Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
The penultimate award of almost every year of the Oscars, Best Directing is often the crowning achievement of a cinematic career, with the winner being able to crow about their victory even if they aren’t on the list of the film’s producers who could win the year’s top prize.
Split for a single year at the 1st Academy Awards into separate awards for comedy directing and drama directing, Best Directing has a storied history of recognizing significant achievements, both films that went on to take Best Picture and those that did not. In recent years, the category has become a place where directors whose films won’t win Best Picture are recognized, with La La Land, Roma, The Revenant, Gravity, and myriad others perfect examples of that disparity. It used to be that the category was more uniformly linked to the Best Picture award, but ticket-splitting has become significantly more popular with Best Picture winners such as Moonlight, Green Book, Spotlight, 12 Years a Slave, and more are great films (not you, Green Book), but are seen less as directorial achievements even if that belief is wrong-headed.
Looking back over the history of the Best Directing award, I found it very difficult to separate the notion of directorial achievement and overall cinematic achievement. With an interesting blend of linked Picture/Directing winners and splits along the way. While I cannot promise there won’t be an overlap with my eventual Best Picture 5 Favorites article, I will do my best to highlight cinematic achievements here that might not have otherwise triumphed in Best Picture. I will also attempt to limit myself to a single director for each slot, perhaps highlighting their prior nominations as well.
The five selections I made are emblematic of notable pinnacles in cinematic achievement. Although directors like David Lean, James Cameron, and several others almost made my list, I restricted it to five, so there wasn’t room for everyone. Here are the Oscar winners I didn’t go with: Lewis Milestone for All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30), Frank Capra for It Happened One Night (1934), Victor Fleming for Gone with the Wind (1939), David Lean for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Woody Allen for Annie Hall (1977), Jonathan Demme for The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Anthony Minghella for The English Patient (1995), James Cameron for Titanic (1997), and Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain (2005).
As for the nominees on my shortlist, they are far more numerous suggesting that the Academy often goes with the wrong film or directorial accomplishment, not just for Best Picture, but most certainly for Best Directing. The Oscar losers is a much larger list and all of them could conceivably have been better than the winners the Academy did select. Here they are: Alfred Hitchcock for Rebecca (1940), Carol Reed for The Third Man (1950), Alfred Hitchcock for Rear Window (1954), Billy Wilder for Witness for the Prosecution (1957), George Stevens for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Stanley Kubrick for Dr. Strangelove (1964), Costa-Gavras for Z (1969), Sydney Pollack for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Stanley Kubrick for A Clockwork Orange (1971), Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather (1972), Ingmar Bergman for Cries and Whispers (1973), William Friedkin for The Exorcist (1973), Francois Truffaut for Day for Night (1974), Robert Altman for Nashville (1975), Steven Spielberg for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Steven Spielberg for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Steven Spielberg for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Martin Scorsese for Good Fellas (1990), Oliver Stone for JFK (1991), Neil Jordan for The Crying Game (1992), Woody Allen for Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction (1994), Kryzysztof Kieswlowski for Red (1994), Peter Weir for The Truman Show (1998), Terrence Malick for The Thin Red Line (1998), Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Martin Scorsese for The Aviator (2004), Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood (2007), David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan (2010), Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave (2013), Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and Jordan Peele for Get Out (2017).
Now, for the five I selected.
Orson Welles – Citizen Kane (1941)
While the snub of Citizen Kane is considered one of the biggest injustices in Oscar history, even though How Green Was My Valley against any other film that year was a laudatory choice, Orson Welles losing the Oscar for directing is not only an injustice, it’s almost criminal. There’s more to that story than just an Oscar snub, and you won’t get those details out of 2020’s Best Picture nominee Mank, a film more concerned with demeriting Welles’ input on the film’s screenplay than with the political maneuvering being done by William Randolph Hearst against this film.
What Welles does here is impressive, rewriting the filmic language that countless subsequent filmmakers would use to great success in the years to come. As well made as How Green Was My Valley was, it is child’s play compared to the unique and impressive achievement of Citizen Kane. While numerous filmmakers before Welles had set the tone and tenor of the filmmaking craft over the course of three decades, Welles made fascinating decisions with his camera work and photography here that have to be seen to be understood. Of course, for younger generations, they’ve likely seen numerous films of similar construction, which is even more dispiriting, when few of them will go back to the progenitor from which all future films likely owe a great deal of their credit.
Alfred Hitchcock – Psycho (1960)
Speaking of filmmakers that refined the cinematic experience through his compelling directorial work, few are as celebrated today as Alfred Hitchcock. While Hitch was nominated five times for Directing, he never took home the Oscar for his work. Earning the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy in 1968 was an insufficient reward for a man who built a legacy as impressive as this. Of the five films for which Hitch was nominated, Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, and Rear Window are all terrific films, but all are inferior to this picture. On top of that, of all of Hitchcock’s films, Psycho, along with the under-rewarded Vertigo, was his absolute best.
As much as Hitch’s filmmaking techniques had an impact on suspense and thriller subgenres, his influence on the slasher genre is unparalleled. For Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Vorhees, the debt they owe to Norman Bates is unquestionable. Psycho took the late-film twist of numerous films, including Welles’ Citizen Kane, and amped it up tremendously creating one of the most legendary denouements in film history. The audience is never given a chance to relax as the tension is increased with each passing moment, no one sure of what is about to happen. As much as I would rather have honored Hitch for his work on Vertigo, Psycho is still a worthy recipient of attention.
Stanley Kubrick – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
If you are surprised at this name, I’m afraid you don’t know me very well. Stanley Kubrick is my all-time favorite director. His unique and intriguing approach to filmmaking has created some of the greatest films ever made from A Clockwork Orange to Dr. Strangelove to this film, the progenitor of the style of science-fiction that has since permeated cinematic language. Like Hitchcock, Kubrick was never appropriately rewarded by the Oscars in his long, albeit limited, career. Kubrick earned a total of 13 Oscar nominations across numerous decades with four citations in this category. Apart from the aforementioned two films, the fourth Best Directing nomination came for his 1975 costume drama Barry Lyndon.
With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick explored man’s existence from prehistoric times through the future wherein technology has become both a crutch and a danger. Exploring the nature of existence is a strong aspect of science fiction writing, but until 2001, few directors were able to capture the level of cinematic contemplation that Kubrick did with this film. Countless writers, especially for television’s Star Trek, used sci-fi as a lens into the human psyche and our social constructs. Kubrick was just as concerned with the psyche, but not as much with social constructs, which he would examine in better detail in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange. It was a tough call choosing between this film, Clockwork, and Strangelove, but in the pantheon of cinematic achievements, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a seldom-paralleled success.
Steven Spielberg – Schindler’s List (1993)
Unlike the prior three entries on this list, director Steven Spielberg has been adequately rewarded by the Academy, taking home three Oscars out of seventeen nominations, seven of which were for his directing. His pinnacle achievement is Schindler’s List, a challenging look into the Holocaust that required the director to look back at a heinous historical event and find the humanity within it. As far as dramatic films about the Holocaust, there is no greater achievement than this film. Spielberg appropriately won the Oscar for his direction of this film, one of the times the Academy definitely got it right.
Schindler’s List was released the same year as his record-breaking Jurassic Park, giving Spielberg a one-two punch that has been seldom matched, earning both popular and critical acclaim for his efforts. Both films were well regarded by critics and both films were well-received by audiences, giving Spielberg a strangely consistent result for both his approach to entertainment and his attention to important subjects. Schindler’s List is still the greatest film Spielberg has made and its black-and-white photography is a stark, but fitting choice in filmmaking techniques. The end result is a film that’s beautifully acted and achingly haunting, an imperative work that should be seen by all school children so they can see fascism first hand. While the film might be based on actual events, it still captures events with realism and poignancy, which makes the film a stirring accomplishment.
Peter Jackson – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Every genre has a singular achievement that helped change the direction of cinema for generations. Each of those films was helmed by a director whose accomplishment has managed to endure or will endure to influence countless generations of filmmakers. In the modern age, fewer of these moments occur with pictures like Mad Max: Fury Road and Blade Runner 2049 being recent examples. Not terribly long ago, but still feeling surprisingly distant, Peter Jackson released the first of three films that would come to redefine the fantasy genre in countless ways, changing the calculus studios made when greenlighting and producing such efforts. While Jackson’s three parts to the celebrated Lord of the Rings trilogy are historically and cinematically significant, his subsequent efforts have been less than stellar. Yet, we’re here to celebrate the best choices the Academy has made and this selection in 2003, for the final film in the series, is certainly worth celebrating.
Optioning the Lord of the Rings novels by J.R.R. Tolkien was a daunting multiyear task, but once Jackson and company had the rights, it then took additional years of planning to finally get the project off the ground. Filming all three pictures in the trilogy back-to-back, the choice enabled a kind of continuity not often seen in multi-part film series, unifying cast, costume, design, and everything else under a single sense of direction and purpose. Jackson’s efforts paid off in spades not only with box office dollars, but with critics as well, securing its place in the competition for the Oscars for three straight years. The film became the most honored film series in history earning an impressive 30 total Oscar nominations (13 for the first, 6 for the second, and 11 for the third) and winning a combined 17 Oscars (4 for the first film, 2 for the second, and 11 for the third). The final film, for which my citation here is made, was the culmination of the efforts and the Academy recognized it in kind giving it prizes in all eleven of the categories in which it was nominated, a likely insurmountable record. All well deserved.