According to a Hollywood truism, you’re only as good as your last project. So the awards buzz for this year’s directors is doubly gratifying: Prizes are nice, but for some of these helmers, the 2013 films are a way to rebound — or to remind the biz that they never lost it.
It’s hard for a bad director to make a good film, but a good director can make a film that’s … well, not great. So it’s nice to see a slew of directors back at the top of their game: Lee Daniels (with “The Butler,” after “The Paperboy”), Stephen Frears (“Philomena,” following “Lay the Favorite”), Paul Greengrass (“Captain Phillips,” after “The Green Zone”) Ron Howard (“Rush,” after “The Dilemma”). In a digital world where everything is under intense and often negative scrutiny, most of the helmers’ previous films were noisily lamented, with occasional speculation that the filmmaker had lost it. Clearly, that’s not the case.
A contender for comeback of the year is Peter Berg, whose “Lone Survivor” erases memories of last year’s “Battleship,” proving that with the right material, he’s terrific. (And, as a bonus, the film reminds that Taylor Kitsch is a good actor.)
Some acclaimed filmmakers this past year have pushed the limits, with new artistic challenges. With “12 Years a Slave” and “Nebraska,” Steve McQueen and Alexander Payne made movies that were not an easy sell: an epic look at American slavery (a subject virtually untested at the box office) and a character-driven comedy-drama with no marquee names, filmed in black and white. Alfonso Cuaron with “Gravity” pushed himself into technological areas that were new to him (or to anyone, for that matter).
Like Cuaron did years ago, French-Canadians Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) successfully transitioned into big-studio work. With “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Ben Stiller also moves into different territory, but his move is artistic, rather than geographic.
After working with projects that were intensely verbal, J.C. Chandor (“All Is Lost”) and Jason Reitman (“Labor Day”) wrote scripts with minimal dialogue, basing their stories on visuals. And with “Her,” Spike Jonze proved that he can add a lot of heart to his trademark mind-twisters.
Others were under the gun to prove they weren’t one-hit wonders, following acclaim for their earlier breakthroughs. They include Derek Cianfrance, “The Place Beyond the Pines” (after 2011 “Blue Valentine”); Scott Cooper, “Out of the Furnace” (following 2009’s “Crazy Heart”); Asghar Farhadi, “The Past” (2011’s “A Separation”); Ralph Fiennes, “The Invisible Woman” (2011’s underrated “Coriolanus”) and James Ponsoldt, “The Spectacular Now” (last year’s acclaimed “Smashed”).
John Wells has a breakthrough of a different sort with “August: Osage County.” This is his second bigscreen outing, and Wells trusted his actors and the material (Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning play). This may sound like faint praise, but there is a long list of hit plays that stumbled as they moved to the bigscreen under lesser directors. Wells proves that it’s an art to make something look effortless.
And then there are the unseen trio: Peter Jackson with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” David O. Russell with “American Hustle” and Martin Scorsese with “Wolf of Wall Street.” Will these films be great? Advance word is promising, and, at worst, they will be fascinating and intelligent.
Many of the above-named directors have surefire stories of comebacks and redemption. But there are still those who are charting their courses with their directing debuts — as with John Krokidas of “Kill Your Darlings” and Ryan Coogler of “Fruitvale Station” — or who never went away. Woody Allen (“Blue Jasmine”), the Coen brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”) and Richard Linklater (“Before Midnight”) each have a trademark style and embody another Hollywood truism: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.