The Top 10 Directing Turns That Should Have Won Oscar

[15 December 2011]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Every year, the argument begins. Some famed filmmaker is left off the Oscar list while his movie remains a contender for the top prize. This leads to the natural denouncements like “the movie didn’t direct itself,” while others point out that great performances and expert realization of the printed word are all within the purview of the man or woman sitting behind the lens. Yet the director always seems to be the last one legitimately acknowledged. Sometimes, a name is swept in on a wave of celebration and support. In other instances, the lack of recognition is laughable.

Looking over a small list of who has an Academy Award for their work in the director’s seat and who doesn’t is shocking enough. Tom Hopper has one. Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher do not. Ron Howard has one. Paul Greengrass and Alexander Payne don’t. In fact, there are actors with more Oscar nods than legitimate icons of the directing trade. The fact that both Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner have awards and Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino do not is just jaw-dropping. While one could easily continue on with such a list, it is perhaps better to point out 10 of the most egregious oversights. The cinematic sins exposed here are so horrid in fact, it’s hard to get a handle on how they happened. The only important thing to remember is, they did, beginning with this unfathomable affront:

Robert Altman (Short Cuts)

Though his name is associated with many of the post-modern classics name-checked by scholars (M*A*S*H*, 3 Women, Nashville), Altman never took home the industry’s top prize. So it’s a shame that he had to go into creative exile after Popeye, only to come back and prove himself ever the auteur with this sprawling interpretation of Raymond Carver stories.  For sheer scope alone, he deserves top honors. For his handling of the amiable all star cast, he mandates much, much more.

Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)

Considering his initial body of work - Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia - no one could have expected that PTA would take Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! and transform it into an undeniable epic of human greed and temptation. While Daniel Day Lewis once again took home a little gold statue, his director was left out of the accolades, and unfairly so. Aside from the atmosphere he created and approach he took, he crafted the screenplay, another notch in his already ample aesthetic belt.

Jane Campion (Angel at My Table)

Everyone always goes overboard for Campion’s mid-19th century sex slog, The Piano. Just because Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel went full frontal for their craft doesn’t mean the movie is all that good. Instead, this is the film that proves the New Zealand director’s mantle. After the brilliantly abrasive Sweetie, Campion came upon the story of writer Janet Frame and her personal and professional difficulties. The result was the kind of considered biopic that offers as many psychological insights as career benchmarks. A masterpiece.

Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen)

Here’s another filmmaker who gets championed/chastised for the wrong film. While Brazil was indeed brilliant, it was easy for Gilliam. He remains the master of inspired irony. No, taking on the classic German fairy tale character and overcoming several production delays proved that no one suffers for his art like the ex-pat Python. But it’s the results that speak volumes for his true abilities behind the lens. Stunning to look at and exciting to experience, it remains his best film, and the best argument for who he is.

Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby)

Few filmmakers can claim an entire classic Hollywood subgenre, but starting with this amazing farce, Hawks crafted something called the screwball comedy into a true movie art. While he would amplify this aesthetic with the equally amazing His Girl Friday, Baby began it all, from the manic delivery of dialogue to the meshing of manic characters and even crazier situations. Like mainstreaming the Marx Brothers into something resembling cinema, Hawks had the upper hand in forging a new film language. All others simply had to sit back and learn.

Hitchcock and more...

Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo)

Hitchcock actually got five chances to take home Oscar glory. He received nominations for Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho. Of course, he never won one, which is a crime in and of itself. More stunning is the fact that in the year in which this quintessential film was released (1958), he didn’t even warrant a nod. Shameful, especially when you consider the work of uncompromising beauty and heartache he created. Some have ventured that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s more personal film. Perhaps that explains the lack of acceptance.

Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey)

We know… Kubrick took home an Oscar for his collaborative work on this monumental movie’s groundbreaking special effects. But as the man who many consider to be one of the greatest director’s of all time, he never received ‘that’ recognition. Called cold and uncompromising by critics and lacking real commercial clout, he was always seen as a geek’s god. Today, that title would be horribly misguided. The fact that 2001 remains one of the best films of all time should be reason enough for more acknowledgment.

Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing)

With his first film, 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, he singlehandedly started the serious African American renaissance in Hollywood. By his third film, he proved no one would be his equal - black or white. Perhaps due in no small part to his lightning rod personality and lack of industry decorum, he failed to capture a directing nod. When viewed through the prism of his post-Thing career, and the perspective of the import the film had on race in America, his exclusion is unconscionable.

Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West)

He never wanted to reinvent the Western. All he wanted to do was make movies. Yet by the time he came to this amazing late ‘60s epic, he had already retooled the oater into a weird amalgamation of opera and carnage, jumpstarted Clint Eastwood’s flagging film career, and more or less ruined the subgenre for everyone else. This last, intense cinematic statement was the act of a great artist showing off. Considered by many to be his best, it should have delivered Leone a long deserved Oscar. Instead, it’s merely an endearing icon.

Lina Wurtmuller (Seven Beauties)

In 1976 she became the first woman to ever be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director. Of course, since the movie was the foreign sensation Seven Beauties, she really had no chance. Still, for this amazing Italian artist, a woman whose vision is so strong and so unique that it remains truly individual and inspired, the snub cemented her status. Thanks to Swept Away and A Night Full of Rain, her ‘70s status was secured. Still, it shouldn’t have taken another four decades to see a female walk away with the Academy’s biggest prize.

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