The Best Director Quest

Best Director Kickoff

Wow, I barely blink and the summer is half over!  Really only one-third over, but why on earth should Fall Semester actually start in autumn, when they can force students to hike across campus for a bonus month of 90-degree heat?  Anyway…with about a month to go and plenty of school responsibilities looming, I can think of no better way to protect my free time than by funneling it into a massive project whose sheer momentum will briefly convince me that it’s more important than the TA lesson plans, reading lists, etc., that threaten to engulf my life.  Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.  And so, driven by such noble causes, I hereby inaugurate the Best Director Quest!



An itemized list of the remaining nominees, for clarity’s sake, though the above image puts it in context.

  2. 1927/28 – Herbert Brenon for Sorrell and Son
  3. 1928/29 – Frank Lloyd for Drag (help wanted finding this one!)
  4. 1930/31 – NORMAN TAUROG for SKIPPY
  5. 1935 – Henry Hathaway for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
  6. 1942 – Sam Wood for Kings Row
  7. 1942 – John Farrow for Wake Island
  8. 1944 – Alfred Hitchcock for Lifeboat
  9. 1944 – Henry King for Wilson
  10. 1945 – Clarence Brown for National Velvet
  11. 1945 – Jean Renoir for The Southerner
  12. 1947 – George Cukor for A Double Life
  13. 1949 – William A. Wellman for Battleground
  14. 1949 – Carol Reed for The Fallen Idol
  15. 1954 – William A. Wellman for The High and the Mighty
  16. 1956 – William Wyler for Friendly Persuasion
  17. 1956 – King Vidor for War and Peace
  18. 1957 – Joshua Logan for Sayonara
  19. 1958 – Stanley Kramer for The Defiant Ones
  20. 1960 – Jack Cardiff for Sons and Lovers
  21. 1961 – J. Lee Thompson for The Guns of Navarone
  22. 1962 – Frank Perry for David and Lisa
  23. 1963 – Elia Kazan for America, America
  24. 1963 – Otto Preminger for The Cardinal
  25. 1965 – Hiroshi Teshigahara for Woman in the Dunes
  26. 1966 – Richard Brooks for The Professionals
  27. 1968 – Franco Zeffirelli for Romeo and Juliet
  28. 1969 – Arthur Penn for Alice’s Restaurant
  29. 1969 – Costa-Gavras for Z
  30. 1972 – Joseph L. Mankiewicz for Sleuth
  31. 1973 – Bernardo Bertolucci for Last Tango in Paris
  32. 1976 – Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties
  33. 1978 – Alan Parker for Midnight Express
  34. 1980 – Richard Rush for The Stunt Man
  35. 1980 – Roman Polanski for Tess
  36. 1983 – Peter Yates for The Dresser
  37. 1984 – Roland Joffe for The Killing Fields
  38. 1985 – Hector Babenco for Kiss of the Spider Woman
  39. 1985 – John Huston for Prizzi’s Honor
  40. 1986 – Roland Joffe for The Mission
  41. 1988 – Martin Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ
  42. 1988 – Alan Parker for Mississippi Burning
  43. 1992 – Neil Jordan for The Crying Game
  44. 1993 – Robert Altman for Short Cuts
  45. 1994 – Woody Allen for Bullets over Broadway
  46. 1996 – Milos Forman for The People vs. Larry Flynt
  47. 1996 – Scott Hicks for Shine
  48. 1997 – Peter Cattaneo for The Full Monty
  49. 1998 – Terrence Malick for The Thin Red Line

The list is quite an eclectic one, with Oscar giants like Elia Kazan, William Wyler, and Martin Scorsese alongside one-nomination blips like Scott Hicks, Frank Perry, and Richard Rush and renowned international icons Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean Renoir.  There are directors I love for other works (William Wellman, King Vidor) and two, Alan Parker and Roland Joffe, for whom I’ve seen neither of their two nominated films.  Interestingly enough, of the 50 films before me, half are Best Picture nominees and half are not.  More on the difference to follow, and while I won’t be watching them in any particular order, I’m curious to see how both halves collectively impact my image of the category!

I won’t be watching these in a particular order, but my plan is to conclude by watching Robert Altman’s 1993 film Short Cuts.  I mentioned in my post about The African Queen that I went through a phase in which I worriedabout burning through all of the good movies.  At the time, Robert Altman had emerged as my favorite live action director (a position he still holds, or at least shares with two or three others) on the strength of Nashville, Gosford Park, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 3 Women, and The Player.  Even at a time when he was still alive and making movies, I wanted to save one of his most esteemed works for some distant point when I would be ready to discover a great Altman film for the last time.  Furthermore, as one of the exceedingly few films (only eleven, if my count is correct) to earn a Best Director nomination and nothing else, it serves as a curious indicator of what defines the Best Director category in its own right (more about that to follow!)


I’ve already seen 371 of the 421 Best Director nominees, leaving 50 nominees (including 3 winners) to watch in the next month or two.  These figures do encompass some of the more debatable candidates for inclusion, as I’m nothing if not a completist:

  • the 3 nominees from the Best Comedy Directing category, featured only at the inaugural 1927/28 Academy Awards
  • the 4 filmmakers and 5 films under debate for the 1928/1928 Academy Best Director Award, considered to be unofficial nominations by the Academy
  • Michael Curtiz’s write-in nomination in 1935 for Captain Blood

The second of these provisions may ultimately be my undoing, as the one film I have not been able to track down ANYWHERE is one of these unofficial nominees, Frank Lloyd’s early Warner Bros. talkie Drag from 1928.  To my best understanding, the film is extant, and has been viewed on home video format, but I’m still in the dark as to how to procure a copy.  If ANYONE out there know where to find this film, please do let me know!  Otherwise, I’ll have to get inventive regarding how to evaluate this piece and the race overall.

The one other provision (coincidentally also pertinent to the same year) that I am setting is that I hold myself responsible only for watching footage that still exists.  That includes all ten surviving minutes of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot and no more; that one is checked off my list as far as I’m concerned, until such time as a more complete version surfaces.  I will say, though, that Lubitsch has an edge for my vote even from what scant material I’ve seen!


Honestly, though, this is a category that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time–one that represents some of the true high points in Oscar and film history. I’ve written plenty about my impressions of the “classy” alternative to Best Picture right here, but I’ll recapitulate the heart of my assessment here.  Best Director is an odd presence in the Academy Awards, in part since it hews closer to the Best Picture list than any other category.  A year’s Best Director nominees would typically overlap with either 3 or 4 of the 5 Best Picture nominees (years with 2/5 or 5/5 overlap did occur, but were rare sights), with almost invariable 5/5 overlap in years with an expanded Best Picture field.  Furthermore, every Best Director winner save one (Frank Lloyd for The Divine Lady at the Second Academy Awards in 1929) has also been at least a Best Picture nominee, and usually a winner too.  What is the meaningful distinction, then?  Is there room within the one or two divergent nominations per year, or even within the ranks of the Best Picture nominees, to make the case for Best Director as an essentially different category?

I definitely think there is.  By staying close but not quite identical to the Best Picture field, this category embodies a spirit of a minority opinion.  I’ve said before that the Writing categories offer a little more diversity, and it’s true–films like Last Year at Marienbad, Back to the Future, and In the Loop seem miles away from nomination in the Best Picture of Director races.  But the Writers Branch has 10 nominees a year to play with, while the Directors Branch has only 5, and is under constant pressure to acknowledge Best Picture frontrunners that seem like tonally perfect feats of plotting, performance, and audiovisual style in the best classical tradition of directorial excellence.  Instead, despite the heavy overlap between the two categories, the definition of Best Director that comes immediately to my mind incorporates Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, films absent altogether from the Best Picture vocabulary.  Where the Best Director category exerts its difference of opinion–in both its snubs and its maverick picks, it formulates for me a distinct impression of the film industry.

I think the Best Director category’s essential appeal is that it preserves an image of artistic freedom that had already almost vanished by the time of the First Annual Academy Awards.  Even by the late 1920s, the studio system was rapidly consolidating and directors had largely been displaced at the center of the production system by the producers.  The era in which D.W. Griffith or Erich von Stroheim chased their outrageous visions on an epic scale had given way to a for-hire system in which King Vidor or Josef von Sternberg could carve out space for their artistic viewpoints at the indulgence of production heads.  True, directors remain the envy of many other industry professions for the clout that they retain in the filmmaking process, and of course I’m talking about the limit cases–most directors both before and after 1927 did not fever to forge immortal works of personal expression.  However, the notions of compromise and confinement have resonated strongly throughout the roll call of Best Director nominees.  While the attraction to impeccable well-told stories remains strong, tto the extent that the Directors Branch has diverged from the Best Picture orthodoxy, it has been to nominate filmmakers who have subtly retooled the system (Hitchcock, Scorsese) or those who have radically rejected it (Fellini, Cassavetes).  Just in the last two years, the nominations of Benh Zeitlin, Michael Haneke, and Terrence Malick have shown just how much this branch reveres the ideal of uncompromising filmmaking.  And of course, the fact that all three of their films found nominations within the expanded Best Picture field also shows the dynamic relationship between the two categories.  Whether they’re pulling 5 films out of a group of 9, or 4 out of a group of 5, the Directors Branch fashions its own outlook on the year’s best in cinema–never a complete revision, but rather a shift toward the outer edges.


Anyway, it’s probably about time I wrapped this post up and got to the actual movie watching!  Posts to come over the weekend and in the weeks to come, as I gradually get back into the swing of blogging.  Wish me luck!


2 thoughts on “The Best Director Quest

  1. jerome says:

    K. Just a simple search shows taht Drag is a First National Picture. First National by 1927 is an arm of Warner Bros. My guess is that the archive next to USC (where you have kind of an in) will have background info on the film and knowledge of who has a print.
    then Doheny can get you a print for viewing for a project. Prob at some cost. If it’s public domain, I’ll ask layne murphy, of budget films.
    Good luck.

  2. […] sprawling Los Angeles story tomorrow night.  The list, even as I’ve whittled it down from fifty to twenty-five to ten, remains an incredible spectrum of filmmaking.  The nominated individuals […]

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