This year’s Best Director category is both highly competitive and kind of wide open, which makes it mighty exciting. We’ve got veteran filmmakers, previous Oscar winners, ambitious newcomers, an actor making his directorial debut, and a pair of comedy directors making the turn to more dramatic territory. There are a few frontrunners to be sure, but the Best Director category is always a tricky one to predict. The director’s branch has a knack for throwing in a wild card every year, whether it’s Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge or Lenny Abrahamson for Room. It’s quite often a pretty diverse range of nominees, and 2018’s slate of contenders is not lacking in quality.
First and foremost we have Bradley Cooper, who made a stunning directorial debut with A Star Is Born. If you’re thinking it’s too much of a stretch for an actor-turned-director to land an Oscar nod (or win) for his debut, just ask Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves), Robert Redford (Ordinary People), or Orson Welles (Citizen Kane). It happens, and if Cooper is somehow left out of the Best Director field this year it would make Ben Affleck’s Argo snub seem minuscule by comparison. The craftsmanship of A Star Is Born is astounding, and the film’s overall frontrunner status absolutely extends to Best Director.
But to pull off the win, Cooper’s got some serious competition. Probably the other most formidable contender this year is Alfonso Cuarón, who won this category for his last film Gravity. With ROMA, Cuarón has crafted a bona fide masterpiece, reaching into the depths of his own memories to bare his soul on the screen in groundbreaking fashion. Cuarón served as his own writer, editor, and cinematographer on ROMA, so when it comes to Best Director consideration, you can’t say this isn’t completely and entirely his vision. I could absolutely see Cuarón taking home this gold this year, but for now I’ll just say his status as a presumed nominee is all but guaranteed.
As we move outside of Cooper and Cuarón, however, the field gets much more complicated. Spike Lee could absolutely be in the mix for his critically acclaimed BlacKkKlansman, which would mark his first Oscar nomination in two decades. On the other side of the coin, a director of a very different kind of movie about race relations could also find himself nominated, and that’s Peter Farrelly. Best known as the co-director of comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something about Mary, Farrelly’s true-story drama Green Book is poised to be the “feel-good” movie of the season despite its troubling subtext, and if the film is as big of a hit with the Academy as many think it will be, Farrelly could definitely find himself nominated for Best Director.
The Director’s branch usually goes for an “artsy” pick each year, and this year that slot could very well go to Yorgos Lanthimos, whose comedy/drama The Favourite is something of a critical darling. The film is gorgeously crafted and Lanthimos’ unique style has been embraced more and more with each film. I expect the star-studded The Favourite is the one that’ll do the trick if the film goes over well with Academy members.
And in the vein of prickly movies, Adam McKay’s Vice recently screened and drew positive if dismayed reactions—it appears McKay may have done too good of a job capturing the far-reaching negative impact of the film’s central character, Dick Cheney, so that it leaves the audience feeling a bit deflated. McKay won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Big Short, and Vice seems like even more of an Oscar-friendly film given its true-story and timely subject matter and transformative performances. If this movie’s a hit, McKay could find himself in the Best Director circle.
But then there’s the First Man of it all. Coming into this year’s award season, First Man was an early favorite. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s the next film from Oscar-winning La La Land director Damien Chazelle, and it’s a grand, true-story biopic about Neil Armstrong with ambitious space-set sequences. However, while the film drew a positive response from critics, few were vocally over-the-moon (pardon the pun) about the film, and it floundered at the box office. Moreover, while Chazelle’s decision to frame the entire story from the astronauts’ point of view—a choice which translated into claustrophobic, shaky-cam-filled imagery—was a bold one, it hasn’t been universally embraced.
If Universal rallies the film could find renewed resurgence in this next phase of Oscar season, but if First Man is largely left out of the critics awards next month, it’s possible Chazelle falls out of the Best Director race entirely. And at this point, that’s probably the film’s best shot at one of the major nominations, as lack of enthusiasm puts its Best Picture status on the bubble and Ryan Gosling’s understated performance was a maybe for Best Actor even before the film was forgotten.
A film that absolutely hasn’t been forgotten, though, is Black Panther, which Disney has been positioning as a serious Oscar player since February. They’ve made all the right moves, and the industry seems happy to embrace a superhero film as a genuine Oscar contender in the major categories for the first time. Will that extend to Best Director for Ryan Coogler? It’s unclear, but I think Coogler’s chances of getting nominated are being underestimated. Watch out for the DGA’s nods. If Coogler gets in there, I’m betting he gets into the Oscar field.
On the complete other side of the spectrum is a very different kind of film that’s also about the black experience in America: If Beale Street Could Talk. Director Barry Jenkins landed a Best Director nomination for Moonlight, but will he do the same with his follow-up film? It’s still a bit too early to tell. Annapurna Pictures recently pushed this James Baldwin adaptation’s release into December, so it remains to be seen how strongly Academy voters take to what’s admittedly a very quiet and intimate drama. It’s tremendously well-directed to be sure, but—the Oscars being the Oscars—Jenkins’ work may not be “flashy” enough to land a nod. Though the film is undoubtedly artful and impeccably crafted.
Also in the mix is Marielle Heller, whose warm, character-centric direction makes Can You Ever Forgive Me? an absolute gem—I have a feeling this one’s gonna be a surprise favorite this season. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a serious contender in Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay, but a Best Director push isn’t out of the question. And early reactions to Mary Poppins Returns are rapturous, so it’s best not to count out director Rob Marshall, who won this category for Chicago in 2002.
12 Years a Slave helmer Steve McQueen does stellar work behind the camera on his version of a popcorn movie with Widows, but the film hasn’t received the kind of passionate embrace from critics or audiences that propels it through the awards season. And while the Academy certainly has a thing for Clint Eastwood, The Mule is a giant question mark given the gulf in quality between something like Million Dollar Baby and Eastwood’s other 2018 film, The 15:18 to Paris.
There’s no reason to count out Bo Burnham, whose directorial debut Eighth Grade announces him as a terrific talent behind the camera, and if the Oscar race were just, Tamara Jenkins would be towards the top of this heap for her stellar, precise work on the Netflix drama Private Life.
Speaking of justice, Christopher McQuarrie directed an action masterpiece with Mission: Impossible – Fallout and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place is undoubtedly one of the best-directed films of the year. Yes, these are genre movies and also huge box office hits, but that shouldn’t discount them from the Oscar discussion. How great would it be to see a surprise nod for McQuarrie or Krasinski alongside someone like Alfonso Cuarón? If only.
So yeah, that about does it. Best Director is gonna be one tough cookie to crack this season, and I have a feeling this order is going to shift a lot in the coming weeks. But right now, here are my Best Director predictions in order of likelihood to be nominated.