The Best Director Deadlock

Though 2012 may not have been the strongest or most groundbreaking year for movies — very good movies aplenty, sure, but nothing particularly mind-blowing — the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony has the potential to be the most memorable in recent years. And not because Seth McFarlane probably won’t be able to resist doing his Stewie voice on the Oscar stage (#LOLZ, #SMH, #etc.). Rather, for the first time in quite a while, there simply don’t appear to be too many shoo-ins.

Jessica Chastain seemed undefeatable just a month ago, but now Jennifer Lawrence appears to be surpassing her as the favorite as Silver Linings Playbook keeps expanding its audience and Zero Dark Thirty continues to fade in the wake of controversy and Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial snub. Anne Hathaway’s recent wide-eyed theater-kid shtick at every award ceremony may have begin to backfire and all those moments of bowing down to worship at the altar of Sally Field may actually work in Field’s favor. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln seems the easy pick — but is it too easy? Could Bradley Cooper emerge victorious alongside costar Lawrence? It’s pretty clear that Robert DeNiro’s taking home the gold man for his turn in Playbook, and so maybe there’ll be a strange sweep that extends to Best Picture and Best Director for David O. Russell?

And here’s where things get trickiest. Best Director couldn’t possibly be more of a free-for-all than it currently is. When the Academy decided to expand the Best Picture nominees from five to ten in 2009, harkening back to the Award’s earlier days and a way, presumably, to shake up the predictability factor, they actually managed to make things more predictable. Best Director most often corresponds to the film that will win Best Picture, a formula that has proven mostly true (though, of course, this isn’t always the case, as evidenced by Ang Lee famously winning for Brokeback Mountain, a possible atonement-in-advance by the Academy for spinelessly giving Best Picture honors to Crash, and Roman Polanski taking the prize for The Pianist in 2002 despite Chicago grabbing top honors). The increased number of Best Picture nominations simply thins out the pool for what film can actually win, highlighting the few directors whose films are in the running, since there exists an important reciprocity here: films can’t win Best Picture if their directors aren’t at least nominated. Right? Well, not so fast.

This could be the year that all that gets turned upside down. At the time of the great Bigelow snub, Zero Dark Thirty still seemed like the Best Picture frontrunner, but once Bigelow was out, its chances of collecting any awards at all seems to have shrunk to Zero. And yet, Ben Affleck’s Best Director snub seems, strangely enough, to have elevated Argo as the most likely candidate for Best Picture. I know, I know: historically, that ain’t how it works. But Argo, of all the nominees, is — not surprising, given the plot – the most conventional “Hollywood” film in the lot, and in many ways is the more digestible alternative to Zero. What’s more, everyone — critics and moviegoers alike, and surely those precious voters — seem genuinely pissed off that Affleck, who has worked so, so hard to rehabilitate his image over the past decade (from his questionable post-Good Will Hunting film choices to his unforgivable role in the melodramatic soap opera known as BENNIFER) and has proven himself an exceptional craftsman behind the camera, wasn’t acknowledged in the Director category. If Argo takes Best Picture, and there are plenty of reasons to believe it will, then it will make history and join a very elite club, including Driving Miss Daisy in 1989, Grand Hotel in 1932, and Wings in 1927.

That still leaves us scratching our heads about who will win Best Director, a puzzle that, at once, seems both impossible and easy to decode. Though there’s plenty of fantastic whimsy and poignancy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, we can pretty much strike Behn Zeitlin off the list. The Academy loves to acknowledge notable feature film debuts, but for Zeitlin the honor will almost certainly in being nominated. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln nomination is fair but unexciting. If he does win, though, it seems likely that he’ll also snatch Best Picture and, coupled with Day-Lewis’ likely win, the sweep will make fine sense, but would be a let down given the build-up buoyed by the strange tone the nominations have set for this year’s awards.

Speaking of strange tones, as I mentioned earlier David O. Russell’s unconventional romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook has become something of a dark horse in this race, filling out each acting category—another anomaly. While O. Russell has certainly done more striking work, he’s constantly inching toward mainstream success, directing Christian Bale and Melissa Leo to their first Oscars in 2011 for The Fighter and now earning box office numbers that seemed unfathomable back in 2004, when I Heart Huckabees played on a loop in college dorm rooms across the country. Ang Lee, on the other hand, is always a sure thing for a nomination, but Life of Pi, despite very favorable reviews for the epic visual feast it serves up, hasn’t quite resonated with audiences or been the type of conversation starter that one would expect of a film poised to take home a major Academy Award.

Which brings us to divisive auteur Michael Haneke, who has miraculously gone from surprise nominee to underdog favorite. Haneke, known for his unsettling commentaries on humanity’s dark sides with fare such as Cache, Funny Games, and The Piano Teacher, has received near-universal acclaim for his Amour, an unflinching look at love and devotion amidst the physical and mental disintegration of aging. Each of the abovementioned nominees in his (all “his”es, sadly) contributes to a splintering of the votes that might ensure Haneke’s path to victory. Coupled with a very likely Best Foreign Language Film win, the night’s big winner could very well be Haneke—the kind of Oscar night scenario that film buffs would indeed remember for years to come.