Younger directors on the Oscar forefront

'70s era helmers make way for new generation

Sharp divides are never as easy to pinpoint in Hollywood, although Peter Biskind made a pretty good case in his book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” Now that clique of 1970s helmers no longer dominates the kudos sweepstakes, though Jonathan Demme and Clint Eastwood are in the mix, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, et al, are out of the running this year.

Indeed, it’s Eastwood (“Gran Torino,” “Changeling”), barely mentioned by Biskind, who stands most consistently and tallest as the standard-bearer for the over-60 gang. That leaves the field open for another group, the mid-boomers, to grab the limelight.

After nabbing the Oscar last year, the Coen brothers (Joel is 54, Ethan, 51) are back with “Burn After Reading,” and there are plenty of others in this age range ready to get their gold. Leading the pack are 46-year-old David Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), 52-year-old Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and 56-year-old Gus Van Sant (“Milk”).

Fincher’s “Benjamin Button” is the former musicvideo helmer’s first feature not grounded in violence (“Seven,” “Zodiac”) or menace (“Fight Club,” “Panic Room”), and its epic qualities and cosmic message could resonate with Acad members.

Boyle seems on a similar trajectory, having first garnered attention in the mid-1990s with “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting.” More recently, he’s made a name for himself with “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” which are horror and sci-fi fare for the thinking person. His “Slumdog Millionaire” is a leap across boundaries. Though it doesn’t shy from depicting the horrors and violence of India’s slums, the film delivers a resolutely upbeat message.

Unlike Fincher and Boyle, who’ve never received an Oscar nom, Van Sant has for “Good Will Hunting.” Recently, the helmer has favored art pics, but “Milk” reps a return to Hollywood, and though this triumph-over-adversity story ends in tragedy, so have many of the fact-based Oscar pics, including “Schindler’s List” and “Gandhi.”

Of the boomer bunch, Ron Howard, 54, is the only Oscar-winning helmer, for “A Beautiful Mind,” and he returns to the kudos race with “Frost/ Nixon.”

As a producer, Edward Zwick, 56, won an Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love,” and yet despite “Glory” and “Blood Diamond,” a director nom has eluded him. “Defiance,” a tale of WWII Jewish partisans, continues his focus on social-justice films and makes him a contender.

The fortysomething crowd, meanwhile, has made such films as “The Reader” (Stephen Daldry, 47); “Australia” (Baz Luhrmann, 46); and “Revolutionary Road” (Sam Mendes, 43). And surfacing right behind them is 38-year-old Christopher Nolan, with “The Dark Knight,” and 39-year-old Darren Aronofsky, with “The Wrestler.”

If those easy riders and raging bulls from the 1970s were marked by novel adventurousness, this new millennium crowd offers a return to more conventional narratives, with big stories occupying their imaginations. From Van Sant and Fincher to Howard and Boyle, these helmers’ previous bodies of work wouldn’t lead moviegoers to expect films about political activism, ageism, disgraced presidents, poverty or ethnic discrimination.

And that change is possibly the most adventurous step of all.

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