MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Who’s the Best of the Best Director Nominees?

Here we are 17 short days from Oscar, the “Biggest Movie Event of the Year,” and over on the Gurus chart, they’ve got it nailed down to their top two picks in each category. I’ve written a lot of Oscar columns since coming on board here, covering the adapted and original screenplays, the acting categories, the foreigns, and the docs. Now, with less than three weeks to go until Hollywood’s big hot date night with itself, I’m taking a look at the contenders in the Best Director category.

The Gurus have Danny Boyle as the front-runner for Slumdog Millionaire, and he’s my pick for the win as well. In spite of the spate of last-minute PR nightmares the film has faced (see my column earlier this week for the rundown on that nonsense), Boyle is still holding onto the lead at this point, as well he should. There are those who don’t like Slumdog, who see it as too sugar-coated, or too unrealistic (because The Dark Knight, of course, was the ultimate in realism). And that’s fine, people have different tastes in film, which is as it should be, but how you feel about the film qua film has very little to do with analyzing Boyle’s directorial hand in making it.

Slumdog Millionaire is, aside from Frozen River, which failed to make the cut in either the directorial or best picture, perhaps the most unlikely of films to be sitting atop the Oscar charts. The film was initially passed on by Fox Searchlight, which ultimately picked it up and marketed it very effectively. Boyle is a director who (the charming Millions aside) is known for dark storylines and a frenetic directorial style, and at first glance he’d seem a dicey fit for this warm-souled tale of a poor boy who wins big.

When Boyle introduced the film at its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend he was visibly nervous about how the film would be received, warning the crowd that it opens with a torture scene, and that he’d not be offended if anyone felt the need to walk out at that point. All we had going into the film was that intro and the film’s title, and no one was quite sure what they were getting into. But after cheering and clapping along with the charming Bollywood dance sequence over the closing credits, people spilled out of the Palm Theater with that air of energy, jubilation and immense satisfaction of a film that connecting with an audience of movie lovers on just about every level. Of the many great films that played Telluride this year, none captured the hearts and imaginations of the cinephile audience likeSlumdog Millionaire.

Slumdog has Boyle’s fingerprints all over it in its visual style and kinetic energy. It’s brilliantly shot and edited as well, from the first scene of street kids being chased by cops through the streets of Mumbai, to the chilling attack by militant Hindus that leaves lead character Jamal and his brother Salim orphans, to the fantasically cut and paced “Paper Planes” sequence that shows the brothers surviving on their own with wit and resilience.

But it’s Boyle’s vision that shines through in every frame. Even the infamous “poop” scene, which my critics group, Alliance of Women Film Journalists, singled out for recognition as one of the most memorable movie moments of the year, is important to the storyline; it’s not about the poop, it’s about showing from early in the story the courage and tenacity that will carry this character through the entire film. It was Boyle’s intention from long before filming started that Slumdog show both the crushing poverty and brutal conditions of the slums of Mumbai and the spirit of hope that runs through it, and he achieves both in a visually lovely, fast-paced film that doesn’t flinch from the realities Boyle saw as an outsider looking in.

Could Slumdog Millionaire have been made by an Indian director? Probably, but it wouldn’t have been this film. It’s the perspective of someone from a completely different culture and background coming in and seeing it with fresh eyes that allowed Boyle to make the film he did. He had no political ties or motivations to worry about how he was portraying the slums and whether the upper and middle class elite of Mumbai might be offended by the story he put on the screen; he looked into the heart of Mumbai and the people who live in its lower realms, and he brought their intelligence, strength and ultimately, their hope of a better life onto the screen.

And it’s worthwhile to note that, for all the grumblings from certain quarters about how “real Indians” take issue with the way the film portrays life in Mumbai, the same has been true even when Indian directors make films that show the realities of that society that not everyone wants to face.

Deepa Mehta in particular has faced both criticism and threats for her films, to the extent that she’s been forced to conceal what she’s shooting and even move shoots entirely to get her stories told. Certainly there are those within Indian society who don’t want films that deal with certain difficult themes like sexual relationships between women (Mehta’s Fire), tensions between Hindus and Muslims in post-colonial India (Earth) or the treatment of widows (Water) in their culture dealt with in a public forum at all, and apparently neither do they like a Brit director showing the realities of poverty, the treatment of orphaned street kids, police brutality and the vast divide of wealth in Mumbai.

I find it interesting is that the book Q&A from which the film was adapated is actually much darker in tone and harsher in its judgment of Indian society and the divide between rich and poor than the movie Boyle made, but you don’t see many of those critical of those aspects of the film leveling the same criticism against Vikus Swarup, the Indian author who wrote it.

My second choice in the director category is Gus Van Sant, whose film Milk faced production details far more daunting than it would seem on the surface. Van Sant, in bringing to life the story of the last years and ultimate death of a man that many living in San Francisco knew personally, faced the challenge of telling the story of Harvey Milk in a way that was both compelling to those who know little or nothing about his story and honest to who the man was in the memories of those who knew him.

Van Sant and his team went into the Castro district and recreated it with minute attention to detail for how it looked when Harvey Milk came to San Francisco and opened his little camera shop there; they even went to the space where Milk’s shop once resided and got the current owner (who operates a gift shop there now) to agree to vacate his store for months so they could completely gut it and recreate the shop down to the finest details of how it looked when Milk owned it, adjusting and adding details based on feedback from Castro residents who wandered in to reminensce about how the shop looked back in Milk’s day.

Van Sant made some casting choices some in the gay community have questioned, but you can’t argue with the power of this talented ensemble cast, and particularly Sean Penn‘s remarkable performance as Harvey Milk in bringing the story to life. The film has a strong dramatic structure, it emotionally resonates, and Van Sant has brought the best of his talents as an edgy director to bear in making a film that feels polished and carefully crafted in spite of its rebellious core.

Looking at the other contendors, while I admire what David Fincher, one of my favorite filmmakers, accomplished with his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, that film just didn’t resonate for me to the extent that many other films this year did. It’s certainly an admirable, sweeping film with a lot to recommend it, but as far as Fincher’s directorial efforts go I liked it less than most of his other films, in particular Zodiac, and Fight Club, films that play far better to the director’s strengths as an auteur.

Ron Howard did a fine job with Frost/Nixon, which is actually one of my favorite of his films, but Frost/Nixon essentially takes a decently compelling stage play and puts it on the screen; the film has some dramatic tension, and it’s well-acted and put together, but ultimately it doesn’t offer any particular insight or closure around Richard Nixon, either for those who lived through Watergate or those who know it only from their history books. There are solid performances by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, but Frost/Nixon lacks the distinctive directorial stamp of Slumdog MillionaireMilk, or even Benjamin Button. It’s a good directorial effort, but nothing spectacular. And as for The Reader, it’s fine for what it is, but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Stephen Daldry‘s direction that qualifies it above the other contenders.

It’s unfortunate that the Academy chose to recognize Howard and Daldry, in particular, above stronger directorial efforts I would have liked to have seen in the running in this category. Mike Leigh made a far more innovative, compelling and emotionally intricate film in Happy-Go-Lucky, but his leading lady’s broken collarbone largely prevented her from charming the Academy into overlooking the director’s legendary churlishness in the way that his lead actresses did with both Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake.

Jonathan Demme made accessible a story about a very flawed, drug-addicted character diving into the emotional whirlpool of a family wedding and got breakthrough performances out of Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt, while first-time helmer Courtney Hunt finally saw a decade of effort pay off with the excellent Frozen River, one of the best films of the year (and a much, much better film than either Frost/Nixon or The Reader).

But Leigh, Demme and Hunt are not in the running, however much I might like them to be, and of the directors the Academy, in all its lofty collective wisdom, did choose to nominate, Boyle deserves to be the front-runner, and deserves to be up on that stage on Oscar night accepting his golden statue. Of all the directors nominated this year, Boyle is the only one whose film made me eager to see what he’ll do next … and that ability to make an audience want more is worth an Oscar, and then some.

by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon