92nd Academy Award Predictions: Best Director

We’re on the verge of kicking off the Summer portion of the Oscar season, and considering I have a screening for Yesterday tomorrow that could pretty definitively change my Oscar rankings (I’m about to find out if it’s a contender or not), I thought now would be a good time to get my predictions going again with Best Director. Often going hand-in-hand with Best Picture, Best Director is a reward for whichever “auteur” made either the biggest movie possible or the best-acted movie possible (mainly because no one can really describe what it is a director does). Last year’s results were incredibly kooky, both in nominations and my predictions. I only managed to go 1/5 with eventual underdog Yorgos Lanthimos, and watched frontrunners like First Man and If Beale Street Could Talk fall away (I’m not going to mention the painful snub of Bradley Cooper that botched my predictions the day of). I obviously didn’t see Pawel Pawlikwoski and eventual winner Alfonso Cuarón coming, and while I had Spike Lee and Adam McKay shortlisted, I clearly missed the ball on that one. This year, I’m hoping to see my predictions bolstered significantly. So without further ado, let’s jump straight into my predictions for the 92nd Academy Awards!

It’s Quentin Tarantino, motherf…

As always, I break down my predictions for Best Director into five categories, based on previous results and the contenders on hand. This year, the five Directors I see nominated are as follows: The Wunderkind, The Autuer, The Actors’ Director, The Workhorse, and The Newcomer. Let’s start with The Wunderkind, as this category usually serves as my presumptive frontrunner. The Wunderkind is the type of director who is incredibly hands-on, creating films that get across-the-board nominations, usually involve said-director as a writer/produer/potential actor, and just generally feels like the creative genius behind the project (as opposed to, say, The Imitation Game feeling like Benedict Cumberbatch’s project and so on). Think Damien Chazelle on La La Land, or Spike Lee on BlacKkKlansman. These are directors who are synonymous with their projects, and quite often see their name above the billing on the poster. This year, there are several directors who fit the mold for The Wunderkind. James Mangold is in the running for his biopic/historical drama Ford v. Ferrari, Richard Linklater (whom I shortlisted last year before the film got pushed) has Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Jordan Peele is back with the horror/thriller Us, Sam Mendes has WWI thriller 1917, and Tom Hooper has the hilarious abomination that is Cats. There’s also Ang Lee, whom I had on this list for quite some time before I saw the trailer and determined Gemini Man to be more of a commercial play than a true Oscar contender – although I wouldn’t count him out; high-concept action has been big with the Academy in recent years. But honestly, when it comes to the Wunderkind, look no further than Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. When I predicted Hollywood as a major Oscar contender back in March, I didn’t know if it would be a key player or not. I had it listed as my frontrunner in Director (Picture and Director have split in recent years), but there was no proof the film would really play big. Luckily, Cannes has come along to prove that this film is everything I need it to be to have a Best Director winner on my hands. Hollywood is everything the Academy loves: it’s a period piece flashing back to a simpler time in Hollywood, with fast cars, pretty girls, rugged manly men, and great pictures. It’s a love letter to a Camelot-esque period in American history, with things on the verge of changing for the good, before the two-hander of Nixon and Manson destroyed everything. And it’s a tale rich with symbolism, foreshadowing, and beauty. Despite winning two Academy Awards for writing (Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained), Tarantino has never won the prize for Best Director – and has shockingly only been nominated twice. I believe that Tarantino will be nominated for Hollywood and, if he can keep his damn mouth shut during interviews, could actually win the big award.

Todd Haynes

Up next, we have The Auteur. Now, what is an auteur? An auteur is someone who has a keen, distinct eye over his film, creating a unique and profound experience every single time up to bat. Slightly different from The Wunderkind, an auteur’s work isn’t just about having control over every aspect of production, you have to be able to look at the film and definitively say, “That was an [insert name here] film,” the way you once could for Hitchcock or Kubrick. In recent years, we’ve seen nominations for auteurs like Adam McKay (twice!), Paul Thomas Anderson, and Yorgos Lanthimos, and there are several directors entering the fray this time around that fit that description. Dee Rees is bringing her distinct eye to The Last Thing He Wanted, Jon Favreau is bringing lions to life in The Lion King, Joe Wright is crafting the thriller The Woman In The Window, Steven Soderbergh is one of three directors crafting a 70s conspiracy thriller (the other two we’ll discuss soon) in The Laundromat, Pedro Almodóvar is releasing his best film in years with Pain and Glory (and could become the next Cuarón for it), Taika Waititi has been given an awards-friendly date for his Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit, and Terrence Malick is back in the saddle after a series of duds with his faithful reflection A Hidden Life. Of course, as far as I can tell, there is only one auteur who seems likely to get the nomination at the moment: Todd Haynes for Dry Run. Haynes has been a distinct, unique director for decades, bringing us the unique, yet similar masterpieces Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, and Carol. This time around, he’s turning his eyes to conspiracy thrillers, as he has just wrapped production on the DuPont-Bilott lawsuit drama Dry Run. Based on the Cincinatti lawyer who took on the DuPont Chemical Company, the film is the type of 70s thriller that used to dominate the Academy back in the day, and in a time when Americans are desperate for a hero, Haynes’ unique and specific eye should provide one we can look up to in Mark Ruffalo’s Robert Bilott (ironically, Ruffalo was killed by the DuPont family in his 2014 Oscar nominated role in Foxcatcher). Look for Haynes to earn his first (shocking, I know) Oscar nomination this year, should the film come out in time.

Up next, we have The Actors’ Director. In recent years, the Academy has taken to nominating directors whose films may not seem like clear-cut directing nominees, but got through because they managed to get fantastic acting performances out of the entire ensemble. These are folks like David O. Russell (three times!), Lenny Abrahamson for Room, and Almost Peter Farrelly for Green Book. This year, there are several gifted actors’ directors making films with Big Impressive Ensembles that can carry them through to the Top Five. There’s Marielle Heller for A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, Andrea Berloff for The Kitchen, John Crowley for The Goldfinch, and especially Greta Gerwig for Little Women. However, I’m going with my heart (for now) and predicting Danny Boyle will earn the slot for The Actors’ Director. Boyle has a history of earning actors nominations – while he didn’t find success on his 2008 Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, he did lead James Franco to his sole acting nomination in 2010, as well as earning two nominations for Steve Jobs in 2015 (for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively). He also has a habit of drawing great performances out of his actors, including Cillian Murphy and Ewan McGregor. Should his newest film, Yesterday, prove to be a massive hit, then Boyle could find himself pulled into the nomination on the film’s staying power. Now, shortly after I started making these predictions, news rolled in that the film may not be this type of player. I do not see it until tomorrow, so I’m not sure what the film’s potential is going to be. All I know is as it stands now, Danny Boyle and Yesterday have the best shot on paper of earning a Best Director nomination.

Scott Z. Burns at the premiere of The Report

Up next we have The Workhorse. Usually someone who has been in the industry for a long time in one way or another, The Workhorse is the person who’s been doing consistently great work, but for some reason is only getting noticed now. Spike Lee is also an example of The Workhorse, but personally I’m thinking of people like Tom McCarthy on Spotlight or Kenneth Lonergan on Manchester By The Sea – writers who dabble in directing and have made great film after great film, but have gone unnoticed by the Academy at large. Examples here include Jay Roach for his Fox News/Roger Ailes scandal drama Fair and Balanced, Bill Condon for returning to the dramatic fold with The Good Liar, and Josh Trank for his Al Capone biopic Fonzo. However, if there’s anyone who truly sums up the Workhorse label, it’s Scott Z. Burns for the film I currently think will win Best Picture, The Report. Like McCarthy before him, Burns is directing a sweeping drama about good people uncovering the horrors of some cover-up, and doing what they can to bring the news to the people. This time around, it’s the U.S. Torture Report. Early word out of Sundance is the film is a powerhouse, well-written and acted, and even if the rest of the direction is kind of general, bringing those two components to life are all you need to earn an Oscar nom, so long as the Academy likes you. Look at Vice, Hacksaw Ridge, The Imitation Game, Amour, and more. None of these films were flashy in the filmmaking (ok, Hacksaw Ridge was, but there’s a lot of slop there, so you get my point) – they were just well-written, well-acted, and well-executed, and the Academy was moved by the filmmaking. So long as they can justify their emotions, the Academy will nominate any film that makes them feel good. And if The Report is that film, and it is going to be nominated for (and win) Best Picture, then Scott Z. Burns will earn himself a nomination along the way.

Jennifer Kent at the Venice Premiere of The Nightingale

And finally, we have The Newcomer. Every year sees someone earn themselves that elusive first Oscar nomination, forever changing their career and furthering their journey to becoming the next great filmmaker. Last year it was Pawel Pawlikwoski, the year before was Jordan Peele (and Greta Gerwig!), the year before was Barry Jenkins, the year before was…well, most of them, and so on and so forth. This year, there are plenty of rising directors looking to make their big splash in the waves. There’s Melina Matsoukas for the supposedly-incredibly Queen+Slim, Dexter Fletcher for [finally] getting his due on a musical biopic with Rocketman, Lulu Wang for The Farewell (God, I wish), and Kasi Lemmons for her Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet. However, out of this terrific field of first-time women (and Fletcher), that fifth nominee will be Babadook helmer Jennifer Kent. Now, I won’t lie to you: Kent’s newest film, The Nightingale, will likely be a tough sell to the Academy. It’s supposedly rough, violent, and raw, with graphic depictions of everything under the sun. But it’s also honest, artistic, and bold. And if the Academy’s going to go ahead and nominate films like Hacksaw Ridge and The Revenant, they’re going to have to honor Kent for covering similar material just as well! It’s not like they’re sexist or anything. He he…maybe I should change my prediction…Nope, I’m standing tall, thanks to the great reviews and the strength of that first trailer. I do believe this film will be quite something.

Now, as you scroll through this list, you may notice a name I do not have listed at the moment: Martin Scorsese for his long-awaited The Irishman. And that’s intentional – I currently do not believe Scorsese will make the cut. Why, you ask? Well, there’s a few reasons I’ve held off on his final return to the gangster genre. First, the delays. I’ve had The Irishman on my Best Picture/Best Director predictions going back a few years now. By this point, I just have blue b*lls over it. Second, the content. This is a Netflix film featuring extensive CGI to de-age a bunch of 70s stars. Unless this film is Roma-good, it may just be too much for the older voters, who will shunt the film for good measure. Three, there’s honestly only enough room for one legend on this list, and while Scorsese is clearly the bigger legend than Tarantino, the subject matter and executions are just different. And fourth, Scorsese’s record. It’s easy to look at the man as one of the most recognized directors in the business, but his average is, in fact, quite low for nominations. In fact, he’s only earned eight nominations out of 24. That’s a one-in-three chance of a nomination. And while he was on a hot streak with Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Departed, it is more than likely that Irishman goes the way of Silence, and misses out on a nod. He’s a strong #6, but I’m holding off for now.

There are still plenty of directors I haven’t talked about yet. There’s Rian Johnson for Knives Out, or Fernando Meirelles for The Pope. There’s Michael Engler for Downton Abbey, or Chinonye Chukwu for Clemency. J.J. Abrams could sneak into the fray for Star Wars, Reed Morano could break out of television with The Rhythm Section, and Edward Norton could go big with Motherless Brooklyn. And there’s even a chance for a foreign director to have a Pawlikowski/Cuarón moment, like Bong Joon-Ho for Parasite, Céline Sciamma for Portrait of a Lady On Fire, or the Dardenne Brothers for Young Ahmed. Anything can happen in the next few months. Hell, look at my predictions from last year! I almost never have the eventual winner listed this early. However, if you want the sharpest picks of the lot, look no further than the ones I have listed right here. And if you want to see where we’re at with the Oscars overall, you can click right here (hint: Gemini Man has dropped out of the Top 9. Find out what’s replaced it!). I’ll see you all with the acting nominees very soon!

  1. Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood
  2. Todd Haynes – Dry Run
  3. Scott Z. Burns – The Report
  4. Jennifer Kent – The Nightingale
  5. Danny Boyle – Yesterday

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