It’s all about the Oscars this week, after the announcement of the nominations for 2024’s premier Hollywood calendar event. As always there have been snubs, surprises and expected big hauls for films like Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.
Of course, directors don’t often just appear on the Oscar nominations list from nowhere and here in recognition of the long journey’s that some of them have made here are three films — two earlier films by Best Director nominees Nolan and Martin Scorsese — who with his 10th Best Director nomination and one previous win becomes the most nominated living director in history. The third film on the list is in tribute to the talents of Greta Gerwig, who in spite of multiple nominations for Barbie, was criminally overlooked in this year’s Best Director nominations list.
The arthouse essential: Following — Mubi.com
Before he became the director of epic, mega-budget blockbusters like Inception, The Dark Knight and Interstellar and now Oppenheimer — nominated for 13 Oscars — Christopher Nolan began his career with this 1998 low-budget, UK-set psychological noir made on a shoestring budget, but demonstrating many of its creator’s future preoccupations with mind games, deception and the thin lines between reality and fiction.
Coming in at a tightly wound 70 minutes, the film stars Jeremy Theobald as a London writer who likes to do research for his characters by walking the streets and following strangers around. When he comes into contact with a “voyeuristic thief,” things take a turn for the dark and strange as he’s soon embroiled in a world of deception and trickery that will land him in a world of trouble he never expected.
Not quite as sharply clever as Nolan’s later breakout Memento, the film nevertheless offers plenty of sharp, smart direction and a hint of the talents that Nolan would later unleash on the mainstream movie-going public at large. Shot in stark black and white and soundtracked with well-chosen, edgy breakbeats, it’s a supremely efficient exercise in tense, psychological thrills that (though it’s let down by an overly contrived final act) offers plenty of head-scratching eeriness, urban voyeurism and paranoia.
The stone-cold classic: Raging Bull — Prime Video
Martin Scorsese’s career is one of the most solidly consistent in the past half-century history of US movies but of all the master’s many films that didn’t but should’ve won him the Oscar he had to wait until 2010 to win, this dark drama about the fall of 1949 middleweight champion Jake La Motta, remains one of his finest, and still the gold-standard for all boxing films.
Robert De Niro, in a deservedly Oscar-winning performance, buffs up and then piles on the pounds as La Motta who, when we meet him, is a sad, slobby, obese shadow of his former self, performing a desperate one-man show life story with only his memories and what remains of his reputation among an older generation for company. Flipping back through time we’re then introduced to the much younger, cockier and fitter younger version of La Motta, a hard scrabbling working-class kid from the Bronx who lives by a code of masculinity that though he feels it to be his one saving grace, will soon be revealed to be the source of all his personal problems and eventual downfall.
Gloriously shot in black and white by legendary cinematographer Michael Chapman and featuring much-imitated but never equalled surreal fight scenes that help to hammer home the link between La Motta’s violent, relentlessly macho professional life and his equally violent and machoistic domestic behaviour, it’s both the greatest boxing film ever made and one of the great US on-screen dissections of flawed, outdated masculinity and its consequences.
The diamond in the rough:
Little Women — Rent or buy Apple TV +
Though she’s earned a previous Best Director Oscar nomination for 2018’s Ladybird and a best adapted screenplay for this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic in 2020, it’s as the director of 2023’s smash hit Barbie that Greta Gerwig has leapt into the mainstream after decades of excellent acting, writing and directing work in the independent film world. In spite of its box office success and Gerwig’s status as the first female director to helm a film that’s grossed over a billion dollars at the box office, Barbie, while earning a nomination for Best Picture, was scandalously overlooked when it came time for the Academy to make its Best Director nominations for the 2024 awards.
That’s a shame because Gerwig is one of the new generation of US filmmakers’ sharpest, brightest and spirited voices as demonstrated with this clever adaptation, which, while remaining true to its source material in period setting and plot, updates the perspective of the story to allow for a modern take on a beloved classic that makes its bigger themes as vital and relevant as ever.
Featuring a powerhouse, new women of Hollywood cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson and Florence Pugh, it proves Gerwig’s earlier talent for smart, incisive adaptation that’s served her so lucratively and obviously well, and reminds us that stories told 150 years ago remain in print and popular across generations for reasons other than English class setwork purposes.