Helmer hot seat

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The Oscar for best director does more than just hail a maestro who orchestrates a great film's actors, writers, cameramen and other sundry pieces and parts.

It also usually foretells the winner of the best picture race.

Why? There are two reasons.

First, logic says that the person who crafts the best film of the year did their job best, too, and deserves the helmer's prize.

The second reason is a curious quirk of Oscar voting that links the two awards. When voters embrace a top film, they usually want to hug someone.

Sometimes it's an actor they want to welcome into the superstar arena (Russell Crowe in "Gladiator") or a producer whose perseverance deserves a backslap (Michael Douglas finally getting the novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to the screen, or Harvey Weinstein making the Bard sexy and funny in "Shakespeare in Love").

Usually, though, the academy wants to reward a director.

When "Schindler's List" was proclaimed best picture, it meant industry insiders had finally acknowledged Steven Spielberg for making movies that not only made money, but also had true artistic value.

And in 2001, even though "A Beautiful Mind" was under siege by the media for sugarcoating the life of its subject, headstrong voters were determined to reach out to former child star Ron Howard and recognize him as a major filmmaker.

Of course, a movie doesn't have to win best picture to earn the director's trophy. Twice in the past 15 years the two awards split. In 2000, Crowe and "Gladiator" snagged the actor and picture honors, while Steven Soderbergh won the directing award for "Traffic."

And in 2002, voters stuck by front-runner "Chicago" as best picture, but thought it was time to honor expatriate Roman Polanski ("The Pianist") at the expense of "Chicago" director Rob Marshall.

That gives Marshall one of this year's most compelling backstories. Plus, his "Memoirs of a Geisha" has many elements that academy members adore. It's a historical costume drama based upon the best-selling novel about the last famous geisha of Imperial Japan.

In many respects it looks a lot like Chinese epic "The Last Emperor," which reigned at the 1987 Oscars with nine wins, including best picture.

What could spoil things for Marshall this time? Once again, it may be academy members' desire to forgive an esteemed veteran for a scandalous relationship with a young gal.

This time it's Woody Allen, who redefines himself as a filmmaker with "Match Point." Then again, he had to. Allen's films had performed so poorly at the box office in recent years that he could no longer drum up financial backing in the U.S. So he headed to England for the tale of a dapper tennis pro who nets a rich wife but can't resist swinging on the side.

The film looks nothing like classic Woody Allen: it's a dark, doomed drama that feels more like Hitchcock, updated and moved to London. But it's a finely honed film that could put Allen back in the Oscar game.

The presumed front-runner for best director laurels is Spielberg, who previously won for "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan." If he prevails for "Munich," Spielberg will be tied with Frank Capra and William Wyler as the second-winningest Oscar directors. The champ is four-time victor John Ford.

"Munich" chronicles the hunt for the Palestinian militants who killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Going far beyond the usual thriller format, the film takes aim at the conscience of Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), who is haunted by the choices he had to make while heading up the hit squad pursuing the assassins.

In the film, Israeli leader Golda Meir shrugs off such fretting saying, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." But as Spielberg told Time magazine, "It's bound to try a man's soul, so it was very important to me to show Avner struggling to keep his soul intact."

Ang Lee will likely be among the five nominees, for capturing the struggle of two cowboys expressing their love in homophobic 1960s America.

In order to build dramatic tension, Lee doesn't just focus on oppressive heterosexual culture out west back then. He patiently explores the cowboys' inner emotions while they live separately and anguished in town, then romp together through wilderness on Brokeback Mountain. The Taiwanese director seems to apply his Eastern sensibility to filming the outdoor scenes, capturing a sense of meditative serenity.

Like Lee, Terrence Malick doesn't hurry his cameras over America's majestic wilderness in "The New World." In fact, there's a deliberate slowness to his filming of Pocahontas' love story as she dances through meadows of tall grass and strives valiantly to keep British settlers and Native Americans from slaughtering each other.

Malick's first film in seven years has the epic sprawl and sense of historic importance that best picture nominees often have, but it will need box office success to be seriously regarded by academy members. That's a tough challenge, given the subject matter. Then again, Malick's last film, "The Thin Red Line," nailed nominations for best picture and director.

"Walk the Line," which has already earned $69 million, will likely be nommed for best picture, helping director James Mangold's Oscar fate. Academy members love musical biopics so much that they often pull off surprise nominations in the top races, which happened last year when "Ray" earned best picture and best director nods for Taylor Hackford.

A big mystery looming over this category is whether Peter Jackson can make a triumphant return. Most moviegoers are likely to regard "King Kong" as a giant creative achievement, but academy members often pooh-pooh fantasy blockbusters. Remember though, Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy proved there are exceptions. Can he do it again?

Oscar watchers also wonder if Howard can make a comeback. "Cinderella Man" looked like a kudos heavyweight when it came out swinging early this year, but a May release may have been too early, and the movie suffered a low blow when Crowe hurled a phone at a Manhattan hotel clerk. Still, "Cinderella Man" is neither down nor out with Universal Pictures' hefty marketing muscle.

Another handsome leading man is employing charm to win over Oscar voters: George Clooney could be nominated for directing only his second feature film, "Good Night, and Good Luck." Shooting it took real guts, because he needed to win over audiences with a history lesson about media's battle with Commie-hunters. Also iffy: Clooney shot it in black and white. But the little art-house flick has earned an impressive $21 million and resonates among Hollywood insiders.

Clooney has a strong Oscar trend in his favor: voters love to nominate studly stars when they turn to directing, as Mel Gibson ("Braveheart"), Robert Redford ("Ordinary People") and others have discovered. Remember, actors comprise the largest voting bloc within the academy (about 1,500 out of 5,800 members).

Clooney's star power helps "Syriana" in this race too, since he performs a showy role as a CIA agent investigating U.S. oil intrigue in the Middle East. But calling the shots as director is Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for penning the screenplay of "Traffic." His newest film is just as challenging, since it weaves together similar confusing, frenetic and often violent subplots while building toward a sensible finale.

may be widely regarded as a maker of violent films, a genre sometimes scorned by the Oscars, but lately he's proven to be a true artiste. Critics hailed his "A History of Violence" as one of the best pictures of the year and they could give him momentum in the Oscar derby by pushing him with their own early awards.

They've done it before. Cronenberg won best director from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for "Dead Ringers" in 1988, but that didn't get him into the Oscar race. This year he's already gotten a significant push at Cannes where "A History of Violence" was nominated for the Palme d'Or award.

Critics are also noting the artistic achievement of Fernando Meirelles, who pulled off a powerful drama full of suspense and epic grandeur in "The Constant Gardener."

The film is so expertly pruned that "Gardener" was hailed as an obvious front-runner for best picture when it hit movie houses in September, but it has lost momentum since. However, Meirelles is a familiar name to voters. In 2003, the Brazilian auteur was nominated for directing "City of God."

Oscar voters are certainly aware of Paul Haggis, too. The writer's "Million Dollar Baby" pulled off a dramatic dark-horse victory and overtook "The Aviator" in the last stretch of the derby run to nab best picture and best director (Clint Eastwood).

Now Haggis competes as scenarist again, but he's also the director of "Crash," which has quite impressively maintained its awards momentum since its May release. Now Lion's Gate Films is blitzing Hollywood with 30,000 DVD screeners to keep it zooming forward.

Another art-house film mounting a notable drive is "Capote," which just won best picture at the Gotham Awards, where Duncan Miller was also honored as the awards' breakthrough director.

That could prove to be the first of many awards acknowledging the success of a brave creative gamble. While overseeing Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance, Miller chose to rein in the flamboyant nature of their famously flashy subject, Truman Capote. Such understatement gives Hoffman's anguished portrayal more oomph and deserves special reward.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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