By John H. Foote
Martin Scorsese once said, “for a filmmaker, history is the only critic that counts.”
Could truer words have been spoken? Yet while most directors are aware it might take years for their film to be embraced, they are stung when not nominated for an Academy Award. They might earn a DGA nod, hell they might win that coveted award from the Directors Guild, but the lack of an Academy Award nomination will hurt them the rest of their career.
What exactly does a director do? Only everything. Every creative and technical choice in the making of a film is run and approved by the director, there is not a single thing they are not aware of or supervising. Clint Eastwood believes his greatest job is casting, while Spielberg believes making the set conducive to creative involvement is what he does best. Woody Allen values his actors opinions, and often allows them to go off script to improvise their own dialogue, in character of course. Each is unique. I believe what Spielberg and Scorsese do is the most important aspect to direction of a film. Each creates an atmosphere on set of trust, so that everyone is a collaborator and can come forward to offer suggestions and opinions, not matter how lowly their position. Of course they must pick their moments as film directing is a high stress, fast paced job. The last thing anyone wants is 30 people offering their opinions at once. The creative vision is already in place, it is bringing that vision to the screen that becomes a team effort with the director very much the captain of said team.
How can the prime creative force of a film not be nominated for Best Director if their film receives multiple nominations including, sometimes, Best Picture? It is a question that remains unanswered and one that continues to happen as recently as this year when Bradley Cooper was snubbed for Best Director for his outstanding remake of A Star is Born (2018), a hit that was critically acclaimed and adored by audiences. Through the years great directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Kathryn Bigelow, and even the great John Ford have felt the indignity of being snubbed, more than once, for an Oscar nomination despite the extraordinary quality of their work.
In some cases, this can actually give the film a boost, as it did with Ben Affleck and Argo (2012). Virtually out of sight come Oscar nominations time, Affleck was snubbed, despite a DGA nomination and critics and Hollywood went out of their minds for the young director. His film was swept to Best Picture over greater works like Lincoln, The Master and Zero Dark Thirty, completing a huge swelling of affection for the director. Most of the time the snub just stings.
Here are the directors I believe deserved a nomination but were snubbed, despite rave reviews. Incredibly it happens to the best of them, even in their prime.
Runners up would include Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen for Singin’ in the Rain (1952); Billy Wilder for Ace in the Hole (1951); Alan J. Pakula for Sophie’s Choice (1982); Phillip Kaufmann for The Right Stuff (1983); Sergio Leone for Once Upon a Time in America (1984); Robert Zemeckis for Back to the Future (1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988); Penny Marshall for Awakenings (1990); Ridley Scott for Thelma and Louise (1991); Oliver Stone for Natural Born Killers (1994); Warren Beatty for Bulworth (1998); Darren Aronofksy for Requiem for a Dream (2000); Robert Zemeckis for Cast Away (2000); Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and King Kong (2005); David Fincher for Zodiac (2007); Martin Scorsese for Silence (2016); Bradley Cooper for A Star is Born (2018).
15. PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON FOR MAGNOLIA (1999) — For his mesmerizing film, which connects the lives of several characters living out their lives in Los Angeles, Anderson announced, with absolute confidence, he was among the giants of modern cinema. His previous films Hard Eight (1997) and the wild Boogie Nights (1997) made clear he was to be taken seriously, but Magnolia was something else altogether. Great actors, many in roles written specifically for them came together under Anderson’s watchful eye to give superlative performances, many radically different from anything they had ever attempted before, each displaying a range that was breathtaking to observe, to see, to experience. Nearly three hours in length, Magnolia unfolds like an intimate epic, getting so close to these people we can all but smell them, experiencing their tragedies and moments of hope with them. It is as if Altman and Scorsese collided with Lumet in style, giving us Paul Thomas Anderson and Magnolia. He takes enormous risks within the film, all the actors sing a song together but in various scenes, and in a stunning Biblical reference, it begins to rain frogs from the sky, foreshadowed by a sign in the bar from Exodus. Tom Cruise was never better than he is here as the preening, but deeply frightened sex guru, Julianne Moore is haunting as a trophy wife, John C. Reilly terrific as a decent cop, William H. Macy pathetic as a former child contestant still trying to cash in on what he believes he is owed from his success as a child, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, compassionate, perhaps too much so as a nurse caring for a dying man who has connections to the entire cast.
14. SARAH POLLEY FOR AWAY FROM HER (2007) — A gentle, yet undeniably powerful love story about a couple in their seventies dealing with the nightmare of Alzheimer’s disease. When Fiona (Julie Christie) realizes the disease is advancing rapidly within her, making her a danger to herself and her husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) she insists on checking into a long term care facility. But when Grant goes to see her after the initial 30 days she no longer knows him and has fallen for another man. Polley gently guides her actors through this delicate love story, her adaptation of the story perfect in every way. She taps into what is brave about Grant, his giving Fiona to another man because he knows it is best for her, what she needs. That said, she has moments where she realizes he cannot bear to be away from her. Impeccably acted by the two leads, beautifully written by the director, she never allows a false note, capturing the pain of a love being torn apart by a terrible disease. A very different type of love story, but one that strikes deep, right to the core of our souls because while watching, even though none of us want anything to do with Alzheimer’s, everyone should experience a love like this, an attachment to the soul, pure, perfect.
13. RON HOWARD FOR APOLLO 13 (1995) — Howard was robbed of a nomination for Best Director, though the Academy gave him one six years later for the inferior A Beautiful Mind (2001). With Apollo 13, Howard had his hands on a great historical event, one to which everyone in America knew the ending but still he managed to create shocking tension throughout the picture. Following closely the experience of astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) as he prepares to go to the moon, and in route a technical breakdown places the three astronauts in peril of not being able to return to earth. On the ground in Houston, technicians and engineers work to find a way to bring the boys home, under the watchful eye of Gene Kranz portrayed with intensity by Ed Harris. The effects, sound, cinematography are perfect but it is the very human element of the story where he soars, capturing the genuine terror the men felt while keeping it together and their families at home, never far from a television. This remains Howard’s finest hour, a masterful film, the best of the year and the fact it was nominated for nine, and ignored for Best Director remains a blight on the Academy.
12. FRANK DARABONT FOR THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) — A novella written by horror writer Stephen King became one of the best loved films of the decade, a remarkable story of friendship behind the walls of a prison, a microcosm of life, where an entire world plays out. Having been sent to prison for life for a crime he did not commit, and he really did not, Andy (Tim Robbins) finds a best friend in Red (Morgan Freeman). The two could not be more unlike, yet they forge a deep bond that remains for more than 25 years in jail. It comes as no surprise when Andy breaks out, but it is the genius with which he did so, the patience, the planning that makes the escape so remarkable. And Red is not far behind, though he never suspected he would be in such a place with his dear friend. Darabont does not make a false move with the film, it might be a perfect movie. There are the horrors of prison, the insects in the food, the rapes, the beatings, the corruption Andy and Red see first hand, but there are also moments of joy, such as the men hearing opera for the first time, or Andy explaining to Red the value of hope. And hope we come to understand is a very good thing.
11. CECIL B. DEMILLE FOR THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) — For sheer size, you have to give the man credit. Old Cecil was a dictator on set, not much with actors, bossing them around like cattle, but the man could put on a helluva show and with his final film, a remake of his own The Ten Commandments, that is just what he did. Casting young Charlton Heston was perhaps his greatest action on the film, as Heston was magnificent as Moses, you believe every action, every word, and some of that dialogue was pretty hokey. Where DeMille shines as a director is in the big expansive scenes, the building of the temple for Seti, the extraordinary Exodus sequence, and the parting of the Red Sea. He builds the tension for each perfectly, and executes the action to each with great power. No one can out do the old boy for putting on a show, though in fairness James Cameron comes close. People knock DeMille for his lack of talent with actors, but maybe he was smart enough to leave them alone, as Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese so. They cast them and then trust them. DeMille certainly did something right for the film to still be beloved 63 years after its release.
10. SEAN PENN FOR INTO THE WILD (2007) — One of the screen’s greatest actors began directing in 1991, and 16 years later gave us his masterpiece, the extraordinary Into the Wild, based on a true story. In his youth Penn would have been an easy choice to play Chris, the son of wealthy parents, a fresh face college graduate who despises it all and drops off the face of the earth to experience life by going off the grid and into the wild. Angered at his parents lust for money, for prestige, all the while a smoldering cauldron of dysfunction, Chris leaves headed for the purity of Alaska. He plans to live off the land, see the wildlife described by Jack London in Call of the Wild, and to find himself, his real self and stare at him in the mirror. He works his way across the heartland, making friends he will abandon, each making a profound impact on him, and they take a piece of him away with them. Actor Emile Hirsch was superb in the film, but has never reached these heights again. Penn was nominated for a DGA Award for his sublime direction, capturing both the epic beauty of nature, and the realization by Hirsch that indeed there are greater things than money because nothing in the wild costs anything. A breathtaking, bold work that feels forever like a film from the seventies.
9. CHRISTOPHER NOLAN FOR THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) — Nolan’s great achievement is that he made a comic book movie, a super hero film into art, a truly great film, easily the year’s best. The film is tension filled, intense with action, the score like a heartbeat on the track, giving the film the sense of being something alive with a pulse. Heath Ledger goes beyond acting here as the Joker, he is a madman, however dangerous, who thrives on chaos. He knows before Batman realizes it that he does not want the hero dead, they thrive with each other. What is Batman without the Joker? Ledger is sublime in the role, going far beyond what Jack Nicholson did in Batman (1989) for director Tim Burton. He is fearless, furious, perverse, twisted and deeply insane. Nolan gives the film a dark edge and maintains it throughout, you just cannot look away from the screen lest you miss something. THAT is a huge accomplishment, especially for a comic book film. This director saw depth where we did not, and the result was film art. How was this missed for Best Picture and Best Director? Should have won both.
8. VICTOR FLEMING FOR THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) — Fleming won Best Director for his other film that year, a little movie called Gone with the Wind (1939) which is a formidable achievement, no question. But look at The Wizard of Oz, from beginning to end and tell me with a straight face Gone with the Wind is: 1 – a better film, and 2 – a greater directorial achievement? Consider the decision to open the film in a burnished sepia tone, not quite black and white, and when Dorothy opens the door in Munchkinland it becomes colour, an extraordinary move that at once plunged us into the fantasy. The characters, though fantastical, each have a connection to Dorothy in her real life back home in Kansas, making them all the more realistic, and the Witch, Miss Gulch back home, truly vile and hateful. Fleming knew the risk in making the film, there was a chance something would go wrong and everything would fall apart, and he was right, one single performance, one song, one moment not working and it was undone. But so gifted a director was he, nothing of the sort happened and the result for him were two of the greatest films ever made in a single year. The lion’s share of awards came for Gone with the Wind but history has been kinder to The Wizard of Oz, which I believe is his greatest work, speaking to humanity far more than his Civil War epic. That trip over the rainbow remains as powerful today as it was back then, a trip filled with adventure, joy, love, horror, cruelty, death and hope, and finally realizing that home, well there is no place like it.
7. STANLEY KUBRICK FOR THE SHINING (1980) — Watching The Shining opening day in 1980 with my younger brother Steve, the two of us were struck by the amount of laughter in the cinema. Did this audience not know Kubrick? Did they not understand what he had done? Very different from the King book, the moment it was sold to Kubrick it became his story. What the audience failed to do was experience the film, they were merely watching not experiencing. Had they been experiencing the movie, no one would have laughed when Jack came through the door with the axe, because Kubrick had placed them on the other side of that door. Not so funny then is it? As Wendy backs away from Jack, and he taunts her, audiences laughed, but again, put yourself in her position and not a moment of this terrifying film is humourous. Only Jack Nicholson could portray Jack Torrance because Nicholson can walk the fine line of being frightening without going over the top. When she finds his “writing”, his single sentence to her, “do you like it?” is terrifying, conjuring nightmares yet to come. When he talks to Lloyd, the never blinking bartender, a ghost from another time, he is in the moment, there is no doubt the ghost is there, right in front of him. Kubrick was a tough filmmaker, demanding much from his actors, but the results were always superb. Actors often gave their greatest performances for him, though Nicholson by this time was an Oscar winning actor and widely revered. Kubrick’s haunting direction in bringing the Overlook Hotel to life, allowing its ghosts to exist is subtle, quiet perfection. He and Nicholson were robbed of nominations. Far ahead of its time, as the slasher films have been all but forgotten, the legacy of The Shining grows, ever stronger.
6. MEL GIBSON FOR THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) — To be clear, Gibson never said he was making a film about the life of Christ, instead he always maintained this film was about the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus. Told with a bold narrative, shocking, realistic violence and flashbacks to the life of the man, it is the most extraordinary religious film ever made. The courage he displayed in its creation is remarkable, choosing to shoot the film without studio money, he funded the film entirely on his own, 30 million dollars. Using dead languages for the words spoken in the picture, he used subtitles only after being convinced to do so by fellow directors who screened the film. When he made the deal for distribution, Newmarket Films took it on, receiving five per cent of the gross, while Gibson pocketed 95%. The film grossed over 500 million worldwide, a shocking box office hit, sort of the dirty secret of the film. Much was made of the violence within the picture, but history shows us these were barbaric times and a great deal of time was spent finding new and horrific ways to tear apart the human body. What Jesus went through on his way to the cross was horrific and, once at the top of the hill, it just got worse, if that was possible. Beautifully shot, edited, scored, and directed with intense genius. The Academy should be ashamed they gave him an Oscar for Braveheart (1995) but did not even nominate him for this.
5. CHARLES CHAPLIN FOR CITY LIGHTS (1931) — Sound had been created, had taken over movies, but Chaplin had already started production on this film and did not believe sound would add anything to it, and people had no interest in hearing his tramp speak did they? So four years after audiences heard Al Jolson sing from the screen, a silent film was released in 1931, not just any silent film, the greatest silent film ever made, directed and created entirely by the great Charles Chaplin. Did any artist have a greater awareness of what they did well on screen than Chaplin? I think not. His precision comedy, perfect pathos, near balletic movements, are remarkable throughout this gentle fable about a tramp in love with a blind girl, trying to restore her sight. Of course he prevails, and at the end of the film she realizes who he is and what he has done for her. She says to him, “Now I see”, words that mean so much more than we imagine. The camera under Chaplins direction moves in on him, with flower in hand, he smiles, nervously, gently, perfectly. Chaplin made comedy art by using social issues, sometimes tough onces, and forcing us to laugh at them, because the joy we take in overcoming is always greater than the despair we felt at the situation. The greatest silent film ever made, his direction was crisp, clean, not a false note throughout, not an easy task considering he is in nearly every frame of this majestic work of art.
4. JOHN FORD FOR THE SEARCHERS (1956) — “I make westerns” John Ford once growled to Cecil B. DeMille before bringing down the great director at a DGA meeting. Indeed he did, but they were so much more. Ford understood the power of the land, and the landscape, and understood just what the men and women who had conquered the west had gone through to do so. In 1929 he took his cast and crew into Monument Valley and became a frequent visitor to the locations, so often the Indians living there named a road after him. The Searchers was his greatest film,and stands tall even today as one of the greatest westerns ever made. To frequent readers the story is well known: racist Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) searches for years for his kidnapped nieces, finding one of them raped and dead in a canyon, the other years after, married to “a buck”, or young male warrior. It has become clear to his travelling companion Marty that Ethan no longer has any want to bring Debbie home, he plans to kill her for being defiled. Yet when he sees her, he cannot do it, instead sweeping her into his massive arms and whispering to her “Lets go home Debbie”. Ford directed some of the best performances John Wayne ever gave, none more brilliant than this. His command of the language of cinema was second to none. Watch the scenes in Monument Valley, soaring in their raw beauty, startling in their epic intimacy. Ford won four Academy Awards as Best Director but I suspect he would have given them all back to be recognized for this, the film he considered his greatest.
3. KATHRYN BIGELOW FOR ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) — How does Bigelow win an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (2009) and then surpass that achievement and not even be nominated????? After becoming the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (2009), Bigelow incredibly surpassed her accomplishment on that film with Zero Dark Thirty, the intense story of how a woman from the CIA found Osama Bin Laden, hiding in plain sight, and the Navy Seal assassin squad who assassinated him. Tension filled despite knowing the outcome. The director fills the film with taut, unbearable tension, focusing her story on Maya (Jessica Chastain) the brilliant young operative who figures out where the most wanted man in the world is hiding. Not in the caves of Pakistan, not in the deserts of Iraq, but in a compound with family members in Pakistan. Bigelow directs the film with a matter of fact tension that is often unbearable. She drew a superb performance out of Chastain who lets the act of finding Bin Laden take over her entire being. The lady should have another Oscar for this stunner. The direction is superb, building tension throughout which is finally unleashed at the end. Superb cinematography, film editing, sound and sound editing merging with Bigelow’s direction to make this an absolute stunner. Shocking insight into the intelligence community and fearless in showing that Americans do use torture.
2. STEVEN SPIELBERG FOR JAWS (1975) — How does the director of perhaps the greatest thriller ever made NOT get nominated for Best Director? For his improvising on set and finding ways to get around what did not work, he deserved to be nominated. When the film came out, Spielberg had doubled the budget and gone months over the shooting schedule. But first screenings told Universal they had a blockbuster on their hands, and they were right. What they did not expect was that it would be such a genuinely great film! From the wonderful performances from the cast, the stunning cinematography, the effects, the extraordinary film editing that pieced the film together – everything went as it should. And then John Williams gave it that score and the greatest thriller ever made was born. Spielberg had to think fast on location when the three mechanical sharks built for the film failed him, one of them sinking to the bottom of the sea. The mouths would not open, the eyes did not work, it was one thing after another so the director decided less is more, he would not show the shark until the end of the film and, when under the sea, we would see the world from the sharks point of view. The fact Jaws received a measly four nominations (though it won three of them) has always been a bone of contention for me, but the fact Steven Spielberg was ignored for one of his early masterpieces is criminal.
1. MARTIN SCORSESE FOR TAXI DRIVER (1976) — Watching this film for the first time in 1976, I was aware I was in the hands of a master, right from the opening frames. The steam billowing up from the street grate, as though hell were about to burst through from the bowels of the earth, the taxi gliding through the night like a dream, though a nightmare, and Travis. The haunted Vietnam veteran who drives a cab because he cannot sleep, Travis is utterly mad, a ticking time bomb about to go off and rage against the filth he sees in the city. Through his haunted eyes we see the city nightlife, New York City pre-Giuliani, before Times Square became a tourist destination. Travis sees hookers, drug addicts, dealers, and murder happening right in front of him, sex happening on the street, sometimes in his cab, and he encounters those who will shape his life. Scorsese shot the film as though we were watching a dream, hypnotic, using slow motion sometimes, all headed towards the explosion of violence from Travis to save a 12-year old hooker, who told him she never needed saving. Never before had I witnessed such carnage on the screen, and it just kept going until finally, bathed in blood, Travis visually asks the police to kill him because really, that has been what he has wanted all along. Instead he is a hero for returning the pre-teen hooker to her parents and is soon driving a cab again. But we catch his eyes in the rear view mirror and know he is ticking again, and will do the same thing, very soon. Because Travis is insane, and a killer. Scorsese created one of the darkest, most disturbing films ever made, a descent into madness that is a descent into the mind of a madman. It was the arrival of the greatest film director in American film history. The film received four nominations, but nothing for Scorsese.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.