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Best director: The year of the auteur

Forget pampered stars, the real A-listers are the five best directors. By Joe Tirella

Oscar voters sent a clear message this year with their best director nominations: 2005 was the year that filmmakers — and the stories they told — were more important than the stars that acted in their movies. The proof, as they say, is in the nominations; all five best director nominees — Steven  Spielberg, George Clooney, Ang Lee, Paul Haggis and Bennett Miller — are responsible for the five films nominated for best picture: “Munich” (Spielberg); “Good Night and Good Luck” (Clooney); “Brokeback Mountain” (Lee); “Crash” (Haggis); and “Capote” (Miller).

It’s the story, stupid
It’s also worth noting that of the combined 20 acting nominations this year only 7 are for actors appearing in the five films listed above. And while George Clooney did score a best supporting Oscar nod it wasn’t for his part in “Good Night and Good Luck” but rather his role as a maverick C.I.A. agent in “Syriana.”

Need more proof? Fine. The screenwriters of the five movies listed above (including Clooney again, who co-wrote “Good Night and Good Luck”) are all represented among the 10 best screenwriting nominees. It’s just like that old Hollywood truism: it really is all about the story.

And the director, of course.  It’s a welcome change to see five auteurs — yes, you heard me, I went there — get the recognition of an Oscar nod since none of these directors shied away from tackling difficult subject matter (terrorism, race relations, media responsibility, gay love, and the creative process). But the truth of the matter is, only one can take that gold-plated statuette home, so here’s a breakdown of the five nominees.

The newcomer

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 28: Director Bennett Miller onstage during the Directors Guild of America \"Meet The Nominees - Feature Film\" symposium held at the Directors Guild of America on January 28, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Bennett MillerVince Bucci / Getty Images North America

It’s amazing to think that “Capote” is the feature debut of 38-year-old Bennett Miller whose previous claim to fame was the 1998 documentary, “The Cruise,” about an eccentric tour guide in New York. To jump from directing a film festival doc to this meticulously (and often unflattering) portrait of eccentric novelist Truman Capote and his struggle to complete “In Cold Blood” — his much ballyhooed “non-fiction novel” about the murder of Kansas family in 1959 — is a quantum leap that would make any filmmaker jealous.

Miller allows his film to unfold subtly and slowly, like a seasoned pro. Watching “Capote” you can’t help feel for the author (played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman), the victims and the killers too, who are used, unwittingly, by a cold-blooded writer for the sake of art.

Prediction: With this film, Miller has announced the arrival of a new heavyweight talent in Hollywood, but this isn’t his year.

The writer

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 28: Director Paul Haggis arrives at the 58th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards held at Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on January 28, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Paul HaggisKevin Winter / Getty Images North America

Paul Haggis’ “Crash” is by far the weakest of the five best movie picks, which automatically makes him the least deserving of an Oscar. To be fair, Haggis is a talented screenwriter (he garnered an Oscar nod for co-writing the script to “Crash”). But he could use a lesson in subtleness from Miller or Clint Eastwood (Haggis wrote the screenplay to “Million Dollar Baby” which earned him an Academy Award nomination last year).

The main problem with “Crash” is the way the seen-it-all-before plot plays out in the most melodramatic Hollywood way; Haggis rarely resists an opportunity to hammer the viewer over the head. Plus, the characters — with the notable exceptions of Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito — are mostly caricatures: racist cops; wise-cracking car-jackers; the dutiful daughter of a Middle-Eastern immigrant; the opportunistic white D.A. who will do anything to win minority voters. Stop me if you’ve heard (or seen) this one before.

Still Haggis does have a certain knack for dialogue and the film is paced well, splicing together myriad storylines (too bad the storylines aren’t any better) in an artful way.

Prediction: No chance; Haggis probably needs a few more chances behind the camera to find his groove.

The legend

Director Steven Spielberg is shown in an undated publicity photo released by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Spielberg received a best director nomination for his film \"Munich\" for the upcoming 78th Academy Awards.The nominations were announced in Beverly Hills, California, January 31, 2006 and the Oscars will be presented March 5, 2006. NO SALES NO ARCHIVES REUTERS/AMPAS/HandoutHo / X80001

Spielberg, who after giving America (and the world) another reason to detest Tom Cruise earlier last year with “War of the Worlds,” redeemed himself by taking on the most combustible of subjects, Middle-Eastern politics and terrorism in “Munich.” And for his efforts he was promptly slammed from political fundamentalists on both the Left and the Right. (Ironically, the last movie to wither such a full-court press attack was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”)

With “Munich,” Spielberg finally combined his knack for low-brow “popcorn pictures” (“Jurassic Park,” “E.T.”) with his love of “high-brow” subject matter (“Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan”). In fact, “Munich” might be his greatest work yet if for no other reason than he had the chutzpah to turn a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and allegorically the Bush administration’s War on Terrorism) into an action-packed espionage thriller.

Prediction: In a year of controversial subject matter, this film might be the most controversial, but it looks like Spielberg won’t be adding a third best directing Oscar to his collection.

The artist
Clooney followed up his uneven directorial debut, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” with the 1950s set piece, “Good Night and Good Luck,” proving that this one-time TV star is one of the only Hollywood actors to use his A-list clout to take chances.

Actor and director George Clooney is shown in this undated publicity photograph. Clooney received a best director nomination for his film \"Good Night, and Good Luck\" for the upcoming 78th Academy Awards. The nominations were announced in Beverly Hills, California, January 31, 2006 and the Oscars will be presented March 5, 2006. NO SALES NO ARCHIVES REUTERS/AMPAS/HandoutX80001

Still, despite his proven track record, he struggled to get his project financed. How many studio heads want to back a black and white film based on a legendary newsman, Edward R. Murrow, and his battles with the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a no-nothing demagogic Republican from Wisconsin, both of whom most people under 40 don’t remember or never heard of? What’s more in almost every scene of the film somebody’s smoking. (Talk about being politically incorrect.) No wonder Clooney reportedly had to use his $7 million Hollywood Hills home as collateral to secure the film’s insurance.

With “Good Night and Good Luck,” Clooney has matured considerably as a filmmaker. It’s a wonderful piece of cinema that unfolds like a well-made play, tactfully recounting a time in our nation’s history when at least some high-profile members of the media weren’t afraid to stick their necks out and take on the more insidious elements of the American government.

Predication: wonderful achievement that will hopefully lead to more studios bidding for his directorial services, but sorry George, not this year.

The winner
To this movie-goer, there is one clear choice for this year’s best director Oscar: Ang Lee. In his short Hollywood career, Lee, has proven to be a proponent of the Billy Wilder school of filmmaking, tackling films as diverse as “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and now “Brokeback Mountain.”

This exquisite story is as much a paean about the secret love between two cowboys as it is a photographic poem that celebrates the beauty of the American West. Readers of Annie Proulx’s short story, on which the film is based, will remember how much of the story was told on a subtextual level; but thanks to Lee’s deft skills behind the camera, those details are illuminated silver screen. And that’s the sign of a brilliant director.

Prediction:Like a true auteur, Lee, took this courageous story and made it his own. And for that, he’ll — deservedly — win this year’s best director Oscar.