Best Director Final 50: Peter Cattaneo for The Full Monty

PETER CATTANEO FOR THE FULL MONTY (1997)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

James Cameron for Titanic

Atom Egoyan for The Sweet Hereafter

Curtis Hanson for L.A. Confidential

Gus Van Sant for Good Will Hunting

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

From the early days of Capra to the heady runs of Little Miss Sunshine and Beasts of the Southern Wild, folk fables have quite a good track record with the Academy. The Full Monty sees all of those uplifting hands and raises them a few quid: Peter Cattaneo carried this £2 million populist fantasy about a plucky bunch of Sheffield steelworkers to £250 million worldwide and four Oscar nominations. Even with my propensity for films that find the optimism in bleak situations, I have a few reservations about this Pollyannaish tale of a crumbling industrial Britain—as did Danny Boyle, who passed on Simon Beaufoy’s script (a decade before they both won their Oscars for the similarly scrappy but slightly more assured Slumdog Millionaire). I often found myself wondering what this material might look like in the hands of Boyle, or Edgar Wright, or Mike Leigh, all British directors with strong visions who have proven their ability to catch the lightness in Britain’s often-bleak working class landscape. But the film belongs to feature film novice Peter Cattaneo’s mild, easygoing hand, yielding not a trenchant social commentary but a buoyant piece of entertainment.

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Best Director Final 50: Peter Yates for The Dresser

PETER YATES FOR THE DRESSER (1983)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment

Bruce Beresford for Tender Mercies

Ingmar Bergman for Fanny and Alexander

Mike Nichols for Silkwood

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Here’s a fun fact for Oscar nerds: The Dresser shares the distinction with the next year’s Amadeus as the last films—to date—to earn dual Best Actor nominations. This trivial connection reflects a deeper resonance between the films. Both Ronald Harwood and Peter Shaffer adapted the screenplays from their own stage shows, which set a capricious artist against an onlooker who beholds him with a mixture of resentment and self-loathing awe. However, as the titles suggest, the stories diverge in where they place the weight in this relationship. Shaffer & Forman’s sumptuous period drama places the character of Mozart (an offstage presence in the play) firmly in the center of the screen, presenting Mozart as a man favored by the court and loved by God, his genius issuing forth effortlessly before the eyes of an impotent Salieri. Yates’ modest wartime drama, meanwhile, has the actor known only as Sir toiling away as the head of a theatrical troupe at the height of the Blitz, his faltering talent extractable only through the heroics of his devoted backstage attendant. And that’s the key difference between the two films, evident in their titles: where Amadeus is fundamentally about the majesty of genius, The Dresser is about the tremendous sacrifice needed to support such a white elephant. Yates’ film is an intimate psychological contemplation of the faithful rather than the deity.

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Best Director Final 50: Woody Allen for Bullets over Broadway

WOODY ALLEN FOR BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Robert Zemeckis for Forrest Gump

Krzysztof Kieslowski for Three Colors: Red

Robert Redford for Quiz Show

Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Bullets over Broadway begins with Al Jolson warbling “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” the song that follows the famous (and, for Broadway, fateful) line, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” in The Jazz Singer. Setting the credits to this song serves as a fitting memento mori for a vanished chapter in New York’s cultural history. As a writer, Allen crafts a charming show business satire that snuggles into the mythology of the Roaring Twenties, a tribute to Broadway’s last days as America’s undisputed cultural capital. What sets Bullets over Broadway apart, however, is the film’s superb production value, resurrecting the image of Broadway’s true heyday (long before its ballyhooed, midcentury Golden Age). This is no idle period piece; famous for romanticizing the New York of his present day, here Allen mounts a historical recreation to rival Gangs of New York or even the Godfather films in its richness. The production places as much emphasis on exploring the magnificent sets as it does on the gaggle of characters milling about the frame, and certainly more than the barely-glimpsed production fo Gods of Our Fathers. Allen’s Bullets over Broadway presents the Great White Way as a firmament of theaters, nightclubs, and penthouses, in which the people—and even the plays—are mere overnight occupants.

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Best Director Final 50: Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights

LEWIS MILESTONE FOR TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS (1927)

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The competition (Cliff: 3 for 3!)

Charles Chaplin for The Circus

Ted Wilde for Skippy

Lewis Milestone’s comedy Two Arabian Knights opens with the title card “France—1918” and promptly leaps into the American trenches alongside Louis Wolheim, of all people. I got the movie as a DVD transfer from VHS, after all, and the opening minutes of the film left me thinking I might be watching a scene from All Quiet on the Western Front by mistake. The intensity of the fight continues as Wolheim’s Sgt. O’Gaffney dives into a ditch alongside a private amid heavy enemy fire—we’re still going to Araby at some point, right? The tension finally breaks when William Boyd’s Private Phelps, ascertaining their slim chances for survival, abruptly clocks his sergeant in the jaw as payback for months of rotten treatment. As O’Gaffney collapses against the mud wall, the soldiers’ miserable conditions turn into as much comic dressing. Over the course of the continent-spanning comedy (which at least ends up in Constantinople) Milestone’s commitment to the entire story—the serious business of war as much as the comedic friendship that unfolds—makes Two Arabian Knights stand out as an impressive feat of comedic filmmaking.

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Best Director Final 50: Jack Cardiff for Sons and Lovers

JACK CARDIFF FOR SONS AND LOVERS (1960)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Billy Wilder for The Apartment

Jules Dassin for Never on Sunday

Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho

Fred Zinnemann for The Sundowners

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Digging through Oscar history, I’m fascinated by the tidal waves of past controversies that reach the present day as mere ripples. The 33rd Academy Awards bore no shortage of polarizing films—Psycho, Hiroshima mon amour, films from Blacklist survivors Dalton Trumbo (Exodus, Spartacus) and Jules Dassin (Never on Sunday). None, though, had a more scandalous heritage than Jack Cardiff’s quiet adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s seminal novel. Lawrence first published his tale of working class family drama and sexual exploration in 1913, but it remained unfilmable (along with the rest of his fiction) for a half-century to come. It took the French adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1955 to make Lawrence’s writings viable material for English language cinema, and it wasn’t until the same year of Sons and Lovers’ release that British courts finally allowed the uncensored publication of the author’s writings. Needless to say, the shockingly frank sexuality that ostracized Lawrence is tame by today’s standards, and through Cardiff’s discreet lens it registers not as prurient, but as part of the sensitive character study at the story’s center. The scandal of Sons and Lovers haslong since blown over; what remains is a handsome, plaintive study in emotional withdrawal that Lawrence’s advocates, undistracted by his explicitness, always saw at the heart of his work.

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Best Director Final 50: Sam Wood for Kings Row

SAM WOOD FOR KINGS ROW (1942)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

William Wyler for Mrs. Miniver

Michael Curtiz for Yankee Doodle Dandy

John Farrow for Wake Island

Mervyn LeRoy for Random Harvest

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Amid the sanguine early-1940s depictions of small-town America, Kings Row was one of the first to glimpse a rotten core.  Warner Bros.’ unevenly whitewashed version of Henry Bellamann’s original novel acts as a dark companion to Sam Wood’s previous adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, pointing again and again to the undercurrents of violence and sexuality that fuel its title community. Filmed on the eve of World War II (its release was pushed back for its troubling subject matter), Wood’s subversive directing seems to anticipate the bleakness of noir and the sordid disillusionment of Sirkian melodrama. Such a cinematic sensibility does not yet exist in a coherent form, though, and such moments flit between what is largely a forthright, wholesome outlook on middle America. Despite the upbeat façade, however, the characters and storyteller know that something is rotten.

The clues are there from the beginning of the film, as a carriage drives past a sign that positively glistens with foreboding:

“Kings Row, 1890: A good town—A good clean town—A good town to live in—and a good place to raise your children.”

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Best Director Final 50: Otto Preminger for The Cardinal

OTTO PREMINGER FOR THE CARDINAL (1963)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Tony Richardson for Tom Jones

Federico Fellini for

Elia Kazan for America, America

Martin Ritt for Hud

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Preminger’s The Cardinal opens with a bang—well, a bong, really, as the church bells peal over St. Peter’s Square. It’s the ensuing credit sequence, though, that really caught my attention. Preminger borrows from his absent but frequent collaborator Saul Bass’ pithy sense of abstract design, setting the title cards over shots of a lone priest traversing the endless brick landscapes of Rome. After that concise sequence, conveying the journey of a single soul across the abstract and ancient fabric of dogma, I didn’t need the three-hour movie (thanks, Louis Loeffler) that followed. Preminger seems to be doing his best Stanley Kramer impression here, a heavy-handed approach to message filmmaking that Kramer himself could not always pull off effectively. Particularly after writing about Martin Scorsese’s eloquently cinematic meditation on his Catholic faith, I’m markedly less compelled by this film’s ungainly mix of sincere politics and narrative contrivance. Continue reading