In Oscar Directing Category, ‘More’ Sometimes Beats ‘Best’

Here’s a Hollywood riddle. Why are 2015’s director Oscar nominees like Olympic gymnasts? Because their judges seem to have considered degree of difficulty.

These days, the helmer category routinely honors formidable narratives demanding a battlefield general as much as an artiste. Ang Lee ringmastered the 3-D “Life of Pi” menagerie to an Oscar, followed by Alfonso Cuaron recreating the solar system for the interstellar rescue of “Gravity.” Last year, Alejandro Inarritu’s punishing one-take saunter through existential angst ended in his statuette for “Birdman.”

Small wonder partisans are practically going door-to-door to inform voters about the climate extremes Inarritu put his cast through on “The Revenant,” and vehicle stunts pulled off by George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” team with minimal digital help.

If these films were knockouts, the spin seems to say, look how their makers knocked themselves out.

Even the contempo nominees boasted head-shaking challenges. How, critics asked, did Tom McCarthy wrangle the touchy, multi-decade events of “Spotlight” into a lucid, confident thriller?

By what cinema magic did Adam McKay evoke both “Animal House” laughs and moral outrage from the allegedly unfilmable “The Big Short”? The road to Oscar evidently begins with impossible material.

It wasn’t always this way. Throughout Academy history, winning helmers often demonstrated cool personal style, from John Ford and “The Quiet Man” through Mike Nichols and “The Graduate.” (Not to mention Ang Lee’s first win, for “Brokeback Mountain.”) Conspicuous filmmaking has always been a feature of directing Oscars, but now Herculean effort, rather than idiosyncratic dash, appears to be what’s valued.

This theory explains the year’s so-called snubs. Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” doesn’t look nearly as tough to pull off as “Gravity,” let alone Scott’s own nominated “Gladiator” or “Black Hawk Down.” “Bridge of Spies” is wheelhouse Spielberg rather than a stretch, while the delicate “Carol” and “Brooklyn” might have taken Todd Haynes and John Crowley further, years ago.

By contrast, “Room” posed uniquely daunting moviemaking challenges.

Lenny Abrahamson had to fuse together two markedly different halves — one cramped, the other expansive (if equally claustrophobic). His team had to make the 10’x10’ room feel as big as a world to viewers and its protagonists, yet seem pathetically minuscule when revisited at film’s end.
We’re likely to look back on 2015 with awe. Its eight best picture contenders, and more besides, were impressive and emotionally affecting.

But its directing slots went to the filmmakers who looked to be breaking their backs while breaking our hearts.

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