Welcome to the thirty-sixth entry in our Six Circuit series.
This week, we’re looking at the 2015 Best Director race. This Oscar year serves as an interesting prototype for the new Oscar era we are in. A well-reviewed blockbuster (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) swept the craft categories. Meanwhile, “The Revenant,” a grueling, expensive trek through the elements, won many of the key categories, including Actor and Director. When the time came to crown Best Picture, “Spotlight” came from behind and won, despite only having an Original Screenplay win. With such an interesting Best Picture race, let’s take a look at the equally interesting Best Director nominees.
THE NOMINEES WERE:
- “The Big Short” — Adam McKay
- “Mad Max: Fury Road” — George Miller
- “The Revenant” — Alejandro G. Iñárritu (WINNER)
- “Room” — Lenny Abrahamson
- “Spotlight” — Tom McCarthy
Though the Best Picture race was a nail biter between three movies, the Best Director race felt mostly secure. Alejandro G. Iñárritu won everything from the DGA to BAFTA to the Golden Globe Awards. Despite winning the year prior for “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” the Academy seemed ready to crown Iñárritu a second year in a row. The narrative surrounding “The Revenant” focused on the harsh conditions and stamina of the cast and crew, led by Iñárritu. That sort of sacrifice makes for a great Oscar narrative. Additionally, “The Revenant” opened late but became an instant hit at the box office. It came extremely close to a Best Picture win.
Meanwhile, the actual Oscar winner, “Spotlight,” was always going to have an uphill battle in the director category. Tom McCarthy skillfully wove all the pieces of the ensemble drama together. Yet, with so many other directors doing flashier work, the love for his film was likely going to be shown in other categories outside of directing.
Second place comes between two much showier projects. George Miller won every critics’ award under the sun for “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a blockbuster that became an action classic and feminist manifesto. The movie won six of its ten nominations, all in the craft categories. Miller helmed a similarly grueling production to Iñárritu. Yet, “Fury Road” was a franchise popcorn movie, while “The Revenant” was a drama with a serious movie star. Adam McKay won lots of praise for “The Big Short,” which chronicled the 2008 financial crisis. The movie was bursting with energy and stylistic flair. Had “The Big Short” been the Best Picture winner like some thought, McKay was positioned to upset Iñárritu.
The biggest shock of this category was the nomination for “Room” director Lenny Abrahamson. The film starred Brie Larson (who won the Oscar for the film) as a woman who escapes from a sexual predator who kept her confined for nearly a decade. The film was small and positioned mostly as a performance showcase for Larson. Yet, the Academy noticed the skill it took to open up the first half of the movie, which largely takes place in the room where Ma (Larson) is trapped with her son (Jacob Tremblay). With Abrahamson surprising at the last minute, who did he displace?
THE SIX SPOT CONTENDERS ARE:
- J.J. Abrams – “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
- Precursors – None
- Oscar Nominations – Best Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
- John Crowley – “Brooklyn”
- Precursors – None
- Oscar Nominations – Best Picture, Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Adapted Screenplay
- Alex Garland – “Ex Machina”
- Precursors – None
- Oscar Nominations – Best Original Screenplay, Visual Effects (WINNER)
- Todd Haynes – “Carol”
- Precursors – Golden Globe Awards, BAFTA Awards, Critics Choice Awards, National Society of Film Critics (WINNER), New York Film Critics Circle (WINNER), Online Film Critics Society, Independent Spirit Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association (Runner-Up)
- Oscar Nominations – Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Original Score
- Ridley Scott – “The Martian”
- Precursors – DGA Awards, Golden Globe Awards, BAFTA Awards, Critics Choice Awards, National Board of Review (WINNER), Online Film Critics Society
- Oscar Nominations – Best Picture, Actor (Matt Damon), Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
- Steven Spielberg – “Bridge of Spies”
- Precursors – BAFTA Awards, Critics Choice Awards
- Oscar Nominations – Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance) (WINNER), Original Screenplay, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Mixing
- Quentin Tarantino – “The Hateful Eight”
- Precursors – None
- Oscar Nominations – Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Cinematography, Original Score (WINNER)
- Denis Villeneuve – “Sicario”
- Precursors – Online Film Critics Society
- Oscar Nominations – Best Cinematography, Original Score, Sound Editing
Since the expanded Best Picture lineup, most categories get populated almost exclusively by Best Picture nominees. That makes it hard for non-Best Picture nominees to rack up stellar nomination tallies. Still, Todd Haynes’ “Carol” managed to earn six Oscar nominations without making it into Picture or Director. This marks a new record since the expanded lineup. Since its debut at Cannes, “Carol” was marked as a major threat in Picture and in Director for Haynes. He made it into the Golden Globes, BAFTA and Critics Choice lineups (only missing DGA). There were considerable fans of the film and Haynes commands the camera, lending a unique perspective to the film. He perfectly fits the bill for a lone Director nominee.
Many other films were able to rack up a couple Oscar nominations. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was right behind “Carol” with five nominations, all technical. Many thought “Star Wars” could crack Best Picture again. Was J.J. Abrams also close to the Director category? Though the film made waves upon opening, the fact that it couldn’t win any of those five categories signals a lack of passion. Both “Ex Machina” and “The Hateful Eight” won keys prizes, Visual Effects and Original Score respectively. However, neither Alex Garland nor Quentin Tarantino made a splash at any of the major precursors. “Sicario” director Denis Villeneuve at least earned an Online Film Critics Society nomination, though the film only received three below the line nominations.
BEST PICTURE COATTAILS
Never count out Steven Spielberg. The legendary director has two Oscars and seven nominations, and counting. This puts him behind John Ford (4 wins), Frank Capra and William Wyler (3 wins) in terms of wins and behind only Wyler (12 nominations), Martin Scorsese and Billy Wilder (8 nominations) in nominations. “Bridge of Spies” earned six nominations, taking home a surprise win in Supporting Actor for Mark Rylance. The one noticeable place it missed out was in Best Director for Spielberg. He showed up at the BAFTA and Critics Choice Awards, but didn’t have much critical backing or audience passion for this project. The voting body of ten years ago would likely have given Spielberg the de facto nomination. Yet, the new crop of voters reached out to reward Abrahamson.
One of Spielberg’s contemporaries, Ridley Scott, has received much less Oscar love over the years. Over a four decades long career, the Oscars have only nominated Scott three times. Many expected “The Martian” to bring Scott his fourth nomination and possibly a win. The film was a huge hit and earned seven Oscar nominations. Despite nominations at the DGA, BAFTA, Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards, Scott was snubbed come Oscar nominations morning. While that haul is an impressive feat, it never guarantees someone a nomination. Just this decade, Scott joins six other directors who were similarly snubbed (Bradley Cooper, Martin McDonagh, Paul Greengrass, Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan).
Rounding out the Best Picture nominees is “Brooklyn,” directed by John Crowley. The film had been a major Oscar contender since it premiered at Sundance. Yet, the buzz was focused squarely on lead actress Saoirse Ronan and the script. Crowley failed to show up at any of the major precursors. Though the film was well-received and a period piece, the film lacked the showy, directorial flair or narrative to make him a dark horse contender.