Oscar scouting report, best director: Hazanavicius, Payne, Scorsese, Allen, Malick

Scorsese as a photographer in Hugo. ()
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Capital is evaluating the Oscar nominees in each category. Here: Best Director.

Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Hazanavicius has already won numerous awards for Best Director (including the BAFTA and the DGA) and has also racked up nominations for Best Director at Cannes, the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards, and now the Oscars.

The Artist, an homage to silent films, has been praised and reviled in equal measure. Hazanavicius has been developing the film for about eight years, and it is clearly a labor of love. Shot in snappy black-and-white, with title cards and no dialogue track, and an enthusiastic, game cast, the film is an enjoyable, clever, and occasionally emotional homage to the silent-movie era.

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Hazanavicius has fun with the tropes of silent film (although he could have had more fun), and some scenes actually approximate the clever storytelling and reliance on visual jokes that are so much a part of the pantomime-heavy silent film era. I was particularly impressed with a frantic scene of a dog running up and down the sidewalk trying to get help, as well as a scene in which Bérénice Bejo (Hazanavicius' wife who plays "Peppy Miller" in an Oscar-nominated performance) finds herself alone in a room with a suit hanging on a coat rack, and sets out to make the empty suit into her lover.

Hazanavicius shines as a director in his framing of these key moments, as well as in his filming of the final dance number. The Artist has been generating buzz ever since Cannes, and in the last couple of weeks the buzz has become deafening. Jean Dujardin has been nominated for Best Actor, along with Bérénice Bejo for Best Supporting Actress. It has also been nominated for Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Original Score, Original Screenplay and the Grand Poohbah of Oscars, Best Picture. Backed by the Weinstein Oscar-lobby, Hazanavicius is certainly seen as a frontrunner for taking home the statue.

Alexander Payne, The Descendants

Alexander Payne has been mostly absent from the scene since 2004, when Sideways became one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved films of that year, (for which he was nominated for Best Director, and won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay). The Descendants, then, has been treated as a bit of a "comeback" for Payne.

The story of Matt King (played by George Clooney in an Oscar-nominated performance) is melancholy, moody, and strange. There are slapstick sequences in which it feels like a screwball, and then there are moments where its bitter heart is exposed. It's quite a balancing act, keeping the film's tone on track, and except for the voiceover in the opening sequence, I thought that Payne never made a mad choice.

Filmed on location in Hawaii, The Descendants immerses itself in the complex Hawaiian culture in a way that is engaging and thought-provoking. Hawaii has rarely been portrayed in film or television in such an intimate, everyday way (ever since Elvis Presley put on a lei in Blue Hawaii in 1961 we have Hawaii through a Paradise-filtered lens), but Payne's film approaches the islands strictly from a local mindset.

My favorite shot of the entire year is from a scene in The Descendants when Matt King informs his teenage daughter (played by Shailene Woodley) that her mother, currently in a coma, will never wake up. The daughter, sitting on the edge of the pool, takes this in, trying to absorb her tragedy, and then leaps into the pool. The camera picks her up underwater as she swims forward, screaming in silent agony. It is a devastating and effective shot, and actually looks the way it would feel, if you were that character: suddenly submerged, silenced, panicked, disoriented.

The final scene, in which Clooney and his two daughters sit on a couch eating ice cream, and staring into the camera watching a documentary as the credits begin to roll, is a marvel, strangely emotional in its prosaic observation of how families operate and behave, and bold in its willingness to just let the moment be. The Descendants resists easy catharsis, and has great reverb. This is due to Payne's devotion to the small details that make up this huge thing called Life.

Martin Scorsese, Hugo

One of my favorite films of the year, Hugo shows Martin Scorsese not only at his very best, but at his most risky and most personal.

In 1973, Mean Streets put him on the map, placing him at the vanguard of the exciting, rough, raw independent film scene burgeoning in America. He has never been far from view, and has made a couple of legitimate masterpieces. His camera moves and framing are so distinct that you could pick them out of a lineup. Even when he has done a job for hire, like The Aviator, it becomes so much "A Scorsese" that you would never know it hadn't originated solely from his brain. He is an artist.

Hugo is a departure for him in many ways. First of all, it's a film "the whole family can enjoy." This is no Raging Bull or Good Fellas. Hugo is also in 3D. Scorsese's use of the 3D technology is intuitive and story-driven, thrusting us into the dizzying, pendulum-swinging world behind the walls of a Paris train station. The 3D is also thematically appropriate. Hugo, after all, is about the pioneers in the earliest days of cinema who experimented with all of the new possibilities in the brand-new medium.

Pooh-poohing 3D has become a commonplace today, but in Hugo, Scorsese gently, and with humor, reminds us that movies, after all, are fake. The whole endeavor is Trompe-l'œil, so why not admit it and glory in it?

Hugo works beautifully on the technical level, providing us with genuinely fantastic landscapes and sets, but it also digs deep into the emotions of the characters. It is about people who love to fix things, who want to make inanimate objects move or talk, who dream of a world where robots can come to life, when broken things can be mended. Scorsese's work in film preservation is well known and will be one of his most important legacies. Hugo, with its declaration of love for those geniuses of the earliest days of movies, is a huge part of that legacy. It is a masterpiece.

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's career runs by its own rules and has done so for decades. He works constantly in projects of his own making. He directs a movie a year. His pace frustrates some of his fans, who wish he wouldn't dissipate his energies, but that seems to me to be missing the point of his unique career. He does what he wants to do. He likes working. Sometimes he hits a home run, sometimes he swings and misses. Sometimes he phones it in from the parking lot.

He is obviously one of the most important American directors of the last 50 years, and all you need to do is listen to people bemoaning that each new Allen film isn't Annie Hall or Purple Rose of Cairo (those films came out 35 and 27 years ago, respectively) to understand the tremendously long shadow his work casts. Allen doesn't seem to mind.  He is not grasping for another masterpiece (at least he doesn't seem to be). He does not seek out Oscar nominations. He just keeps going, making a movie a year, on his own terms, in his own way And I'll see them all.

Midnight in Paris was one of my favorite movies of the year, as well as Allen's most financially successful film since Hannah and her Sisters. Owen Wilson is the best Allen alter ego in years, and he brings out the melancholy subtext of what it means to be chronically dissatisfied with your own life (and your own era) in a way that avoids the self-pity of some other of Allen's films. I am partial to Allen's comedies (I think Manhattan Murder Mystery is his masterpiece) and Midnight in Paris is also his funniest movie in years, as well as his most profound.

Allen's love for nostalgia does not seem so much like an escape into a fantasy world as it has in the past, but a way for him to keep contact with the artistic and intellectual idols who have inspired him, those giants who show us all the way.

Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life was one of the most talked-about movies of the year, winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes, and unleashing a tidal wave of criticism and analysis. What did the movie mean? What was it trying to say? Was the ending bad? Or good? And how about those dinosaurs? What was Malick up to in how he put the film together?

Terrence Malick is the opposite of Woody Allen, in terms of pace. His first film was Badlands in 1973, a chilling and beautiful masterpiece. In 1978, came Days of Heaven, and after that comes a twenty-year break for Malick. Malick never gives interviews and it's hard to even find a photograph of the guy. He is elusive, he does not talk about his work.

In 1998, he broke the twenty-year gap with The Thin Red Line, a Vietnam drama starring every hot young actor in Hollywood. Then came another break, this one lasting 7 years, before he gave us The New World in 2005, starring Colin Farrell, about the first contact between the European explorers and the preexisting Native American population.

Lost innocence is a lifelong obsession for Malick, even though we only have these few films to judge him by. Tree of Life came out last year, and Malick has four projects in various stages of production right now, so it looks as though he is picking up the pace. Malick is in his 60s now, and has as much of an individual stamp to the look of his films as Scorsese does, or Allen.

Tree of Life, which encompasses not only scenes of a 1950s childhood, but the beginning of the cosmos, the creation of the planet earth, complete with CGI dinosaurs, shows Malick as the fearless and personal maverick that he is. He creates a collage of images, seemingly disparate at times, and that collage starts to have a cumulative effect. Malick uses repetition a lot in his images, showing us the same thing, only changing the angle and the focus. This can get monotonous, but, conversely, in Tree of Life, it also helps you enter into the sensory reality of the moment.

Memories are not literal, they come to us in fragments through the senses. Sometimes they bombard us with their power. Tree of Life bombards us, too. Malick is not a literal filmmaker. He is an emotional and sensoral one. His career has been improbable, mysterious, compelling, frustrating and independent, and it should be cherished in its entirety. His career seems to say to other artists, Follow your own star. It's the only star you've got.