Project: Best Director Oscar winners

[Post updated 2/14/20]

BEST DIRECTOR WINNERS
7th Heaven (1927, Frank Borzage)
Two Arabian Knights (1927, Lewis Milestone)
The Divine Lady (1929, Frank Lloyd) [cap]
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone)
Skippy (1931, Norman Taurog)
Bad Girl (1932, Frank Borzage)
Cavalcade (1933, Frank Lloyd)
It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)
The Informer (1935, John Ford)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936, Frank Capra)
The Awful Truth (1937, Leo McCarey)
You Can’t Take it With You (1938, Frank Capra)
Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
How Green Was My Valley (1941, John Ford)
Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler)
Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
Going My Way (1944, Leo McCarey)
The Lost Weekend (1945, Billy Wilder)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)
A Letter to Three Wives (1949, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
A Place in the Sun (1951, George Stevens)
The Quiet Man (1952, John Ford)
From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
Marty (1955, Delbert Mann)
Giant (1956, George Stevens)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean)
Gigi (1958, Vincente Minnelli)
Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)
The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)
West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
Tom Jones (1963, Tony Richardson)
My Fair Lady (1964, George Cukor)
The Sound of Music (1965, Robert Wise)
A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinnemann)
The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols)
Oliver! (1968, Carol Reed)
Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger)
Patton (1970, Franklin J. Schaffner)
The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)
Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse)
The Sting (1973, George Roy Hill)
The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman)
Rocky (1976, John G. Avildsen)
Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino)
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)
Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)
Reds (1981, Warren Beatty)
Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough)
Terms of Endearment (1983, James L. Brooks)
Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)
Out of Africa (1985, Sydney Pollack) [cap]
Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone)
The Last Emperor (1987, Bernardo Bertolucci)
Rain Man (1988, Barry Levinson)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone)
Dances with Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)
Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)
Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis)
Braveheart (1995, Mel Gibson)
The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
Titanic (1997, James Cameron)
Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg)
American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes)
Traffic (2000, Steven Soderbergh)
A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard)
The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski)
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, Peter Jackson)
Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)
Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee)
The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese)
No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel & Ethan Coen)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle)
The Hurt Locker (2008, Kathryn Bigelow)
The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper)
The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius)
Life of Pi (2012, Ang Lee)
Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuarón)
Birdman (2014, Alejandro González Iñárritu) [cap]
The Revenant (2015, Alejandro González Iñárritu) [cap]
La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle) [cap]
The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro) [cap]
Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuarón) [cap]
Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho) [a href=”https://letterboxd.com/dustybooks/film/parasite-2019″>cap]

Thus endeth the second completed lists project here at SoC, and of course this was a considerably quicker task, some would say almost a simple one! For decades now, it has been a nearly invariant trend for the directing Oscar to be delivered to the director of the film that would, later that evening, also win the Best Picture statue. As you know, we’ve already written up those movies, which meant that from the ’40s to now, completing the Director films was a breeze. Here’s the list of films that won Oscars for their director but did not take the main prize. (Note that at the first ceremony, two directing awards were given, one for drama and one for comedy.)

1927: Frank Borzage, 7th Heaven [Best Picture: Wings]
1927: Lewis Milestone, Two Arabian Knights [ibid]
1929: Frank Lloyd, The Divine Lady [BP: The Broadway Melody]
1931: Norman Taurog, Skippy [BP: Cimarron]
1932: Frank Borzage, Bad Girl [BP: Grand Hotel]
1935: John Ford, The Informer [BP: Mutiny on the Bounty]
1936: Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [BP: The Great Ziegfeld]
1937: Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth [BP: The Life of Emile Zola]
1940: John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath [BP: Rebecca]
1948: John Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre [BP: Hamlet]
1949: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives [BP: All the King’s Men]
1951: George Stevens, A Place in the Sun [BP: An American in Paris]
1952: John Ford, The Quiet Man [BP: The Greatest Show on Earth}
1956: George Stevens, Giant [BP: Around the World in Eighty Days]
1967: Mike Nichols, The Graduate [BP: In the Heat of the Night]
1972: Bob Fosse, Cabaret [BP: The Godfather]
1981: Warren Beatty, Reds [BP: Chariots of Fire]
1989: Oliver Stone, Born on the Fourth of July [BP: Driving Miss Daisy]
1998: Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan [BP: Shakespeare in Love]
2000: Steven Soderbergh, Traffic [BP: Gladiator]
2002: Roman Polanski, The Pianist [BP: Chicago]
2005: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain [BP: please let’s not discuss it]
2012: Ang Lee, Life of Pi [BP: Argo]
2013: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity [BP: 12 Years a Slave]
2015: Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant [BP: Spotlight]
2016: Damien Chazelle, La La Land [BP: Moonlight]
2018: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma [BP: Green Book]

Please note: The facts and statistics below do not take Gravity, The Revenant, La La Land and Roma, all of which won after I finished the project, into account. Absurdly, at this writing, Roma is not scheduled for any home video release due to Netflix’s atypical release techniques, but it’s generally believed that Criterion will be licensing it for release within the year.

Every film that won the Best Picture Academy Award has been issued on DVD, although one of them (Cavalcade) is only available in a lavish boxed set owned by few libraries and rental outlets, if any. Several early films in this project were trickier, and necessitated the use of back channels that will likely become quite familiar to us down into the future here. Two Best Director winners have never been issued in disc form, or for that matter on any home media, and one is only available as a Warner Archive disc. Given that the latter was the sole film screened for this project that I was unable to review at length, and given how much one must pay for these WB Archive DVD-Rs, I feel a sinister urge to set up a Kickstarter before I put any more money into this blog! I secured a bootleg of Two Arabian Knights; there is a wonderful cult of people on the web kind enough to provide cut-rate rips of TCM broadcasts to hapless, cable-free customers such as I. Skippy was screened in an awful print on Youtube, which for us is kind of the last resort.

The Academy’s history in this category is frustrating, of course. We needn’t trot out for the millionth time the list of directors who were never thus honored, most notably Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles, but any student of American cinema will likely find it hard to argue against the idea of landing John Ford and Frank Capra as many awards as possible, even if it was for the wrong films. It’s rather more intriguing to contemplate the career trajectories of those whose movies won without netting an Oscar for their own efforts. Ben Affleck’s life seems on track for now, and the reputation of Ridley Scott preceded him, but quick: what are Paul Haggis, Rob Marshall, John Madden, Bruce Beresford and Hugh Hudson up to these days?

All that having been said, the quick runthrough the above films — and it merits pointing out that Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Cabaret, Saving Private Ryan, The Grapes of Wrath and The Graduate were already reviewed for the AFI project, with A Place in the Sun and Giant also appearing concurrently on that list — brought me something that the new-to-me Best Picture winners did not: a truly great film I had never seen before, and one that was nearly up to its masterful standards. The two shared a director, Frank Borzage, about whom I’d previously known nothing. So eighty-some years down the line, kudos to the Oscars for bringing Bad Girl and 7th Heaven to my attention. It’s lamentable that they are not more easily available, but your local library may have them as part of Fox’s Murnau / Borzage box, for which I’m currently saving my pennies, and you should really give them some time. Two discoveries I also fell in love with were Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (in retrospect, I have no idea why I had not already seen this) and Leo McCarey’s brilliant comedy The Awful Truth, though these were less surprising. In the much longer list of Best Picture recepients that I had never seen, I found only one film of such quality that I’d never been exposed to: Mrs. Miniver. Does this speak to any trend or disparity between the two awards? Probably not, but it’s sort of interesting.

I officially started this project on April 4, 2013 with 7th Heaven and finished less than three months later, with a Redbox rental of Life of Pi on June 29, before the reviews even started cycling into publication here. Both A Place in the Sun and Giant appeared in rotation here almost simultaneously with their placements on the redacted selections of the AFI 100 list. There were no other overlaps or revisits of previously reviewed films to speak of.

Of the 23 films listed above, I had already seen 10. Disregarding the AFI selections, that number drops to 3: A Letter to Three Wives (which has aged poorly for me since I first saw it), Reds (which is pretty awful but not as awful as I remembered) and The Pianist. Of those remaining, we had the four films mentioned above that I’d consider excellent or better. Three more were quite good — Two Arabian Knights, The Informer and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town — although I must classify that last one as a huge disappointment in comparison to Frank Capra’s general quality of output. That leaves a few middling, respectable efforts that have some merit: Skippy, Born the Fourth of July (the best Oliver Stone film I’ve seen to date, which isn’t saying much) and Life of Pi. Then there’s the complete bore (The Divine Lady, which got capsuled because there was just nothing to say) and the film I simply didn’t understand because of personal issues (The Quiet Man). The only outright bad film I saw newly for this project was, ironically, the one I most looked forward to: Traffic. You never can tell, right?

It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to rank the Best Director winners because of the low percentage of unique selections compared to the last project, but just because I can’t leave you without rating or ranking something, here is a list of the films that won Oscars for their directors that I feel were, in fact, superior to the Best Picture for that year. As you’ll see, there is a bit of a pattern here!

1927: Frank Borzage, 7th Heaven [Best Picture: Wings]
1931: Norman Taurog, Skippy [BP: Cimarron]
1932: Frank Borzage, Bad Girl [BP: Grand Hotel]
1935: John Ford, The Informer [BP: Mutiny on the Bounty]
1936: Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [BP: The Great Ziegfeld]
1937: Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth [BP: The Life of Emile Zola]
1948: John Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre [BP: Hamlet]
1951: George Stevens, A Place in the Sun [BP: An American in Paris]
1956: George Stevens, Giant [BP: Around the World in Eighty Days]
1967: Mike Nichols, The Gradate [BP: In the Heat of the Night]
1972: Bob Fosse, Cabaret [BP: The Godfather]
1989: Oliver Stone, Born on the Fourth of July [BP: Driving Miss Daisy]
2000: Steven Soderbergh, Traffic [BP: Gladiator]
2002: Roman Polanski, The Pianist [BP: Chicago]
2005: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain [BP: please let’s not discuss it]
2013: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity [BP: 12 Years a Slave]

Please join me starting this Sunday for the Best Screenplay project, which really should be called the “Best Writing” project because we’re covering not just the screenplay awards but the now-defunct Oscar for story writing. This will be a longer one, to put it mildly. It’s already been a lot of fun — and a lot harder than this one — and I hope you enjoy taking the journey! (As it becomes more difficult to see the films I’m writing about, you know, if you’re desperately curious please feel free to drop me a line and I can try to help you out or at least point you in the right direction. As one of the films we’ll be reviewing puts it, it’s in my nature.)

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