While I am comfortable predicting that we will get two female directors in this category for the first time in Oscar’s 93-year history, the question is…which two? Or, could it be three? Either way, records and history will be made on March 15.
With over 40 critics wins, Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) is now the most honored director in history in terms of critical acclaim, surpassing Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) last year and the only directing contender this season to hit all four precursors. While her coronation seems inevitable, it can’t be taken for granted. Just ask Ben Affleck. But beyond Zhao, Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman – DGA, Critics Choice, GG) and Regina King (One Night in Miami – Critics Choice, GG) are aiming to make it a girl’s club at the Oscars for the first time ever. Zhao’s nomination will make history as the first Chinese-American woman nominated (only five white women have ever been nominated). If Regina King is nominated she will make history as the first Black woman nominated. Any combination of those three will make history. The floor is Zhao, the broken glass ceiling is Zhao, Fennell and King. While all of their films earned Producers Guild nominations, only King’s also has SAG. But Zhao and Fennell come in with DGA, a much stronger precursor here, obviously. Ultimately, I think two will make it. But I’ve been burned by the Academy here before.
If nominated, Lee Isaac Chung (Minari) will become just the fifth (or sixth) Asian director nominated for Best Director. If both he and Zhao are nominated it will be the first time in Oscar history that two Asian-Americans directors are nominated in the same year. There is just a bounty of records to be set on Oscar nomination morning. Huge gets in Chung’s favor were his DGA and BAFTA nominations. The BAFTA nod was good but a juried nomination where his film wasn’t even longlisted for Best Film. DGA was the important one and solidifies his spot.
Three years ago, I predicted the Martin McDonagh snub for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri despite him hitting all the directing precursors and helming the clear runner-up for Best Picture that year. Same for Peter Farrelly (Green Book) after getting DGA and directing what would end up being the Best Picture winner for 2018. I think it’s going to happen again this year, and the two most vulnerable are David Fincher (Mank) and Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7). If we work on the scenario that TTOTC7 wins Film Editing and Original Screenplay (on its way to a BP win), there are only two movies in the history of the Oscars that got snubbed in Director and won both Screenplay and Editing: 2012’s Argo and 1962’s How the West Was Won. We can probably eliminate HTWWW as a precedent since that film had three directors and just exists too far in the past for the current makeup of the directing branch.
What if Fincher is the director on the ropes? Mank has not shot at Best Picture anymore, couldn’t get into BAFTA Best Film and might just end up being a Martin Scorsese-style passion project that flops like The Irishman. I can’t help but think about how he followed up his extraordinary run with The Social Network with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which hit PGA/DGA then petered out at BAFTA and fell short at the Oscars. Mank has done better than TGWTDT but Fincher seems like a tougher snub to predict when you look at recent Oscar history in this category. If Sorkin misses, it’s going to be to Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round), Florian Zeller (The Father) or Darius Marder (Sound of Metal). Each can stake a small claim to a spot, although Zeller has the biggest leap to make. Vinterberg helmed what will probably be the International Feature Film winner and Marder got DGA First-Time Director and Sound of Metal has blown up at exactly the right time. Although it’s only in its sixth year, only one person has translated their DGA First-Time nomination to an Oscar: Jordan Peele for Get Out. But, he won DGA First Time and was also nominated in the DGA’s main category, something Marder did not nab.
A Vinterberg nomination would be exceptional as an outlier because when it’s happened recently, both Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher) and Paweł Pawlikowski (Cold War) had films that were likely close to a Best Picture nomination. Miller was coming in as a previous Best Director nominee and Pawlikowski had won Cannes Best Director for the film the previous summer. Vinterberg comes in with a BAFTA nomination and European Film Award win. To that, there aren’t any recent precedents for the directing branch to go completely outside Best Picture.
With that information you can make a good argument that Marder, whose film is primed for five other nominations including Best Picture, is ripe to spoil someone but who? He’s one of only four directors in contention to win a critics prize in the face of Zhao’s domination. Fennell, King, Spike Lee (Da 5 Bloods) and Kelly Reichardt (First Cow) were the others. Going with the DGA five feels as big a risk as predicting a shocking snub but one or the other is going to happen. The last time DGA and Oscar went 5/5 was 2009, the first year of the expansion and when Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. Considering we’ve had considerably more snubs and surprise inclusions than we’ve had DGA/Oscar correlation, predicting the snub just makes more sense.
Here are my final 2021 Oscar predictions in Best Director.
1. Chloé Zhao – Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures) – GG, BAFTA, BFCA, DGA
2. Lee Isaac Chung – Minari (A24) – BAFTA, BFCA, DGA
3. Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman (Focus Features) – BFCA, DGA, GG
4. David Fincher – Mank (Netflix) – BFCA, DGA, GG
5. Thomas Vinterberg – Another Round (Samuel Goldwyn Mayer) – BAFTA
Watch out for: Aaron Sorkin – The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) – BFCA, DGA, GG
Photo credit: Anders Overgaard