In Oscars best-director nominees, a wealth of milestones

In Oscars best-director nominees, a wealth of milestones
The six most objectively awful people who have an Oscar
nThere’s not an Academy Awards category this year that doesn’t feature some element of exciting new talent, captivating backstories or the possibility of an Oscar landmark victory.

In even the glittering array of nominees to the 90th Academy Awards, the best director category stands out. Want history-making diversity? Check. First-time nominees? Check. Overdue veterans? Check.

The program’s pioneer, Mark Elendt, and the company he works for, Side Effects Software, will each receive the Academy Award of Merit, an Oscar statuette. Visual effects artist Jonathan Erland will receive the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, an Oscar statuette for his career contributions that include pioneering effects for “Star Wars” in 1977 and “Star Trek” two years later.

Just about the only thing missing from this year’s directing nominees (that is, not counting “The Post” director Steven Spielberg and “The Florida Project” filmmaker Sean Baker) is cutthroat competition. The five nominees — Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Phantom Thread”) — have effusively praised one another as they’ve navigated their way along the awards-season campaign trail.

The Sci-Tech Awards, as they are colloquially known, comprise certificates, plaques and Oscar statuettes. Unlike the Academy Awards, Sci-Tech prizes aren’t for the previous year’s work. Inventions aren’t generally considered for Sci-Tech Awards until they’ve been used in various productions, Roble said.

They have, like everyone else, seemingly come to the conclusion that this is one heck of a good bunch of filmmakers.

“Everybody is my opinion, for different reasons, had one of their best moments,” said del Toro in a recent interview. “Paul Thomas Anderson making a movie that is faithful to his obsessions, exacting and deep in a way he always his. Chris Nolan creating a symphonic work of cinema. Greta Gerwig, first movie off the bat, is a movie that’s in appearance simple but is incredibly complex, well-calibrated audio-visually, incredibly intimate.”

“We take the long view,” he said. “We are awarding software or hardware or engineering that has stood the test of time… One of the things we look for is adoption of the technology beyond just the people who created it.”

And Peele, del Toro said, shared love of horror — a genre that seldom reaches the highest honors of the Oscars.

“We’ve been brothers in arms in a way because we took a genre that’s normally not in the conversation and through each of our personal alchemies we transformed it with other genres,” he said. “In my case, musical theater, comedy. In his case, he makes it into a social parable of enormous potency.”

The six most objectively awful people who have an Oscar
The six most objectively awful people who have an Oscar

Del Toro, a meticulous maestro of dark Gothic fantasies, is considered the favorite of the five for his sumptuously made period monster romance, the Oscars-leader with 13 nods. He won the highly predictive top honor from the Directors Guild. But whoever wins, it will be their first directing Academy Award — or, provided none win best screenplay earlier in the ceremony, their first Oscar, period.

That personal history will be made is for certain. But larger milestones could be set, too.

Patrick Stewart to get techy at academy's Sci-Tech Awards
Patrick Stewart to get techy at academy’s Sci-Tech Awards

Gerwig, whose coming-of-age drama artfully turns on a mother-daughter axis, is just the fifth woman nominated for directing in the nine-decade history of the Oscars, a distinction she has been proud to celebratewhile remaining vocal about the disgrace of that statistic as an emblem of the movie industry’s wider gender imbalances. But in a Hollywood that has lagged behind in inclusiveness, she and Peele — both making their solo directorial debuts, both in their ’30s — represent the future. On the morning of Oscar nominations, Peele was one of Gerwig’s first calls.

Notes On The Season: 'Three Billboard's Martin McDonagh On Directing “Snub”; Senior Moments; Oscar Vets Return ...
Notes On The Season: ‘Three Billboard’s Martin McDonagh On Directing “Snub”; Senior Moments; Oscar Vets Return …

“I feel connected to him because we’re part of the group to come up,” said Gerwig in a recent interview. “We’ve been on this journey together, in a way. It’s both of our first films. I love his film so much. It’s so groundbreaking, it’s so wonderful. It deserves everything.”

If Gerwig were to win, she would be only the second woman to be awarded best director, after Kathryn Bigelow (2008’s “The Hurt Locker”). If Peele were to win, he would be the first black filmmaker to take the honor. (Previously nominated were John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen and, last year, Barry Jenkins.)

Peele set out to make a rip-roaring thriller propelled by a powerful social critique of latent racism. That “Get Out,” released last February, has made it all the way to the Oscars has been an unexpected affirmation.

“I’ve been dreaming about this moment since I was 13. And to be honest I’ve gone through times where I believed in it and times when I didn’t believe in it,” said Peele. “It comes with a really important lesson and realization for me which is that it’s bigger than me. It’s an important thing for a lot of people and the people who supported the film and the people out there who have the same dream but feel like they can’t do it for whatever reason.”

“The Silent Child” does a slow burn about the life of a bright deaf child. Written by star Rachel Shenton, it makes heartbreaking points without ever sentimentalizing. A mentor and sign language teacher, she makes a quick connection with the withdrawn girl (played to perfection by Maisie Sly). But she struggles to mesh with the girl’s hearing mother, who doesn’t accept the advice to treat her awakening daughter as “normal … just deaf.”

Christopher Nolan reveals how Saving Private Ryan influenced Dunkirk

Del Toro is, himself, the third Mexican-born filmmaker nominated for best director, a mark all the more meaningful at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric courses through U.S. politics. With a nomination, del Toro joins his close friends and countrymen: Alfonso Cuaron (who won for 2013’s “Gravity”) and Alejandro Inarritu (a nominee for 2006’s “Babel” and a winner for both 2014’s “Birdman” and 2015’s “The Revenant”). The trio were dubbed “the three Amigos” when they stormed Hollywood more than a decade ago, and have often relied on each other for feedback on scripts and editing advice.

Reality is also at the root of “DeKalb Elementary,” which tensely dramatizes a 2013 Atlanta grade school invasion by a mentally ill gunman. He was talked down from harming anyone by the school receptionist, impressively played by Tarra Riggs. Much of the dialogue is transcribed from the emergency call she made to the police dispatcher as she coolly, calmly explained the situation to both sides.

“When we came onto the landscape, it was a very different landscape when you’re talking about Latin American directors in the industry,” said del Toro. “It was a lot of effort to change it and to get here, so it’s to be celebrated.”

The German-Kenyan coproduction “Watu Wote: All of Us,” is, like several other nominees, based on a true story. Adelyne Wairimu plays a Christian African whose tragedies have hardened her antagonism toward Muslims. While she’s taking a cross-Kenya bus journey among many Muslim passengers, the bus is attacked by Al-Shabab terrorists. The story reaches an unexpected climax and a touching coda.

And then there’s Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan — both among the very most revered and most ambitious filmmakers of the last two decades, both 47-year-old and in their prime. And yet neither has taken home an Academy Award. (This is Nolan’s first best director selection and Anderson’s second, following one for 2007’s “There Will Be Blood.”) They have navigated far different paths — Anderson, a thoroughly independent filmmaker who eludes classification; Nolan, a big-screen maximalist drawn to IMAX-sized spectacles — but both are slavish devotees to celluloid who have in recent years banded together to help preserve film in an increasingly digital industry.

In praising each of his fellow nominees’ films at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Tuesday — “all of the films are just incredible work” — Nolan noted that since taking his kids to see “Phantom Thread,” they have taken to calling him Mr. Woodcock, after the film’s demanding, egotistical protagonist.

It’s entertaining to imagine other crosspollinations. What if Peele directed “The Shape of Water”? What if Gerwig directed “Phantom Thread”? But the impossibility of those hypotheticals only reinforces how no one else could have made any of these five films except those who did. All either wrote or co-wrote their movies. All are carried forward by the expansive and idiosyncratic imaginations of their creators. There isn’t a bad choice in the bunch.

Associated Press writer Sandy Cohen contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

Sometimes the Academy Awards get it right. More often than one might hope though, they get it wrong. But judgments about excellence — which films, directors and actors are truly Oscar-worthy — are things the Academy can control. What it has no say in is what the people they award do after or before they take home those honors.

Throughout Oscar history, terrible, bad and not-at-all good people have taken the top prizes across all the various categories. Some of these actors, producers, writers and directors have become infamous for their trespasses. Others have remained secretly horrible. All of them prove the dangers of honoring anyone as the "best" anything, given that the person awarded can wind up being the absolute worst. It's a risk all awards take, and just another thing that should make us question the value of handing them out in the first place.

Here are just a few of those horrid, reprehensible individuals who are walking this earth as Oscar winners despite their objective awfulness. Note that only the living who haunt the integrity of the Academy are listed here. Due to constraints of space and time, we're letting the odious dead lie silently in their graves.

Mel Gibson There are a goodly number of reasons to dislike the previously highly likable Mel Gibson. For one, he stretched the text of the Gospels to their breaking point in what seems like a bid to cram as much blood, anti-Semitism and sensation as possible into his controversial film "The Passion of the Christ." Then there's the homophobia he wove into "Braveheart," the movie that won him Best Director and Best Picture honors at the 1996 Academy Awards. Then there's that 2006 drunk driving incident in which he sexually harassed the arresting officer and was quoted as saying "Fucking Jews . . . the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?" Even though Gibson has apologized for at least some of that, it's enough to close the book on anyone.

But his worst trespasses involved the intimidation as well as physical and verbal abuse he piled on his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. In a series of highly racist, misogynist rants recorded by Grigorieva, he threatened to kill her, rape her and bury her in a rose garden. There was considerable fallout from the revelations of those recordings, along with all his other statements. And, yet, Gibson has clawed his way back into Hollywood's good graces, a horrid person welcomed back into the fold.

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