Best Director, 2000
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of those movies.)

Stephen Daldry
Billy Elliot


Because it would be harsh to leave this column totally blank, I'll humor myself: Daldry, like last year's victor, American Beauty's Sam Mendes, is an import from the theater who exceeded expectations in sales and prestige with his first effort. His next project, The Hours, will star Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, and Ed Harris, so he's clearly someone to watch.

And now the real deal: Daldry isn't anyone to watch for this awards season. Given Billy Elliot's lack of a Best Picture nod (O, for joy!), Daldry is sunk by history: no helmer of an unnominated film has won since 1929, when Frank Lloyd won for three films in the same year. It's the final word on the subject, or the final two words: no way.
Ang Lee
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Won the Golden Globe over most of the same competitors (Cameron Crowe was sitting in Stephen Daldry's slot), even though Crouching Tiger was ineligible for Best Picture consideration in that race. Even people who don't appreciate Lee's film are impressed both with its surface departures from his preceding body of work (which itself is, at least superficially, quite varied), not to mention encouraged that a foreign director made a film that plays to adolescent males in rural America to the tune of a $100 million gross. Even if Hollywood buys American and keeps the Best Picture race for a homemade product, there's no harm in honoring Lee's achievement here—and Ridley Scott, a bald commercialist, may not seem like Best Director material.
It remains the case that the Best Director prize almost always matches with the Best Picture winner: the last occasion when the two awards went to different films was in 1998, but before that 1989, and before that 1981. Gladiator has so much momentum for the top award that a loss for Scott, assuming Crouching Tiger doesn't claim Best Film, would remain an upset. Also, Lee would claim the Oscar for Best Foreign Film if Crouching Tiger is victorious in that derby, which everyone expects it will be; therefore, no one has to worry he'll go home empty-handed if they check a different box in this category.
Ridley Scott

Mounted a grand-scale spectacle, with a cast of thousands and a period setting—and not just any old setting, but an entire idiom of ancient Rome which the studios had left for dead decades ago. Oscar voters love honoring the helmsmen behind "epic" dramas (James Cameron, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson) as well as revisionists of struggling genres (Clint Eastwood, Jonathan Demme), and Scott's nod combines those two worlds. Previous loss for Thelma & Louise plus canonical work on Blade Runner and Alien are a boost. Fans of the current Hannibal will credit him with being on a roll.
Detractors of Hannibal will merely amplify a thread of criticism that is hardly limited to their ranks: namely, that Scott is a sucker for a striking image or stirring shock but tends to make hollow pictures. Long associated with a crowd of British arrivistes from the TV-commercial industry (Alan Parker, Tony Scott, etc.), Scott's been around awhile but hasn't won everyone's heart—and a salty, indelicate persona within the industry doesn't look good, especially against that genial Mr. Lee and industrious Mr. Soderbergh.
Steven Soderbergh
Erin Brockovich

Started a phenomenal year by fashioning an improbable Silkwood-meets-Pretty Woman fable (indeed, Soderbergh scoffed at the script the first time he read it, and called it trash) into an artistically credible, commercially successful vehicle that showed everyone—actors, writers, technicians, and Universal Pictures—to their best advantage. Consensus is that Erin Brockovich would have seemed like far less than it does with a lesser figure behind the camera. Extra points for bringing a warmth to the material that Out of Sight hinted at but The Limey and sex, lies, and videotape lacked entirely.
Erin Brockovich seems a little slight when held up against Soderbergh's work on the more ambitious, difficult Traffic (see below). The short-term danger is that the nod for Traffic will attract more Soderbergh fans. The long-term problem is that the double nominations themselves, though certainly an enviable feat, will cancel each other out with Soderbergh supporters unable to rally around one picture. No director has won for a so-called "woman's picture," though I hate that term and Brockovich all but defies it anyway, since James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment victory in 1983.
Steven Soderbergh

Cemented a virtual sweep of the critics awards, including the Los Angeles, New York, National Board of Review, and National Society of Film Critics citations, for his 2000 body of work. Though Erin Brockovich undoubtedly contributed to the groups' enthusiasm, Traffic was clearly the more credited of the two films (as evidenced by its multitude of Best Picture laurels, where Brockovich scored none.) Took a gamble on a three-part storyline spread over two countries in two languages, tracing a topic that generally spells box-office poison, especially when approached from the intellectually critical position Soderbergh assumes here—and yet, Traffic was a huge hit and a celebrated event for moviegoers who'd waited a whole year for a decent, sophisticated American movie. If voters are going to endorse Soderbergh, here's where most of them will do it.
The siphoning factor for Erin Brockovich could still be a problem, but the more substantial concern for Soderbergh is still that Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon simply seem to have marshalled deeper support among the Academy, which has to make Scott and Lee the front-runners. Soderbergh's hardly out of the running, but competing against those two as well as himself clearly implies an uphill battle.

WHO WILL WIN: Despite Scott-related misgivings, I'm calling this race for Ang Lee, especially given his receipt of the Directors Guild citation, which has correctly forecast Oscar on all but four occasions in its history. I think Scott's borrowings, not only from classics of the Roman genre but from contemporary epics like Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart will ultimately look feeble compared to Ang Lee's more than evident originality—and yet, Quentin Tarantino lost to Robert Zemeckis, so what does creativity, no matter how loud the buzz, really get you?

WHO SHOULD WIN: For reasons just specified, I'd have to endorse Lee for this prize. I, like many of the voters, would prefer to honor Soderbergh for the combination of his two very different, very successful pictures, but when honoring individual achievements, I cannot dispute that Lee—frankly not a director I tend to think very highly of—brought off an unlikely and inspiring fusion of his own disparate sensibilities in Crouching Tiger.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: I'm less disappointed in the membership at large, whose conservative tastes are well-established, than I am with the Directors Branch, whose investment in innovation is presumably higher, for ignoring Lars von Trier's sharp, brilliant experiments in Dancer in the Dark. His inspired, deliberate mishmash of Americana into the shape of a new millennial tragedy is so many miles beyond the work of someone like Stephen Daldry, who simply can't do better than make a mishmash, that the comparison reeks of absurdity. Even if iconoclasm isn't one's thing (which also leaves out Ghost Dog's Jim Jarmusch), Curtis Hanson polished Wonder Boys into a beautiful gem of classicist style, and Kenneth Lonergan's debut in You Can Count on Me is remarkably more assured and affecting than Daldry's.

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