This group will be among those to get a look from Academy voters:
It has a different title, but there’s true grit to be found in Affleck’s Boston-set tale of ne’er-do-wells and the women who love them. Not to be ignored is how generously Affleck the director lets Jeremy Renner steal scenes from Affleck the actor.
James L. Brooks
‘How Do You Know’
Whether this will be “Broadcast News” or “Spanglish” is the question cinephiles have for Brooks, whose pedigree — both in TV and film — ranks with those of the best directors and writers working today. Having Jack Nicholson in the cast certainly works in his favor.
Having gone more than a decade since his last scripted feature, Cianfrance used that time to study the dynamics of relationships, and the result is his insight into what makes and breaks a marriage. Letting cameras roll long past cut, he has culled two extraordinary best perfs of the year from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
The Coens calling the shots, backed by a cast of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, is a lethally effective combination. The brothers are wonderfully playful here with their spin on the classic John Wayne tale.
Entering a new genre, Eastwood shows he’s capable of moving far beyond war and revenge pics. The issues of life after death have brought out new sides of the iconic helmer that show he’s still well-equipped as ever in telling a thought-provoking story.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
In a self-proclaimed deeply personal work, Inarritu appropriates the talents of longtime friend Javier Bardem and a flawless cast for his grim drama of lives on the precipice of survival. Immersing his audience in a finely detailed world, Inarritu leaves the viewer at once with a fierce understanding of the suffering in the world and an appreciation of life’s smallest pleasures.
Very few directors can make the ordinary seem as compelling as Leigh, who garners masterful performances from all, especially Lesley Manville as the best friend who doesn’t understand boundaries. Buried deep are issues of loneliness, family and companionship.
Right-wing politics draw the wrath of Liman, who recounts the plight of former CIA agent Valerie Plame and the abuse she took from the Bush administration in the ramp-up to the Iraq War. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn show both a defiant streak and sympathy in real-life characters who had to have a strong backbone to withstand the assault.
John Cameron Mitchell
Grief, as witnessed and expressed by Mitchell’s vision, brings out the best work in years from Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. How one deals with the loss of a child is expressed on an individual basis, and when the two of them try to cope together, the results are often, quite sadly, explosively dynamic.
‘The Ghost Writer’
A script co-written with Robert Harris (based on Harris’ novel) becomes a rip-roaring yarn under Polanski’s atmospheric direction, filled with suspense, illicit activity and political intrigue. Though occasionally the pulpier parts take over, the end result is a treat, punctuated by no small amount of gallows humor.
‘The Way Back’
Weir is very selective in his pics these days, so when he does get behind the camera, the films tend to carry an air of gravitas. “The Way Back” is a long walk from the Russian gulag to the border of India, and it’s a journey that delivers as much cinematically in the landscape as in the grit of those who survived the trek.