The Academy Award for Best Director (officially known as the Academy Award for Best Directing) is an award presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It is given in honor of a film director who has exhibited outstanding directing while working in the film industry.
Regardless of where you stand on the movies nominated for Best Picture– or on what wasn’t nominated for that matter– two of the nominees feature groundbreaking work by two of the most visionary directors working today: George Miller and Alejandro Inarritu.
What makes a Best Picture nominee special is the story it tells and how emotionally it resonates with a mass audience. The Best Director is who is pulling the strings to make those emotional highs and lows happen. With one look at the bleakness of both the desert wasteland in Mad Max: Fury Road or the frozen tundra in The Revenant, I knew I was watching something very different than any of the movies I watched this year. Disbelief was suspended, my attention was wrapped, and I knew that for the next two and a half hours, I was not in control. That is the mark of a director operating at peak levels.
The global box office is thriving in the age of sequels when virtually every intellectual property is getting a movie treatment and 30 year old franchises are getting rebooted. Categorizing George Miller’s return to the wasteland genre (which he pretty much created) as just another sequel would have been easy to do. I know because that’s what I did. I never got into the Mel Gibson lead Mad Max movies, and my interest in Fury Road hinged completely on what Tom Hardy could do with the role. I was so wrong. As wrong as wrong could be.
Tom Hardy might have his name on the poster, but this is not a Tom Hardy movie. This is a George Miller movie in which he reinvents a genre he created. Unlike any other movie this year, it is the WORLD the audience is experiencing is what is on display here, not the title character’s journey. This is a conscious choice by Miller and it makes all the difference. The tidal waves of violence have the same effect here that the ocean does in In The Heart of the Sea, The Perfect Storm, or the upcoming The Finest Hours. The ocean is nature’s faceless rage that man is pitted against. The audience is forced to accept that nature is dangerous and the best our protagonists can do is hope to survive, because they certainly can’t beat nature.
Now replace the ocean with post-apocalyptic war lords that behave the same way. This directorial vision and how it is handled was truly unique in 2015. We’re forced to accept this world is the way it is with little to no explanation. and there is no hope but to survive in it day by day. In the hands of any other director, Fury Road would have just been about a guy named Max battling a flock of bad guys.
What Inarritu achieves in The Revenant is the complete opposite side of the spectrum, but equally as impressive. Visually this is the most stunning movie of the year. Inarritu’s use of natural light makes The Revenant absolutely stunning in every single frame. The extended single-shot filming that is becoming his trademark is on full display here as death, destruction, and revenge crowd both the foreground and background in nearly every single shot. The audience cannot look away because there is just too much to look at.
When I saw this movie in theaters, I felt like I was right there in the wilderness with the cast… and that’s not necessarily a good thing. With a limited amount of cuts and reaction shots, the audience doesn’t get a break. We’re right there with our protagonist; there is no time to react, only to survive. Much like Inarritu’s other Oscar nominated movies, Children of Men and Birdman, the long shots using the entire frame set an unrelenting pace and uneasiness that trouble is lurking constantly.
What both Miller and Inarritu’s did with their entries this year is masterful and truly their work on display. The worlds they built forced the best performances out of their casts, and raised the bar for not only their category, but for the genres that house these films. It’s going to be a while before Fury Road is considered just an action movie or The Revenant is considered just a western.
The old adage in any sort of action movie is that only the strong survived. What makes these movies stand out is that the strong don’t survive here– the lucky do. What make these movies Oscar contenders are that even though the lucky survive, you don’t get the sense that they’ll be surviving for very long.