Film directors are both rather exclusive and elusive come awards season. They tend to get the lion’s share of credit for the movie, but also become rather tough to call when guessing their potential recognition with voters. Some people, including myself, would consider directors like Bennett Miller, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, the consistently best of their generation. They all made huge and very different films in 2014. Only Miller landed an Oscar nod – but Foxcatcher was not even nominated for Best Picture. Barring a rather disappointing Interstellar, you could argue the Academy still finds films like Inherent Vice and Gone Girl too out there. I don’t know, but those are the movies we’ll still be watching and talking about when this year’s Oscar ceremony is a distant memory.
Of course this was the year, too, of Angelina Jolie and Ava DuVernay. Two women directors making huge, again very different, films. Star power and critics darling were not good enough factors. Some veterans of the field have prospered this year, like Mike Leigh, Luc Besson, or Jean-Luc Godard, while others like Tim Burton, Woody Allen, or Clint Eastwood received some mixed responses. New kids on the block J.C. Chandor and Jean-Marc Vallee both wasted no time with follow up films to great stuff from last year. And let’s not forget the oh-so-close Damien Chazelle and Tony Gilroy. Open your eyes, though, to these somehow undervalued directors from 2014:
Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (Two Days, One Night)
The directing of Two Days, One Night had to be more about the handling of this grounded, but very important, social subject, than it needed to be about style or showmanship. This is not to take anything away from the talent of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, for their immaculate and honest grasp of the material (also demonstrated in their previous strong works) is heart-breakingly real. There are few film-makers in this industry who could make such an emotional impact with a movie that simply hand to be handled with care. Wonderful story-telling from start to the final frame.
Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure)
Recently making the movie news columns for apparently crying out in despair following Force Majeure’s omission from the Oscar Best Foreign Language nominations, Ruben Östlund perhaps had a right to be a little upset. His movie is so intricately directed between the main actors and their very out-in-the-open concerns, it can be quite claustrophobic. And that is without the constant dangling of danger and unknown while making full use of his frames with the snowy landscapes. The real beauty of Force Majuere is that Östlund builds a fear and awkwardness within you as you watch, whether you want it or not.
Jennifer Kent (The Babadook)
From the trailers The Babadook appeared to look like it could be one of the scariest movies for years. As it turns out the film itself has it’s moments of dread, but packs an even bigger punch on an unnerving, psychological level. Australian actress, writer and director Jennifer Kent unravels a true mastery of the film-making craft, but also of the horror genre, in her debut feature film. Kent executes her own original screenplay onto the screen brilliantly, keeping us guessing and wondering what twisted event could take place next – the unpredictability channelling fear and intrigue in us right until the climax.
Paweł Pawlikowski (Ida)
Here in the UK, Paweł Pawlikowski is better known for a couple of low-key, but extremely good Last Resort and My Summer of Love. With Ida, the director not only returned to his motherland to make a film in Polish, he also delved with expert simplicity into the era and made us believe we were watch a film from the sixties. With the box ratio format, the black and white, and off-centre framing, Pawlikowski and his technical crew have made cinematic look simple. Not to mention aiding two terrific performances from his actresses Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska. The latter, making her film debut, was personally plucked by the director to play Ida – she was exactly what he was looking for, and her face on the screen justifies every one of his instincts.
Amma Asante (Belle)
I can’t speak too loudly about Amma Asante’s reputation in America, but she was citied as an exciting new talent to the UK film industry long before she ventured into her second feature with Belle last year. In the process too has further demonstrated the illuminating acting of Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Merging the costume drama genre with relevant issues of race (and to some extent gender) equality, Asante has made an immaculately looking film that mercifully does not shove important issues down your throat. These are crucial elements of our history, and this story, and the director does shine just enough light on them to do it justice. It is the spotlight from the film industry, here or Stateside, that really ought to be pushing forward at a much greater speed to recognise talents like this.
Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive)
I struggle to accept that Jim Jarmusch has made so few films, and is now in his sixties. Like Richard Linklater, Hal Hartley, or Leslie Harris, for example, he was without a doubt one of the leading engineers of the rise of indie cinema in the late eighties and early nineties. Mystery Train and Night on Earth instantly spring to mind. Twenty-five years on, Jarmusch has clearly not lost any of his strange, indulgent style, directing a bunch of vampires attempting to go cold turkey. His blood-thirsty tale also effectively blends both an old-fashioned and cultured landscape with modern outlooks and technologies – I have never, ever seen long-distance vampire lovers express human emotions over Skype.
Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan)
Bookending a bleak human story and character’s misplaced outlook on religion with beautiful empty landscape shots and bold Philip Glass music, director Andrey Zvyaginstev almost tricks his audience into how he will execute this story. He sets the tone right away with Leviathan, sure, but for the duration of the picture Zvyaginstev lets the impact of the drama come from the central characters, their dilemmas, and their down-trodden reactions to them. There are plenty of wide landscape views, often making our characters look even smaller than they perhaps feel. The director keeps your attention the whole time though, crafting a sullen drama, that is both patient and powerful.
Gia Coppola (Palo Alto)
The Coppolas are quite the directing dynasty. There is, though, not enough coverage of Francis Ford’s grand-daughter Gia Coppola. Sure, her filmography might not match that of her grandfather, but her fluid, hazy style is certainly reminiscent of her aunt Sofia. Palo Alto depicts a volatile time of youth, and Coppola’s direction is warm and jagged, inter-cutting some private character moments and off-screen dialogue. Yet you, the audience, are never lost, and she captures the allure and awkwardness of adolescence without you wanting to look away. A special shout out must go out to cinematographer Autumn Durald for making the whole picture lucid and seductive.
Richard Ayoade (The Double)
Probably better known as Moss in The I.T Crowd (in the UK anyway), Richard Ayoade is not only an actor, but also a presenter, writer and director. He is also renowned for his shyness in interviews. With his second feature as a director he creates a bizarrely dark chunk of clerical and inhabitant society. The story of a seemingly invisible outcast having to adapt to the arrival of a slicker, more confident double of himself, is directed with the same surrealism as the concept itself. Ayoade created the cult TV series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and with The Double has proved his talents behind the camera competently transfers to film.
Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin)
Jonathan Glazer, the director who got Scarlett Johansson to take her clothes off? True, but after seeing Under The Skin I am not sure you will appreciate the actress in quite the same way. Glazer is also responsible for that ferocious Ben Kingsley performance in Sexy Beast, and one of the most perfect opening sequences of recent years in Birth. And that is it, he has made three feature films in fourteen years. His reputation as a film-maker certainly proceeds him. Under The Skin is an usually effective and brilliant movie in it’s own right, but has some heart-wrenching and deep thought-provoking moments. Glazer’s direction is not particularly cruel, but it does leave you scarred.