At some point in the late 1990s, probably around '97/'98, I began to realize that there was this job called film director and that it was these creative geniuses that drove the storytelling aspect of movies. Steven Spielberg was my first love. I wanted so much to see all of his movies. I began to learn about filmmaking through him and his love of it. I read about him constantly. "Saving Private Ryan" came to theaters. I went...twice. I was blown away by its power, its greatness.
I got into some Scorsese, "Goodfellas and "Casino." Then, I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia." I became obsessed with the camera. I began to see the differences in directors' various styles.
I began to understand what made a "Best Director" for the first time.
All of the movies mentioned below are Oscar choices that I just fully agree with. Most of these are for "groundbreaking," even controversial films. All of them are visually masterful pieces of cinema from truly visionary filmmakers.
Here are my favorite Winners in Achievement in Directing since 1994:
5. Roman Polanski for "The Pianist" (2002)
When Harrison Ford read Roman Polanski's name at the 2003 Oscar ceremony, the camera went first to Martin Scorsese, who had just lost for directing "Gangs of New York." No. Roman Polanski's not welcome in the United States. He committed a pretty heinous crime in the late '70s, plead guilty, then fled to Europe, where American authorities have yet to be able to extradite him. I won't go into how I feel about that. I will only say that "The Pianist" is one of the most beautifully heartbreaking films ever made. Being that it is about the Holocaust makes it that much more daunting a feat of filmmaking. Adrien Brody's Oscar-winning performance is another indication of Polanski's incredible direction. And it was ballsy of the Academy to look past the crime and award him for making this movie.
4. Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker" (2009)
At the 2010 Oscar ceremony, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Directing. She did so with the intense, overtly male, Iraq War film "The Hurt Locker." Bigelow is fascinating and with her Oscar win became one of Time Magazine's Most Influential people of the year. Rightly so, she had been a strong female presence in the male-dominated world of film directors for years and made the most badass action movie of the '90s with "Point Break." I love her for that as well.
3. Ang Lee for "Brokeback Mountain" (2005)
Ang Lee is so good at making movies, it's ridiculous. He has won this prize twice, and, frankly, could've won it three times. "Brokeback Mountain," like all of his movies, is just plain beautiful. There is no other word to describe it. The story of two gay cowboys in the 1960s American West, one fully repressed and one more open but likewise denied his own sexuality, resonated with wide audiences that year and remains an important statement for LGBT communities in this country. The performances from Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal further speak to Ang Lee's ability to pull career-best work from his actors.
2. Sam Mendes for "American Beauty" (1999)
Sam Mendes had never directed a movie before when Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks reached out to him to direct a script by Alan Ball. Originally conceived as a stage play (and with Mendes being an established English theatre director), it seemed to be the right fit. It was. The story of a beaten-down suburban office drone and his family troubles, "American Beauty" is as gorgeous and effective now as it was when it first hit American theaters in late 1999. Each shot is carefully planned and directed and the cinematography from the legendary Conrad L. Hall is downright masterful.
Say what you will, but Steven Spielberg's second Oscar win for Directing is one of my favorite Oscar wins. I love everything about "Saving Private Ryan." It is a lesson in "how to make a war film." The drabness of its browns and greens and grays, the atrocities of war in its shockingly realistic carnage, the hearts of its heroes as the embark on their mission and, in turn, begin to question the very meaning of the war they are charged with fighting. It's a beautiful movie as well. It left me shaken and touched, and still does with each subsequent viewing, and it should've won Best Picture that year. "Shakespeare in Love" is a fine movie, but it's nowhere close to as good as this one.