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