Oscars Eve 2017: The Best of Directors
I have heard people ask why picks for best direction do not always directly align with the best films. After all, if directors are in charge of overseeing and fostering the final product, why wouldn’t a director be assessed solely on the basis of that final product? It is a good question with a complicated answer. The reality is that film is not like other artistic mediums – like theater, it is a collaborative art form that succeeds on the basis of many varied facets. For example, great direction can elevate a so-so screenplay and a poor direction can do the reverse. So, for us, the true assessment of directing prowess rests in just how much the vision of a director elevates the material and how difficult that feat was to achieve.
This year, we were remiss to leave off some stellar directors from our personal lists, instead opting to highlight the work that most employed strong use of the distinctive language of film. In other words, we think in looking at the work of directing in a vacuum, there is greater praise to be given to directors who used the unique tools of film to communicate, even while that in no way invalidates that filmmakers who understood their films required a less cinematic approach and astutely showed reserve were any less skilled or potent in their work.
So who do we think made the most of the medium? Find out by scrolling through the gallery below from our Oscar picks and favorite direction from the past year!
Oscar Nominee - Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Regardless of what you think of him, Gibson is one of film's most dynamic action filmmakers. He earns his first nomination in 21 years by way of a bloody, often treacly, but ultimately rewarding exploration of wartime violence and patriotism.
Oscar Nominee - Denis Villenueve, Arrival
Villenueve wins his first nomination by delivering an instant sci-fi classic through a supreme ability to build tension and dramatic weight. His confident work to compile engrossing plot points will undoubtedly earn him more nominations in the years to come.
Oscar Nominee - Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
In addition to drawing out strong performances from every scene, Longergan deftly captures his subjects with a careful attention to pace and composition. Even if it is not the most dynamic direction, it is perfect for his film and it is wonderful to see him nominated for his work.
Oscar Dark Horse - Barry Jenkins, Moonight
In delivering a heartfelt and confident film that has made an far-reaching impact on the film community, Jenkins has come from nowhere to be a inimitable voice in film. He is the best bet to upset, even if it is a long shot. We can dream, right?
Oscar Front Runner - Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Chazelle's love letter to his film influences via throwback romanticism, colorful aesthetics, and abounding energy will prove irresistible to the Academy and almost certainly bring him his first little gold man.
Chelsea's #5 - Mike Mills, 20th Century Women
Having never seen Mills' work before, I was impressed with how strong his grasp on the material was as well as how specific a tone he managed to convey. Nothing feels out of place in 20th Century Women--there is no period detail too small but there is absolutely no excess. It's a detailed, but taught look at people living in another time that speaks loudly to the current.
David's #5 - Denis Villenueve, Arrival
Villenueve is quickly establishing himself as one of Hollywoods foremost storytellers, delivering consistently compelling and human characters in the midst of high concept tension. With Arrival, he delivers thoughtful sci-fi for adults that is engrossing both in terms of its twisty plotting and in its foreboding feel.
Chelsea's #4 - Paul Verhoeven, Elle
Verhoeven masterfully builds tension in this twisty French thriller. He subverts every expectation and yet the film never feels provocative for its own sake. He perfectly directs his actors out on a tightrope of tricky characterizations. Just really solid work.
David's #4 - Pablo Lorrain, Jackie
Jackie moves through a series of dreamlike segments, capturing the stunned grief of its protagonist in a visceral and uniquely cinematic fashion. Lorrain devised an operatic aesthetic where he easily could have relied on his fascinating historical subject matter - a gamble that paid off big time.
Chelsea's #3 - Denis Villenueve, Arrival
Villenueve could have easily amped up the tension and turned Arrival into slightly more traditional science fiction, but instead he aims higher. Villeneuve uses deliberate pacing and hold his cards close to his chest, using cinematic signposts to subvert our expectations for the genre. What results is a much more emotional experience than what is generally achieved in sci-fi.
David's #3 - Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women
This year's most delicate film comes from the astute and gentle hands of Kelly Reichardt, who continues to show just how important it is to care about characters and their personal plights, even if they may seem slight to the world of cinema. By showing supreme patience to find and draw on small moments, she builds a deeply affecting case to slow down and appreciate the importance of human connecton.
Chelsea's #2 - Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Jenkins carefully crafts this utterly devastating and powerful portrait of poverty and identity. Not only does he direct his actors perfectly and do really thoughtful casting, but he creates beautiful pictures, bathing his frames in particular lights and pacing his film in a rhythmic way to ultimately present a sort of tone poem.
David's #2 - Paul Verhoeven, Elle
Other filmic provacateurs could learn from something from Verhoeven, who carries Elle with surety through surprising tonal shifts and tense plot points, shocking his audience while never falling into cheap exploitation or missing the point.
Chelsea's #1 - Pablo Lorrain, Jackie
What's most impressive to me about Jackie's direction is the way Lorrain has pulled together all of the disparate elements of filmmaking--screenplay, actors, costumes, scores, cinematography--to create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. Each element works together perfectly in harmony in service of the story and characters. It's thoughtful work with a strong sense of vision.
David's #1 - Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
No filmmaker this year matched the artistic vision of Jenkins, who created a cohesive and overwhelming aesthetic of yearning for Moonlight. The film speaks in distinctly cinematic ways and does not waver from its compassionate intents. It is impossible not to be swept up in its movements.
Check in tomorrow for our big finale – the best films of 2016!