From 'Roma' to 'Vice': How Oscar-Nominated Directors Got Personal With Their Films

Illustration by Maria Corte

Alfonso Cuaron's intimate drama based on his Mexico City childhood and Adam  McKay's satirical yet deeply felt political biopic were films that drew on their creator's unique experiences and worldviews.

Forget best picture — to get a true snapshot of the year's finest movies, look at the Oscars' best directing category, with five intensely personal, aesthetically daring films.

The connection between the personal and artistic helps explain the films' brilliance. Alfonso Cuaron's Roma and Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War turn family memories into exquisite, although very different, black-and-white masterpieces. Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman and Adam McKay's Vice are driven by the directors' long-standing political and social passions in films that beautifully balance wit and realism. Yorgos Lanthimos' historical romp The Favourite is less personal but has an off-kilter tone that could have come from no one else.

It is disappointing that no woman was nominated — Debra Granik, in particular, for her nuanced coming-of-age film Leave No Trace. That glaring omission aside, there is not a single by-the-numbers film among this year's nominees, an unusually auteurist group. Four of these directors either wrote or co-wrote their screenplays, and the uncredited Lanthimos worked closely with writer Tony McNamara on The Favourite.

Cuaron, who won the category with 2013's Gravity, has become the hard-to-beat frontrunner (he won the DGA Award on Feb. 2 and the Golden Globe for best director in January). But think back a few months and consider how audacious it was for him to take memories of childhood and a nanny in Mexico and create a foreign-language film with unknown stars that turned out to be a marvel, visually and emotionally. The awards success of Roma is much more than a triumph of Netflix campaigning.

Like Roma, Cold War displays an uncompromising artist's vision that seems to flow from the director's intense connection to his material. Pawlikowski transformed the story of his parents' tumultuous marriage into one of the most wildly ambitious and elegant films of the year — swoonily romantic, gorgeously photographed yet with sociopolitical weight as it travels from communist Poland to France. Cold War should have been on the best picture list, but at least the directing category got it right.

The pair of films made history in a number of ways: The last time two foreign-language movies were nominated for best directing was in 1976 (Face to Face and Seven Beauties), and two black-and-white movies had not been nominated in the best cinematography category since 1967, when the Academy eliminated the black-and-white cinematography category.

Lee's nomination, his first as director, is not merely a career-achievement nod for his many films exposing racial injustice and telling stories from a black creator's point of view. The story of a black detective who joins the Ku Klux Klan is inherently comic, and Lee captures its jaw-dropping humor. But he also turns BlacKkKlansman into a politically urgent drama. Its parallels between the Klan's racist presence in the '70s and the way it still virulently poisons society today seem more relevant by the minute.

McKay, whose liberal political views are well known, clues audiences in with the title of Vice, which goes on to depict former Vice President Dick Cheney as manipulator in chief and architect of misbegotten wars. McKay upends the traditional biopic with his scattershot approach, which ranges from laugh-out-loud satire to somber scenes of death. Like BlacKkKlansman, Vice is a dazzling combination of the writer-director's political passion and his artistic daring.

Films with such auteurist fingerprints don't always dominate the directing category. Cuaron's Gravity was a far less personal work in which the technical achievement overwhelms the story. Life of Pi wasn't especially personal for winner Ang Lee, nor The Revenant for Alejandro G. Inarritu.

Less personal films were circling the best directing category this year, too. Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born, a remake and a project that morphed as it moved from Clint Eastwood's hands to Cooper's, is a well-directed example of a studio movie. It is not innovative and not in the same artistic realm as the films from this year's nominated directors. Cooper may have been edged out of the category, but he wasn't robbed.

A Star Is Born did make it onto the best picture list, though, thanks to the decade-old expansion of nominees beyond five, which is fine. There's room on the ballot for a solid middle-of-the-road movie.

It's great that Black Panther got a best picture nomination. Ryan Coogler's superhero film is a model of how good a franchise action movie can be. But its stature comes more from its galvanizing cultural importance as a black-centric blockbuster than it does from artistic innovation.

This year, especially, the best picture list also reveals how the Academy's quest to reward popular films can go wrong. Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury biopic, is a surprising nominee given that the crowd-pleaser earned tepid reviews. Green Book has both supporters and detractors, who have criticized it for stereotyping black and Italian-American characters and for a derivative style.

The best director nominations reflect only that branch of the Academy, of course, and not all the voters. But look at the category and anyone would think we were in the heyday of ambitious auteurist films. Maybe we actually are.

This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.