Best Director, 1999

Lasse Hallström
The Cider House Rules


The only nominee in this field with a previous nomination to his credit (for 1987's My Life as a Dog), Hallström may seem to have paid his dues in a way that neophytes like Mendes and Shyamalan have not. Despite all the positive buzz about the innovative storytelling techniques Hollywood exercised in 1999, not everyone has relinquished their taste for conservative, by-the-numbers filmmaking, which is exactly what Hallström represents in this race.

Hallström was left off the Directors Guild nomination list and was not a contender in a single other awards derby before the Oscars. Most likely these omissions have been the result of people attributing the elegance and poignancy of The Cider House Rules to novelist and screenwriter John Irving than to a director who has been around for a while but is still hardly a household name.
Spike Jonze
Being John Malkovich

Conventional wisdom would put Jonze utterly out of the running, but there is nothing conventional about this director or his nomination. He turned a daring but potentially unwieldy script into an uninterrupted laugh-riot, all without sacrificing the surprisingly academic themes of the material or the deceptively off-the-cuff visual style. Jonze not only directed his actors to some of their best screen work but contributed his own talents for performance as the bewildered soldier in Three Kings, earning him praise as a truly multidisciplinary talent and a filmmaker most of young Hollywood wants to work with. Old Hollywood, by contrast, doesn't necessarily want anything to do with him, besides which there is that old standy that directors don't win for films that are not Best Picture nominees. One has to reach all the way back to 1929 to find the single instance when such a circumstance transpired, and that year's victor, Frank Lloyd, certainly had name recognition that Jonze doesn't.
Michael Mann
The Insider

As both director and co-screenwriter, Mann managed to turn some outraged journalism about a whistle-blowing scandal surrounding a former tobacco employee into a tightly packed, coiled suspense drama with all of the director's trademark visual sheen. No film set in courtrooms and offices in recent memory has looked so good on screen, and in a cynical age, no one's protests against self-protecting corporate hypocrisy has been so unabashedly passionate. Most of Hollywood belongs in one way or another to a corporate structure, so Mann and his film may not occupy a warm spot in their hearts. Even when The Insider won the Best Picture prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics, Mann himself lost the directing citation to Sam Mendes, whose theater background perhaps gives him a classier aura than Mann's history in television.
Sam Mendes
American Beauty

Managed as a first-time director to cast a demanding script with impeccable taste; to place the screenplay's more fanciful gestures in a comfortable relationship with its more severe tones and moments; to bring his theater-trained eye into a film that at no point seems like the work of a stagebound talent (the camera moves! the shots are framed!); and has managed to do all of this with a charm, confidence, and humility that have won over all of his colleagues. Won the Golden Globe and the Directors Guild Award, which are both all but infallible predictors of Oscar victory. The only thing really working against Mendes is, not to put too fine a point on it, jealousy. Sure, there are moments that American Beauty seems a bit glossy even for its own taste, but obviously the Academy has already forgiven them (or never noticed). By contrast, the fact that Mendes has enjoyed such tremendous critical and financial success as well as studio support on his first project may rankle voters whose initiation into the business was not quite so smooth.
M. Night Shyamalan
The Sixth Sense

Shyamalan fashioned a horror movie that didn't stint on scares, a family drama that almost never lost its connection to its characters, and a mystery with so many questions that the most shocking answer was to a question few viewers had thought to ask. Like Mendes, the young filmmaker also exercised a very good eye in picking which actors and crew members would help realize his own very confident-looking vision. Unlike Mendes, Shyamalan may be rewarded in the Screenplay category, which lessens the need to vote for him here; indeed, Shyamalan's writing has received more effusive praise than has his direction since the film opened. Finally, if he won, he would be the youngest Best Director in Oscar history, which just confirms Hollywood's inclination toward more established or at least older talents.

WHO WILL WIN: I have a hard time imagining anyone but Mendes at the podium for this prize. Even if a groundswell for one of the other Best Picture nominees produces an upset there, Academy voters are much more averse to abandoning the front-runners in this category, as was evidenced last year when Shakespeare in Love's unanticipated groundswell did not extend to director John Madden.

WHO SHOULD WIN: Mendes deserves plaudits for making American Beauty look and feel so compelling, but ultimately his direction serves to cover up the holes and gaps in the film's ideas. By contrast, Spike Jonze comes up with an entire host of inventive ways actually to crystallize and enunciate the sometimes scattered ideas of Charlie Kaufman's script; his approach is the more ambitious, and thus his nomination is the more deserving of the two.

...AND WHO OUGHTA BEEN INVITED: I suspect that even if Stanley Kubrick had made this list for the indifferently received Eyes Wide Shut, the gesture would have been more a sentimental one than a knowing acknowledgment of that extraordinary film's merits. Sticking, then, with films for which the Academy at large showed at least a little genuine liking, I was most impressed with the well-controlled stylistics of Kimberly Peirce's work on Boys Don't Cry, making her at least the equal of Jonze and Mendes in this year of remarkable work from first-time auteurs. Among veterans, Mike Leigh and Miloš Forman both produced some of the best work of already strong careers, and Martin Scorsese used every ounce of his visual flair and allegorical sensibilities to make the thinly scripted Bringing Out the Dead a tantalizing work of urban poetry. Oh, but wait, the Academy hated this movie, too.

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