So here is my list of the winners of the Best Director Oscar for the current millennium. Now before you start saying that it is completely wrong, can I just say that this is my opinion in an opinion piece. If it is different from yours then so it goes, it’s allowed to be! I’m not a cinema scholar; my degrees are in Design, Applied Maths, and Computer Science.
I just like going to the cinema and now that I’m retired I go several times a week. I’ve been twice today – “Murder on the Orient Express’ and “Ferrari: Race to Immortality” before you ask! If you have studied film and filmmaking and draw something different from films that I do, then that’s great. I envy you and if I had my time over again I might go down that line.
Anyway… here are my thoughts.
15. Damien Chazelle – La La Land – 2016
I’m starting with the least experienced director who has a mere three feature films under his belt. As a child, Damien Chazelle had an interest in the arts, despite having a father who taught computer science and a mother who taught Medieval history. He nearly went into music as he was trained to be a jazz drummer at school, where he was tormented by a teacher from whom he developed the Terence Fletcher character in “Whiplash.” Abandoning music after he realised he didn’t have enough talent, he returned to film.
He started off with “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” in 2009. If it wasn’t for the actors, it would almost be a one man project – directed, written, produced, shot, and co-edited by Chazelle. He takes a look back at the old MGM musicals and brings them up to date in a gritty vérité style. Then comes the aforementioned “Whiplash,” first as a short, then as a feature. The film is about the relationship between an ambitious jazz student and an aggressive, abusive instructor. Both of his films so far dip into his love of jazz.
Then… bam! Here comes “La La Land.” It features a (surprise!) jazz pianist and an actress. To say it did well is an understatement. Financially it made $445.7 million off a budget of $30 million. Worldwide it was nominated for 248 awards and won 212… famously nearly including the Best Picture Oscar!
His next film is “First Man” and is currently being filmed. It tells the story of the first man to set up a jazz academy… my mistake… it’s a biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon.
14. Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist – 2011
Born into a formerly Lithuanian family (his grandparents arrived in France in 1920), he is the brother of actor Serge Hazanavicius. Michel Hazanavicius began his career in 1988 on a small screen, working for Canal+. On the encrypted channel, he climbed the ranks quickly, from intern to scriptwriter, and also realised his gift for radio writing. Very soon he started to develop his directing skills and worked on a number of shorts, films and series for television.
For the big screen, he started in 1994 as an actor in “Le Film de les Nuls” as Regis, then as co-writer on “Delphine 1 – Yvan 0,” directed by Dominique Farrugia. He directed his first feature, “Mes Amis,” in 2004, for which he gave the lead role to his brother Serge. In 2006, his career crossed an additional milestone with the production of the spy film “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” starring Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. He worked with Dujardin again three years later on “OSS 117: Lost in Rio.”
Little surprise that he casts not only Dujardin but also Bejo in “The Artist. This ambitious black-and-white silent film follows the trajectory of George Valentin, actor of the silent movies of the Hollywood of the 1920s, ousted at the arrival of talking films. It can’t just be the use of silent, black-and-white techniques that won so many prizes – 189 nominations and 151 wins. As well as harking back to a simpler time it was a fine story, well told, and the absence of language meant that his innate Frenchness could show through.
The year 2014 sees a complete switch of register with a poignant drama set in Chechnya, “The Search,” a remake of “The Search” by Fred Zinnemann. While this 1948 feature features the story of an American soldier trying to help a boy find his mother in postwar Berlin, Hazanavicius looks at the second Chechen war in 1999. His most recent film is a biopic of Jean-Luc Godard called “Redoubtable.” Entered in the Cannes Film Festival for the 2017 Palme d’Or, it lost out to Ruben Östlund’s “The Square.”
13. Tom Hooper – The King’s Speech – 2010
Tom Hooper studied at the Highgate School and then Westminster School. At the age of 12, he read a book titled “How to Make Film and Television” and decided that this would be his future. At age 13, he made his first film using a clockwork 16mm Bolex camera that his uncle had given him. After graduating from Oxford, Hooper continued to direct television commercials, and began working as a director of various programs and shows for the BBC and Granada.
Hooper made his feature film directorial debut with the 2004 drama “Red Dust” starring Hilary Swank, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jamie Bartlett. The next five years saw him doing a lot of TV work for which he was racking up awards, so many that it was a bit of a surprise that he went back to the big screen. He did though with the feature film “The Damned United,” a fictional version of the 44 turbulent days Brian Clough spent as manager of Leeds United. Despite the fact that I loathe and despise football with a passion, I was entranced by this film partly because of Michael Sheen, but Hooper has to take some credit too.
Work on Hooper’s next film, “The King’s Speech,” began right after “The Damned United.” Based on a play, the film deals with the relationship between King George VI and his Australian speech language pathologist. This is his most successful film to date; half of all his Academy, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations have been for “The King’s Speech,” with the rest being shared among “Les Misérables” and “The Danish Girl.”
12. Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker – 2009
In the gender-restrictive world of action cinema, Kathryn Bigelow has taken on the Hollywood patriarchy and succeeded. Born in San Carlos, California, she studied fine art and then film under cultural theorist Susan Sontag. Her first effort was a 1978 short called “The Set-Up” which shows two men fighting while intellectuals discuss, in voiceover, what is happening on screen.
Her best work continues this line of enquiry, centring on fringe groups engaged in conflicts without end. In her 1982 feature debut “The Loveless” (co-directed with Monty Montgomery), it is Willem Dafoe’s bikers; in “Near Dark” it is Lance Henriksen’s nomadic vampires. “Blue Steel” showed rookie cop Jamie Lee Curtis fighting to survive in a man’s world, but it was the one-two punch of “Point Break” and “Strange Days” that crystallised Bigelow’s themes.
In the former, a gloriously over-pumped testosterone fest, undercover cop Keanu Reeves becomes enamoured with Patrick Swayze’s bank-robbing surfers. In the latter, an ambitious sci-fi, Ralph Fiennes sells secondhand memory recordings that users can experience vicariously, like action junkies seeking the next high. The opening Steadicam sequence, which shows a botched robbery entirely from the robber’s point of view, is a masterclass in immersive filmmaking.
In “The Hurt Locker”, it is war itself that is the addictive drug, dragging bomb disposal expert Jeremy Renner back to the Iraqi frontline for another fix, no matter the cost. The companion piece to “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” is about the ClA’s relentless hunt for Osama bin Laden, torture and all, and was equally wired into but also wary of the evil that men do in such situations. At the 82nd Academy Awards, Bigelow beat ex-husband and Tinseltown alpha male James Cameron to the Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” becoming the first woman ever to win.
11. Steven Soderbergh – Traffic – 2000
Steven Andrew Soderbergh was the second of six children of Mary Ann and Peter Soderbergh. While he was still at a very young age, his family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where his father was a professor and the dean of the College of Education at Louisiana State University.
While still in high school, Soderbergh enrolled in the university’s film animation class and began making short 16mm films with secondhand equipment. After completing his studies, Soderbergh spread his artistic activities: working as an independent editor in Hollywood, writing scripts, shooting short films, and setting up a video production house.
This must have been a good grounding as his debut feature in 1989 was “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” rewarded with a Palme d’Or. He worked steadily in TV and film, and then the approaching new millennium saw him hit his commercial peak with “The Limey,” “Erin Brockovich” and the start of the “Oceans” trilogy.
Between all of this came his Oscar winner “Traffic,” based on a UK TV series “Traffik.” Intertwining tales of the drug scene from a variety of viewpoints, locations and characters, Soderbergh’s version moved from the perspectives of Afghan and Pakistani growers, dealers and manufacturers, German dealers, and British users over to the manufacture, distribution, sales, and use in North and South America.
Following “Traffic” he has been kept busy both on the big and small screens with “Syriana,” “Contagion” and his two part biopic of Che Guevara being the high spots. Oh… “Magic Mike” is in there too.