Auteur! Auteur! The Directors of 2008

When the Academy Award nominations are announced this upcoming Thursday, 22 January, there is a distinct possibility that the five available Best Director slots will be taken up by filmmakers who have never been nominated before – or at the very least, have limited Academy cache. Unless someone like Ron Howard sweeps in and secures a slot for his over-praised (and under-regarded) Frost/Nixon, we could be looking at a list including Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and Gus Van Sant (Milk). Now, technically the last name on this list got a previous nod for the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck vehicle Good Will Hunting, but 2008 may just go down as one of the strongest years for directors ever. Outside the normal Academy-possible names, there are dozens of efforts deserving of praise.

What about Jon Favreau’s work on Iron Man? Who would have thought that such a second tier comic book character would warrant such stellar first class treatment? Or how about Matt Reeves’ reinvention of the first person POV horror film with Cloverfield? The annihilation of New York by an alien monster never appeared more potent, or potentially terrifying, than it did in this early 2008 release. There was David Gordon Green’s delirious take on the stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, which followed another one of his fine small town Gothics, Snow Angels and Ben Stiller finally delivered on over a decade of promise with his stellar insider satire, Tropic Thunder. Between the work of newcomers like Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) and Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) and the returns to form for recognized winners (Jonathan Demme – Rachel Getting Married and Oliver Stone – W. ), it was a wonderful 12 months for the individual behind the lens.

Yet how cool is it that Fincher, Aranofsky, Nolan, or Boyce could walk away with a little gold statue? All have done amazing work, and have carved out a niche among film geeks and lovers of fine film. So what if each has had less than successful runs at the mainstream (only Nolan holds two certified hits – both of them Batman revamps). A critic would gladly take any effort by the mind responsible for Fight Club or Sunshine over a weak willed effort by some otherwise solid studio journeymen. While a dark horse could still stand out and claim one of these uncelebrated savant’s limelight, it’s clear that 2009 was the moment when the fringe finally found some industry acceptance. Heck, Benjamin Button is about to break the $100 million mark. That’s better than Fincher’s last three films combined.

So what makes this time different? Why are five filmmakers usually left for artsy fartsy plaudits (and little else) finally putting notches in their business model headboard? For Boyle, the answer was simple – think outside the UK box. While many of his movies were set outside the country, there’s been a distinct English flavor to memorable masterworks like 28 Days Later or Trainspotting. But with Slumdog Millionaire, the British maverick decided to concentrate on India as an actual character itself. That’s why Mumbai swings and swells with a kind of baffling Bollywood magic. Or what about Nolan? He’d been down the masked avenger avenue before. How could he possibly improve on his fan-favored ‘beginning’ for the man-bat. The answer, oddly enough, was seriousness. He took the often campy comic book material and made it into The Godfather for the graphic novel set.

For Aranofsky, it was a stylistic stripping down. The Wrestler often feels like a documentary discovered by a neophyte nostalgic for a bit of ’80s sports showmanship. There’s none of The Fountain‘s fascinating flourishes, or Requiem for a Dream‘s big screen idiosyncrasies. Instead, it’s just performance capture, clear and simple. The same can’t be said for Fincher, however. Everything he’s learned about art design, costuming, detail, place, mood, tone, narrative, characterization, special effects, editing, scoring, pace, and inherent emotion has been whittled down and rendered resplendently with his indirect take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. While he’s always been a meticulous filmmaker, Benjamin Button is like cracking open a time capsule loaded with eye-popping ideas and awe-inspiring images.

That just leaves Van Sant, and it seems unfair to minimize his efforts this time around. Milk was a major achievement, a biopic that dealt more with what a famous man stood for than what he did behind the scenes. By focusing on the political end of Harvey Milk’s life, and using his personal problems and predicaments as kind of a grateful Greek chorus, we came to understand the passions that drove him, and the positions which ended his far too short time on this planet. Allowing all of his actors the room to explore and extrapolate – especially the mesmerizing work of lead Sean Penn – the director once condemned for creating a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho is now again poised to perhaps pick up his first real slice of cinematic recognition.

Naturally, there are foul winds blowing for this potential nerd nomi-nation. Ron Howard already has one of these glorified career cappers, and there’s enough of a generational gap implied to ignore the historical retrofitting of his take on the infamous ’70s interview. Besides, when potential results indicator the Director’s Guild of America announced their group of five back on 8 January, Aranofsky was out and Opie was in – and the Oscars rarely waver from such peer mounted recognition. Still, there’s a chance at bucking the trend, something that surely allows The Reader‘s Stephen Daldry or Gran Torino/Changeling‘s Clint Eastwood to sleep at night. Even with Howard in, however, the trending tends to put Boyle as the man to beat. He already has a Golden Globe to shore up his chances.

Last year, Best Director honors were shared by Joel and Ethan Coen, yet there’s was also the first acknowledgement of the turn towards the outside – they themselves beat four first timers including geek god Paul Thomas Anderson, Tony Gilroy, Jason Reitman, and artist turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Oddly enough, DGA nom Sean Penn – Into the Wild – didn’t make the final Academy five. So there’s still hope that one of the familiar faces clogging up the film biz machine will be missing come 22 February. Until then, it’s fun to reflect on a year which saw so many wonderful films, and so many amazing directors finally making their mark. Let’s hope it continues throughout 2009. The artform clearly needs it.

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