It’s the one major snub everyone is talking about. How the hell did Christopher Nolan get his third Director’s Guild nomination and still fail to secure his first Academy nomination for directing? Pundits have long questioned the Oscar voting committee for perceived biases against big budget action films, and this would seem to be further evidence. But was he really snubbed? Were the Coen Brothers gifted with a nomination simply because no one felt like supporting Inception? Cinema Blend head honcho Josh Tyler and underling Mack Rawden square off in the one issue on the forefront of the Oscar debate. Who was more deserving of a nomination: Christopher Nolan or the Coen Brothers?
Mack Knows Who Has All The Moves: Team Coen
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way immediately. It is an absolute travesty that Christopher Nolan has never been nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards. He’s made four excellent films: Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Inception. Three of those were recognized by the Director’s Guild, which often but clearly not always, serves as a precursor for Oscar nominations. Still, that’s not really the issue at hand here. The fact that he went out and made the greatest superhero, memory loss and magic movies of all-time is entirely irrelevant. We’re exclusively talking about Inception, and there’s just more holes in that movie than True Grit.
Clocking in at a whopping two hours and twenty-two minutes, Inception is long on big ideas and short on non-Leonardo DiCaprio character development, which is entirely unacceptable for a film of that length. So much time is spent dissecting and re-dissecting Cobb’s backstory that the motivations of Robert Fischer are abridged and never fully explored beyond a surface level. The whole point of Inception is to implant an idea in Robert Fischer; yet, as we get scene after scene of Cobb and Mal bickering, Maurice Fischer languishes as an after thought. Why cast someone as brilliant as Pete Postlethwaite (RIP) if he’s going to be wasted? Further, why incorporate so many team members if you’re not going to tell us anything about them? It’s the director’s job to focus the story, separate the relevant from the irrelevant and tell us the best possible story with the most efficiency. You can’t tell me Inception wouldn’t have been better served with ten minutes more of Fischer’s childhood and ten minutes less of that goddamn James Bond snow level.
True Grit admittedly tries a lot less. The scope is barely a fraction of Inception’s. Incorporating two, maybe three characters, each scene wades in the small details. It uses language and gestures to pace itself rather than frenzied action. Take for example Mattie bartering with the horse salesman. Yes, she’s trying to get enough money to hire a Marshall to find her father’s killer, but without ever saying it, the Coen Brothers are showing the audience bits and pieces of her character. This isn’t a girl that’s ever going to back down, that’s ever going to quit. By the end of that short exchange, we know all we need to know about her. The same thing goes for the courtroom scene with Rooster. Here’s a man that’s mowed down numerous members of a single family. He doesn’t care. He knows he was in the right, and in his mind, the trial isn’t anything but a waste of drinking time. Twenty minutes into True Grit, the Coen Brothers have already established an effective plot and two rich, detailed characters we’ve already smiled and laughed with. It seems effortless because they’re so damn good at their jobs.
True Grit is like a well-oiled machine. Every single second of that film serves to elevate the sum. There’s not a line of dialogue out of place, not a camera angle that can be questioned. It’s not the best film the Coen Brothers have directed, but it is easily their most skillfully executed. You know how the great athletes seem like they’re in slow motion compared to everyone else? That’s True Grit. It’s Scottie Pippen dribbling into the lane, surveying his options and making the correct decision over and over again. That could mean passing, shooting or even coming to a complete stop, but whatever he decides, ninety-nine times out of a hundred you know that means it was the most effective move based on what he was given.
Inception isn’t Scottie Pippen setting a pick or diving for a loose ball, it’s an 18 year old Kobe Bryant slashing toward the hoop and trying to score regardless of who’s in front of him. Sometimes it works, and when it does, it leaves you thinking, my God, what are we going to see next? Inception is brilliant in a way that True Grit could never be brilliant. It’s totally original. It takes chances. It reloads over and over and over again like a deranged lunatic with something to prove, but in the end, it still doesn’t always make the best decisions. In 10 years, I think Christopher Nolan could make a better Inception. I don’t think anyone could make a better True Grit.
It all comes down to preferences, and I prefer Scottie Pippen. Christopher Nolan’s time will come. It probably should have come already, but there’s no way it should have come at the expense of the Coen Brothers. I’ll cross my fingers for The Dark Knight Rises.
Josh Isn’t Impressed With Remakes: Team Nolan
Here’s the thing about True Grit: It’s a really good movie. It was also a really good movie the first time around. Let’s ignore, for a moment though, the relative merits of Inception and True Grit as features. This isn’t the Best Picture category, it’s Best Director. So let’s talk about what it took to make these two films a reality.
The Coen Brothers took an Oscar nominated movie in True Grit, and then made exactly that same movie all over again but with a different cast. The differences between the two movies are so minimal as to almost not be differences at all. Is it well executed? Yes. But it was well executed the first time around and the Coens, wonderful and talented though they may be, simply followed that same template.
On the other hand you have Inception, an original movie so complicated and multi-layered that people have resorted to creating charts and online study groups in an attempt to explain and understand its complexity. Yet somehow, it all works. Change a single moment, move the tiniest piece of this puzzle from one place to another, and it wouldn’t, the whole thing would collapse like a house of cards. But Nolan, almost unbelievably, manages to balance all of the demands and layers and levels of this story, bringing them together to create the most detailed, deeply layered blockbuster of all time out of a completely original idea made with a completely original style in a completely original way.
No one else in the world but Christopher Nolan could have made Inception. No one else could have pulled it off. It’s too big, too daunting, too dense. The Coen Brothers, even with the same script and the same cast, could not have made Inception work. Had they tried, it wouldn’t have just been inferior, it wouldn’t have happened at all. Simply holding all the levels inside your head long enough to envision how the film should be made is hard enough, much less actually making those levels come to life on screen. Yet, just about anyone could have made True Grit. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as good in someone else’s hands, but True Grit could have been done. In fact it’s already been done, and done well enough to win John Wayne an Oscar, once. Maybe twenty or thirty years from now, it’ll be made again. No one will ever remake Inception.
One is a movie which knows what it’s supposed to do and follows that template with success. The other is a film which creates its own roadmap as it goes, and then just for the hell of it creates five more roadmaps, merging them together into a single path. It’s not about preferences. The inescapable truth here is that Inception may be one of the greatest displays of sheer directing skill ever to find its way into theaters while True Grit is a really great Western which revisits all of the things which other Westerns, in fact this same Western, have already done before.
It’s not about paying dues or waiting for the right time to award a talent like Nolan’s. He’s been making the best movies Hollywood has to offer for more than a decade, and time and again he’s been ignored. The Coens, on the other hand, are swimming in Oscars; Oscars they got for movies which took far more skill to pull off than this one. They’re being rewarded again because it feels comfortable, because that’s what the Academy is used to doing, and because I suspect, far too few of the Academy’s voters have actually seen the original film they’re remaking.
Or maybe the Academy simply hates movies that make a lot of money. That’s the only explanation I have for what will surely go down as one of Oscar’s biggest mistakes in a history of big mistakes when it comes to the modern era’s most innovative and exciting director: Christopher Nolan.
Which side do you think is right?