Going into Tuesday’s announcement of the Directors Guild of America nominations, the Best Director Oscar race was a mess — five slots and a dozen contenders, all but two of them toting some serious baggage in their struggle to push their way toward what is, if not the front, then at least the middle of the pack. The status of that race after the DGA choices were revealed: still a mess, but a mess of a slightly different shape. As expected, the man now perceived as the front-runner, Boyhood’s Richard Linklater, was nominated, as was the man now seen as one of his toughest competitors, Birdman’s Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The remaining three slots went to Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Clint Eastwood for American Sniper, and Morten Tyldum, the Norwegian director who made his English-language debut with The Imitation Game.
There are many reasons to believe that this will not line up five-for-five with the Academy Awards. It rarely does, partly because the DGA’s voting membership is something like 30 times as large as the Academy’s directing branch — the DGA is more mainstream, more ’Murican, more TV-oriented, and blander. It’s conceivable, for instance, that the worldly, elite, more-international-than-you-might-expect directors’ branch of the Academy could nominate someone like Ida’s Pawel Pawlikowski. For the directors’ branch, it would be a long shot; for the DGA, it would be pretty much an impossibility.
Sometimes, the Academy goes its own way entirely, as it did two years ago when it omitted three of the DGA’s five selections, giving rise to the Affleck Snub (and indirectly helping along the subsequent Argo win). Who would benefit from that? Probably Selma’s Ava DuVernay, whose movie has been warmly embraced by critics and audiences but pretty much shut out by the guilds. Selma may be falling victim to a late release date, a slow-to-arrive Academy screener, and a controversy about historical accuracy that there wasn’t enough time for the movie’s campaign team to counter. But there’s also support for Whiplash wunderkind Damien Chazelle (essentially, he’d get the nomination that Benh Zeitlin got two years ago for Beasts of the Southern Wild) and for Gone Girl’s David Fincher, a two-time nominee, albeit never for genre work, which is a hard sell in this category. The last time a director cracked the category for adapting a best-selling mystery was Clint Eastwood for Mystic River.
Speaking of Eastwood and mysteries, no, I don’t really know what he’s doing on that DGA list, and I suspect he may be the most vulnerable of the five nominees. At this point, he could probably film a brick wall for two hours and I can name half a dozen critics who’d find a way to call it a sobering and formally innovative critique of American masculinity. The Academy loves him (he’s a 10-time nominee in various categories), and the movie has done massive business on four screens for the last three weeks. But as formidable a contender as Eastwood is, this branch doesn’t rubber-stamp anyone. Tyldum may be on surer footing since his movie plays so well on TV that (cough) it almost looks like it belonged there all along. And the fact that as down-the-middle a group as the DGA would give Wes Anderson a backslap might mean he’s finally going to get his first Oscar nomination for directing. If anything, Budapest, auteur- and Euro-friendly, is more an Oscar movie than it is a DGA movie.
Possible spoilers here, other than The Theory of Everything’s James Marsh, fall into two groups: directors who made big, mainstream hits that couldn’t quite rise into the first tier (Angelina Jolie for Unbroken, Rob Marshall for Into the Woods, Christopher Nolan for Interstellar) and directors who did great jobs with dark, dank, underbelly-of-America material (J.C. Chandor for A Most Violent Year, Dan Gilroy for Nightcrawler, Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher). Each group faces the same problem: They’re groups — and it’s hard to break away when you’re in a cluster of filmmakers whose movies appeal to the exact same subset of Academy voters as yours does.
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
James Marsh, The Theory of Everything
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Pawel Pawlikowski, Ida
Right on the Edge:
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Clint Eastwood, American Sniper
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ava DuVernay, Selma
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
Here’s what we know: There will be no fewer than five but no more than 10 Best Picture nominees. Here’s what we don’t know: Does the fact that, for the three years this rule has been in place, the magic number has been nine mean that the preferential tabulation system naturally favors a higher number? Or are we due for a correction? When AMPAS made this rule change, it revealed that it had retabulated the votes from previous years and discovered that the years it examined would variously have yielded five, six, seven, eight, and nine nominees. What makes the difference is not the overall quality of the field but the degree of consensus; a movie needs to get at least 5 percent of the Academy membership’s first-place votes to get a nomination, so a year in which two or three movies dominate the no. 1 slots is going to yield fewer overall nominations. This doesn’t feel like a consensus year to me. But I’ll do what I always do, which is count down the nominees in descending order of probability. Feel free to draw that dotted line anywhere after fifth place. I’m drawing it after eighth.
When I wrote about the Oscar chances of Richard Linklater’s movie in early October, I noted that in order for it to become the front-runner, it wouldn’t “just have to beat every other film [but] withstand them — and if it does, it then has to withstand complaints from people who will be bored by how long it’s been the front-runner.” Done, done, and done. The fact that a film by a never-nominated director1 that took 12 years to make and was financed for a pittance by an indie company with little experience running an Oscar campaign can now be considered the front-runner for the Best Picture Academy Award is everything I love about the Oscars. The fact that anyone could dismiss such a choice as “safe” or “boring” is everything I dislike about the noise around them. There is a Boyhood backlash — the gripes that Linklater had 12 whole years to make his movie so the playing field isn’t level may be the cheapest shot I’ve heard this season — but forget those whiners: In the immortal words of The Interview, they hate us ’cause they anus! Boyhood has clicked with critics, audiences, and the guilds. None of that means it’s going to win, but it has earned the honor of pole position.
Linklater’s previous two nominations were both for screenwriting.
I don’t see any way that the Academy, which has in recent years gazed lovingly at the movie industry in The Artist, Hugo, and Argo, is not going to give a slot to this sardonic, broody, swoopy piece of skywriting about the state of the movie biz and the nature of an artist’s ego careering toward vanity and folly while trying for something great. That attitude is not just Academy-friendly; it is the Academy. And yes, some people really dislike it, but in this phase, all that matters is whether there’s an ardent, concentrated constituency of admirers. For Birdman, there is.
3. The Imitation Game
When people talk about the Academy’s traditionalist wing, they are, increasingly, talking about two different groups. The first — known as the “Steak Eaters,” a term popularized five years ago by Indiewire’s Anne Thompson — are the older, almost exclusively male producers and executives and sound guys who believe the Academy’s primary mission is to reward big, mainstream studio pictures where the money is all up on the screen and the ambition is spelled out in bright, easy-to-read capital letters. The size of that group is, at this point, overestimated — not to be morbid, but a handful of them are dying off every year, as are those movies. At the same time, a group I would call the neo-traditionalists is rising in power: They’re more female-friendly, they don’t care about a movie’s cost or spectacle, they see indies as part of the Academy’s mission, they’re mostly politically left of center, and they want a movie to be “thought-provoking” (but only in a mild, not aesthetically threatening way, and it should also look good and have a nice score). My sense is that The Imitation Game, with its sober big themes and its courteous, touristic relationship to homosexuality, is their horse this year. At $41 million, it has already gone further at the box office than I would have guessed; I expect to hear its name read many times on Thursday morning.
It says something about the jaggedness of this year’s Oscar race that I can’t even get this far down the list without feeling jittery about my choices. Selma is the season’s big unknown. When you throw together recent headlines about Ferguson and New York, the ideological leanings and sentiments of an aging-white-liberal constituency, and a movie by an African American woman, what happens? Did Academy voters watch the DVD? Did they like the DVD? Did the flap over the accuracy of the film’s depiction of LBJ do damage to its chances? Did Paramount make a big mistake in not getting it delivered aggressively to every member of every guild? (Yes to that last one; “I don’t know” to everything else.) A “snub” narrative seems to be building, but Selma doesn’t need a huge number of passionate advocates in the Academy to get into the race. My hunch is that it has the first-place votes it needs; I’ll be a little surprised and more than a little saddened if it doesn’t.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson movies have never been deeply embraced by the Academy, but this one, out for almost a year, combines sumptuous studio-style visuals with a whiff of history, an undercurrent of tragedy, and the director’s signature exactitude. It’s had a great run with guild nominations, and I can see it pulling together an unlikely coalition of voters — directors, writers, New Yorkers, Europeans, costume people — and making the cut. If it does so, the movie, which opened way back on March 7, will be the earliest-in-the-year opener to vie for Best Picture since The Silence of the Lambs 23 years ago. At the beginning of the season, I wrote that it would take “a great run of luck and a series of unexpected cave-ins” to make that happen; a little of both took place, but Budapest’s presence in the conversation is primarily a tribute to a patient, steady, unpanicky campaign by Fox Searchlight and to higher regard for the film than I recognized.
6. The Theory of Everything
The Theory of Everything is the perfect movie for voters who wish there were another movie exactly like The Imitation Game. Same vibe, same mood, same voter base, but a bit less enthusiasm. One caveat: It’s hard to call a movie a lock for a Best Picture nomination when its director is barely in the discussion. The worst-case scenario for this movie is that voters see it as primarily a performance piece, reward the actors, and shrug the rest of it off.
Surely something has to break up what will otherwise be one of the most benignly humanist rosters ever put forth by the Academy, right? The likeliest candidate feels like Chazelle’s lean, mean, all-American Sundance champ. As I noted above, there’s definitely an Academy constituency that will go darker, stranger, and freakier than many handicappers imagine: When we sift through the results tomorrow and tally the collective nominations for Whiplash, Foxcatcher, and Nightcrawler, we’ll know just how big, or at least how focused, that constituency was this year.
8. American Sniper
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS?!?”—Me, to my sad reflection in the mirror. No, I am not kidding me with this. I am perplexed by the admiration and sudden surge for what feels to me like a by-the-numbers, indifferently shot rendition of an unexamined story, but mine is not to reason why (until tomorrow); mine is simply to inform you that American Sniper got PGA, DGA, and WGA nominations. That is not a guaranteed path to a nomination (a few years ago, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo also hit all those marks only to be denied at the finish line), but it’s not a bad one, either. I don’t see a lot of actors voting for this, but among the aforementioned steak eaters? It’s got a very good shot. Where, when it’s needed most, is the vaunted “liberal Hollywood” that the right loves to bash? Apparently it’s sitting in a Barcalounger in Bel-Air, happily watching Bradley Cooper shoot people.
I’m rooting for both. I’m feeling optimistic about neither. I’d love to be wrong.
And before tomorrow’s nominations, a few awards:
- Movie I most toyed with placing on the list: Gone Girl. Lingering Academy snobbery about mysteries and thrillers, a sense that the film was amply rewarded at the box office, and my own inability to imagine a few hundred voters saying not just, “That was a good movie,” but, “That was the year’s best movie,” kept it out of my top 10.
- Greatest victim of advance Oscar-prognosticator hype: Unbroken. Woe to any movie that sits on predictor lists for months before it has been screened; that never helps.
- The “In Any Other Year It Would’ve Been A Contender” Award: not given. Sorry, it wasn’t that kind of year.
- The Bronze Medal: To me, for getting eight of the 43 predictions I’ve shared with you over the last week wrong. Or more! Or fewer. Check in tomorrow for some post-nomination analysis, preening, and atonement.