Six Circuit: Which Director Lost ‘Gravity’ in the 2013 Best Director Race?

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Welcome to the twenty-seventh entry in our Six Circuit series.

How can one predict a director-picture split? Often times these splits occur in years when the Best Picture is a smaller sensation going up against a technical behemoth. The David-Goliath fight will often end with the smaller film taking picture, while the Goliath gets Best Director, almost as a consolation prize. Director-Picture splits have been even more commonplace this decade. Since 2010, they have occurred five of the last nine years. This week, we’re looking at the 2013 Best Director race, which perfectly exemplified the practice of giving the director prize based on a technical achievement.

THE NOMINEES WERE:

    • Alfonso Cuaron – “Gravity” (WINNER)
    • Steve McQueen – “12 Years a Slave”
    • David O. Russell – “American Hustle”
    • Alexander Payne – “Nebraska”
    • Martin Scorsese – “The Wolf of Wall Street”

OVERALL SUMMARY

Alfonso Cuaron had been a much heralded director who rode a perfect wave of attention straight to the Oscar stage in 2013. He had previously been nominated in writing and editing categories before for films such as “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Children of Men.” His 2013 space thrill ride, “Gravity,” wowed critics and audiences alike with its state of the art technology. The film was a blockbuster success and Cuaron ran the gauntlet with the precursors, including the Golden Globes, DGA Awards, Critics Choice Awards and BAFTA Awards. At the Oscars, the film also won a total of seven awards, including Director (Cuaron), Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects. The Oscars were obviously impressed with the craft of “Gravity” and wanted to honor the man at the helm.

Still, the big Oscar movie that year was “12 Years a Slave” by Steve McQueen. The searing drama of a freeman captured and sold into slavery won rave reviews. Many championed the film for Best Picture, which made it a force in all other categories. The film won Best Picture, along with Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Adapted Screenplay. In many other years, McQueen would’ve also probably won Director. However, voters still wanted to give “Gravity” above the line love and this was the category to do so.

All of the other nominees were simply along for the ride. The Academy was in love with David O. Russell after “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” which all but guaranteed him a third directing nomination for “American Hustle.” Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese directed a magnum opus of debauchery with “The Wolf of Wall Street” that voters wanted to award. The most surprising was likely Alexander Payne. “Nebraska” was well-liked, but the small black-and-white movie struggled to find an audience. Still, Payne was an Academy favorite (see “Sideways” and “The Descendants”) which likely pushed him over the edge. Who did Payne edge out? Let’s look at the contenders.

THE SIX SPOT CONTENDERS ARE:

  • Joel Coen and Ethan Coen – “Inside Llewyn Davis”
    • Precursors – National Society of Film Critics (WINNER) 
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Cinematography, Sound Mixing
  • Ryan Coogler – “Fruitvale Station”
    • Precursors – Gotham Awards (WINNER),  Cannes Film Festival Camera d’Or (WINNER)
    • Oscar Nominations – None
  • Stephen Frears – “Philomena”
    • Precursors – None
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Picture, Actress (Judi Dench), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score
  • Paul Greengrass – “Captain Phillips”
    • Precursors – BAFTA Awards, Critics Choice Awards, DGA Awards, Golden Globe Awards
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
  • Spike Jonze – “Her”
    • Precursors – Critics Choice Awards, National Board of Review (WINNER), Los Angeles Film Critics Association (Runner-Up)
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Picture, Original Screenplay (WINNER), Original Score, Original Song, Production Design
  • Jean-Marc Vallee – “Dallas Buyers Club”
    • Precursors – None
    • Oscar Nominations – Best Picture, Actor (Matthew McConaughey) (WINNER), Supporting Actor (Jared Leto) (WINNER), Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Makeup (WINNER)

CRITICAL WINNERS

The First Feature prizes at critics groups usually gives us a sense of which new voice to keep an eye on. The year 2013 marked the filmmaking debut of Ryan Coogler, who would go on to direct “Black Panther” and “Creed.” His film, “Fruitvale Station” debuted at Sundance to strong reviews and had solid limited release box office in July. He picked up awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Gotham Awards, along with many first feature critics prizes. While this accurately predicted his bright future, it kept him from breaking in to many Best Director lineups. The Oscars sometimes nominate directors for their first features. Even though they passed up Coogler, he seems extremely well-positioned for a Best Director nomination in the future.

The one other filmmakers that had strong pockets of critic support were the Coen Brothers. The Oscar winning duo always commands some sort of Oscar buzz. Their 2013 film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” was one of their more prickly outings. Those who loved it, like myself, loved it effusively. Those who hated it did so with a passion. They won the National Society of Film Critics award. Yet, they were likely far from cracking the Best Picture lineup.

BEST PICTURE HELMERS

Best Picture nominees usually have strong shots of showing up in Best Director. Since the expansion of the Best Picture field, a wider variety of films that don’t usually factor in to the Directing lineup have cracked into Best Picture. One such example would be “Philomena,” Stephen Frears charming drama about a woman who goes on a journey to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades ago. The crowd-pleasing film was lauded mostly for Judi Dench’s lead performance. Love for her performance bled into other categories, such as Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. That love never carried over to Frears, who received no precursor support leading up to the Oscars.

Another director who received no precursor support for his Best Picture nominated film was Jean-Marc Vallee. When his film, “Dallas Buyers Club,” opened in November, most thought it wouldn’t do much outside of the acting categories. Once the film showed up as a SAG Ensemble nominee and did well at the Critics Choice, it became a much bigger Oscar player. Savvy campaigning and the weight-loss/deglam narrative helped the film win three Oscars – Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey), Supporting Actor (Jared Leto) and Makeup. Still, the movie’s Oscar narrative was built almost entirely around the performances, not Vallee. 

PRECURSOR FRONTRUNNERS

Of the Best Picture nominees, “Her” was one of the “cooler” and more unexpected nominees. Spike Jonze had manifested an unlikely Best Director nomination before. Back in 1999, he was nominated for “Being John Malkovich,” though the film did not get into Best Picture. However, he at least had a DGA nomination that year. Though the Oscars loved “Her,” giving it a Best Picture nomination and writing win, Jonze had less precursor support in the Directing category this year. 

Meanwhile, Paul Greengrass showed up at every televised precursor. “Captain Phillips,” which was a popular mid-October hit, earned him directing nominations at the Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards, Critics Choice Awards and DGA Awards. Greengrass had been a directing nominee before for “United 93” in 2006. Ultimately the film still did well at the Oscars. It earned six nominations, including Best Picture. Greengrass wasn’t the only high profile snub from the film. Tom Hanks was also left off the Best Actor roster that year, despite precursor support and a high profile campaign. In the end, “Captain Phillips” lost all six of its nominations. Perhaps voters liked the film, but didn’t love it, which explains the major snubs.

THE SIX SPOT FOR 2013 BEST DIRECTOR WAS:

PAUL GREENGRASS – “CAPTAIN PHILLIPS”

Who do you think came in 6th place in the 2013 Best Director race? Share with us in the comments below.

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