Oscars 2014 picks: Best Director

Before we talk director, let’s talk producer. When it comes to putting a stamp on a movie, the director traditionally holds the most sway. The industry trend, though, is for the producer to represent much more than moneybags — even to have a degree of artistic control.

maxresdefaultConsider Brad Pitt, who co-produced “12 Years a Slave” and likely cast himself. When his character speaks up near the end as the voice of reason, it’s as if he’s making a pitch for this movie. He pivots the plot, becoming Solomon’s hero. Not only is he an ambassador for New Orleans (getting the film shot there), but we understand his progressive ideals and attachment to the subject matter. And you wonder whether his influence extends further — maybe into the nominating and voting arenas.

Pitt played the same roles for “Moneyball” — producer and star. It seems if we pay actors enough, they will give back to their community by creating more meaningful art in a holistic way.

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Photo by Michael Buckner, Getty Images

Exhibit B is Megan Ellison, who produced both “Her” and “American Hustle,” two of this year’s BestPicNoms. A film-school dropout, she is a quiet creative force behind quality projects such as these and 2012’s “The Master” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Savvy, hip, embedded producers such as these are changing the way the game is played. Less division of labor … does it also mean a loss in jobs in Hollywood?

Anyone who stays through to the end of movie credits as I do, on the off-chance I can pick up some nifty behind-the-scenes factoid or catch those occasional, clever parting shots, knows it takes a village to make the director look good. In evaluating the merits of a film, the director and movie itself are entwined — which might explain why whoever picks up the Best Director Oscar is often a good clue who will win Best Picture.

According to Wikipedia: “Of the 85 films that have been awarded Best Picture, 62 have also been awarded Best Director. Only four films have won Best Picture without their directors being nominated: Wings (1927/28), Grand Hotel (1931/32),Driving Miss Daisy (1989), and Argo (2012).”

I predict this year will prove another exception. The Best Picture and Best Director awards will be untwinned because there are so many good candidates we must spread the love. I’m just not sure how it’s gonna go down. The suspense is killing me.

The nominees:

Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity). Being of the Hispanic persuasion myself, I can’t suppress the pride I feel admiring Cuarón’s achievements. He is a visionary pioneer and wrangled all of these complicated moving parts to go where no director has gone before. You gotta hand it to him.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). But don’t hand it off quite so soon. “12 Years a Slave” only whetted my appetite for more McQueen movies, and I am thinking he could eclipse the fame of his namesake in the movie industry.

Alexander Payne (Nebraska). Big, big fan of Payne. This choice is painstaking. His commitment to stories that are emblematic of our culture is deep. Considering his plumbing of Hawaiian life in “The Descendants” (my pick two years ago), his work is like a collection of Americana knickknacks. I hope he does every state.

David O. Russell (American Hustle). Again, his body of work is persuading me. Last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” was a revelation. His movies are like a too-short ride at a theme park.

Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street). Only in the master Scorsese’s hands could this story have come off  as so lascivious and rich — and keep us rooting for the bad guys. The fact Scorsese consistently puts us in the head of criminals and shows us heart … he’s a genius.

I am hard-pressed to choose — I want them all to win —but, you know, just being nominated, yadda-yadda. Time is running out. So let me do this without overthinking.

My prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

My pick: Steve McQueen

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Oscar marathoners: We are not alone

IMG_1986One bonus of bingeing on Oscar-nominated titles each February is the discovery of arthouses and plush venues while crisscrossing the metro area like a madwoman. The other perk? Stumbling upon fellow crazies.

I don’t mean the guy who followed me out of the theater after the “Philomena” late show insisting on discussing religion and waiting to hold the door that exited to the deserted parking lot (I darted out a different way, Mom). I mean those kindred spirits also trying to knock down as many movies as they can in a single month.

At West End Cinema in D.C. yesterday, I met Jonathan; the mother-daughter team of Cathy/Cathi/Cathie/Kathy/Kathie/Kathi/Kathey (didn’t get the spelling) and Lauren (safe guess); and a woman who left before I could get her name (no, it wasn’t like that). We composed the entire audience for the showing of Documentary Shorts B.

I was unkempt, unwashed and unprepared for any socializing as it was the fifth movie of my week atop my day job. As we sat there in semi-darkness, I first heard the sniggering when I unfolded my old-school mobile app — a stapled, crumpled checklist of every movie nominated for any Oscar, with all manner of scrawling and check marks in the margins. It was a laugh of recognition and understanding, like those at the comedy club when the joke is on you.

The mother shared the secret of her same list, and then the five of us opened up to compare notes before and after the screening, swapping insights, histories, families, dreams. That’s what movies do — they are a coagulation of inspiration and reflection.

Impressively, the mother-daughter team hailed from Olney, Md., and Baltimore, respectively. Why come so far for one rare screening? “You can’t legitimately say which one is gonna win if you haven’t seen them all,” Lauren declared. She spoke for us all.

Jonathan was missing only a handful of titles — he didn’t have the list in front of him, so he wasn’t sure. We complained to sympathetic ears about the dirty trick Oscar pulls by nominating movies not released in the States yet, such as animated feature “Ernest & Celestine,” a British import, which none of us could see before the envelopes are opened; it comes out later this month. If it doesn’t win, we probably won’t bother.

And what’s with foreign films, indies and shorts being 2010-2012 productions but still qualifying for the 2014 awards ceremony? The distribution date is like a sell-by stamp on a canned good. Very iffy.

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The lobby at West End Cinema, two blocks north of the Foggy Bottom Metro stop.

It was a rollicking good time with newfound friends, whom I hope to run into again next year at West End Cinema — a gem of a salon, which, incidentally, is hosting a special screening tomorrow, March 2, of a certain live event that shall not be named in a party atmosphere — if anyone is looking to commune with other cinema buffs.

Our little band of brethren chatted afterward — but it was only a little past 6 p.m., so on my way back to the suburbs to catch a 9:15 feature at Cinema Arts in Fairfax, Va., I wondered what else I could squeeze in. My phone had died and I could no longer check movie times. On the Metro, I spied a guy hidden behind the WaPo “Weekend” section with the movie grid nearly visible and plopped down beside him. As I leaned in for a better look, he scooched over. Oh.

So what the heck. I had time. At both Courthouse and Ballston, I hopped off the train and walked to the respective box offices to check whether there was anything I could see I hadn’t seen.

It wasn’t likely.