: None of the nominees totally sucks. Some are better than others, but you can make a case for each of them, and for my money, this is the first time in the last 10 years, if not longer—it’d depress me to actually check—that this has been true. Usually, for every adventurous and unusually perceptive choice (George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road, for example) there’s an astonishing clunker, like Morten Tyldum of The Imitation Game, or an otherwise great director nominated for an underwhelming effort (the examples are endless), as if pickins were so slim the Academy had no choice but to nominate one of their well-established friends.
This year’s nominees—Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), and Jordan Peele (Get Out)—are a strong bunch. All five wrote or co-wrote their movies; each has smudged the screen with their unique fingerprints, and made movies that seem inseparable from their visions of what movies are and what they can do. A couple of them have even achieved the seemingly impossible. None of these nominees made a movie I didn’t have to wrestle with in some way, even if I was ultimately trying to make sense of what didn’t work. None produced a piece of cynically sophisticated, feckless, impersonal filmmaking, the kind of “Oscar bait” that’s genuinely worthy of the term.
Which is to say nothing of their actual accomplishments. It’s trivia, at this point, oft-repeated but worth again repeating. This is the 90th Academy Awards, and Peele is only the fifth black filmmaker to be nominated in this category. He would be the first to win; if he lost, but Get Out nevertheless won Best Picture, it would be the third time a black director’s movie won the big trophy without taking home the Best Director statue, which is its own kind of record. Gerwig, meanwhile, is only the fifth woman to be nominated, and the first to be nominated for her debut solo directing effort. (Gerwig is credited as a co-director, alongside Joe Swanberg, for the 2008 film Nights and Weekends.)
Speaking of Peele and Gerwig, both of who are basically new blood on the directing front, this is the fourth year in a row that four of the five directing nods went to first-time nominees. It can’t help but feel like a changing of the guard, though in which direction, who’s to say. It’s just funny that statistically, the ’90s indie upstart Anderson, who’s been here before (in 2008, for There Will Be Blood), comes off looking like an elder statesman compared to the likes of first-time nominee Nolan, who’s the same age and has made more movies (not to mention more money).
And we can’t forget the frontrunner here: del Toro. His win would be the fourth time in the last five years that a Mexican director has taken home this trophy, a fact that remains under-cited in these days of #OscarsSoWhite. Chances are, on Sunday night, he will make Alejandro Iñárritu (The Revenant and Birdman) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) proud. These statistics aren’t the only thing that matters, of course. I don’t think the Academy always has to answer the call of social change by doling out awards on the basis of politics and appearances rather than out of pure confidence in their peers’ work. If anything, had it honed closer to something like merit this whole time, the roster of Academy Awards winners would already be a hell of a lot more diverse. In that scenario, Peele wouldn’t be the first black director to win, for example—and the list of previously-nominated black directors would include women.
The case for Gerwig, Peele, or del Toro isn’t just that they aren’t your typical Hollywood white guys, although that’s an easy argument to fall back on for such a hard-to-define category. What makes someone a “Best Director”? It’s tough. Not only are there likely as many definitions for what defines great direction as there are people in the Academy, everyone in the Academy also has confidence in their own definition—because they’ve all worked with directors. Sound mixers, actors, producers, publicists, and editors each have their own ideas about what makes some people better at the job. It’s not like, say, the Sound Mixing category, where a member of the publicist branch of the Academy might just vote for whichever movie sounded the loudest, out of ignorance. This is a bunch of people making up their mind about a category they might conceivably know something about, or at least think they know. Granted, their voting record raises some doubts. This year, though, there’s no uninteresting choice.
A win for del Toro, my least favorite nominee, is a win for Hollywood wizardry, as the movie’s 13 nominations—not only for technical categories like cinematography and editing, but also for acting and writing—righteously attest. It’s also a win for the weird, or better yet, the “as weird as the Oscars are going to get.” I’m talking about the fish sex. I’m on the record as having my doubts about whether The Shape of Water works, overall, but del Toro is a worthy nominee if only for laboring so imaginatively to strike a balance between optimistic genre fantasy and unspeakable horror. He does it every way he can: through idiosyncratic choices in costuming and production design, a clean visual sensibility that brightly states his thematic intentions, and a keen sense of atmosphere undergirding it all.
If anything, my beef is with the fact that he’s too good at keeping it all in balance. For a movie with as many dark turns as this one, it all feels strangely polished and polite. Del Toro’s got a fascination with violence that, for his characters, verges on kink, and his movie is a lot more interesting when it forgoes the romantic Hollywood nostalgia bit to instead roll around in the muck. You just can’t compare a cute, ’30s-style song-and-dance number, however well-done, to Michael Shannon going ill from trying to reattach his smelly dead fingers; you can’t compare the novelty of the fish dude learning to sign the word “egg” from a mute woman to the fact that these two radically different creatures, from different species, with different parts, are literally fucking. I mean come on! The best possible version of The Shape of Water is a movie that the Academy wouldn’t touch, let alone nominate for 13 trophies. I’ve got love for some of del Toro’s work here. But if I were an Academy voter, I’d eliminate his name first.
I’m a bit more enamored with the openly Herculean efforts of Christopher Nolan, but still not in love with Dunkirk, whose best qualities are also some of its worst. Dunkirk has all the familiar Nolan trademarks. Structurally, it’s as airtight as it is prismatic and complicated. Visually, it’s the most fruitful example yet of Nolan’s insistence on practical effects (meaning he prefers to blow things up in real life rather than fake blowing them up through CGI), shooting on location, and large formats (the movie is entirely shot in 65mm IMAX). As always, clips of Nolan making the movie are just as fun to watch as the movie itself: The behind-the-scenes footage is the kind of shit I could watch all day, with actors practically drowning in water tanks, sand getting blown into peoples’ faces, harried cameramen lugging IMAX cameras into waist-high water, etc.
Dunkirk, like the event it’s about, was an ordeal, and that labor shows in the images, which are mighty and distinctive. The editing is genuinely a marvel, not only for guiding us with clarity through three competing timelines, but for its precise deployment of every image. The timing is always just right—per usual, Nolan has choreographed everything just so, packing only as much of an emotional and intellectual wallop into every shot as he needs, in order to perfectly stitch it together later. I don’t always love what’s at stake in Nolan’s images, but admire that he was able to make them. So much of this particular story gets told through men’s faces, on the one hand, and godlike views of all their anonymous bodies in the sand and on the sea, on the other. The movie is so close in some instances, so far in others—to a fault. These soldiers are almost too abstract in the end; the movie’s structure is almost too mathematically precise, to the point that despite making us endure many harrowing scenes of men clinging to their lives, which on paper sounds tragically humanizing, the movie often barely feels human at all. A storm of music and the grand elocution of a Winston Churchill speech at the end don’t really do much to change that, despite trying very, very hard to do so. It’s a conundrum. Nolan proves himself so good at executing the concept that the concept, rather than the experience it’s meant to illuminate, becomes the star of the movie. I would eliminate him second.
But we’ve reached the point at which, were I an Oscar voter, I’d be struggling to choose. The remaining choices are all worthy! Anderson made a film that reminded us American movies can still be forged with impeccable style—I’d honestly forgotten. Phantom Thread is, simply, delicious. It’s a complete delight from the opening sight of the immaculate Daniel Day-Lewis primping in his bathroom mirror. At heart, the movie is a surprising romance that turns on a series of delicate power plays astonishingly navigated, with Anderson’s guidance, by Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps. Every flourish of style seems just right; each shot’s ability to immortalize the proceedings from just the right angle, with just the right amount of tension and humor, is uniquely exhilarating.
And so is what Gerwig accomplishes with Lady Bird, a movie that packs an entire TV season’s worth of dramedy from a Sacramento teenager’s senior year into a buoyant, infectious 94 minutes. (The contributions of her editor, Nick Houy, have been seriously under-rewarded this season.) Gerwig is the director I’ve most enjoyed hearing talk about their movie. She’s the director who made, I think, the most consistently savvy choices, and not for the sake of coming off like a smart filmmaker. Every decision was made out of sympathy for, and insight into, her characters’ world. Gerwig set out to make a film none of the other directors here had to pull off: a movie with no bad guys. Lady Bird is full of conflict from its very opening scene, but not once does Gerwig fail to see every side; not once does the movie’s depth of emotional intelligence, or the care and precision with which she expresses those sympathies in her timing, staging, music cues, and writing, waver or fall short. It’s a feat that I’m not sure the Academy is designed to reward. Of the five nominees, Gerwig comes the closest to being called an “actor’s director”—an unsubtle way of saying someone’s great with drama, but otherwise not a visionary. But Gerwig has a vision, an incredibly complex one. It’s a vision of how and why people love each other, expressed nostalgically, as if the movie were entirely composed of Lady Bird’s memories. Gerwig expresses that vision in every frame.
Still, when all is said and done, if it were up to me, this year’s Best Director trophy would go to Jordan Peele, whose debut was deeply impressive on its own terms, but whose win would more urgently expand what the award can mean. The Academy has already shown that it sees the merits of auteurist fantasies à la The Shape of Water, be it through the classic musicals del Toro openly cites or, to cite an extreme, Peter Jackson’s orc and magic-filled big budget work for The Lord of the Rings. Isn’t fish dude—the most “out there” part of the movie—just a cute orc? I’m sort of kidding; I won’t pretend a del Toro win wouldn’t be historic for genre reasons. But as the movie’s 13 nominations show, del Toro’s filmmaking toolkit—the acting style, the lush cinematography, the approach to set design and period decor—is one the Academy is already overbearingly willing to reward. Its themes may be slightly alien, but in terms of filmmaking, the movie isn’t really a threat to the Academy’s sensibilities.
Same to Anderson, whose daring is in how he tweaks something broadly familiar, pushing a stylish period romance—and with it, the usual parameters of good artistic taste—in an unexpected but recognizably sumptuous direction. Anderson not winning would mean that some of the subtler pleasures of his movie—the care with with he and his team managed without a proper cinematographer, his collaborative approach with his actors—have been taken for granted. Nolan’s complex approach to war cinema still demanded he do the familiarly impressive things every war movie has to do: blow things up, coordinate large casts, and so on. The Academy sees how he got there. They watch his movie and know exactly what makes it so impressive. And though Gerwig’s specific insights into her characters’ world are original, her nimble balance of rich drama and effervescent comedy, and even her keen observations about mothers and daughters, would have been right at home in a James L. Brooks movie—they, in fact, typify a style of filmmaking Brooks himself has won an Oscar for, with Terms of Endearment.
Only Peele made a movie that many an Academy member of the past would’ve failed to recognize as skillful filmmaking. They would have missed what’s so impressive about his delicate balance of horror, satire, and straight comedy; they would’ve given him little credit for how aptly, and smartly, he threads the needle of this movie through his actors’ faces. Despite Best Picture wins for movies like Hitchcock’s psychologically spooky Rebecca and Jonathan Demme’s suspenseful classic The Silence of the Lambs, as well as the Best Director nomination awarded to The Sixth Sense’s M. Night Shyamalan, it’s safe to say that genre movies just can’t catch a break with this awards body. I wouldn’t say, in the scheme of things, that Get Out is such a strange movie. If you’ve seen horror movies and thrillers and, perhaps most importantly, precisely crafted television comedy sketches like those in Peele’s own Key & Peele, you understand the movie’s style. You’re hip to many of his choices.
It is extremely difficult, however, to imagine the people that once awarded Best Picture to Driving Miss Daisy being able to wrap their minds around Get Out, and not just because of these movies’ different approaches to race—but then, the Academy has changed. Last year, Moonlight, an American drama whose influences were Taiwanese and French, won Best Picture, rather than the workmanlike American prestige dramas that usually win the big award. It was significant for reasons of style as much as subject—and alongside Peele’s nomination, it’s one of the ways you can sense the changing demographics of the Academy coming to bear on what qualifies as Best Picture and Best Director material.
Peele is the only director of the five who I can’t imagine would have been nominated five, or even two, years ago. Anderson, Gerwig, and Peele are all doing something rich, interesting, and more exciting than what the Academy often rewards. But narrowing it to one, I’d go with Peele, whose images seem to burrow most deeply into the American consciousness. Get Out ignited something in the culture, and that’s a testament to not only the concept Peele devised, but also to the clarity with which he brought it to the screen.