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Todd McCarthy: Oscars Finally Reward Auteurs in the Best Director Category

"There is not a hired hand in the bunch," writes THR's chief film critic, as he reflects on the five nominees who all, for the first time in history, also wrote or co-wrote their films.

Those who have been working on behalf of change at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whether in regard to the age, gender or race of the nominees, have to be quite pleased with the lineup of five finalists in the director category this year.

Voters have continued the recent trend of singling out new names; for the fourth year in a row, only one of the anointed talents has ever been nominated before. Two of the five this year could never have been previously nominated for the simple reason that they’d never before directed a feature film. And of those two, one is a woman and the other is African-American.

The result is the sort of group portrait the Academy began longing for some years back and has now come to pass. New blood is the name of the game. This year, the oldest director of the five — and by quite some distance — is Guillermo del Toro at 53 (the irony being that he seems like the biggest kid of the bunch). If, a year ago, Academy members had been told that two of the five nominated directors of 2017 would be Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig, a good many of them might well have said, “Who?” The two directors who have been around Hollywood the longest and have made the most films that people in town actually have seen, Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson, are both, at 47, still short of the midcentury mark while already having made 10 and eight features, respectively.

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I don’t quite agree with all the nominations; there’s at least one slot that would have been more deservedly filled by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name) or Sean Baker (The Florida Project). But what’s great about them as a group is that all five directors scored with films they wrote or co-wrote and that felt intimate to their lives and concerns (and, yes, I certainly consider Dunkirk intimate, even though the story is played out against the grandest of backdrops). This has become increasingly true over the past several years, but I can’t think of an Oscar year in which the five directorial nominees were as representative of the notion of the cinema d’auteur; there is not a hired hand in the bunch.


This is most obviously the case with Greta Gerwig’s autobiographical debut feature, Lady Bird, which came out of nowhere at the Telluride Film Festival to become one of the most widely embraced films of the year. Striking a perfect balance between the personal and the widely accessible, the film continues to remind me, in the context of memorable directorial debuts, of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in the way it wears its autobiographical cloak lightly; Lady Bird grapples with serious, life-defining issues in an almost breezy way that never undercuts the gravity of the events. Its success as an entertainment is completely compatible with the weight and truthfulness of its insights. In earning her nomination with her debut feature, Gerwig became just the fifth woman to be recognized in this category, and the first female nominee since Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker seven years ago.

The other, even more startling writer-director entrance of the year was made by Jordan Peele with Get Out — startling in that it came completely out of nowhere; there was nothing in the careers of anyone connected to this film that would have led anyone to believe in the project’s potential to do what it ended up doing, which was to emerge as the 15th-biggest-grossing film of the year with $176 million domestically, right behind Dunkirk. It was some kind of miracle communion of serio-comic attitude and the zeitgeist that put this utterly serious racial comedy on a track that began at Sundance (as the surprise screening) a year ago, and it still hasn’t stopped. Some films manage to miss their moment, but Get Out is a work by and of its time.

If there were a personal popularity contest among directors, the winner, not just among the five nominees but among filmmakers overall, would have to be Guillermo del Toro. He’s the cinema’s pied piper — film fans will follow him anywhere to listen to him speak, and he’s the most gregarious and generous of directors and buffs. When his buoyant post-Shape of Water screening conversation in Telluride had been in progress only 10 minutes or so, the moderator announced that the Q&A would have to end to make way for the next scheduled event. Del Toro promptly said something like, “Look, there’s much more to talk about, so let’s just go onto the lawn outside and we’ll keep talking there!” Virtually the entire packed house took him up on it.

Christopher Nolan made the only blockbuster-scaled, big studio-financed film to receive a directorial nomination this year. In a more traditional climate and an earlier time in Hollywood and Oscar history, Dunkirk probably would have been closer to a sure thing, awards-wise, than it is today, given its grand and classic subject matter. That said, its dramatic architecture is anything but conventional, with its trifurcated structure and the relativity of its time frames.


While Paul Thomas Anderson is the only director in this year’s group to have been nominated before (for 2007’s There Will Be Blood), he also has to be considered the longest shot. Critics and connoisseurs have generally embraced Phantom Thread, although even its biggest backers, among whom I consider myself, freely admit it’s a total oddball. Where did the idea for this movie come from? I still haven’t a clue, but I like it all the same. It’s the sort of smallish, one-off film that top directors get to make once in a while, one that no one expects to make much money (at just $15 million domestically, it’s by far the lowest grosser so far among the five films by nominated directors) and for which no one expects the director to win. But it’s great that he made it.

One thing you can say about all five nominated directors this year is that none of them played it safe; all were out there with idiosyncratic films of one kind or another that easily could have gone off course and not clicked with critics or audiences. They all took chances, which is not something you could say about many of the conventional, middlebrow films that so often have been finalists in Oscar races.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.