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[Article] – Best Achievement in Directing: A Commentary

 

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Posted October 29, 2015 by

 
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It’s Awards Season, so here’s a question that’s been on my mind: Will George Miller get an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Directing for Mad Max: Fury Road?

My answer: Probably not… though, he should.

Before we get into why, let’s go back a few years to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. At the time TDK was the blockbuster of blockbusters. The film was handled as a serious drama (for lack of a better term), with a dark tone and dark themes. On the IMDb Top 250, TDK is ranked #4 (just behind Godfather I & II), and above movies like Schindler’s List and 12 Angry Men. It’s beloved by audiences and critics, with both audience and critic scores on Rotten Tomatoes of 94%. At the time of its release rumors surfaced of possible Oscar nominations for Best Picture as well as Best Director. While it did win Oscars for Sound Editing and Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, earning nods for Cinematography, Film Editing, Art Direction, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects, it did not get a nomination for Best Picture or Best Director.

I don’t want to be one of those essayists that refer to the Academy as if its nominations and wins were decided by committee. Academy members vote independently of each other, and each branch votes for its specific award (re: those in the Director’s branch vote for Best Director, and so on). I want to make this distinction clear because to act otherwise implies conspiracy, and that’s just plain silly.

The question is: why didn’t the Director’s branch yield enough votes to give Christopher Nolan a nomination for The Dark Knight? My answer would be: because some of the things in The Dark Knight simply don’t make sense. The tone is good. The visuals were good. But, there’s a lot of things that aren’t so good. For one, there’s a lot of silly throw-away characters, and ridiculous one-liners that undermine the otherwise serious tone of the film — a tone that hinges on how serious we take characters like Batman and the Joker. Second, and probably the biggest issue, is Nolan’s notoriously bad spacial sense during fight and action sequences. These are things other directors are sure to notice. Hence the lack of nomination by the Director’s branch. My personal complaint about Nolan is that, while his movies are always interesting and very clever, they never have endings. They’re always cliffhangers. To me that’s like he’s afraid to make a statement.

I’m not trying to slander Nolan as a filmmaker. I’m trying to illustrate how the Academy seems to have fickle requirements for what they consider “the best.” The proof of this came two years ago when Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity. No one can argue that Gravity is one of the more visually impressive films in cinema. As soon as it came out Cuaron was a lock to win. But, other than a well-made action movie, what else is it? The script was terrible, rife with some of the worst exposition in recent memory, and full of cliche devices (hallucination, characters talking to themselves). The tension was palpable, however, and the visuals were superb. So, how come when Cuaron focuses on the visuals, and tension — while forgoing a quality script and indulging in ham-fisted story cliches — he wins an Oscar? Nolan did the same thing with The Dark Knight. Both films were crafted of tremendous vision. Both are full of action. Both cut corners. Is it possible the Director’s branch is willing to ignore a bad script, but not bad action sequences? Or maybe they’ve stigmatized the entire superhero genre because the characters are pre-existing property. Maybe they see Batman, no matter how much of a hand Nolan had in shaping the world and character, as not 100% unique. After all, we’ve seen countless Batman versions of the years, in countless mediums, it would be hard to argue against that.

Now let’s go back to George Miller and Mad Max: Fury Road. Here we have a film of 100% unique vision, scope, action, and spacial logic contained in a non-stop car chase through a post-apocalyptic desert. The script is lean, and what exposition exists comes organic with the drama. It’s also a very fun movie to watch. The characters are all new (save for Max, though he’s Miller’s creation), and the performances are all realistic to the world in which they inhabit. The directing is a feat of great technical skill and cinematic understanding. The way Miller handled action was brilliant: by keeping all the action center frame (you can see a breakdown of it here), he is able to lead the audience’s eye where it needs to be. This center-framing also gave the composition a bit of quirkiness, a tongue-in-cheek silliness (not unlike Terry Gilliam’s use of 14mm lenses), that lets us know we’re supposed to be having fun — despite the darker themes.

Considering all this, doesn’t George Miller deserve an Oscar nomination for Best Director? While all three examples are equally ambitious and effective, scrutiny seems to shine a light on Miller’s achievement in terms of totality of vision and execution. However, the approach itself — lots of action and imagination — seems to be stigmatized as unworthy of the very coveted and “adult” award that is the Oscar. Unless you’re Peter Jackson, who, while deserving of his Best Director Oscar for Return of the King (most likely a consensus vote for having directed all three Lord of the Rings films), he stands alone as the director to have won the award for a film of sweeping fantasy and imagination. George Miller’s chances of winning seem slim, but a nod would be nice. After all, if the Academy saw fit to give James Cameron a nomination for Avatar, it seems only fair.

 

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Jeff Payne
@FinalDraftX
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FinalDraftX
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