Oscars 2020: Which men were nominated for Best Director, and which women were left out? 

Siddhant Adlakha

Feb 06, 2020 17:19:55 IST

(In this 3-part series, Siddhant Adlakha offers a critical deconstruction of the top three categories of the Oscars 2020 — Acting, Direction and Best Picture. Part 2 takes a look at the direction category, to analyse what it really takes to make the cut. Read Part 1 here.)

Issa Rae summed up the Best Director race succinctly, perhaps in more ways than she realised, when she announced the nominees: “Congratulations to those men.” Regardless of the work at hand (some of which is admittedly great), the group that the Academy has chosen to nominate represents a gaze toward the past — with one key exception, Parasite — and it feels terribly fitting that a male-centric status quo should be such an integral part of the Academy’s nostalgia. 

Here are this year’s nominees, which we’ll dive into momentarily:

Bong Joon Ho — Parasite

Martin Scorsese — The Irishman

Quentin Tarantino — Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 

Sam Mendes — 1917

Todd Phillips — Joker

The Academy Awards have a terrible track record when it comes to women’s voices. Only five women have ever been nominated for directing: Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties, 1977), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1994), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 2018) and the only woman to ever win the award, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2010). The stats get even worse as you move down the call-sheet; no woman has won a writing Oscar since Diablo Cody (Juno, 2007), and when Rachel Morrison was up for Best Cinematography (Mudbound, 2018), she became the first female nominee ever

Year after year, the excuses pour in that there aren’t enough women behind the camera, but in a year like 2019, it doesn’t really hold weight.

Claire Denis stunned with soulful space drama High Life; Lulu Wang explored cultural divides with The Farewell; Alma Har’el helmed Shia LaBeouf’s autobiography about trauma, Honey Boy; Marielle Heller explored the broken bonds between fathers and sons in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Mati Diop made real the spectre of the refugee crisis, with her spiritual Atlantique; Kasi Lemmons turned a historical drama into a an opera about faith, Harriet; Greta Gerwig explored the joys and losses of female artists in Little Women; Céline Sciamma broke open the very notion of visual languages created by men, and turned them inside out with unassailable queer romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

You get the picture. 

It’s not just about demographics — I mean, it’s not not about demographics — but the lens through which the Academy presents cinema to the world is worth critiquing, and worth pushing forward. Films like Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life and the Safdies’ Uncut Gems aren’t just aesthetically engaging, they use their filmic language to explore complicated moral and psychological ideas that feel vital in 2020 (the cost of standing up to evil when it’s difficult, and the cost of a six way parlay, Celtics to cover, Celtics half-time, Garnett points and rebounds, Garnett blocked shots, Celtics opening tip). Yet both films are conspicuously absent, in favour of at least a few works one might consider visually safe.

As with the acting categories, what the Academy doesn’t nominate for Best Director says as much about cinema as what it does. The Oscars are, at once, behind the times on both functional subtlety, a la Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), and on showy-ness that moves and engages in bold new ways. That said, several of this year’s nominated directors explore the past (and the present) in ways that are worth discussing. Some experiments work unexpectedly, while some don’t work at all, but in its totality, the Best Director field runs the gamut from career-best work to empty impersonation, painting a picture of an industry in flux as cinema itself wades through what it values most — narratively, aesthetically and spiritually. 

Bong Joon-ho — Parasite 

 Oscars 2020: Which men were nominated for Best Director, and which women were left out? 

A still from Parasite.

Bong’s best work since Memories of Murder, Palme d’Or winner Parasite is a tightly-wound, darkly comedic aestheticisation of his career-long musings on class. The director has always been a master of movement, especially the movement of people — the crowds of extras in The Host and Okja have more momentum and dramatic clarity than entire Hollywood films — and here, in this intimate hurrah, he literalises ideas of economic (im)mobility to create a smart, riveting work that feels like music (thanks, in no small part, to editor Yang Jin-mo). 

There’s astounding precision to each and every camera move, no matter how small; how a director directs our eyes is as vital as how they direct their actors. Most of Parasite takes place in a lavish house constructed just for the film, a space we explore visually even before we’re allowed inside. Its stairs lead up into lap of luxury, and they lead down into a surreal late-capitalist hell best left unspoiled. The production design works in tandem with every other department, from lighting to costumes, to fully absorb the viewer into a maze of moral and logistical complications. It’s a film where the villain is, essentially, invisible: a system and a way of being, looming over the characters, gazing down at them at their lowest moments, as they trample over each other for air.

“Inequality bad!” is an admirable sentiment, but Bong goes further than mere sermonising. He uses his aforementioned precision to emphasise not only the absurdities of the upper class — via the caricatured Park family — but how those absurdities trickle down into a deluge and become more serious social mores, harming to the poor, creasing and twisting them until reprisal is their only recourse. 

Martin Scorsese — The Irishman

Jesse Plemons (left) as Chuckie O'Brien. Image from Twitter

A still from The Irishman. Image from Twitter

Through a process so expensive no studio would fund it, Martin Scorsese not-so-seamlessly turns Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci into younger versions of themselves — that is, younger versions of what they look like now, rather than what they really looked in their forties. The result is lumbering middle-aged men weighed down by guilt, and an aura of the present projected backward through time as DeNiro’s aged Frank Sheeran re-tells grandiose tales of a bygone era, keeping the inevitable reaper at bay through one last tale, one last adventure, one last refusal to admit his own monstrosity. 

Martin Scorsese turning in best-of-the-decade work the same year he was dragged into a months-long, galaxy-brained “controversy” for being impolite about Marvel movies feels like cosmic justice. His point, for those unwilling to read between the lines, was that big Hollywood studios are no longer willing to fund adult-oriented work that might actually challenge its viewers; The Irishman is precisely that kind of film, a non-franchise work ignored by Hollywood — hence the Netflix label — and one that provided all involved the opportunity for introspection.

Through wrinkled hands engaged desperately in Holy Communion — bread and wine often take center stage when DeNiro and Pesci share the screen — the nearly eighty-year-old director opens the door to a vital part of the human experience, letting in the spectre of death and all the loneliness it brings. The film falls perfectly in line with Scorsese’s two other gangster stories starring DeNiro and Pesci (the last of which was Casino back in ’95), as he re-visits a career’s worth of stark and violent imagery in fascinating new ways. It moves like a furious storm, its three and a half hours sculpted to perfection by editor Thelma Schoonmaker, but it plays like all three men looking back at their own work with questions and regrets, exploring the corners of themselves, and their cinematic personas, that might now require a more rigorous soul-searching. 

Quentin Tarantino — Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 

Stills from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Like The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels like a work of introspection, albeit one far more nostalgic. Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature sees him revisiting a time and place from his childhood, but through the lens of a historic tragedy that would mark the end of the 1960s and shift America toward a gloomier zeitgeist.

While the film features Tarantino’s gaudier hallmarks, it’s one of his most narratively and aesthetically mature works, on par with Jackie Brown. Tarantino has always held the French New Wave in high regard (Pulp Fiction is awash with characters who belong, or want to belong, somewhere in Europe, or somewhere else in time), and with Once Upon a Time, he finally presents cinema as a dream about itself. His characters yearn for recognition; his cars float through air; the songs of the ’60s feel like memories echoing in his subconscious. He plays with intrigue, stardom and self-loathing at the nexus of two eras that defined him, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton searching for a way to move forward, from the era of pulp TV into New Hollywood, and with Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate — a symbol he demystifies and re-humanizes — searching similarly, gazing toward a future the real Tate was so violently denied. 

Violence is a paradigm that defines both Tarantino’s work and his specific era of choice, and how the women in his career have fit into that paradigm — as perpetrators, and as victims — is something he seems to wrestle with. Stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), for instance, is a charismatic, even heroic figure who Tarantino shrouds in ambiguity in one specific regard: has he committed an act of violence against a woman who didn’t deserve it? It feels like Tarantino is asking the question of his own work; when the film reaches its climax, and righteous vengeance enters the spotlight — as it so often does in his films — Booth’s actions are spiked with a shot of discomfort; it’s strangely satiating to see one of our most indulgent filmmakers questioning his own instincts, and creating something ethereal in the process.

Sam Mendes — 1917

Still from 1917

Still from 1917

Sam Mendes is an expert theatrician, and with 1917, he combines the instincts of the stage with the lofty spectacle of early cinema. The film is rife with impeccable performances, and with a handful of moments so beautifully staged they quite literally made my jaw drop (the flare-lit scene in Écoust-Saint-Mein is a particular delight; kudos to cinematographer Roger Deakins). However, the film’s technical triumph — the appearance of unfolding in two unbroken takes — clashes wildly with the very dramatic instincts Mendes hopes to center. 

The film’s long-take conceit kneecaps it in parts. Its attempts to re-create a sense of physical and emotional reality are hindered constantly, as the film disguises the art of editing rather than letting its cuts speak. Images, in cinema, often find their power through duality; a horrifying image isn’t truly horrifying until we see the effect it has on a human face — and thus, on a human soul. Whether 1917 does or doesn’t “need” this long take approach, it’s the spectral smoothness of the filmmaking that hurts it most; it feels too cold, too calculated, to rehearsed to ever capture the horrors lurking in its corners; it rarely zips between the danger and its characters’ reactions, presenting them instead as mutual exclusives. 

World War I is no longer in living memory, and so Mendes’ attempts to keep his grandfather’s experiences alive are commendable. But his filmmaking cuts those experiences in half, as he presents either his actors’ faces, or the environment that lies ahead, but rarely the psychological impact created by seeing them both. 

Todd Phillips — Joker

Todd Phillips reminds me of Lars Von Trier. Not because they’re in the same league as him, but because a similar misanthropy permeates their work. Though where Von Trier uses his murky cinematic disdain to explore the human condition, Phillips instead loads his work with alluring texture (admirable) and with the appearance of meaning (less so). Joker might be his ultimate triumph, because it not only looks fantastic (also admirable), but it has the appearance of empathy where none actually resides (…sigh).  

People suffer constantly in Phillips’ work, but their suffering is never about them. Not really. Rather, it’s about the affects around their suffering, and how that suffering radiates outward into the plot, or is informed by its goings on. In that sense, his stories move; the Hangover films and Due Date find their laughs through nasty scenario after nasty scenario (this isn’t inherently bad) but the people within those scenarios don’t feel like they have real relationships or anything approaching actual warmth (this… might be?). 

As with several other nominees, Joker is a film that evokes nostalgia — specifically, the stylistic nostalgia of grimy, seedy New York crime films from the ’70s and ’80s — but it has no sense of present. It exists only as a reflection of other, better works, with the appearance of interiority. It pays lip-service towards vague ideas about mental illness and how it’s treated by society, but it has little care for how its main character (Joaquin Phoenix’s admittedly brilliant Arthur), someone with various traumas and afflictions, actually functions in a world populated by other people — at least, other people who aren’t out to kick the shit out of him for dressing like a clown. The film has a sense of how Arthur sees the world, but it never frames that perspective within how the world might see him, and the reality of what he’s fighting against. 

A poster of odd Phillips' Joker.

Phillips checks a whole lot of boxes, from engendering sympathy for Arthur, to functionally capturing the character’s movements through space, to working with his cinematographer and production and costume designers to make his world feel lived in. But how Arthur exists within that structure, and how he brushes up against it to garner empathy, are pushed aside after mere mentions of systems and perspectives that might’ve been interesting to explore. Instead, Phillips’ drama rests on the exterior. He brings Arthur from one state of self-awareness to the next, with no idea or inclination towards how this might impact him dramatically. Which is especially frustrating, in a film where most of the action happens to Arthur, and his function is to respond to it — to “society,” as it were — rather than driving the plot. 

More than Phillips, it’s Phoenix, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir and cinematographer Lawrence Sher doing the dramatic heavy lifting, unearthing a social and psychological depth that barely exists in the narrative, if at all. More than 1917, which at least has a unique technical approach, it’s Joker whose inclusion here feels most bizarre, especially when a woman was able to tell a similar story of trauma and violence starring Joaquin Phoenix with much more heft and tenderness— Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here; another egregious Academy omission — just two years prior. 

I’m admittedly amused by the fact that the filmmakers Joker most impersonates, Martin Scorsese and the Safdie Brothers, made perhaps the two best and most memorable films of 2019, The Irishman and Uncut Gems. If nothing else, at least the Oscars got it half right; although, with new films on the horizon by women like Chloé Zhao, Julia Ducournau, Ana Lily Amirpour, Sofia Coppola, Joanna Hogg, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Josephine Decker, Agnieszka Holland, Mia Hansen-Løve, Kirsten Johnson and more, it’s high time the Academy — to put it politely — cut the shit and recognised the great work placed in front of it year after year. 

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Updated Date: Feb 06, 2020 17:19:55 IST