Category Check 2014: 2 down, 6 to go

All right! Some computer problems have finally been put to bed and I’m happy to return for an update on the overall progress of the Oscar Quest.

Having now completed the Best Actress and Best Actor categories, I find that I still have a long way to go. Updating each of the six remaining checklists, I’ve realized that the Big Eight categories are far less interconnected than I originally thought. I’d anticipated that most of the Best Director nominees would be multi-category juggernauts, and indeed many were, especially when one factors in the craft categories. However, true across-the-board nominees tend to be the ones I had seen already, and my recent conquests barely made a dent in most of the remaining fields: I’ve only checked off 21 of the 123 remaining Best Actor nominees and a mere 10 of the remaining 127 Original Screenplays. To be sure, by finishing Best Director I made much more overall progress than I did by finishing Best Actress, but the fact remains that I’ve now seen over one thousand movies with major Oscar nominations, and I still have several hundred to go.

This prospect is daunting and exhilarating at the same time. With six diverse and extensive categories remaining, it’s clear that unless I should wind up in traction or under house arrest in the near future, finishing the Oscar Quest will mean five more summers of heavy film viewing. Frankly, though, I’m glad to have so much still ahead of me! I don’t doubt for a second that each of these categories has brilliant, fascinating, and downright perplexing nominations in store, just like those I discovered on the Best Actress and Best Director Quests.

Last year, I posted individual profiles of all seven remaining categories. I doubt there’s any need to replicate such detail, so I’ll confine myself to a link to last year’s overview, a quick update, and a few sundry thoughts.

Best Picture – 27 down, 43 left

Here, of course, we do see a lot of Best Director overlap. I won’t conceal that I am saving this category for last, and that I’ll probably tackle it right after I finish the penultimate category. I’ll be curious to see the different facets of this category that are revealed as I peel of each screenwriting and acting category. This is the only category left in which I’ve seen all the winners, but I do still expect some remarkable filmmaking from among the remaining contenders! I’m particularly looking forward to two longtime holes in the DVD universe (Ruggles of Red Gap and The Magnificent Ambersons) and two disaster spectaculars (Airport and The Towering Inferno), all of which I hope to catch on the big screen!


Best Actor – 21 down, 102 (including 10 winners) left

Though I typically think of Best Actress as the real “one-shot” performance category, Best Actor also has its fair share of films nominated exclusively in that category. Given that many of my favorite Best Actress performances (Testament, Séance on a Wet Afternoon) came from such low-profile films, I’ll eventually take on this category with an open mind and high hopes! Sight unseen, I’m particularly anxious to see the non-winning work by several of the category’s winners, such as Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker, Jeff Bridges in Starman, and Denzel Washington in The Hurricane (1999).

Best Supporting Actress – 10 down, 82 (including 9 winners) left

Supporting Actor and Actress are a fascinating mixture of moonlighting stars, rising or fading legends, true character actors, and complete outsiders. As I’ve said before, I often know so little about the nominated performance that I’m looking forward to the film first and foremost. However, I’m especially keen to see the Oscar-nominated work of actresses I know for completely different reasons: Billie Burke in Merrily We Live, Paulette Goddard in So Proudly We Hail, and yes, Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted.

Best Supporting Actor – 13 down, 104 (including 12 winners) left

With a total of 305 separate nominees, Supporting Actor represents more separate individuals than any other acting category. Again, it’s a spendid mix of the famous, the familiar, and the unknown, with several of my all-time favorite performances included among the ones I’ve already checked off. I hardly know how to start narrowing it down, but I’d say I’m most excited by the truly great character actors, like Thomas Mitchell in The Hurricane (1937), John Lithgow in The World According to Garp, and Arthur Kennedy in The Trial.

Best Original Screenplay – 10 down, 117 (including 9 winners) left

Original Screenplay is the youngest and thus the smallest category among the Big Eight, and yet it still has the most left for me to see.  That just shows how exceptionally idiosyncratic the category is. As with Best Actress, the category defines a minority of commercial films (around the world as well as in Hollywood), and the best work often comes from the most marginal movies. I have a huge array of anticipated and totally unknown titles before me, but I’m especially looking forward to the robust contingent of international films, including Rossellini et al’s Paisan, Duras’ Hiroshima, mon amour, and Jackson & Walsh’s Heavenly Creatures.

Best Adapted Screenplay – 18 down, 78 (including 1 winner) left

As this is also something of a shadow Best Picture/Director category, I have fewer remaining in this category than any other and it will likely be my next target. Many of the titles still outstanding come from those pesky 2nd Academy Awards, in which multiple works were under consideration for each individual. I don’t know if I can expect to find all of them, but I’ll do my darnedest! Meanwhile, as with Original Screenplay, I look forward to catching up with many of the foreign offerings: Amedei & Fellini’s Rome, Open City, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and Hodge’s Trainspotting.

That should do it for now!  I’ll post sporadically in the coming weeks and months, including comments on the 2013 Oscar race and the season that will intervene between now and the start of the next category.  And if all goes according to the current plan, I’ll be back next spring for Best Adapted Screenplay!


The Best Directors of Them All


Who, or what, should the greatest director be? It’s hard for anyone to stand out amidst such a diversely brilliant field. There are masters of the camera, of performance, and of design. Some filmmakers’ genius is to capture reality, while others invent entire worlds from scratch; there are humanists who probe the depths of human nature and there are visionaries who explore new ways to see the world and tell stories. Nobody can do everything better than everyone else, but there are a few who, for my money, epitomize what is truly great about cinema and the artistic vision.  I’ve already provided my long list; now, here are the best of the best of the Academy Award nominees for Best Director.


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Cliff’s Picks for Best Director

Here they are, the best of the best!  As with my votes for Best Actress, I’m going about this in two ways.  First, the old-fashioned method: I’m casting my vote by year in all 87 races for Best Director.  Lots of fun, and full of impossible choices: Wilder or Hitchcock? Wellman or Reed? Altman, Lynch, or Jackson?  Second, to accommodate the overflow from such strong years (and get rid of the races I could do without), the second column contains my top 87 Best Director nominees of all time, drawn from the entire pool of 426.

Finally, the third column, just for reference, contains the list of actual recipients of the Academy Award for Best Directors.  I’ve shaded in gold the instances where my pick and the Academy’s pick align. Your thoughts, either privately or down below in the comments section, are more welcome than ever!

Now, without further ado:

In image form, for those who want to see the whole list at once:


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The Final Ten Directors

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Here we are again, at the beginning of the end.  With the Frank Lloyd’s Drag regrettably on hold for the foreseeable future, ten directors remain:

  1. Herbert Brenon for Sorrell and Son (1927/28)
  2. Norman Taurog for Skippy (1930/31)
  3. Alfred Hitchcock in Lifeboat (1944)
  4. King Vidor for War and Peace (1956)
  5. Costa-Gavras for Z (1969)
  6. Bernardo Bertolucci for Last Tango in Paris (1973)
  7. Richard Rush for The Stunt Man (1980)
  8. Robert Altman for Short Cuts (1993)
  9. Terrence Malick for The Thin Red Line (1998)
  10. Steven Soderbergh for Traffic (2000)

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Best Director Home Stretch: 25 to Go



Nearly there! So far, this quest has yielded one outright masterpiece and a handful of minor classics, trailed by a string of enthralling visions, bold adaptations, and startlingly fresh commentaries. I’ve learned a few things in the process of writing these posts: first of all, that very few of these directors are unworthy of their nomination.  It’s easy when comparing the nominees to each other or, heaven forbid, their snubbed competition, to find the flaws and deficiencies in any movie.  However, each individual film on this list shows a remarkable amount of work, often against tremendous odds or with a rare gift for style or commentary.  Invariably, I’ve found myself more invested in each film after tightly concentrating on its directorial vision.  Elements of Sam Wood’s choices in Kings Row that I initially resisted became crucial in understanding the film’s strange energy, the roughness of Elia Kazan’s filmmaking crystallized into moments of compelling clarity when, months later, I dug into my memory to write up my viewing experience.  All told, these have been an incredibly rewarding 25 movies, from the ones I would have probably seen anyway to the ones I never would have sought out, and I’m looking forward to the second half of the journey!

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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!



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Category Check: Best Director


So by process of elimination, Best Director will be the next category that I next set out to complete.  It feels more than a little odd to switch from the most feminist category, Best Actress, to the most male-centric of the major categories.  Still, I feel a great affinity for this category.  True, their choices aren’t quite as wild as the writers’, but those guys get two whole categories to squeeze in their edgiest picks (I sometimes wonder what we’d get if, say, the directors split into Best Writer-Director and Best Metteur-en-scene).  Nevertheless, the Director category has pretty reliably snuck a dynamic deviation or two (no gender bias intended) in with their Best Picture-mirroring slate, whether it’s a revered master who gets in at the expense of a young’un (Hitchcock over Brooks in 1960, Altman over Reiner in 1992) or a foreign master who edges out a blockbuster-riding demigod (Antonioni over Wise in 1966, or Almodovar over Jackson in 2002).  This is the *classy* category, counting just among the non-winners:

  • 5 nominations: Hitchcock, Altman, Vidor
  • 4 nominations: Fellini, Kubrick, Lumet
  • 3 nominations: Lynch, Bergman, Lubitsch
  • 2 nominations: Malick, von Sternberg, Tarantino
  • 1 nomination: Kurosawa, Cassavetes, Welles, Almodovar, Truffaut, Anderson, Hawks, Antonioni, Haneke…I could go on…

Of course, this is also an overwhelmingly white and male category, with a history of notable exclusions and snubs (Spike Lee, Barbra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow).  Still, I can’t help but be impressed by an array of directing styles that ranges from David Lean’s minimal melodrama in Brief Encounter to Spike Jonze’s kinetic whimsy in Being John Malkovich, from John Sturges’ taut thrills in Bad Day at Black Rock to Julian Schnabel’s impressionistic reveries in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Granted, it’s a category that does place these brilliant films alongside the indulgent and lazy (even self-parodic), but one that I love for the wild array of expressions of a directorial vision.

Of course there is a well-known overlap with Best Picture, with 3/5 or 4/5 in a typical five-Best Picture nominee year, and a 5/5 overlap in years with more.  This close resonance has helped me get pretty darn close to finishing this category: at present I have seen 371 of the 421 nominated films, leaving a nice, round 50 films yet to be seen, including a mere three of the winners. (NOTE: the nominee and win totals include the winner and nominee for the Best Comedy Director category that existed for the First Academy Awards).  The remaining films are split fairly evenly between Best Picture nominees (many of which I mention here) and the lone wolfs.  Among the outliers are such extreme visions as Martin Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ and Bernardo Bertolucci for The Last Tango in Paris, in addition to what I expect to be milder fare, like Jean Renoir’s The Southerner, and the usual unknown quantities, like Richard Brooks’ The Professionals).  This category is very much an insider’s club, but I’m particularly looking forward to the one-time nominees, like Hiroshi Teshigahara for Woman in the Dunes and John Farrow for Wake Island.   I’m curious to see what kind of impact they can have on the collective definition of this category.

A minor note: for as much as it ostensibly represents the director as sole auteur, though, Best Director more than any other is bound to the other categories.  By my count, I can find only eleven films that earned their sole nomination for Best Director: Herbert Brenon for Sorrell and Son, Frank Lloyd TWICE for Drag and Weary River, King Vidor for Hallelujah!, Mark Robson for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Arthur Penn for Alice’s Restaurant, Federico Fellini for Fellini Satyricon, Martin Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ (thanks to Bob for pointing this one out!), Robert Altman for Short Cuts, and David Lynch TWICE for Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr.  Strong though the myth of the director might be, the rest of the honorees are still tied to the excellence of their collaborators.