They've been known to predict the eventual Oscar winner close to 95% of the time. They also seem to have a handle on which films will get nominated, and which movies will be overlooked come the actual Academy Awards. The Director's Guild of America announced its choices for 2007's best filmmaking, and it's an eclectic group at best. Aside from a pair of previous nominees (the Coens caught one for Fargo in 1997), everyone else on this list are first timers. Even more interesting, three aren't necessarily known for their work behind the camera. We have an artist, an actor, and a writer who made his first foray into the world of direction. Of course, this means that none of the nominees have ever won before, which makes the accomplishment twice as rewarding.
Without actually handicapping the outcome, SE&L will step in and offer its thoughts on the choices, as well as highlighting a few names that could have been substituted for at least one individual on the list. While many feared 2007 would be a slack year, cinematically speaking, the last four months have offered up such astonishing fare that, in the end, it turned out to be one of the best ever for the artform…and the names found below are a big part of the reason why. Without their good, good work, we'd be stuck with an endless outpouring of Michael Bay megabusters. One shudders to think.
Joel and Ethan Coen
No Country for Old Men
It's hard to say if the brothers really deserve an Oscar for what they do as directors. Certainly, their films are stunning realizations of pragmatic and artistic ambitions, and there are times when their technique seems in sync with the very gods themselves. But how much of this is direction, and how much is pure production acumen. They know how to write (and how!). They cast flawlessly. Their editing is always superb, and they combine music, theme, and subtext in a way few craftsman can. But it seems so, well, SMALL to call them mere 'directors'. That's why they probably won't win. What they did with Cormac McCarthy's novel was much more than mere behind the lens guidance.
Paul Thomas Anderson
There Will Be Blood
Like Barack Obama in the last few weeks, praise and plaudits for this mostly unseen masterwork by the Boogie Nights auteur has been growing by leaps and bounds. Critics groups have been frothing to foist as many accolades on the film as possible, and Anderson has gone from retro-revisionist to a full blown motion picture master. Everything about Blood is a direct reflection of his vision and attention to detail. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis' striking turn as Daniel Plainview seals the deal, but without the barren old West backdrop to play against, the performance would be nothing but Method mannerism. Thanks to Anderson, it becomes the fodder for a true epic.
Into the Wild
Breaking away from the no nonsense neo-realism pose his last few films have taken, Penn has lightened up as a director, and as a result, discovered a lyrical soul beneath his hardened show biz shell. Instantly recalling the more experimental end of the post-modern movement circa the '70s, there are moments of great joy mixed in with the inevitable sadness of Christopher McCandless' self-imposed exile from society. With solid support from his cast, and an evocative score courtesy of pal Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam), this may be the first time Penn's skill in front of the lens translates successfully behind it.
This remains the one odd choice out of the five. SE&L is still trying to figure out what everyone sees in this otherwise routine corrupt corporation thriller. Could be that lingering (man) crush everyone has on Clooney, who is very good in the film. Perhaps it's Gilroy's compensation for making Matt Damon into a believable action hero (he's responsible for the Bourne trilogy scripts). It could be that scene where co-star Tilda Swinton is locked in a bathroom stall, fear and flop sweat staining her power suit. In a year where there were other deserving nominees (see below), this appears like a very odd, very insider choice.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Here's the reason why this former painter turned filmmaker is here - he used a gimmicky, borderline obnoxious approach to the first half of his movie (we see everything from the point of view of a paralyzed magazine editor) and it didn't drive critics crazy. Instead of being overly ambitious and smugly self conscious, it allowed audiences into the mind of a man "locked in" place. Just like an artist, Schnabel understands the value in sketching out his designs before attempting the big picture canvas. In this case, the small moments that open the film lead to some major revelations later on.
Missing, Deserving a Mention
Again, there were several sensational masterworks this year that deserve some manner of recognition. Yet, regrettably, it looks like both the Guilds and the AMPAS will be ignoring in the next two months. As a service to all cinephiles, SE&L then offers the following selection of alternate choices. Any or all deserve a place with the personalities noted before, beginning with:
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
One guesses that everyone's favorite Goth guy was left off the list because, when it comes right down to it, this artistic anarchist could direct this film in his sleep. He's had casual daydreams scarier than the bloody and brooding masterpiece he forged out of Sondheim's equally magnificent musical. Still, for its Victorian vomitorium vogue, Burton deserved a nod.
If he had spent the last few years remaking Trainspotting over and over again, delivering film after film of British quirk, Boyle would probably be on the list this year. His amazing bookend to Stanley Kubrick's 2001 is the first serious science fiction film not clouded by the shroud of Star Wars. That, in and of itself, deserves recognition.
You gotta love the revisionist history on this title. Back in January 2006, critics were more or less lukewarm on this fabulous police procedural throwback. Eleven months later, it's cropping up on 'Best of' lists everywhere, with Fincher equally feeling the love. Perhaps if journalists had owned up to how amazing this movie was beforehand, the mind behind Se7en would be part of the process, not a noted also-ran.
Gone Baby Gone
If Tony Gilroy can get a nod for his Verdict homage, why can't the actor formerly known as 'Bennifer' get one for his far superior Mystic River riff. Without a doubt, this was one of the strongest, most centered thrillers of the entire year, and made the hindering histrionics of Clayton seem downright showboaty by comparison. Affleck and his artistry, deserved better.