Best Director Race Captures Hollywood at a Crossroads

The Irishman BTS
Courtesy of Netflix

When Martin Scorsese made an offhand quip about his skepticism toward the Marvel Cinematic Universe earlier this fall, specifically whether the blockbuster franchise films that now provide a hefty share of Hollywood studio grosses should be considered “cinema” at all, he couldn’t have predicted the sort of longstanding firestorm he was about to set off. His comments, which he elaborated upon with great wit and grace in a New York Times op-ed last week, may have ultimately been turned into grist for social media’s increasingly hysterical opinion mill, but they nonetheless pointed to a much deeper set of simmering tensions that look set to provide the underscore to this year’s best director race.

From the increasing hegemony of monolithic blockbusters at the multiplex to dramatic consolidation of studio power, the incursion of streaming services into the world of arthouse filmmaking, the ever-increasing attraction of prestige TV, and the inevitable frictions that occur when a new generation of filmmakers bumps up against a still-resilient old guard, Scorsese’s longing for a more adventurous, heterogeneous Hollywood struck a powerful chord.

That Scorsese should be at the center of this particular firestorm makes sense. This is his first narrative feature, after all, since he decamped to Netflix, and used the streamer’s resources to make the kind of film that used to be the sole domain of the legacy players. His 3½-hour epic, “The Irishman,” can’t help but call to mind an older, wiser reprise of his iconic gangster dramas including “Casino” and “GoodFellas,” sharing not only a milieu and a worldview, but also many of the same actors. And just as importantly, it’s hard to think of a year in which the director’s influence has exerted itself more strongly on his aspiring heirs.

Todd Phillips makes no bones about his “Joker’s” debt to Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver,” seeking to imbue the safety of IP-derived studio filmmaking with a dose of the wildness and unpredictability that Scorsese lamented has often gone missing. Scorsese was likewise an acknowledged model for Lorene Scafaria, whose “Hustlers” took structural notes from “GoodFellas” even as its story seemed to present an acid-tongued feminine counterbalance to the predatory misogynists Scorsese savaged in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Meanwhile, Josh and Benny Safdie continued to sculpt their own modern take on New York’s remaining pockets of underworld brutality in “Uncut Gems,” presenting a down-and-dirty, self-regulating slice of Manhattan lowlife that “Mean Streets’” Johnny Boy would have recognized as not so different from his own.

But Scorsese also took aim at his own filmography in “Irishman,” recontextualizing the sociopathic rush of his earlier gangster movies into something more measured and sober. He’s not alone here, either: in “Pain and Glory,” his slightly younger contemporary Pedro Almodóvar took a startling measure of himself, capturing a fictionalized filmmaker stand-in forced to reckon with the wreckage that his life and career have left on his relationships and his own body. Though substantially younger than both, Noah Baumbach, with “Marriage Story,” marked a melancholy homecoming of sorts, reexamining the themes of marital disintegration that he nailed so brutally from a child’s perspective in “The Squid and the Whale,” now approaching those same heartaches from the vantage point of the parents. And with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino, no stranger to twisted nostalgia trips, managed to channel his long-simmering cinematic obsessions into something stranger, looser and more tender than any of his previous self-referential pastiches would’ve ever dared. (And in doing so, Tarantino coincidentally offered an elegy to the style of American filmmaking that the then-brash young Turks of Scorsese’s generation would shortly show out the door.)

On the other side of the blockbuster coin, several veterans of the Disney franchise machine made good on the supposed grand bargain offered to those who manage to turn a decent profit for the Mouse mothership. Taika Waititi was fresh off of “Thor: Ragnarok” when he launched a cheerful morality tale involving a Nazi youth and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, in “Jojo Rabbit.” Though less extreme in its boundary-pushing, Rian Johnson’s first post-“Star Wars” film, the retro murder-mystery “Knives Out,” registered as both a personal passion project and the kind of sophisticated adult entertainment that some fear the rise of monoculture filmmaking could be killing off.

“Knives Out” was also just one of many of this year’s contenders that tackled the class divides that have riven politics in the U.S and elsewhere — in their own ways, “Hustlers” and “Joker” fit that bill too. Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” which stands an excellent chance of repeating Alfonso Cuarón’s history-making director win for a non-English-language film, tackled the particular vicissitudes of class in South Korea in a way that has helped it strike a nerve the world over. Though no one’s yet gotten a glimpse of it, perennial Oscar favorite Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell,” about the security guard falsely suspected of a bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, could potentially tap into a rich mine of material on class stereotypes. Plenty of other films tackled ripped-from-the-headlines stories, from Jay Roach’s Fox News sexual-harassment expose “Bombshell” to Scott Z. Burns’ “The Report,” about the U.S. government’s attempt to reckon with the “enhanced interrogation” practices of the post-9/11 era.

This was also a year that saw the rise of new voices, and the establishment of recent upstarts into the brand-name directors of the future. Jordan Peele’s “Us,” Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse,” Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” and Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” all proved those filmmakers’ early successes were no flukes, while the likes of the Safdies, Trey Edward Shults (“Waves”), Alma Har’el (“Honey Boy”) and Joanna Hogg (“The Souvenir”) each made sizable leaps toward the mainstream without sacrificing any of their idiosyncrasies.

And finally, plenty of debut filmmakers made substantial waves this year, perhaps none more strongly than Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) and Melina Matsoukas (“Queen and Slim”). As Hollywood’s legacy powers have been lurching, sometimes inelegantly, toward diversifying the range of perspectives reflected in cinema, both these young filmmakers proved that retaining a sense of cultural specificity never has to mean sacrificing connection. And if there’s anything that both the auteurs of the 1970s and the comic-book film fanboys of 2019 can agree that all cinema has to provide, it’s that.