The Best Director is always an interesting category to follow at the Oscars – not only because the 5 final nominees tend to the strongest indication of the 5 strongest films in the race (and in the old Academy system, since there were only 5 Best Picture nominees, both categories went 5 for 5 in many instances) but also because the nominating directing branch is one of the smallest and most eccentric and elitist branches. They go against the buzz, the campaigns and the general consensus more often than not (see the 2013 and 2016 nominations) and they tend to favor specific type of directorial achievements.
In the past few years, typically rewarded directorial achievements were either ‘spectacle’ films with scope and quality (Life of Pi, Gravity, The Revenant) or films that are artistic but also with complex execution (Birdman, La La Land) over films that may be acclaimed and beloved by AMPAS but are seen as more grounded dramas (Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave, Moonlight most recently). In fact, if the past 3 Oscar races showed us anything, it’s that Best Picture often goes to the consensus ‘no-one-hates-it’ film while the Director Oscar can go to slightly more polarizing or unconventional works (The Revenant, La La Land) even if they don’t end up getting the big prize.
This year, the Best Director race is particularly interesting. So far it doesn’t look as stacked as last year – but that all could change as soon as TIFF hits – but the intrigue comes from having two very strong Best Picture frontrunners (at the moment) and both are spectacle films with scope and complex execution that make them notable achievements that will surely be on top of voters’ minds come Oscar time: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water which was very well received at Telluride and Venice.
Which of these two can be the frontrunner in the category as of now?
The Case for Christopher Nolan
- Box Office: AMPAS generally doesn’t always take box office into consideration but when your film is a smash hit like Dunkirk (and Arrival and to a great extent Mad Max: Fury Road), it always helps your case. Dunkirk will end its North American run with $180m+ and a staggering $500m+ worldwide and will almost certainly be the highest grossing Oscar film of the year (which also means better chances for TV ratings). For a director to achieve his vision and pull off a film that does not pander to popcorn audience but still manages to engage and inspire them, this is quite the feat.
- Overdue factor: Nolan has never been nominated for a Directing Oscar, a fact that’s strange to many of his fans. His 2010 film Inception did nab a Best Picture nomination – but not best Director – possibly indicating the film was not in the top 5.
- Nature of the film: The film is very much in AMPAS’ wheelhouse. It is set during War World 2 and tells an important story that many old voters will be familiar with. It lacks special effects and is truly grounded, raw and believable.
- The backing studio: Warner Bros is one of the best Oscar campaigning studios. They have managed a Best Directing nom for Mad Max’s George Miller (who was probably #2 after Iñárritu) and pulled off a win for Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity). There’s no doubt Warner will mount a massive campaign for Nolan.
The Case for Guillermo del Toro
- The Film: The Shape of Water is a very emotional, AMPAS friendly film that sends a message about the power of love and how it can change lives. It is a story that will appeal to the director’s branch because it manages to both big in scope and intimate in execution. It is also going to be one of the top 3 films in the Best Picture race – and that’s always a plus. (But so will Dunkirk most likely).
- The Narrative: The Shape of Water is a passion project for del Toro and unlike what many would think, a departure from his big budget studio fare. The film reportedly cost only $20m to make which is a ridiculously low figure (given the film’s scope) and means the film most likely would turn in a profit when it hits theatres.
- The Fantasy Element: Like Dunkirk, the film lacks extensive VFX and the fish character was motion-captured. But the film is still a sci-fi/fantasy tale that may be slightly more appealing and seen as a harder technical achievement to pull off than something more grounded than Dunkirk. Granted this did not stop Iñárritu from beating Miller for Mad Max which had a bit of these dreamy elements compared to the gritty, realistic The Revenant.
- The backing studio: Fox Searchlight knows how to campaign. Their track record in scoring wins in this category is good –Iñárritu last won for them for his work in Birdman though Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, Fox Searchlight) lost to Cuarón in Gravity (Warner Bros).
So who has the edge?
As for now, it looks like AMPAS could split the awards to reward both helmers – by awarding Nolan the Director prize while rewarding del Toro in the Screenplay category. Something similar happened two years ago when McCarthy won the Screenplay award for Spotlight where Iñárritu got his second Directing Oscar for The Revenant.