Best Director, 2001
(Click on the linked film titles for reviews of the corresponding films.)

Robert Altman
Gosford Park


Altman is one nominee who will inevitably draw support for more reasons than the specific pleasures of Gosford Park—though, with its seven nominations, the film's pleasures seem significant enough. But to have delivered one of his biggest critical successes and his highest grosser in over twenty years while in his eighth decade, with an all-British cast in a movie no one wanted to produce, is a marvel indeed. The AFI, Golden Globe, and NYFCC Awards will only help, and the fact that he's never won before is a glaring injustice.

Part of why Altman has never won is that his films remain divisive. Outside the Actors Branch, it's hard to imagine him having many fans among, say, the sound technicians, and even within his core constituencies his movies don't always go over. Gosford Park isn't perceived as a Best Picture front-runner, which hurts his chances. Worst of all, Oscar history is littered with chances to recognize Oscarless Artistes—Sidney Lumet in '76, Akira Kurosawa in '85, Martin Scorsese in '90, Terrence Malick in '98—and they were snubbed again, often by the likes of Kevin Costner and Robert Zemeckis.
Ron Howard
A Beautiful Mind

A well-liked, fresh-faced, family-man sort of guy who bowled a strike with this adult-themed, sexless, violence-less, intellectually inclined love story that connected with audiences in a big way. Obviously, even A Beautiful Mind's supporters don't think it's Schindler's List, but we do know that when popular directors are conspicuously passed over and put a brave face on it (as Howard was in 1995 for Apollo 13), there's a tug to make it up to them later. Won the DGA prize.
Let's get back to that "even A Beautiful Mind's supporters..." thing. Howard is given plenty of credit for making this tough property a big sell to the public and a banquet for his lead actors—but no one has yet intoned, "A triumph of directing." Gladiator's support last year was similarly calibrated, and the film went on to win Best Picture while the voters gave the Directing prize to a more certifiable artist. Other lame winners (oops!) like Costner and Zemeckis were at least involved with the most-nominated films in their years.
Peter Jackson
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The converse of the Ron Howard dilemma: even the people who don't seem to adore The Fellowship of the Ring are happy to concede what a tactical, financial, and storytelling achievement Jackson has managed with his difficult and much-scrutinized material. Especially compared to what Chris Columbus did with Harry Potter, Jackson established that major literary franchises can become massive cash machines for their studios without sacrificing artistic quality and cinema-specific imagination.
The converse of the Robert Altman dilemma: no one in the conservative Academy is going to be honoring Jackson's body of work, including the pornographic puppet show Meet the Feebles and the bloodiest movie in history, Dead Alive. Protean outsider figure doesn't fold neatly into Hollywood "club," and in addition to jealousy at what Jackson has pulled off, or unfair estimations of a fluke success, Hollywood may not rush to reward an artist who grabbed $300 million of studio budget-money before he ever filmed a frame. Even among Fellowship's peers as Oscar's most nominated films, it feels more like a Mary Poppins—a piece of technical wizardry and ripe imagination—than an All About Eve or a Shakespeare in Love, and Mary Poppins didn't win.
David Lynch
Mulholland Drive

Points for bravery, for bucking the system, for turning television's short-sightedness into the toast of Cannes, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, and the Film Comment poll.
And yet, despite all the support of egghead critics and cinéastes, Mulholland Drive is way too weird for the Academy: witness the single nomination. Robert Altman is already ensconced in the Overlooked Master position.
Ridley Scott
Black Hawk Down

Some residual feeling that the Oscars that have been doled out to past films like Alien, Thelma & Louise, and especially last year's Gladiator should, by now, have yielded Scott an Oscar of his own.
Just like David Lynch, Ridley Scott is representing product in this category that isn't contending in the Best Picture field. Just like Ron Howard, he's had to defend some of his creative choices to political and historicist critics. Just like Peter Jackson, he may be penalized for generating such commercially consumable work. And just like Robert Altman, he's a gnomish, private figure whose films are more popular with the Hollywood in-crowd than he is himself. In other words, he combines everyone else's weaknesses into a sort of dazzling synthesis of Won't-Windom.

WHO WILL WIN: Howard will need all the bland populist appeal he can summon in order to preserve his lead over Altman and Jackson; thankfully for him, bland populist appeal is something in which this category has historically specialized.

WHO SHOULD WIN: How nice to see three directors with projects as tonally and structurally divergent as Altman's, Jackson's, and Lynch's all eligible for this prize. Any of the three of them would be a satisfying victor—I'm hard-pressed to choose.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: Yes, I am one of those people who is wondering what Baz Luhrmann did to piss everyone off. Sure, he's been a bit conspicuous in his aesthetic disquisitions on the musical, on postmodernity, and on his own visual excesses, but is the rest of this category free of creative arrogance? (Paging Mr. Scott...)

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