With the best films of the year finally making their way to theaters, I thought I'd start handicapping the Oscars.
I've decided to do several installments, focusing on the six big awards (Best Director, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Actor/Actress and Best Picture). Today we'll start with Best Director:
Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"): The surprise hit of the year. Full of colors, bright lights, great music, whooshing cameras, flashbacks, flash-forwards, life, love and 100 others things that fill it with excitement. "Slumdog" won Best Movie from the National Board of Review last week, and has critics gushing like teenage girls watching "Twilight." Boyle gets an extra nod for his perseverance: Two companies said "no" to financing "Slumdog" before someone finally said "yes."
Jonathan Demme ("Rachel Getting Married"): My girlfriend had to drag me to this movie. An indie movie about a dysfunctional family? I've seen it 100 times; I didn't need to see it again. But boy, was I wrong. Demme makes "Rachel" so much better than those other movies. I've never seen a film so committed to reality -- it's painful to watch the main character, a recovering drug addict (Anne Hathaway), self-destruct time after time. But it's also an incredibly enjoyable movie: It takes place at a wedding full of musicians, with great music and dancing always in the foreground. Demme focuses the camera as much on the wedding as he does the main characters. Consequently, the movie brims with life, as well as the simultaneous ups and downs that fill our lives that movies rarely capture. Wonderful handheld camerawork adds to the realism.
Clint Eastwood ("Gran Torino"): Haven't seen it yet, but great early reviews and a great trailer. Also, the Academy loves Clint Eastwood (rightfully so). He's won Best Director for "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby." "Gran Torino" looks action-heavy enough and funny enough to wow mass audiences, and artful enough to wow voters. Should be a strong contender.
David Fincher ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"): I haven't seen this one yet either. But Fincher won Best Director from the National Board of Review, and Fincher always injects his creepy, visionary imagination into his films ("Seven," "Fight Club"). Should be very good and very interesting.
Christopher Nolan: ("The Dark Knight"): Has single-handedly revived a dying franchise. Nolan chose to make darker, more realistic, more nuanced films with "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," and has proved that great comic-book movies can be great movies -- no extra categorization needed. He's definitely the people's choice: "The Dark Knight" grossed $1 billion worldwide.
Gus Van Sant ("Milk"): A great director who almost never works in the mainstream. Van Sant made "Good Will Hunting" back in 1997, easily one of my favorite movies of the 1990s. But "Milk" looks like it could be even better. Several critics, including from The New York Times and Rolling Stone, have already declared it the best movie of the year. Van Sant is great at injecting serious emotion into his movies without making them sappy. He injects exhilarating action into his movies without making them "action movies," and they always have his great sense of humor.
Other notables: Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler"), Ron Howard ("Frost/Nixon") and Thomas McCarthy ("The Visitor").
My favorite: Jonathan Demme. He took a clichd plot and turned it into a masterpiece. Hands down the best direction of the year.
My pick to win: Gus Vant Sant. He probably did the second best job this year, and "Milk" will reach a larger audience. Also, it's a much more ambitious project, which the Academy likes. Expect it to win a lot of awards.