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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3 Down, 7 to Go: Alfred Hitchcock for Lifeboat

ALFRED HITCHCOCK FOR LIFEBOAT (1944)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Leo McCarey for Going My Way

Henry King for Wilson

Otto Preminger for Laura

Billy Wilder for Double Indemnity

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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How great is a minor film by a major filmmaker? If any other director of the 1940s had tackled Lifeboat, it might have been remembered among the landmark cinematic experiments of the decade (witness: Ang Lee). However, as a part of Hitchcock’s prodigious oeuvre, it goes down as a second-tier effort even in terms of the master filmmaker’s middle period. With Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and even the nearly avant-garde Rope close at hand for comparison, Hitchcock’s ambitious if flawed storytelling exercise has been dwarfed in its legacy. Yet to the Directors Branch at the time, Hitchcock’s film, shot over months in an elevated water tank on the Fox lot, presented a masterful and undeniably award-worthy filmmaking achievement.

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Best Director Home Stretch: J. Lee Thompson for The Guns of Navarone

J. LEE THOMPSON FOR THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins for West Side Story

Federico Fellini for 8½

Stanley Kramer for Judgment at Nuremberg

Robert Rossen for The Hustler

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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If Wake Island was the hasty call to action for the World War II combat film, The Guns of Navarone displayed the genre at its bombastic peak. J. Lee Thompson’s adventure appeared amidst a cycle of blockbuster behind-enemy-lines productions that stretched from The Bridge on the River Kwai to The Dirty Dozen. Thompson directs the tale with a muscular action film sensibility, but I was struck by the frequent flares of contention within the ranks of the usual team of highly trained specialists. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, recently freed from the Hollywood Blacklist (which had deprived him and Michael Wilson of their Oscars for Kwai) intended the movie as antiwar tale of the toll taken on the characters’ humanity even in the process of saving countless lives. The film that results is a fascinating mix of blend of taut caper and critical meditation on the tough decisions that must be made in the fog of war.  Like The Bridge on the River Kwai, the film presents the grim business of war before capping everything off with a triumphant explosion and calling the wreckage a victory.

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Best Director Home Stretch: John Farrow for Wake Island

JOHN FARROW FOR WAKE ISLAND (1942)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

William Wyler for Mrs. Miniver

Michael Curtiz for Yankee Doodle Dandy

Mervyn LeRoy for Random Harvest

Sam Wood for King’s Row

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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The first of two World War II dramas I watched last night was startling in its immediacy. Released eight months after Pearl Harbor, John Farrow’s vivid recreation of crushing military defeat was the first full-fledged combat film to emerge during the war, leading a charge of productions that would dominate theaters for several years to come. John Farrow’s realization of the siege and conquest itself portrays the faraway conflict with a close-to-home thrill, while W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler’s screenplay, written under the auspices of the US Marine Corps and the freshly established Hollywood Branch of the Office of War Information, recasts the naval outpost’s surrender to Japanese forces as a heroic last stand. Hitting theaters in the middle of 1942, amid a cascade of setbacks in the American and Allied war effort, Wake Island strikes a powerful minor chord to commence Hollywood’s dramatization of the struggle, framing the story in a somber resolution to fight on.

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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: 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

Best Director Final 50: William A. Wellman for Battleground

WILLIAM A. WELLMAN FOR BATTLEGROUND (1949)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives

Carol Reed for The Fallen Idol

Robert Rossen for All the King’s Men

William Wyler for The Heiress

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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To borrow a metaphor from Manny Farber, William A. Wellman’s preeminent critical advocate, Battleground is war from the termite’s point of view. Forgoing the omniscient scope and overdone stylistics of the MGM Van Johnson combat films produced during the war, Wellman confines the story of the Siege of Bastogne to the perspective of a single squadron of the 101st Airborne Division. It is to Wellman’s credit that he could deliver such an understated depiction of American heroics at Louis B. Mayer’s MGM, and with Johnson headlining the cast, no less. To be sure, he was helped by the strong support of producer Dore Schary, who brought the script with him from RKO (where it was inauspiciously titled “Prelude to Love”) and fought against both Mayer and the prevailing wisdom regarding war films to get it made. To safeguard the integrity of the story, Schary chose the fiercely independent Wellman to direct, yielding a war story remarkable for is grounded emphasis on the thick of the fight.

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