This category may well be the hardest to predict—with the possible exception of Best Picture. It’s no longer a given that the two categories are joined at the hip. Ang Lee won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain a decade ago, when Crash won Best Picture. More recently, the technical achievement of a film has won it the Best Director award, while the Best Picture award went elsewhere.
Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity two years ago, while Best Picture went to 12 Years a Slave. A year before that, Ang Lee won Best Director for Life of Pi, and Best Picture went to Argo. Both director wins were for technical triumphs, rewards for conquering a mountain of problems to pull off the impossible.
Last year’s winner, Alejandro Iñárritu, won for the dazzling Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). That was a great film with great performances, stunning cinematography, and a great story. If Iñárritu wins again for The Revenant, he will be the first director to win back-to-back directing Oscars since Joseph Mankiewicz in 1949 and 1950, when he won for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. (Incidentally, he also won Oscars those same years for his screenplays for those films.)
The other nominees are:
Adam McKay—The Big Short
George Miller—Mad Max: Fury Road
This one’s a tough call, and there is a lot of love for George Miller’s work in Mad Max. But with all the nominations for that film, and with some technical awards all but locked up, that’s probably enough love from the Academy for Miller. Also, Room, Spotlight and The Big Short are focused, intense, tight dramas. Their strength is their focus, not their scope.
The Revenant has scope to beat the band, reminding at times of a grayer, bluer, colder version of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s the BIG picture of the year, and features an Oscar-winning central performance, plus one Oscar-worthy supporting performance. There is nothing else like it this year, and with all its faults (its reach surely exceeded its grasp), it’s nevertheless an amazing piece of film.
Ordinarily, one might say that because a director won the year before, it’s unlikely he’ll win the next. But when the two films are so very different, and so very good, it shines a new and fresh light on the director that the year’s previous win can’t dim.
Best Director Prediction: Alejandro Iñárritu for The Revenant.