Monday, February 19, 2018

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The Unexpected: Director, 1982

"I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, wonderful. I make more mundane movies." Words famously uttered by the very honest Richard Attenborough, reacting not just to Gandhi's win for Best Picture, but to his own triumph in being named Best Director.

I have a great many friends who would agree with Attenborough's self-assessment, but we'll talk more about that later. I do wonder, though, what the late Attenborough would think of this year's Best Director lineup. Who among them is putting out inventive, powerful, wonderful work - and who is more mundane? Who are the Attenborough and Spielberg and etc. of 2017?

I think the Attenborough of 2017 is Dunkirk's Christopher Nolan - and no, it's not because of any mundanity. It's because we have a fixture of the cinema being given his due by playing to his strengths for a passion project 20 years in the making. For Attenborough, his British sensibilities and historical epics experience employed for a biopic of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. For Nolan, his unorthodox approaches to blockbuster storytelling enhance what could have been an otherwise straightforward telling of the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Who is the Sidney Lumet of 2017, the one making films for grownups? I should think that's obvious: Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Phantom Thread manages to be much larger than its intimate focus on a complex relationship would suggest. Inversely, Lumet takes a big underdog-vs.-Archdiocese courtroom thriller like The Verdict and never loses sight of the fact that, at heart, it's an intimate recovery drama. These are men who can focus on the macro and the micro in a single shot.

Whither the Wolfgang Petersen, rarely misstepping despite the unique challenges of his film, with an ear for surprising humor and a real sense of claustrophobia? Specific, yes! And also - that man is Jordan Peele, who makes social satire within a horror framework look as easy as a sprawling epic set within a submarine. You laugh, but you also can't escape a sense of dread, thanks chiefly to the sound design: Get Out with its spoon hitting the teacup, Das Boot with its propellers churning overhead.

How about a Sydney Pollack, so good with actors, maybe not offering the most visual pizzazz, but showing that directing is more than flash and dollies and whatnot, that performances and chemistry and a consistent handle on a tricky tone are just as important. Duh, Greta Gerwig; Lady Bird, like Tootsie, is hilarious and emotional and realistic, with a looseness belying its sturdy structure.

Which means the Spielberg equivalent is Guillermo del Toro, who also made a fantasy drama unapologetic in its sweetness, one that not only wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve, but recreates indelible moments from those films to further its sense of wonder.

Whew! The nominees of 1982, after the jump....

Richard Attenborough for Gandhi

Attenborough has three hours to cover 55 years of complex politics in South Africa and India, all specifically contextualized around the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. The scale is staggering, and it's admirable that he pulls it off. But he is often overwhelmed by the man at the center, not to the point of not knowing what to do, but at the risk of complexity. His veneration makes for a fascinating, gorgeous, well-acted movie...with not enough bite. At least he knows his strengths!

Sidney Lumet in The Verdict

Frank's closing argument is an encapsulation of Lumet's talents, a single take that takes in the towering set and ensemble, gradually pushing in as Newman's character becomes more certain of his until his powerful summation in close-up. It's not just the one scene, though; Lumet brings this same attention to every single scene, every element of filmmaking executed to its fullest potential, without bludgeoning. This is the master at work.

Wolfgang Petersen for Das Boot

Highly personal, inescapably suffocating - and on a grand scale! Petersen mines suspense from a story of wartime ennui, herding his large ensemble for singing, dancing, boredom, despair, dread... It's a movie with a lot of feelings, with Petersen putting the excitement and horror of war on full display.

Sydney Pollack for Tootsie

An actor's director, so no surprise that every performance - including his own - is delicious, not a false note struck. Indeed, he's extremely trusting, and the manic comic energy in certain scenes can be credited to his comfort with letting them play with each other, as well as to an appreciation and understanding of comedy that extends to the editing room.

Steven Spielberg for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

I don't think anyone else could have gotten such authentic, emotional performances from those kids. Too, no one nails wonder like Spielberg, and scenes like E.T. showing them "home" or making his machine or even leaving are awe-inspiring. The scenes with sick E.T.? Harrowing, traumatic even. Superbly done.


Attenborough, to his aforementioned surprise, won. I obviously wouldn't vote his way, but nor would I have gone for Spielberg. No, friends, the box I'm ticking belongs to....


(As for the 2017 lineup:
Paul Thomas Anderson - *****
Greta Gerwig - *****
Guillermo del Toro - ****
Jordan Peele - ****
Christopher Nolan - ***)

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at Best Adapted Screenplay: Das Boot, MissingSophie's ChoiceThe Verdict and Victor/Victoria.

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