It’s awards season, which means an annual tally of the talented in the world of movies. Among the most recognized are directors, who get recognized separately at awards like the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Often, but not always, the best director nominees track those for best picture, although that’s gotten a little muddy since we have more best picture nominees these days. That being said, what’s a director worth when it comes to the finished product? Is a great film always the result of great direction?
Mike D’Angelo, over at the AV Club, goes at the issue from the other direction and asks if there are situations where the “best-directed movie isn’t among the best of the year.” The example he provides from 2017 is A Ghost Story, which he calls “last year’s most stunning directorial achievement” but involves an “unexpected turn” in the story that is “enough of a deal-breaker” to keep it from being one of his best films of the year. From his description (I haven’t seen the movie) it sounds like a good argument.
Nor would it be unprecedented. It’s not unheard of for a director to be recognized for doing something really different technically or structurally without the final product also being recognized as superior. In 2013 Ang Lee won Best Director for Life of Pi, which involved a lot of technical wizardry that really pushed the bounds of film. It didn’t win best picture, however, losing out to Argo (which, ironically, didn’t even get a directing nod for Ben Affleck). One could make the same argument about Gravity the following year, for which Alfonso Cuaron took home Best Director, while 12 Years a Slave took home best picture (though Steve McQueen was nominated that year).
Where I think D’Angelo goes wrong is in trying to shift, and narrow, the focus of what makes a great director:
Rather than just give up and conclude that the best films must logically be the best-directed films, I instead try to determine, when voting for Best Director in year-end critics’ polls, which movies most impressed me from a purely visual standpoint. Admittedly, there’s plenty of crossover there with various technical categories—cinematography, editing, art direction, costume design—but I generally boil it down to a simple question: ‘Who knew exactly where to put the camera?’ When I come at it from that angle, Picture and Director diverge just enough to make things interesting.
It may make things interesting, but it gives short shrift to a lot of what a director does. You don’t have to be an auteur worshiper (D’Angelo labels himself a “softcore auteurist”) to recognize that a director is the one person most responsible for how a film winds up. Not the only one, certainly, but unless they are overrun by studio dipshits directors have what Bill Bruford, in listing his credits for a solo album, called “final say.” The buck ends with them.
To give one example where a film is shaped by the director’s “vision,” but not necessarily his camera techniques, consider Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. It’s a coming-of-age story shot, essentially in real time. Over the course of eleven years, Linklater filmed sequences with the same cast, including the central character, a boy who literally grew up on screen. The entire setup was his idea and he stewarded it through to completion.
Which is not to say identifying a talented director takes no more effort than finding a list of the best movies of a particular year. Sometimes they bring something so different to the table that the end result isn’t that important. More often than not, though, it is. It’s just really hard to quantify. It’s the Potter Stewart situation of the film world.