Joel and Ethan Coen

Tomorrow: DGA Decides Who Lives and Who Dies in the Race – 6 Directors to Watch

ryan-coogler-2-fruitvale-stationAll eyes are on the Directors Guild of America to sift through the murky depths of the 2013 awards season and bring some much-needed clarity.

Sitting firmly at the tail-end of the major precursor nomination timeline, the DGA is usually the wisest of the group. I get the sense that they vote with their hearts a great deal of the time, favoring grand, difficult, complex works which reflect the best of their faction–at least they have for the past 10 years or so.

While clarity is the last thing the DGA brought us last year–they actually broke a 9-year streak of agreeing with the Oscar winner by giving Ben Affleck (who wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar) their top prize for feature film–their nominations will help whittle the current race down to a solid crop of contenders.

Things to look out for tomorrow, when the DGA announces its annual nominees:

1) Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis has had a rough week. Days ago, they missed out on any love from the Producers Guild. Shortly thereafter, though, they nearly swept the National Society of Film Crtics’ awards. The film is polarizing audiences and industry figures alike, as the critics seem to love it, but the guilds are hesitant to reward such a peculiar, subtle film.

The highs and lows the film has seen over the last month don’t bode well for its once-promising position as a prime Oscar contender. The DGA aren’t fond of the Coens. They’ve won once for 2007’s No Country for Old Men, and Joel was nominated for Fargo in 1996. True Grit missed out on a nomination entirely, as did A Single Man, both of which were Best Picture contenders within their respective years. If Inside Llewyn Davis misses a nomination here, the film’s Oscar chances will drop drastically.

2) Ryan Coogler and 3) Lee Daniels

Along with Steve McQueen, both Coogler and Daniels have helped make 2013 a historic year for black filmmakers. Each has directed a film that was highly influential. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station riled overwhelming critical and precursor support (its name has consistently shown up everywhere from honorary critics’ awards to the Independent Spirit nominations).

Daniels’ The Butler might not be on the same trajectory to Oscar greatness as McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it has solidified itself as a legitimate hit with audiences worldwide, grossing $116 million domestically and another $45 million around the globe. Daniels has also established himself as perhaps the most prominent black filmmaker of the modern age, what with his 2009 film Precious also garnering intense awards season love. Both Coogler and Daniels represent the shifting landscape of American cinema, where black films and filmmakers are no longer voices the American public are afraid to hear, but rather ones they are willing to shell out money to see on more than just a fluke basis.

Daniels’ film is an epic of vast proportions, encompassing a huge ensemble cast (that was nominated over with the SAG, mind you), and shows the director’s ability to effectively helm material with a gargantuan scope. Coogler’s film is a bit small for the DGA’s taste, but Daniels could very well prove to squeak a nomination out of a guild that favors drama and spectacle not unlike that which he gave us with The Butler.

4) Alfonso Cuaron and 5) Steve McQueen

Both filmmakers have dominated the Best Director discussion since their respective films wowed festivalgoers at Telluride, Toronto, and Venice late last year. Both helmed fantastic films, and will become first-time DGA nominees tomorrow morning. The only problem is that their films are vastly different.

Gravity is a showy spectacle for the most part (not to discount its thematic and visual metaphors running throughout the film), while 12 Years a Slave is a challenging, gritty masterwork that remains firmly rooted in an emotional tone that lacks the grandiose, loud, overwhelming visual presence of Gravity. My money is on Cuaron for the win, but McQueen’s story would fit nicely into the narrative the Academy would like to weave (McQueen would be the first black director to win at the DGA or the Oscars, or both) what with their evolving image, membership, and taste.

Gravity fits within a narrative as well. In a year where, for the first time since 1997, a film with a female-driven performance rules yearly U.S. box-office (Catching Fire today surpassed Iron Man 3 as the year’s top-grosser), the Sandra Bullock-driven, one-woman show that is Gravity would be a welcome Best Picture winner for the Academy’s diversifying image. The DGA nominations for both men will tomorrow cement their positions as leaders within the race.

6) David O. Russell

Only nominated here once before (for The Fighter), even Russell’s heyday failed to impress the DGA. Even as Silver Linings Playbook swept the early awards discussion in 2012, his name was left off of DGA ballots in favor of Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and Ben Affleck (Lee and Spielberg had been locks for quite some time). This year, his monumental achievement American Hustle is far too big for the DGA to ignore. He’s played the Oscar game so well, crafting three drastically different films over the course of four years, showing range, dynamism, and an ability to get three Oscar-winning performances out of his casts (along with another four acting nominations for other cast members). His on-set antics undoubtedly rub many directors the wrong way, but his achievements are no less significant. A nomination here will further fuel American Hustle‘s position as one of the top three contenders for Best Picture.

Though the DGA has little clout over Oscar nominations with the recent date changes (their announcement comes only one day before Oscar ballots are due), their crossover membership with the Academy is generally good for influencing winners once Oscar nominees are announced.

The Directors branch of the Academy tends to favor more independent, smaller films than the DGA, most likely because the guild itself is for the advancement of their craft, and showy films like Avatar or Argo encompass vast sources from all reaches of the industry, and people can easily see the spectacle a showy director creates. This is how you explain Tom Hooper getting in for Les Miserables last year over the likes of eventual Oscar nominees Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke.

The issue of Martin Scorsese has come up a lot, as well, and I just don’t see him making it into the race this year. His film is polarizing, and the film was released far too late in the year to have been a legitimate awards contender. Recognition for the film will come for the picture as a whole  when the Academy nominates it for Best Picture, a broad inclusion that doesn’t pinpoint anything specific is the least controversial route to go. Honoring Marty with a nomination implies that they agree with the film and its trajectory as a thematic vehicle, not just as a spectacle of superb film direction.

My predictions for tomorrow’s DGA nominations, ranked in order of potential:
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Without PGA Support, Can ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Survive?

LLEWYN2013 introduced this interesting Oscar dynamic where, even if a film misses out on what used to be a key Oscar precursor, it’s resuscitated by intense love from another guild or group.

The cycle of pre-Oscar awarding has shifted from recognizing good films to celebrating the ability of the respective guild or group to champion the right film of the year, considering the Academy can no longer use the majority of these precursor awards as springboards for their own nominations (with the new schedule, winners generally aren’t announced during or after Oscar balloting has already commenced).

All we’re doing is dancing around in circles with a different crop of films each time we pass the 360 mark.

The recent highs and lows of Inside Llewyn Davis on the awards circuit couldn’t have more fittingly encapsulated the 2013 awards season.

Within a matter of days, the Coen brothers’ latest offering went without recognition from the Producers Guild of America–a key Best Picture Oscar prognosticator–to nearly sweeping the National Society of Film Critics’ annual awards.

The National Society of Film Critics’ top honors for Best Film were bestowed upon Davis, with other wins in the Directing, Actor, and Cinematography categories, each a category that other Oscar contenders have led across the board since the beginning of the season. Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuaron and 12 Years a Slave‘s Steve McQueen have dominated the Director race, while Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey, and Bruce Dern have control the discussion on Best Actor.

The PGA turned a cold shoulder to the film (as have general audiences and other Oscar precursors), which undoubtedly hurts its chances (as crossover membership is a legitimate factor here, where it isn’t with the NSFC), considering Oscar ballots aren’t due for another three days. This will work in one of two ways:

1) Academy voters will read the headlines proclaiming “Coens Left Out of PGA Nominations” as a springboard for voting for something else (“If the PGA didn’t vote for it, why should I?” mentality)

or

2) Academy voters will read the headlines proclaiming “Coens Left Out of PGA Nominations” and use it as an opportunity to vote for the film in lieu of something else (my guess is that the film occupies the same space of appeal as something like Her or The Wolf of Wall Street).

Days before Oscar nominations, one thing remains clear: no one has any idea what they’re doing–or where the race is going.

Since 2000, only two films that the National Society of Film Critics have awarded their Best Film award have gone on to win top honors at the Oscars. The difference? The Academy’s preferential ballot allows films the NSFC generally goes for (polarizing, low-profile arty films) to succeed based on passionate enthusiasm. Since films can extend their reach into the Best Picture category like never before, the NSFC’s love for Inside Llewyn Davis (which doesn’t correlate with how Oscar voters will fill out their ballots) does prove that support for the film can be all-encompassing and firm despite typical precursors which are supposed to influence other precursors. This year, everyone seems to be doing their own thing.

On the Academy’s end, they tend to recognize the Coens when they’re doing something different. That might sound like it speaks for every film in the Coens’ library (evolving their style has become key to their recent work), but taking a look at the Coens’ Academy history, it’s not.

Inside-Llewyn-Davis-trailer-1877774A Serious Man rushed the Best Picture category the first year the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to include 10 nomination slots. Undoubtedly the wild card of the group, the film was boosted by staunch Coen supporters. A year after that, True Grit caught the Academy’s eye for being an uncharacteristically showy, genre-confined turn for the duo, and received a staggering 10 nominations without a single victory. 2008’s Burn After Reading, however, was completely left out of the Oscar race because, out of their most recent work, is more reflective of the classic work the Academy fell in love with in the first place (I like to think of it as Fargo-lite).

And then we have No Country For Old Men, perhaps the best work the brothers have done over the course of their entire career. It’s hard to compare anything to Fargo, let alone to an entirely separate work from an entirely separate period in the career of the most dynamic set of directors working today. No Country For Old Men exists as an entirely separate filmmaking fantasy roaming the stratospheres far and above just about every other film made over the last two decades. The film seemed to sweep awards season with the major critics circles (NYFCC, NBR) and key guilds (including PGA, SAG, and DGA) all the way to the Oscar for Best Picture.

Inside Llewyn Davis is perhaps the most drastic departure from their signature style that the Coens have taken in their entire career, and we know people (especially the Academy) aren’t comfortable with having their expectations challenged. It’s a film which starts as a playfully pessimistic peep into the life of a struggling artist but, as it concludes, is a depressing portrait of struggle making the art, not the artist spinning it for himself. It’s showy in a way that we haven’t really seen from the Coens, incorporating an extra-filmically appealing component–its soundtrack–that resonates in ways and places the film can’t. The majority of Academy voters–the guys in the sound department, for example–are going to tick off the more outwardly appealing films instead of the subtly challenging ones such as this.

When there’s a strong push for a Coens film, its almost always strong enough to break through to the Oscar race. Misfires and delvings into more commercially-appealing territory such as The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty lacked even a critical push into the awards race, proving that voting members are actually paying attention to the Coens as directors with a standard of quality that’s tangible and ever-changing. It isn’t just a voting process that rewards the name. The passion for Davis is strong.

The industry as a whole learned its lesson after Fargo fell short of the prize in the 90s: when you go for the Coens, you must go big–and for the right picture–and I’m not sure they’re convinced Inside Llewyn Davis is that film. It’s still alive without PGA support, but this week’s DGA announcement will seal its fate–hopefully for the better.