Oscar best picture hopefuls made by men of controversy

There are certain Oscar perennials, like Clint Eastwood and Ang Lee, whose work is so consistently associated with quality and maturity of vision that even their biggest risks (Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Lee’s “Lust, Caution”) fail to surprise. Then there are those filmmakers, such as Mike Nichols and Nora Ephron, whose work appeals to adult sensibilities but so submerge themselves in the material that their style is camouflaged at best, nondescript at worst.

But like the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, it’s the more radical voices that are tough to ignore. Despite the Academy’s recent maneuver to invite ever more mainstream pictures to the party and, in turn, increase ratings for the telecast, a look at the best picture nominations for the last three years reveals a tendency to go in the other direction, with dystopian visions by filmmakers who show a disdain for studio formulas and tidy resolutions squeezing into the mix. Consider, for example, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will be Blood” and the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” which copped the top prize for 2007.

If nothing else, these directors ignite flash points of polarity, inviting wildly divergent reactions from critics and audiences, just as the late Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman did in their heyday.

What these willful personalities — alternately hailed as geniuses and charlatans — have in common is a pronounced iconoclastic streak, marking them as outsiders who’ve refused to play by the rules. Love them or hate them, the Academy invariably finds a slot for them. In some cases, artists once considered renegades — like Martin Scorsese and Danny Boyle — have even been embraced as elder statesmen, with their films eventually awarded the ultimate prize for their efforts.

As has become the custom, there are still a few bad boys this awards season whose creations cannot be ignored, including the Coens (“A Serious Man”), Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”), Michael Haneke (“The White Ribbon”), Spike Jonze (“Where the Wild Things Are”) and Wes Anderson (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”). There’s also genre specialist Guy Ritchie, whose revisionist “Sherlock Holmes” is sure to raise a few eyebrows even as the director goes highbrow.

When “A Serious Man” opened in October, Ty Burr of the Boston Globe hailed it as “a work of cruel, comic genius” while the New Yorker’s David Denby dismissed it as falling into the “bleak, black, belittling mode,” and “hell to sit through” for good measure. Who’s right? It doesn’t really matter when it comes to the Academy, which has invited the Coens into its VIP club of best picture winners.

“There’s a kind of ostentation about (the Coens) but also a great deal of humor and insight,” says Andrew Sarris, leading proponent of the auteur theory and longtime critic for the Village Voice and the New York Observer. “I suppose people have problems with anyone who blazes a new path.”

Jonze and Anderson, like the Coens, tend to create worlds that seem to exist inside their fervent imaginations. But with “Wild Things” and “Mr. Fox,” they’ve adapted beloved children’s books even while applying their own personal stamp: “Wild Things” with its brooding undercurrents, and “Mr. Fox” with its low-tech, highly personalized stop-motion technique. These young 40-year-olds’ ability to cling to their unique, often eccentric visions while working within the studio system is not unlike the balancing act that Kubrick and Altman managed throughout their careers.

“The whole somewhat misbegotten notion of the auteur theory is that the director’s personality is itself an aspect of the movie,” says Christian Science Monitor critic Peter Rainer. “Most films from Hollywood, particularly these days, seem to be anonymously directed. And then you have Wes Anderson. Whatever one thinks of his movies, they definitely reveal the person behind the camera and a particular point of view — a way of seeing, a type of humor that is highly distinctive to him.”

“Wes Anderson sometimes seems to me the wise guy in your history class in high school,” adds author and Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel. “He’s articulate, he’s ambitious. And somehow most of his movies don’t seem to be quite up to his own expectations of them.”

Schickel, who has written and directed documentaries on Eastwood, Scorsese and Elia Kazan, differentiates today’s landscape of overnight wonders from that of the studios’ film-factory salad days. “The environment in which a director operates today is so different from the environment he might have operated in classic Hollywood, where basically they were not regarded as auteurs, they were kind of like construction foremen for the most part,” Schickel says. “What happens (today) is somebody does a picture and, much to the surprise of the studio releasing it, it becomes a hit — maybe not a gigantic commercial hit but something the critics sit up and take notice of. And studios go, ‘Ah, maybe we’d better take another shot with this guy; he’s promising.’ And in a funny way, you can’t blame these directors. If you were offered everything, why would you not take it?” Schickel refers to these wunderkinds as inherently talented but overindulged, suggesting they could benefit from “longer apprenticeships.”

Rainer feels that what sets Tarantino apart from his peers — the level of violence in his movies; the not-so-sly references to other filmmakers — cuts both ways. “There may be this prejudice against him because of the feeling that he’s a recycler rather than an originator,” Rainer says. “I don’t think that rap is fair. He does create something that is very much his own; it’s an original pastiche.”

While both Rainer and Schickel are fans of “Pulp Fiction,” which won Tarantino an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay, both agree that “Inglourious Basterds” eventually rides off the rails by veering too fancifully from the history books. “It’s basically saying, ‘If only the Jews were more kick-ass, there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust,’ which I think is disgraceful,” Rainer says. Adds Schickel: “I think what sometimes happens in these cases is the director just becomes excessive and there’s this sense of hubris — that he can do anything he wants.”

Another filmmaker who invites controversy, Austria’s Haneke, might be one of Europe’s most notorious provocateurs this side of Lars von Trier. Reporting from Cannes, the British magazine Sight & Sound called Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” “a creepy masterwork of immense subtlety.”

“Subtlety doesn’t always win prizes,” says film scholar-author David Thomson, “but there’s a feeling about Haneke that he is one of our few artists in film — a man who might take up the mantle left when Bergman and Antonioni died in 2007.”

Rainer views Haneke as “someone who has tremendous formal control over his movies,” which he says are “often disturbing in ways that most films are not.” But Rainier isn’t exactly a disciple. “He’s sort of (an M. Night) Shyamalan with a Ph.D.,” he says. “‘The White Ribbon’ was kind of a really arty ‘Twilight Zone’ episode. But he has a mystique he’s created that’s been fanned by the festival circuit.”

Controversy surrounding filmmakers like Haneke, Tarantino and the Coens can act as a double-edged sword. “When people are controversial, they cultivate their own cults and years later they play well,” Sarris says. “After all, Hitchcock was very controversial at one time. When I reviewed ‘Psycho’ in 1960, I gave it one of these Cahiers du Cinema-type raves. And the Village Voice got more hate mail than they had ever received as a result. Rousing controversy is a sign of somebody entering forbidden territory.”

Schickel says using controversy as a lightning rod should be considered very carefully. “Sometimes it’s very helpful,” he says. “Take (Kubrick’s) ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ The more people talked about its violence, the more people wanted to go see it.” The Academy voted the film one of 1971’s best picture nominees.

Critics blowing hot and
cold on the likes of Tarantino, Haneke and Anderson is, of course, part of what makes them so compelling. But Rainer puts Jonze in another league.

“I think he and (Richard) Linklater are the most gifted directors of their generation,” Rainer asserts. “It’s interesting that both (Jonze) and Anderson chose to make these films based on children’s literature. In the case of Spike Jonze, he used (the material) as a way to, paradoxically, get into deeper, more adult emotions. There are so many animated kids films out there that are basically cookie-cutter stuff. ‘Wild Things,’ as flawed as it is, has some real genuine feeling to it and could not have been made by assembly line. And I think that’s quite an achievement.”

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