Eye on the Oscars: The Director

A year after the Academy tipped its hat to “The King’s Speech,” our European cousins seem to have a stronger presence than ever in the year’s most celebrated films. But unlike that homage to British filmmaking royalty, which represents a marriage of British and Australian talents, many of the 2011 contenders demonstrate an inextricable blending of American and Old World sensibilities, seen in everything from Euro subject matter (“The Adventures of Tintin”) to Euro settings (“Midnight in Paris”) to Euro directors (Roman Polanski).

The two films that best embody this tendency are perhaps “Hugo” from Martin Scorsese and “The Artist” by French helmer Michel Hazanavicius — two tributes to the early days of cinema fired across the Pond from directors on opposite continents. In “Hugo,” American master Scorsese lavishly re-creates a Paris train station circa 1931 to stage a mystery that points to French magician Georges Melies, the father of modern-day special effects and one of the first to use film as a storytelling medium. While Scorsese was shooting in Europe, Hazanavicius traveled to Los Angeles to make his black-and-white celebration of Hollywood’s silent era, casting American actors like John Goodman and Penelope Ann Miller to play alongside French star Jean Dujardin.

“My idea was to make a real director-driven film in homage to the filmmakers who inspired me, notably John Ford, Tod Browning, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Josef von Sternberg,” Hazanavicius explains. Of that list, the latter two were both Europeans who found work in Hollywood, a tradition alive and well today. French-born Roman Polanski continues to tell American stories from abroad, following up “The Ghost Writer” with Manhattan-set “Carnage.” London video artist Steve McQueen delved even deeper into the psyche of Gotham-dwelling loners with “Shame.” And who better to direct “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” a look at how New Yorkers coped with the tragedy of 9/11, than British director Stephen Daldry?

While Daldry tackled Jonathan Safran Foer’s celebrated American novel, American helmers were busy putting their stamp on European stories. Figuring there was more gold to be mined from Stieg Larsson’s Swedish bestseller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (already filmed once in its home country), Sony enlisted David Fincher to put his dark stamp on the material. And Steven Spielberg returns with two projects, each adapted from Euro stories: “War Horse,” based on British novelist Michael Morpurgo’s World War I-set tale of a cavalry steed, and “The Adventures of Tintin,” which gives Belgium’s most beloved comicbook character the chance to star in a Hollywood blockbuster.

By staring such subjects as anti-Semitism, misogyny and rape straight in the face, Fincher’s thriller casts Europe in a highly critical light. Not so Woody Allen’s frothy “Midnight in Paris,” which spotlights America’s long love affair with the City of Light while continuing the director’s recent tour of alluring European cities (as seen in “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” etc.). Among other things, the film underscores the fact that many of America’s leading artists — Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein all feature into the time-bending tale — have found their greatest inspiration and acceptance in Europe. No director more clearly embodies New York than Allen, who hasn’t won an Oscar in 25 years, and yet his heart has spent nearly the last decade abroad.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Terrence Malick, whom some consider the poet laureate of American cinema, has taken a decidedly European approach to “The Tree of Life,” which spins his small-town Texas upbringing and the loss of his brother into a deeply personal examination of the fragility and miracle of life. It’s a film whose existence could not exist, had the way not been paved by such overseas auteurs as Stanley Kubrick and Michelangelo Antonioni. In that respect, the European influence comes as no surprise to “The Descendants” helmer Alexander Payne. “When you’re dealing with auteur directors, like Scorsese and Malick, isn’t there always?”

(Elsa Keslassy and Anthony Kaufman contributed to this report.)

EYE ON THE OSCARS: THE DIRECTOR
Helmers hot to globe trot
Woody Allen | Stephen Daldry | David Fincher | Michel Hazanavicius | Terrence Malick | Bennett Miller | Alexander Payne | Jason Reitman | Martin Scorsese | Steven Spielberg
In the Mix

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more