March 1, 2014

OSCARLAND: Why and Why Not? – Best Director


We’ve reviewed all the performers in the Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress and Best Actor categories, and now it’s time to look at the filmmakers themselves.  Here’s a last rundown of the factors for and against each Best Director nominee, with merit taken for granted and precursor awards put aside.  Also, read about the close Best Picture race.



WHY:  A visionary.  The most successful Best Picture nominee by far.  Not just a visual genius, but skilled with actors.  Worked the campaign trail without visibly breaking a sweat.

WHY NOT:  James Cameron didn’t win for Avatar.  Sci-fi movies don’t get the big awards.  Only (barely) two actors in the cast, so may not have support of the Academy’s largest group of members.  Script (which he co-wrote) so weak it wasn’t even nominated.  Has made, and not won for, better films.

STEVE MCQUEEN, 12 Years A Slave

WHY:  Director of the Best Picture favorite.  Would be the first black winner in this category ever.  Delivered a film with not just artistry but moral seriousness and purpose.  Extremely serious bona fides as an acclaimed visual artist before turning to film.  Has campaigned with passion and grace.

WHY NOT:  Opinions on the film are polarized.  Despite months of acclaim, the box office has underperformed.  Not a showy piece of direction.  Painful to watch.  More of a painterly sensibility than a dramatic one.  Campaign has centered more on the film itself than its director–unlike The Hurt Locker and the push for Kathryn Bigelow to be first woman winner.


WHY:  A fine, deserving record, with nominations for his last 2 films and Election now considered a classic.  Daring, uncompromising choices down the line, from a no-star cast to black-and-white photography.  A theme close to the hearts of the Academy voter demo.

WHY NOT:  The film has made no money–by far the least successful of his Best Picture nominees.  After Sideways and The Descendants, the opposite of a breakout film.  The studio is pushing Dern for Actor and not much else.  Despite bittersweet tone, more a comedy than a drama, and comedies don’t win.

DAVID O. RUSSELL, American Hustle

WHY:  Perhaps the most “due” of any current director.  Third off-beat, unexpected smash hit in a row, an amazing track record.  Has remarkably remade his reputation from an unpleasant taskmaster to the guy everyone is dying to work with.  Performing in one of his films is like the golden ticket to an Oscar nomination–catnip to the Actors branch.  With most of his actors unavailable or unwilling, has carried the burden of the film’s campaign on his own shoulders.

WHY NOT:  The film lacks the seriousness of 12 Years and the innovation of Gravity.  Tone is uneven.  Mostly a comedy, not a good thing for this purpose.  Seen as an actors’ movie more than its director’s.  Maybe he’s campaigned a little too much.  He’ll be back with something bigger and better, and he can win for that one.

MARTIN SCORSESE, The Wolf of Wall Street

WHY:  He’s Marty-freakin-Scorsese, a directing god.  The work is on an epic canvas.  There are those who consider it a deeply important allegory about modern society, very serious behind the superficial comedy.  A huge hit, and far from a sure thing given its no-expense-spared cost.

WHY NOT:  He’s already won for a film widely considered less than his best–to win another, he’ll have to deliver a truly great one.  At least as many people seem to despise the film as love it.  Remarkably sloppy work in some ways for such a great filmmaker.  Just because a movie is 3 hours long doesn’t make it “epic,” just overlong.  Many uncomfortable with its moral tone or lack thereof.


ALFONSO CUARON.  Searchlight made the decision not to focus on McQueen, and Cuaron will reap the benefit.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."