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A funny thing happened on the way to this year’s Oscars: A whole swath of veteran directors dropped out of contention, and a fresh batch of filmmakers stepped in to take their place.
Overlooked were such heavyweights as Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg — each a giant with a new film in theaters (respectively, Snowden, Silence, Allied, Sully and The BFG). Instead, the Academy named four first-time directing nominees — Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) and Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) — and one veteran, Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge).
Think this is just a quirk? The Directors Guild of America was even more extreme when it unveiled its feature nominees. Of the five, only Garth Davis (Lion) had been nominated for an earlier DGA award, and that was in television, not film.
What this suggests is not simply a bias toward youth in an industry that often has proved ageist as well as sexist, but also possibly a seismic shift, as the filmmakers who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s begin to pass the baton to the next generation.
Every year the Oscar nominees seem to include a few fresh faces. But this is the first year in recent times that the Academy has highlighted so much new talent — men (no women, alas) who largely are at the beginning of their careers and certainly at the beginning of their Academy experience.
In 2016, Alejandro G. Inarritu (The Revenant) was the only director previously nominated in this category, but among his rival contenders, George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) was a four-time nominee in other categories (who had won for 2006’s best animated feature, Happy Feet), while Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) had drawn acclaim for work including 2003’s The Station Agent and 2009’s Up.
These men were older than the current directing frontrunners: La La Land‘s Chazelle, 32, and Moonlight‘s Jenkins, 37. (Villeneuve is 49; Lonergan, 54; and Gibson, 61.) Perhaps it’s this broad span of ages that makes it so difficult to create a unified theory about their work and makes it premature to define them as an American New Wave. But groups always seem to coalesce more clearly in retrospect.
It took years before the term “neorealism” took hold with such postwar Italian filmmakers as Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti. Similarly, it was a while before observers defined Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and their peers as the French New Wave.
These directors seem even more different from one another today than they did at the time, and many went in very separate directions as their careers advanced. But, at least for a while, they represented a similar ethos: The Italians all were governed by a desire to focus on Italy’s real-life problems, the French by a rejection of the cinema that came before them and a belief in the director as auteur.
The last American wave, if there was one, emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s and was centered on filmmakers who, by and large, were defined by their film school experience or relationships, even if they never went to film school themselves. Unlike the older artists they admired, Spielberg, George Lucas, Brian De Palma and their brethren seemed to think through the camera, so that the medium did indeed become the message; theater and the written word belonged to another era.
Their sheer joy in film contrasted with the generation immediately before theirs, an anti-authoritarian group that had come of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, and that reacted viscerally to a crumbling studio system, as well as a society still dealing with the trauma of the Vietnam War. Their dark vision showed up in such pictures as 1971’s The French Connection, 1972’s The Godfather and 1979’s Being There. If this older group tilted at windmills, the younger group embraced them. Audience-friendly stories, with big and bold narratives, were the order of the day, social critique be damned.
Which of those two patterns of thinking will mark the current Oscar nominees is hard to tell. Indeed, what’s most striking about the new directors is just how different they seem from one another.
As much as La La Land appears to be an homage to Old Hollywood (and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), with its return to the musical format, so Moonlight is a rejection of Hollywood convention, with its unusual structure, characters and themes that would have been inimical to the Hollywood of old — even to the Hollywood of just a few years ago.
It may be that these filmmakers’ simultaneous emergence is pure coincidence, and that the idea of an American New Wave is merely an outsider’s construct. Or it may be that they are emissaries of deeper change.
In the late 1960s, the arrival of directors such as Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) heralded the collapse of the studio system and paved the way for a bold and radical group of directors, the likes of whom never have been seen since.
Perhaps Jenkins, Chazelle and their peers are in the vanguard of a brilliant new generation to come. Or perhaps they are simply dazzling originals whose very originality sets them apart from any group.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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