12 Female Directors Who Should Have Been Nominated for Oscars

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Coming out of last week’s announcement of the Oscar nominations, there was probably no bigger shock than Kathryn Bigelow not receiving a nod for Best Director. Riding a wave of accolades for her film Zero Dark Thirty and her directing, she seemed poised to have her second chance at a golden statue. Instead she found herself excluded and we’re left wondering for the millionth time what exactly the Academy has against female directors.

Since the inception of the Academy Awards over 400 Best Director nominations have been given out. Only four have gone to women. Only one woman has won. It took 80 years for that to happen. It’s a pretty shameful track record. All the more so considering the Academy has had numerous opportunities over the years to acknowledge the excellent work of highly talented female directors and hasn’t. That gave us a thought: what would past Oscar years look like if they had?

So, let’s imagine we have the power to travel back in time and change Academy Awards history by influencing its members away from their predictably biased tastes and toward a more progressive inclusion of women filmmakers. What follows is a revisionist history of several Oscar years where we list those we would un-nominate in favor of female directors (and their films) we felt were more worthy of a Best Director nomination.

The 2000 Academy Awards

WHO WAS NOMINATED:

Sam Mendes, American Beauty (winner) Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich Lasse Hallstrom, The Cider House Rules Michael Mann, The Insider M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense

REPLACE: M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense

WITH: Kimberly Peirce, Boys Don’t Cry

WHY: Given the downward trajectory of Shyamalan’s career since his breakout in 1999 with The Sixth Sense it’s hard to believe once upon a time he was nominated for Best Director. But as his ghost story reminds us, he was a good one once. Still, his nomination was typical Academy: an uninspired and safe choice of a movie that was very successful. Shyamalan may have directed a movie that was immensely popular and entertaining, but with Boys Don’t Cry Kimberly Peirce directed one that was important. The film could have easily been a saccharine Lifetime movie. Instead in Peirce’s hands it became a thoughtful, powerful film that avoids sensationalizing. It’s a poignant account of those who struggle to be their true selves in everyday worlds where that self is hatefully, ignorantly misunderstood and rejected. It’s a call for acceptance and tolerance made all the more resonant with Peirce’s nuanced directing. M. Night Shyamalan’s work on The Sixth Sense is undoubtedly good, but it doesn’t compare to the importance of Peirce’s.

The 2001 Academy Awards

WHO WAS NOMINATED:

Steven Soderbergh, Traffic (winner) Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brokovich Ridley Scott, Gladiator Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

REPLACE: Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brokovich

WITH: Mary Harron for American Psycho

WHY: Let’s face it, did Steven Soderbergh really need two nominations? Traffic is great, but Erin Brokovich is simply good. It’s the kind of routine inspirational underdog story the Academy loves, and if there’s one thing the Academy likes to do, it’s to hand out a Best Director nomination to someone just for making a movie they love. Erin Brokovich is hardly Soderbergh at the height of his directorial powers. Which isn’t something you can really fault him for since it’s a movie that doesn’t require much influence from its director. A handful of other filmmakers could have made it just as well. That’s not the case with American Psycho. It’s manic – borderline Swiftian – satire could have become an unfocused mess. Instead, Mary Harron’s deft directorial hand ensures it remains a dead-on exploration of the 1980s (though really universal) hyper-masculine, hyper-competitive, self-involved, consumerist male. Her work is a testament to the importance of directorial control, and proof that women can make movies about men as much as vice versa. A nomination for Harron would have been more justified than frivolously nominating the same man twice.

The 2003 Academy Awards

WHO WAS NOMINATED:

Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby (winner) Martin Scorsese, The Aviator Taylor Hackford, Ray Alexander Payne, Sideways Mike Leigh, Vera Drake

REPLACE: Taylor Hackford, Ray

WITH: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor

WHY: We don’t revoke a nomination from the man who directed Jamie Foxx to an Oscar lightly. Still, Taylor Hackford’s Ray is less a director’s tour-de-force than it is a movie propelled by the force of its star’s performance and a familiar story arc that can more or less direct itself. Which is probably why Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini received far more awards for their work on American Splendor than Hackford did for Ray — deservedly so, as the inventive biopic of comic book artist Harvey Pekar is anything but paint-by-numbers. Berman and Pulcini found a most unusual way of presenting an unusual common man — one full of vision, originality and playful blending of fiction and reality. It’s a movie full of the creativity of its source, as well as its directors. The filmmaking duo did receive a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, but given what they accomplished it’s really a concession prize. In the same way not just any director can pull off the whimsy of a Charlie Kaufman script, so too did the American Splendor script need just the right filmmakers to make it work. Thankfully it did, and for that they should have been recognized for ambitions greater than Ray’s.

The 2004 Academy Awards

WHO WAS NOMINATED:

Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (winner) Fernando Meirelles, City of God Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation Peter Weir, Master and Commander: Far Side of the World Clint Eastwood, Mystic River

REPLACE: Peter Weir, Master and Commander

WITH: Patty Jenkins for Monster

WHY: When Monster is remembered, it’s mostly for Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning acting. It’s a shame because that performance wouldn’t exist without Patty Jenkin’s directorial approach to the material. Serial killer biopics are easy to get wrong. They can either over-sympathize a murderer or present them as insane monsters served up to titillate our macabre interest in those who compulsively kill. Jenkins does neither. There’s a reason the title is Monster. It’s a clever call to look beyond the oversimplifying label and look at the human being beneath it — a tragic figure who had feelings and we can sympathize with, as well as one who made choices that led her down an inexcusable path. Jenkins’ sensitive, subtle direction should have given her the edge over Peter Weir’s Master and Commander. The film may be an incredibly well-made, dramatic sea-adventure film that Douglas Fairbanks or Charles Laughton would have been proud to star in (its throw-back nature is exactly why it got its Oscar nominations), but the grand scope of what Weir accomplishes is nothing compared to the emotional scope Jenkins does.

BONUS: While she seems okay with it, we’d also ensure the name City of God co-director, Katia Lund, found its way next to Fernando Meirelles’.

The 2008 Academy Awards

WHO WAS NOMINATED:

Ethan Coen/Joel Coen, No Country for Old Men (winner) Jason Reitman, Juno Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

REPLACE: Jason Reitman, Juno

WITH: Sarah Polley, Away From Her

WHY: Juno may certainly have sparked Jason Reitman’s career, but it was always going to be a movie directed more by Diablo Cody’s screenplay than anyone yelling “Action.” To an admitted Juno dissident like myself (bracing for your inevitable wrath), it feels less like a movie than an exercise in being quirky for the sake of it and aspiring to little more. Away From Her, on the other hand is everything Juno is not: sincere and heartfelt. It also represents a truly remarkable and accomplished directorial breakthrough. The maturity, confidence, and sensitivity that Sarah Polley’s direction displays for the film’s focus — Alzheimer’s — belies her youth. Some artists can somehow intuitively capture experiences they haven’t gone through and still make them universally resonant. Polley is one of them. Nominating Jason Reitman and Juno might have made the Academy seem hip and cool, but nominating Sarah Polley would have made the Academy seem capable of acknowledging true young talent.

The 2009 Academy Awards

WHO WAS NOMINATED:

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire (winner) David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon, Gus Van Sant, Milk Stephen Daldry,The Reader

REPLACE: Stephen Daldry, The Reader

WITH: Courtney Hunt for Frozen River

WHY: Stephen Daldry has built something of a career for himself by making Oscar-baiting movies that inevitably entice Academy voters to lavish nominations upon them — despite some of them (The Reader and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) being mostly dismissed by critics. Regardless of whether Daldry makes Oscar-bait by design, or because he just happens to share the Academy’s sensibilities, he’s the easy one to replace here. It makes far more sense to give the nomination to a director who made a film that was actually good, not just good for the Academy. Which brings us Courtney Hunt — director of the significantly better reviewed Frozen River, and winner of several awards for her work. Her compelling ode to the strength of motherhood and those do what they have to survive economically is far better than The Reader. Hunt’s sympathetic but straight-forward take on difficult subject matter, only further emphasizes her worthiness over the heavy-handed work of Daldry.

The 2010 Academy Awards

WHO WAS NOMINATED:

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (winner) James Cameron, Avatar Quentin Tarantino, Inglorious Basterds Lee Daniels, Precious Jason Reitman, Up in the Air

REPLACE: James Cameron, Avatar

WITH: Lone Scherfig, An Education

WHY: Spearheaded by James Cameron’s obsessive ambitions for the advancement of cinematic technologies, Avatar was: innovative, visually wondrous, 3-D faith restoring, and very, very successful. What Avatar wasn’t: very good. Cameron received his nomination thanks to what Avatar was and in spite of what it wasn’t. If there’s anything the movie’s weak story and performances indicates, it’s that all Cameron really directed was the technology. Which seems like questionable justification for a Best Director nomination. Lone Scherfig’s work on An Education (also a Best Picture nominee) would have been a worthier choice. Her stylish and controlled direction of this refreshingly unsentimental and honest coming of age story illustrates that some of the best directing is still the one that remembers to root story in characters, feelings, and truths of everyday life. Which is exactly why she should have been nominated over James Cameron’s overseeing of dazzling but empty fireworks.

The 2011 Academy Awards

WHO WAS NOMINATED:

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

REPLACE:

Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech Ethan Coen/Joel Coen, True Grit David O. Russell, The Fighter

WITH:

Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right Debra Granik, Winter’s Bone Nicole Holofcener, Please Give

WHY: Year-after-year the Best Director category is dominated by men. There has never been a time where more than one woman was nominated at the same time. If ever there was a year that would have been easily possible, it was 2011. Yes, The King’s Speech, True Grit, and The Fighter are good films. But so are The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone and Please Give. In fact, we frankly think Cholodenko, Granik and Holofcener’s films are better. That’s why as drastically revisionist as it might seem (but heck, where’s the fun in revisionism if you can’t be drastic?), we’d give the boot to Hooper (yes, the winner), the Coen Brothers, and O. Russell. Because while these gentleman made good entertaining and Academy friendly movies, the three female directors went further: they made nuanced films that reflect a range of modern living and conditions. Most notably through the welcome eyes of complex, fully fleshed out female characters that aren’t judged so much as allowed to unfold and live their lives.

The 2012 Academy Awards

WHO WAS NOMINATED:

Michael Hazanavicius, The Artist (winner) Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life Alexander Payne, The Descendants Martin Scorsese, Hugo

REPLACE: Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris

WITH: Lynne Ramsay, We Need to Talk About Kevin

WHY: Midnight in Paris is without a doubt a delightful film and a welcome return to form for the now wildly inconsistent Woody Allen. As charming as the movie is, it’s not exactly Allen’s most sophisticated or ambitious effort. That’s why his 2012 nomination seems less legitimately earned and more a nostalgic rewarding of a master temporarily returned. Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a remarkably directed movie that’s far more ambitious in tone and scope. You would think it’d be impossible to meld together an artistic horror movie about a killer kid and an unconventional character study of a mother struggling with her indifference to motherhood. Ramsay succeeds, and in doing so pulls off something far more interesting than what Woody Allen does with Midnight in Paris. Besides, that film marked Woody Allen’s seventh Best Director nomination. He can spare one.