What makes a great director? DGA Award breakdown on road to Oscars

WTOP's Jason Fraley breaks down the DGA nominees (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — The Directors Guild of America just announced its DGA Award nominees.

It’s a significant Oscar indicator, as the DGA Award winner has gone on to win the Academy Award for Best Director in all but seven years since the guild’s inception some 70 years ago.

So what exactly makes a great director in our modern moviemaking era?

Here’s a breakdown of this year’s five nominees — and a few glaring snubs:

Alfonso Cuaron – ‘Roma’

After his Best Director win Sunday at the Golden Globes, Alfonso Cuaron is the favorite. He has already won the DGA Award for his 3D masterpiece “Gravity” (2013), which also won him an Oscar after two prior nods for “Children of Men” (2006) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001).

Expect another win for his deeply personal “Roma,” based on his childhood growing up in 1970s Mexico City. His eye is apparent from the opening credits, unfolding over a static shot of mop suds on pavement where a puddle catches a reflection of an airplane (signifying the forces that take us away from our hometowns). From there, we get Cuaron’s signature long takes along sidewalks and clotheslines, all shot in stunning black-and-white cinematography.

If he wins again, it’ll mark the sixth time in the last seven years that a person of color has won Best Director: Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro G. Inarritu (twice), Cuaron (twice) and Ang Lee.

Bradley Cooper – ‘A Star is Born’

If the DGA wants to reward a newcomer to the directing chair, Bradley Cooper is a worthy choice for his directorial debut “A Star Is Born.” Cooper did the impossible by successfully remaking a classic by Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand into a box-office hit.

Not only did he pull a stellar performance out of Lady Gaga in her feature film debut, he showcased surprising country-rock singing chops as co-star Jackson Maine, directing himself as a modern-day actor-director combo like Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood.

Still, “A Star is Born” is so much more than its musical performances. Throughout, Cooper brilliantly uses symbolic background imagery for tragic foreshadowing, namely the neon noose billboard as his character first climbs into a limo after a concert. I asked Cooper about this mise-en-scene during the film’s D.C. premiere in Georgetown. Watch his response here.

Spike Lee – ‘BlacKkKlansman’

It’s hard to believe that Spike Lee and Bradley Cooper have won the same number of DGA Awards and Best Director Oscars: zero. What a travesty considering Spike is arguably the most important African American filmmaker in Hollywood history. Even his lifetime achievement award at the 2016 Oscars is no reparation for snubbed masterpieces, from “Do the Right Thing” (1989) to “Malcolm X” (1992), in which he directed Denzel Washington to perfection.

Denzel’s son stars with uncanny resemblance in Lee’s latest, “BlacKkKlansman,” chronicling the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer from Colorado, who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a Jewish surrogate (Adam Driver) in the 1970s.

It’s Spike’s most inspired work in years, fired up by recent developments in the election of President Donald Trump. Not only does Spike unleash his signature “double-dolly” shot, he makes masterful use of archival clips, opening with the Confederate flag crane shot from “Gone With the Wind” (1939), interspersing images from “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and ending with documentary footage from the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

Peter Farrelly – ‘Green Book’

If “BlacKkKlansman” is the “Do the Right Thing” of 2018, “Green Book” is the “Driving Miss Daisy.” In fact, it’s the reverse, as a working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist through the 1960s American South.

Part of any director’s job is coaching performances. That’s exactly what Peter Farrelly (“Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary”) achieves here, pulling two Oscar-worthy performances out of Mahershala Ali, who won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, and Viggo Mortensen, who should have won Best Actor over Christian Bale (“Vice”).

Behind the lens, Farrelly cleverly juxtaposes images, using the heroes’ teal car as a subversive screen wipe from black field workers to white guests at a former plantation. Moreover, he deserves props for a tone that narrowly sidesteps the potential trappings of “white savior” and “magic negro” stereotypes, rising above old Hollywood racial tropes for a deep study of lowbrow and highbrow society in this crowd-pleasing interracial buddy comedy road trip.

Adam McKay – ‘Vice’

Rounding out the five nominees is Adam McKay for “Vice,” a film that’s less a biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney than it is a searing political takedown. Known for Will Ferrell comedies like “Anchorman” (2004), “Talladega Nights” (2006) and “Step Brothers” (2008), McKay refined his skill to win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in “The Big Short” (2015).

In “Vice,” the artifice shatters narrative conventions with the ferocity of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” (1977), cutting away to pop-culture images like the Bud Light “Wazzup” commercial amid WMD speeches, blurring faces and beeping words during board meetings, pausing for a fake end-credit sequence and veering into a bedroom Shakespeare soliloquy, all within a framing device that builds to an extracted heart on a surgery table to suggest Cheney’s heartlessness.

While the shot is reminiscent of the body-bag finale of “All That Jazz” (1979), McKay lacks the discipline of Bob Fosse and doesn’t know when to quit. Rather than end on the shocking “heartless” image, he sticks around too long for an unnecessary Bale fourth-wall monologue.

Disappointing Snubs

While I love “Green Book” as overall Best Picture material, it’s more of a script and acting piece than it is a directing piece. The same goes for “Vice.” So, while I hope Farrelly finally wins an overdue Oscar for his “Green Book” script — likely since he just won Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes — his inclusion in the Best Director category takes away from better options.

If you scrap Farrelly and McKay, it would make way for two more deserving directors. I would rather the Oscars honor John Krasinski for his breathtaking execution of the silent horror flick “A Quiet Place,” Ryan Coogler for his visionary world-building in the superhero smash “Black Panther,” Barry Jenkins for his poetic camera in the romantic drama “If Beale Street Could Talk” or Damien Chazelle for his dazzling action sequences in the space biopic “First Man.”

As colleague Christopher Nolan recently told Variety magazine, “[Chazelle] has dared to make an introverted film about the most extroverted moment in the history of the world.”

Either way, the ceremony is a bellwether for the Oscars. The DGA Award winner has gone on to win the Academy Award for Best Director in all but seven years since 1948. It’s also a Best Picture predictor, as only two films have ever won the top prize without a DGA nomination.

The DGA champ has successfully predicted Best Picture 14 times in the 21st century with Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” (2017), Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “Birdman” (2014), Ben Affleck’s “Argo” (2012), Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” (2011), Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” (2010), Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2009), Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” (2007), Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” (2006), Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” (2003), Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” (2002) and Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” (2001).

Only five DGA winners this century have failed to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Damien Chazelle won the DGA for “La La Land” but eventually lost Best Picture to “Moonlight” (2016); Alejandro G. Inarritu won the DGA for “The Revenant” but lost Best Picture to “Spotlight” (2015); Alfonso Cuaron won the DGA for “Gravity” (2013) but lost Best Picture to “12 Years a Slave” (2013); and Ang Lee won the DGA for both “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” but lost Best Picture to “Crash” (2005) and “Gladiator” (2000), respectively.

Will it be Groundhog Day all over again? Don’t look now, but the DGA ceremony is Feb. 2.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

© 2019 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up