With awards season starting to heat up, we're taking a look at who the leading Oscar contenders for Best Director are. While there's still a long way to go until the Academy Awards ceremony in February, the picture is starting to come into focus following the various fall film festivals that took place. Some films (like Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit) solidified their standing as legitimate contenders, and others (like Harriet) fell short of expectations. There are still a few titles left to be seen, but for the most part, cinephiles know what's realistically in the race, and what's a pretender.
Most of Hollywood is probably thrilled none of the Three Amigos have a new film this year, meaning the Best Director race is wide open here in October. So, without further ado, here are our picks for this category at the 2020 Oscars.
Quentin Tarantino - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
One of the most popular and acclaimed filmmakers of his generation, Tarantino is a two-time Oscar winner in Best Original Screenplay, but has never took home Best Director. That's despite a long list of acclaimed works that includes Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained. Tarantino's fans can probably make a case he's overdo in either the Best Picture or Best Director fields, and with his career (allegedly) winding down to a close as he approaches his tenth film, there may not be a better time to reward him than this year.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino showcased a new side of himself, bucking the typical "Tarantino formula" to craft something that was more introspective and emotionally poignant. The film is his love letter to a bygone era in the entertainment industry, brilliantly transporting viewers back to the 1960s and taking them on a tour through California. Industry professionals proclaimed their love for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood following its premiere over the summer, and the film's stood strong in the Oscar race even after the festival rush. Considering how much the Academy loves films about the entertainment industry, it would be surprising if Tarantino didn't get in.
Martin Scorsese - The Irishman
Even though Scorsese is what in should be the twilight years of his career, he continues to release excellent films and remains as strong as he's ever been. Prior to The Irishman, five of his seven pictures this century earned Best Picture nominations. The expectation is The Irishman will make it six for eight, as it was hailed as Scorsese's latest crime masterpiece following its screening at the New York Film Festival. Netflix has a lot invested in the project, and though they have a full plate of Oscar contenders this year, they're going to give The Irishman a big push.
There are many ways The Irishman could have been a disaster. Scorsese made extensive use of digital de-aging technology so his veteran cast (such as old muse Robert De Niro) could play their characters across a decades-spanning story. The film is also 209 minutes long, meaning it could have been torture to sit through if it wasn't of high-quality. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Martin Scorsese made a great film; his resumé is full of those. But even by Scorsese's standards, The Irishman was highly ambitious. He pulled it off and hit another home run, so the directors branch will likely find a spot for him in the lineup.
Sam Mendes - 1917
Speaking of highly-ambitious, Mendes is really swinging for the fences with his World War I drama. It was recently confirmed 1917 was shot to appear as if it was all done in a single take, a la 2014 Best Picture winner Birdman. Obviously, that's a very challenging task to pull off, especially since cinematographer Roger Deakins could only use the natural light while filming. It was hard enough to do this on Birdman, which largely took place in interiors. As a war film, 1917 boasts grand battle sequences to underscore the elements of danger, and it'll be interesting to see how the final product plays. If Mendes is successful in making 1917 as immersive as he's hoping for, then he could be the one to beat.
It's important to note 1917 has not screened yet, so we're going off its on-paper potential. There remains a chance this one falters and isn't as big a contender as people are expecting. Should that happen, Mendes' chances become toast. But if 1917 is the next Dunkirk or Saving Private Ryan, the American Beauty helmsman should find himself back in the thick of the Oscar race.
Noah Baumbach - Marriage Story
Baumbach has just one Oscar nomination to his name (Best Original Screenplay for The Squid and the Whale), but that is all but guaranteed to change once the 2020 nominees are announced. His latest film, Marriage Story, is one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, moving people with its heartbreaking narrative that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a messy divorce. Marriage Story is at times devastating and funny, creating an experience that's very authentic to real-life. A lot of attention has (rightfully) been paid to stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who are both frontrunners in their respective acting categories. But Baumbach elevates his craft here and delivers what could be his opus.
Netflix is going to have to sort out their priorities when it comes to campaigning; they're undoubtedly going to do everything in their power to get Scorsese in. It's unlikely Baumbach gets left out in the cold, especially since his film is as surefire a contender as The Irishman is at this point in time (and there's a case it could be a safer bet for a win on a preferential ballot). As great as the actors are, Marriage Story is distinctly the product of Baumbach's vision (he wrote the script too). There's no film without him, and with the movie expected to be a player in all major categories, it feels like a lock for a Best Director nod.
Taika Waititi - Jojo Rabbit
Waititi's charming anti-hate satire got off to a rocky start when the initial reviews were largely mixed, but it's rebounded in a big way. Jojo Rabbit was the winner of the Toronto International Film Festival's People's Choice Award, putting it in the driver's seat for a Best Picture nomination. And if it's a threat to win the top prize, then Waititi has to seriously be considered for Best Director. It goes without saying Jojo Rabbit's subject matter is quite sensitive, as it follows an aspiring Hitler youth grappling with his personal beliefs. This could have gone sideways, but Waititi channeled his usual sensibilities to keep things on track.
Some critics felt Jojo Rabbit wasn't as daring or biting in its critique of Nazism as it could have been, which might cause Waititi to lose points with voters. Still, there's no denying it was incredibly ambitious to follow-up a feel-good Marvel movie with a World War II dark comedy where Waititi plays a fictionalized version of Adolf Hitler. At first glance, Jojo Rabbit seems like more of a threat in Best Adapted Screenplay, but since Waititi managed a tricky balancing act in terms of tone and material, the directors branch may find his work too impressive to overlook.
Bong Joon-Ho - Parasite
International films face an uphill climb cracking Best Picture and Best Director, even with the new Academy membership aiming to broaden horizons. Alfonso Cuarón storming through the season last year with Roma is the exception, not the rule. If there is to be another foreign film that breaks through, all signs are pointing to it being Parasite, which earned nothing but steep praise out of festival screenings. Critics adored it for being a pitch-perfect, timely piece of cinema, and Parasite was even named one of the runner-ups for TIFF's People's Choice Award.
Bong Joon-Ho is a beloved figure in the industry, having previously directed films like Snowpiercer and Okja to widespread acclaim. If Parasite garners enough support among voters to land in the Best Picture field, there's a solid chance Bong gets swept into Director. This will be one of the more fascinating developments to keep tabs on as the season progresses. The directors branch isn't averse to injecting some international flair into their lineup. Remember, Cold War's Pawel Pawlikowski was a surprise inclusion in last year's Best Director field, over other choices like Bradley Cooper.
Marielle Heller - A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Heller had a film in the Oscar discussion last year with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which earned three nominations. To the disappointment of many, Heller wasn't named a Best Director nominee. The Academy has a quick opportunity to atone for that snub in 2019 with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which pays tribute to the enduring legacy of Fred Rogers by telling a vital story of love, kindness, and forgiveness. The film may not be an overwhelming favorite on the awards circuit right now (it wasn't even a TIFF runner-up), but it seems to be in a good position to secure a couple of nods, most notably Tom Hanks in Best Supporting Actor.
If A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood catches steam, Heller may find herself in the Best Director race. Many of the reviews cited her work, as she framed the film as if it was an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. And given the subject matter, there was a good chance the biopic could have fallen into the trap of being schmaltzy or overly-sentimental, but Heller's deft hand ensured that the emotional beats landed with the intended impact. In some respects, there's a meta element to this film. Hanks as Mr. Rogers seems like something almost too good to be true (just like the real Mr. Rogers), but Heller found a way to reach the audience and deliver a powerful message without coming across as hackneyed.
James Mangold - Ford v Ferrari
Ford v Ferrari is another of the Oscar contenders that feels like it's in the second tier of Best Picture candidates. Most are in agreement the film is very good, though a prevailing belief is it sticks too close to the classic sports drama formula and (pardon the pun) doesn't reinvent the wheel. If that's the consensus, then Ford v Ferrari may have trouble moving up the power rankings as the season progresses. At this point, it should be able to land enough first-place votes to score a Best Picture nomination, but it isn't considered to be a leading player in many of the major categories. That likely hurts Mangold's chances of making Best Director.
But the Logan helmsman is deserving of a nod should Ford v Ferrari fare better than expected. Where the film excels is through the racing sequences, which are expertly staged by Mangold. It's here Ford v Ferrari elevates beyond its traditional genre trappings and thrills viewers with exciting set pieces. For that reason, the film should be a lock for technical categories like sound mixing and sound editing. It remains to be seen if the man who called the shots behind the camera can crack the field too.