Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network (WINNER)
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David O. Russell, The Fighter

For months after it opened early last fall, The Social Network was the odds-on favorite for Best Picture and Best Director. In December, when the critics' societies picked the year's top work, the Facebook movie was judged best in show by more than 80% of the groups, and Fincher by about 60%. A few groups chose Aronofsky or Christopher Nolan over Fincher, but Hooper didn't win a single critics' prize. (Exactly one organization, the Phoenix Film Critics Society, judged The King's Speech the year's best film.) The mid-January award shows — the Golden Globes and Critics Choice — also picked The Social Network and its director. Not that the collective opinion of critics matters a whit to Academy members, but no film or director so widely honored had ever been denied an Oscar.

Everything changed a week or so later, when the professionals took over. On Jan. 25, the Oscar nominations were announced, with The King's Speech gaining the most citations (12, to The Social Network's eight). Then the Hollywood guilds began heaping awards on the stammering-monarch movie. The most prominent of these was the Directors Guild, which chose Hooper over Fincher. The King's Speech had the big mo, and The Social Network was in free fall.

Though the Best Picture prize has long been conceded to The King's Speech, many Oscar mavens keep thinking, or hoping, that the Social Network director will hold this category. That may be sentiment or stubbornness — cold, dead fingers clinging to a cherished bias. "The instinct for some is to think Fincher has a play here still," writes In Contention's Kris Tapley, among the most acute of awards watchers, "but I think it's time to call it."

We still believe that the night to call it is Sunday and that Fincher retains a decent chance. With Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on his résumé, he is one of the town's most accomplished and respected picturemakers. He brought kinetic and cinematic urgency to a script that is, basically, young people talking to one another in a dorm, followed by the same people talking to lawyers in an office. And though the person who gets the Best Director Oscar is usually the one who directed the film chosen as Best Picture, that tradition has been broken four times in the past dozen years — in 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2006. So Fincher could win. Heart may lead head here, but we think/hope he will.