425 and Done: Robert Altman for Short Cuts

ROBERT ALTMAN FOR SHORT CUTS (1993)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List

Jane Campion for The Piano

James Ivory for The Remains of the Day

Jim Sheridan for In the Name of the Father

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I need to get into the habit of promising “in the next couple of days” when I end these projects, as I seem to have a refractory period between the viewing of my very last film and writing about it. Reluctance for it all to end, perhaps? Sheer exhaustion? Or the challenge of grappling with the great work I choose to save for the finish? I suspect the latter most of all, as I keep mulling over Short Cuts in terms of everything Robert Altman ever directed and every film the Academy ever nominated for Best Director. I’m still swimming around in the world Altman created, but rather than ruminate forever, I suppose I ought to get words down and draw this quest to a close.

I’ve explained at length my reasons for saving my favorite director’s Last Great Film for the end of my Best Director project. After engaging with dozens of different directorial visions over the past month, Altman’s film seemed to have sneakily lain in wait just for me. I’d played out the movie countless ways in my head over the last several years, but I couldn’t have anticipated the moments featuring Alex Trebek, Captain Planet, or the 1960s Batman TV series that seemed to speak directly to me. Before I get too solipsistic, though, I know that these sensations were just symptoms of another rich cinematic reality Altman had put on the screen, one enmeshed in another time and place (medflies, smoking, photo kiosks) even as it connects directly to mine.  Altman’s eternal project is to create a piece of reality, replete with details and hidden connections only we can appreciate but also extending far beyond the edges of the frame.  As I sat down for the beginning of Short Cuts, I was struck by how long I’d gone without seeing an Altman film for the first time, and how wondrous it was to see his familiar technique moving in strange and new ways, tracing a new world to explore.

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8 Down, 2 to Go: Terrence Malick for The Thin Red Line

TERRENCE MALICK FOR THE THIN RED LINE (1998)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan

John Madden for Shakespeare in Love

Peter Weir for The Truman Show

Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful

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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Whew, dashing this off during a break before the last half hour of Traffic—just in time to bolt out the door! As my word choice probably indicates, these will be pretty quick and instinctive posts, but I’ll do what I can to do justice to both films!

The principal sacrifice I made in setting my June 7th deadline for this Best Director project was passing up the chance to see The Thin Red Line on the big screen. Watching the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray on a 65-inch screen was a pretty decent substitute, but I regret that my first trip to one of his transcendental cinematic planets could not be in the dark asylum of a movie theater. From the very first shot of an alligator gliding into the scummy pond, Malick captures a lyricism that somehow has eluded every filmmaker before or since. Much credit goes to the brilliant cinematography of John Toll (on a hot streak after back-to-back wins for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart, but the fact remains that Malick has managed to elicit the same kind of magical aesthetic with three generations of collaborators–even the bombastic Hans Zimmer‘s is tamed by his pacific outlook.  The film is ultimately a testament to an immaculate directorial vision for the ages.

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Best Director Home Stretch: Scott Hicks for Shine

SCOTT HICKS FOR SHINE (1996)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Anthony Minghella for The English Patient

Joel Coen for Fargo

Mike Leigh for Secrets & Lies

Miloš Forman for The People vs. Larry Flynt

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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Shine has more in common with Searching for Sugar Man, the recent Best Documentary winner, than any of the artistic biographies (Hilary and Jackie, Pollack) that followed after its success. Scott Hicks, an  standard biopic fare with one or two brilliant sequences; its captivating force comes not from the directorial style but from the excitement of discovering David Helfgott’s dormant musical genius. Hicks’ real coup was in the casting of the film; nowadays, Geoffrey Rush is the best-known actor in the film, but at the time he was unknown outside of Australian stage. That this great talent was cast as the lead (along with Noah Taylor and Alex Rafalowicz) in an ensemble dotted with the likes of Lynn Redgrave and John Gielgud, reinforced the narrative of discovery. Even if Rush’s breakout led to greater success than Helfgott’s comeback (judging from YouTube, his talent is not as recognizably brilliant as it seems in the film), Hicks’ excavation of a nearly forgotten talent is a powerful narrative force in its own right.

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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: 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: Miloš Forman for The People vs. Larry Flynt

MILOŠ FORMAN FOR THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Anthony Minghella for The English Patient

Joel Coen for Fargo

Scott Hicks for Shine

Mike Leigh for Secrets & Lies

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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I’m now returning to the first of three films left on the conveyor belt since last summer. It was tough to get a handle on The People vs. Larry Flynt on first viewing, but after revisiting it I have a better idea of its strengths and weaknesses and a clearer picture of what’s there beneath the surface.

Miloš Forman’s major project has been his profound reverence for irreverence. His irrepressibly anarchic spirit manifested early, in his taunting satires of communist life in Czechoslovakia (particularly in The Firemen’s Ball, with its debt to the Marx Brothers). Then came the Prague Spring and its military suppression by the Soviets. If impertinence was Forman’s directorial sensibility in these early films, it became his subject after his flight to the West. Starting with Randle Patrick McMurphy, Ken Kesey’s iconic literary creation, and continuing with three actual figures in Mozart, Flynt, and Kaufman, Forman seized upon the trickster as his central archetype. Embarrassingly, I haven’t seen The Man in the Moon, but One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus both stress the sublime nature of impertinence, even in its demise at the hand of a bitterly uncomprehending establishment. Irreverence, for Forman, is the soul of freedom.

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Best Director Final 50: Neil Jordan – The Crying Game

NEIL JORDAN FOR THE CRYING GAME (1992)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven

Robert Altman for The Player

Martin Brest for Scent of a Woman

James Ivory for Howards End

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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I came into Neil Jordan’s film with two things on my mind. The first was the tremendous story of the film’s awards campaign. Surely among the bigger flukes in Oscar history, the film at began as little more than the unlucky victim of bad timing as a spate of Ira-backed bombings dampened its reception in the UK. It took the magic of the Weinsteins, transitioning from maestros of the Foreign Language category to kings of the Oscar season (apparently by way of Irish cinema—see: My Left Foot) to pull off a miraculous second act. Their savvy marketing made the film a sleeper hit at the U.S. box office and the second breakout Oscar contender in Miramax history. The second thing on my mind was, of course, the legendary reveal of Dil’s secret, inaugurating a decade of plot twists (The Usual Suspects, Se7en, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense) celebrated enough to enter the vernacular. The novelty of the twist fueled the film’s box office in America and probably some of its awards success as well, and now it poses a particular challenge for me. How to evaluate a film so defined by its plot twist, one that has joined Rosebud and Soylent Green as shorthand for movie spoilers?

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