Forget who’s in. Let’s talk briefly about the directors left out of this year’s Oscar race.
The conversation swirling around this year’s Best Director category at the Academy Awards mainly has been about the omitted names. That’s not the best scenario for the Academy. To be fair, though, it’s rare when film lovers easily could put together a sampling of five overlooked directors – from Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow to Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan – and still come up with an equally strong alternate pool of Oscar contenders.
I mention the absences from the Best Director category for a reason. Because Affleck miraculously did not make the cut for this year’s Oscar race, and his film gradually became the frontrunner in the Best Picture race, I believe that Life of Pi director Ang Lee is the director to beat at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
Really, I’m reaching this conclusion through process of elimination … leaning on the fact that the Academy already eliminated a number of key contenders on the morning nominations were revealed. Michael Haneke likely isn’t winning for the foreign-language drama Amour, an actor’s picture that’s concise and deliberate but lacks the flair that wins a directorial Oscar. Ditto Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin, who made his feature-film debut here and is going to have to prove himself to the Academy before they vote for him. I hate saying this, but in Zeitlin’s case, the nomination actually is the win.
That leaves three proven directors with Oscar history contending for this year’s prize. As much as I loved Silver Linings Playbook -- and can see David O. Russell’s visual fingerprints all over the aggressively stylized movie – I think that’s also an ensemble picture (noted by the four actor nominations doled out by the Academy) and I don’t see him taking the Director’s prize.
So it boils down to Lee versus Steven Spielberg, both previous Oscar winners in the Best Director category who will be looking for a win on Sunday. And when forced to choose between the two, it’s merely my opinion that Lee does more to realize the vision of Pi than Spielberg does to recreate Lincoln.
Lee’s adaptation comes with a laundry list of storytelling obstacles. It’s primarily shot in a lifeboat drifting out at sea. A primary character in Lee’s drama is a CGI tiger, whom the director and his creative team must imbue with an emotional heft if audiences are going to buy into the spiritual journey. I don’t think Life of Pi could exist as a Best Picture nominee if not for Lee's innovative and technical prowess, reaching back to his gravity-defying wizardry of Crouching Tiger to breathe life into Pi. There’s a short-list of filmmakers who could have made Lincoln, and probably made it well. Lee, I believe, delivered on the impossible with his spiritual effort. Fellow directors will realize his Herculean accomplishments and recognize him with the Oscar.
If I’m wrong, and it’s Spielberg’s night to win, I think you’ll start to see indicators of a possible Lincoln sweep early. Sally Field could upset Anne Hathaway. Tommy Lee Jones could take the Best Supporting Actor trophy. Tony Kushner might grab the Screenplay nod. These would be indicators that Spielberg and Lincoln are landsliding the Academy Awards, meaning significant wins in Picture and Director. But if Argo is destined or Oscar glory, the directors can and should honor Lee on Sunday night.