Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Best "Lone Director" Nominees of All Time

When the Oscar nominees were announced this year, we saw something that we had not seen since 2007 – the “lone director” nomination. That is someone nominated for Best Director, whose film was not nominated for Best Picture. This used to be an almost yearly occurrence – the years where all five Best Picture nominees had their directors nominated were the exception, and not the rule. Still, it happened in 2008 – and then in 2009 the Academy expanded their list of Best Picture nominees to 10 – and a few years later, a floating number between 5 and 10, and since then, all five directors nominated had their films in the Best Picture race as well. This year though, Bennett Miller got nominated for Foxcatcher – which didn’t crack the Best Picture lineup. Exciting times indeed.

For years, we could always count on this – with the directors, a smaller branch of only a few hundred compared to the thousands of Academy members, usually given a lone director nod to a auteur, a foreign director, or just someone else. More often than not, to me anyway, the lone director had made a film greater than at least a few of the nominees for Best Picture. So, I decided to look back at the 20 Best Lone Directors in Oscar history – but I limited myself to one spot per director, or else this list would simply be dominated by a few names. Enjoy.

20. Spike Jonze for Being John Malkovich (1999)
Being John Malkovich was a wholly original film when it came out in 1999 – a shock to the system really, as it was funny, mind bending and somewhat profound. As the years passed, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman got the bulk of the praise for the film – and he deserves it no doubt, but Jonze’s direction is also excellent at every step of the way – going to strange, surreal places, and coming out with something hilarious and original. The nominees for Best Picture that year included The Cider House Rules (which also had director Lasse Hallstrom nominated) and The Green Mile (which didn’t have director Frank Darabont nominated) – but what film has lasted longer in our memories? I think we know.

19. Steven Spielberg for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The video of a young Spielberg being bitterly disappointed for not being nominated for Best Director for Jaws (1975) is infamous now (his disbelief that they chose Fellini over him is priceless). The next time Spielberg made a film it got the opposite response as Jaws – he sneaked into the Best Director race, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind  didn’t crack the Best Picture lineup. This could well be that his good friend George Lucas made a little film called Star Wars, and that did crack the Best Picture lineup (and you cannot have two sci-fi films in the race, that would be ridiculous). All these years later, Close Encounters still ranks among Spielberg’s best films – and it easily could have replaced The Goodbye Girl or The Turning Point with no one caring.

18. Atom Egoyan for The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
It is important to remember before his current string of disappointments, Atom Egoyan was a legitimately great filmmaker – and The Sweet Hereafter is his masterpiece. A melancholy film about a tragic school bus accident, and its aftermath, Egoyan made a profound, heartbreaking film that still ranks among the greatest Canadian films in history. To some, this was his last great film – but I quite like Felicia’s Journey, Ararat and even Where the Truth Lies (and to a lesser extent, Adoration) – but there is no question, Egoyan’s best work seems years behind now – but he did do great work. The film was always too small, too intimate for the big race – although wouldn’t you rather it be nominated than As Good As It Gets, Good Will Hunting or The Full Monty?

17. Michelangelo Antonioni for Blow-Up (1966)
Legendary Italian filmmaker Antonioni had a long, brilliant career – and he eventually did get a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1995 – but he only received two Oscar nominations in his career, for writing and directing Blow-Up. In 1966, the studio system was dying, American directors were just starting to emulate their European peers – like Antonioni – but they hadn’t quite done that yet. Blow-Up must have seemed revolutionary at the time. It has aged – more than Antonioni’s other masterpieces like L’Aventurra, L’Eclisse or Red Desert for example – but it’s still and excellent directorial effort – certainly more than eventual winner Fred Zinneman for A Man for All Seasons – another film that has aged more than a little bit.

16. Bernardo Bertolucci for Last Tango in Paris (1973)
It would inconceivable for a film like Last Tango in Paris to be nominated for anything today – but back in 1973, they gave Bertolucci a director nomination (and Brando an actor nomination) for their infamous art film, about a lonely widower using and abusing a young woman for sex. It is a great, mysterious film –a hugely critically acclaimed one at the time, and even if it has aged a bit, I still love it – and admire the director’s branch for giving Bertolucci a richly deserved nomination. He would eventually win two Oscars – for writing and director The Last Emperor (1987) – but this is the better film.

15. Lina Wertmueller for Seven Beauties (1976)
The first female director nominated would mark this as a landmark no matter what – but the fact that she made a truly great film makes it even better. Her film, centered on an Italian womanizer (the also nominated Giancarlo Gianni) and his experience in WWII – most notably in a Nazi prison camp – is still shocking and brilliant today. She was a pioneer in many ways, and deserved this nomination – even if she did take Martin Scorsese’s spot, whose film Taxi Driver got nominated for Best Picture, but he not nominated for director.

14. Richard Brooks for In Cold Blood (1967)
In Cold Blood is Truman Capote’s true crime masterpiece, who Richard Brooks turned into a cinematic masterpiece – an examination of senseless violence, and the men who committed it. The film came out the same year as Arthur Penn’s masterpiece, Bonnie and Clyde, and the two films couldn’t be more different in their depictions of the outlaws – although both are equally brilliant – the final scenes in this film are as good as anything ever put to film. Brooks had previously been a lone director nominee for The Professionals (1966) – a fine, entertaining Western (although that film wouldn’t have made this list) – and had previously won an Oscar for his screenplay for Elmer Gantry. But this is his masterpiece.

13. Otto Preminger for Laura (1944)
Otto Preminger had a great directing career – but I’m not sure he ever made a better film than Laura – his 1944 film noir, murder mystery where detective Dana Stevens falls in love with the murder victim as he tries to piece together what exactly happened. It is an expertly crafted film – the direction is better than the screenplay (I remember images more than the plot here) – and it’s one of the best films of its kind. Nearly 20 years later, Preminger was once again a lone directing nominee for The Cardinal (1963) – although since I have not seen that film, I cannot say where it would rank here. But his 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder, which got into Best Picture, but not director, should have landed him an Oscar win.

12. Billy Wilder for Some Like it Hot (1959)
Some Like it Hot is one of the best screen comedies in history – a rather daring look at sexuality for 1959 that goes well beyond its premise of having Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dress like women. The film has some of the best gags, best performances, and best direction of any comedy of its time, and it’s unthinkable that it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, although it didn’t. Wilder had previously won an Oscar for directing The Lost Weekend (1945) and would win the following year for The Apartment – and was actually a lone director nominee for two other films, Stalag 17 (1953) – which probably would have made this list on its own, and Sabrina (1954) – which most likely wouldn’t have, even though I quite like it.

11. Carol Reed for The Third Man (1950)
Carol Reed’s The Third Man ranks as one of the greatest films ever made – with a masterful performance by Orson Welles as Harry Lime, one of the screen’s all-time great villains. Reed’s direction is masterful throughout – the infamous scene near the end in the sewers is one of the greatest chase sequences of all time, but there is a lot of great work here throughout. Reed pulled off the lone director nominee thing the previous year as well for the wonderful The Fallen Idol (1949) – and he would eventually win a directing Oscar for Oliver (1968) – a film I despise. But the Third Man is one of the best directed films of all time – and clearly deserved more love.

10. Robert Altman for The Player (1992)
Robert Altman was off in the indie film, TV film wilderness for most of the 1980s, after directing the bomb Popeye (1980). He continued to work, but no one much paid attention. That all changed in 1992 when he came back in a big way for The Player – his merciless skewering of Hollywood greed and shallowness, that features a brilliant, extended long take at the beginning, and does great work throughout. On another day, I may well have put his lone director nomination for the following year’s Short Cuts (1993) on this list instead – it may be an even better film, but his nomination for The Player seems like a more important one.

9. Martin Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
In 1988, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was far and away the most controversial movie of the year – hell perhaps of the decade. The film was greeted by protests from religious groups, and even threats of violence if the film came out. Unsurprisingly, the Academy as a whole ignored the film – they nominated it for nothing else – but the director stood behind Scorsese and nominated him. And he deserved it – The Last Temptation of Christ is a masterpiece – far less controversial in terms of content than the fury around the film suggested. Good for the directors for sticking by Scorsese.

8. Woody Allen for Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
As more time goes by, I think more and more that Crimes and Misdemeanors is Woody Allen’s best film – a brilliant examination of a man (Martin Landau) who commits murder, and finds he can live with himself because of it. That is deep, dark stuff – and it is brilliantly well handled by Allen and his cast. The other half of the film, with Allen as documentary filmmaker and his martial issues, and his asshole brother in law, Alan Alda (who has never been better in a movie). The film is brilliant, funny, dark, disturbing and one of the greatest films of the 1980s – and it didn’t get in for Best Picture. Allen was also a lone director nominee three other times – for Interiors (1978), Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994) – although none are among my favorite Allen films.

7. Ingmar Bergman for Fanny & Alexander (1983)
Ingmar Bergman was actually one of the Academy’s favorite foreign directors – he was nominated for three Best Director Oscars – the first for Cries and Whispers (1973) – that was nominated for Picture, the second for Face to Face (1976) – which wasn’t (but I haven’t seen, shamefully, although for a long time it was unavailable). He also had several foreign language film wins. The best film that he made that got Oscar consideration was his final masterpiece – the epic Fanny & Alexander. The film won a few Oscars – and got Bergman a richly deserved director nomination – but couldn’t break into the Best Picture race – even though it was significantly better than anything nominated.

6. Akira Kurosawa for Ran (1985)
Akira Kurosawa was one of the greatest filmmakers in history – and even though he enjoyed a very long career, he only ever got nominated for one individual Oscar – for directing his final masterpiece, Ran, in 1985. (Two if his films, Rashomon -1950 and Dersu Uzala – 1975 – won foreign language Oscars, which usually go to the director, although officially, the country of origin is the winner – not the director). Ran, which is a samurai version of King Lear, is one of Kurosawa’s very best films – a masterpiece, the best film of the year, and one that puts the eventual winner – Out of Africa – to shame. He was 75 at the time, and had survived at least one suicide attempt, but he made a masterpiece – and the directors finally recognized him.

5. Federico Fellini for La Dolce Vita (1961)
Fellini was one of the Academy’s favorite foreign filmmakers – he had numerous films nominated for and winning the Foreign Language film Oscar, and numerous screenplay nominations as well. He also received 4 best director nominations – and none of them got nominated for best picture (I believe, along with Woody Allen, he has the most “lone director” nominees at four). My favorite of his films is La Dolce Vita – which got him his first best director nomination back in 1961 – the film is a masterpiece about a man living what he thinks is the perfect life, when in reality it is a shallow, meaningless existence. Most others think his masterpiece is 8 ½ (1963) – another lone director nominee (which likely would be in this exact same position had he not been nominated for La Dolce Vita). Amarcord (1975) would also be somewhere on this list as well had I not limited it to one place for director. I am not a huge fan of Satyricon (1970) – but I admire the guts of the directors for giving such an insane film a best director nomination.

4. John Cassavetes for A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
John Cassavetes is one of the best – and most influential – American filmmakers in history – an indie filmmaker, before there was such a thing as indie filmmakers. He ended up getting nominated for three Oscars during his career – for his supporting performance in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and writing Faces (1968) – his real breakthrough as a director. His masterpiece though was A Woman Under the Influence – a maddening, brilliant, exuberant, two and a half hour long epic about a woman with some issues – brilliantly played by Cassavetes wife Gena Rowlands. Cassavetes was an outsider for his entire directing career – but they nominated him once – and he deserved it. There was stiff competition that year – with two Coppola masterpieces (the Godfather Part II, The Conversation) and a Polanski one (Chinatown) – but they still should have found room for this masterwork.

3. Alfred Hitchcock for Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock got nominated for five best director nominations – including for Best Picture winner Rebecca (1940) – although he lost to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath – and Best Picture nominee Spellbound (1945). The best of his three lone director nominations was for 1954’s Rear Window – a voyeuristic masterpiece with Jimmy Stewart delivering one of his best performances as a wheelchair bound man who thinks he has witnesses a murder. It is an absolute master – one of the best films ever made, and one of Hitch’s best. Another lone director nomination for Hitch that would have gotten him this exact same spot would be Psycho (1960) – another absolute masterpiece. Much further down the list would be his first lone director nominee Lifeboat (1944) – as much as I love it. The fact that arguably the most famous (and inarguably in the top two) director of all time never won an Oscar for directing is embarrassing – but the did nominate some of his best work.

2. David Lynch for Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Nearly three years ago when I did my top 10 list of all time, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. was on that list. The Academy as a whole didn’t love the film – it got nominated for a total of zero other Oscars, not even for Naomi Watts brilliant performance, or the screenplay, or the score or anything else. Mulholland Dr. is my favorite Lynch film – one that he turned into a cinematic masterpiece out of a failed TV pilot – an ever mysterious, every involving, surreal, nightmarish masterpiece. Don’t believe those online who will tell you that they “have it all figured out”. Who cares? The film is brilliant. And for the record, Lynch’s other lone director nomination, for Blue Velvet (1986) would be in this exact spot if Mulholland Dr. wasn’t – hell, sometimes, I think it’s the better movie.

1. Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
To me, the ultimate lone director nominee was never in doubt – it has to be Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest directors in history, for his greatest film – 2001: A Space Odyssey. 1968 was a horror show for the Oscars – the horrible Oliver won Picture and Director, Cliff Robertson’s awful performance in Charly won Best Actor. None of the nominees for Best Picture are all that great – I liked A Lion in Winter, but really. Meanwhile, they had one of the greatest films in history in 2001 – and they didn’t nominate it for Best Picture, which has to be among the biggest embarrassments in Oscar history. At least the directors got it right, and nominated him. Kubrick did win an Oscar for 2001 – for visual effects. But he damn well should have won for Director as well.

If your favorite Lone Director isn’t listed above, here are some other names that made the spot, that I also quite liked. Pedro Almodovar for Talk to Her (2002) was really the last nominee of the kind the directors used to give often – the critically acclaimed foreign auteur. Charles Crichton for A Fish Called Wanda (1988) got in for a looney comedy, and I love that. Michael Curtiz for Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) had some great moments, including that finale. Mike Figgis for Leaving Las Vegas (1995) did far and away his best work – and made a film much better than any of the nominees. Milos Forman for The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) was a two time winner, who couldn’t get his porn king biopic into the big race. Stephen Frears for The Grifters (1990) made neat incestuous, neo-noir. John Huston for The Asphalt Jungle (1950) made a great, prototypical noir. Elia Kazan for East of Eden (1955) did some of his best work in color here. Kryztof Kiewslowski for Red (1994) probably got in because the directors loved the whole three colors trilogy – and nominated his best film. Gregory LaCava for My Man Godfrey (1936) made a great screwball comedy, and I have no idea how it didn’t crack the Best Picture lineup. Mike Leigh for Vera Drake (2004) is one of his best directed films. Fernando Meirelles for City of God (2003) was pure, shocking joy when it was announced. Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher (2014) the latest recipient, deserved to get into the Best Picture race. Wolfgang Peterson for Das Boot (1982) is the greatest submarine movie ever made. Sydney Pollack for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) made a film with a ton of nominations, that somehow didn’t get in. Gillo Pontecorvo for The Battle of Algiers (1968) is a masterclass in political filmmaking. Jean Renoir for The Southerner (1944) is nowhere near the master’s best work, but deserves praise just the same. Martin Ritt for Hud (1963) made a film that won two acting Oscars, and was far better than anything nominated. Tim Robbins for Dead Man Walking (1995) did his best work behind the camera here. Richard Rush for The Stunt Man (1980) was gloriously insane. John Scheslinger for Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) made a sensitive, daring film that the Academy as a whole wasn’t ready for. Barbet Schroeder for Reversal of Fortune (1990) is an amazingly good movie – his best in America. Ridley Scott for Black Hawk Down (2001) is sustained directorial brilliance (and yes, I know he pulled off the same thing for Thelma and Louise – I just don’t like that film), John Singleton for Boyz in the Hood (1991) was the first black filmmaker nominated – something the Academy as a whole clearly did not embrace. Robert Siodmak for The Killers (1946) made one the best noirs here. John Sturges for Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is incredibly entertaining, and contains some of Spencer Tracy’s best work. Francois Truffaut for Day for Night (1973) was a love letter to cinema – and the directors got that.  Peter Weir for The Truman Show (1998) gets more relevant each year. William Wyler for Detective Story (1951) and The Collector (1965) is the most nominated director in history – and delivered two excellent films that didn’t find favor higher up.

And for the record, these following acclaimed lone directors are films that I have not seen, so I couldn’t consider them for the list (I exclude the ones from directors above, that I already noted: Jules Dassin for Never on Sunday (1960), Pietro Germi for Divorce, Italian Style (1962), Lasse Hallstrom for My Life as a Dog (1987), David Lean for Summertime (1955), Claude Lelouch for A Man and a Woman (1966), Edouard Molinaro for La Cage Aux Folles (1979), Mike Nichols for Silkwood (1983), Hiroshi Teshigahara for Woman in the Dunes (1965), King Vidor for The Citadel (1938) and War & Peace (1956).

This still doesn’t cover everyone – so if they’re not above, I either didn’t think too much of their films, or overlooked them. If you want to make a case for any of them, let me know.

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