Before the Gold: Best Director

This year’s director line-up is the most diverse ever in Academy history, featuring two women – Emerald Fennell and Chloe Zhao – in a category that has sorely lacked female representation over the years. Only one nominee – David Fincher – returns as a nominee, having come close before for previous works including The Social Network. Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg finally gets his due after decades of transforming cinema in Europe, while Lee Isaac Chung’s masterpiece Minari followed on from his previous tender, beautifully crafted works. In this series, we take a look at each director and the works they did before they became the more recognizable Oscar-nominated talent we know today.

Lee Isaac Chung

Nominated for: Minari

Previously Nominated for: None

Hidden Gem: Munyurangabo

Lee Isaac Chung’s first feature film was met with acclaim but may not be one that audiences are familiar with. After a string of short films such as Highway and Sex and Coffee, Chung’s Munyurangabo played at various film festivals around the world including Cannes and winning the Grand Jury Prize at AFI Fest. Chung worked with a cast of local actors many of whom had never (and have never since) acted before. Set in Rwanda, the film explores deeply the problems that the country has had over the years and the lives of those affected by it, particularly to young boys Sangwa and Ngabo. It’s a beautifully authentic film that doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of the boys’ surroundings or the troubles they’ve been through. Much like Chung’s work with Minari, it’s an intimate film that puts the relationships of characters first, all while being tremendously shot and captured for the screen. Munyurangabo was the first steps for Chung in proving what a master at his craft he is and is well worth a watch for anybody who was charmed and encapsulated by Minari’s beauty.

Emerald Fennell

Nominated for: Promising Young Woman

Previously Nominated for: None

Hidden Gem: Careful How You Go (Short)

Emerald Fennell has an exciting filmmaking career ahead of her considering her first ever feature – Promising Young Woman – has proved such a hit with both audiences and the Academy. But while we could very easily sit here and praise her work from this year, her previous work on the short film Careful How You Go should not be overlooked. Screened at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival as part of the Short Film Grand Jury, the short stars an ensemble of recognisable British faces, most notably Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It’s a darkly comedic film about the extremes somebody is willing to go to cause mischief and evil to another person. Fennell herself cites films like To Die For and the works of the Coen Brothers as inspiration for the piece. The short film medium has been a great platform for filmmakers over the years, with Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy Six Shooter immediately springing to mind as his directing debut too. It’s clear Fennell has a style to her work and themes she wants to explore in relation to female leads and her future looks exciting.

David Fincher

Nominated for: Mank

Previously Nominated for: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network

Hidden Gem: The Game

Choosing a so-called ‘hidden gem’ from the works of David Fincher is an impossible task, not because of a lack of quality but because his gems aren’t so well hidden. Of all of this year’s director nominees, Fincher has the most celebrated and recognizable career, with at least one of his feature film credits undoubtedly featuring on everybody’s Top 10 of all-time list. Fight Club is probably his best-known work of all, while The Social Network is his most critically successful, and the one that almost brought him home Oscar gold. One of Fincher’s lesser-known works is The Game, a thriller starring Michael Douglas that centres around a banker (Nicholas) and a ‘game voucher’ he receives for his birthday. Nothing is ever as it seems throughout and twists and turns await at every corner creating a suspenseful and unpredictable watch. It’s not as dark as Seven but still has its moments and is essential viewing to those that love hard-to-guess films. The less spoiled about this the better.

Thomas Vinterberg

Nominated for: Another Round

Previously Nominated for: None

Hidden Gem: Festen (The Celebration)

While Vinterberg’s most acclaimed and perhaps most recognisable work is his powerful drama The Hunt starring Mads Mikkelsen, it’s his black comedy The Celebration that goes under the radar as one of his greatest hits. Most similar to his nominated work this year for Another Round, The Celebration features a stunning ensemble (including regular collaborator Thomas Bo Larsen) and tackles taboo subjects with dignity and maturity. The story centres around a family gathering for Helge’s 60th birthday, where dark secrets begin to emerge as members of the family turn on each other, revealing shocking past truths that disrupt the family dynamic for good. It’s a showcase of not only great acting but the incredible writing ability of Vinterberg and his co-writer Mogens Rukov, with the screenplay unsurprisingly turned into a play that’s been successful all around the world. Festen – as it’s known in its native Denmark – is recognised as the first of the Danish filmmaking movement Dogme 95, and it’s laid the foundations for Vinterberg’s incredible work in the future. For fans of Another Round’s dark humor and delicate hand, this is a must watch and one that will have you appreciating Vinterberg’s recognition from the Academy this year even more.

Chloe Zhao

Nominated for: Nomadland

Previously Nominated for: None

Hidden Gem: Songs My Brother Taught Me

While The Rider may have been the film that brought Zhao to the attention of seasoned film fans, Songs My Brother Taught Me is where it all started. Much like her other two feature films, Songs My Brother Taught Me is about characters at a crossroads in their lives, where events out of their control are happening around them and they need to choose what path to walk on. It’s a beautifully shot, intimate film that looks back on the past as well as plans for the future. This wonderful film is proof that Zhao has had her distinct documentary-esque filmmaking style since day one and has remained consistent ever since. It’s not a recognizable cast either, but Zhao brings the very best out of the performers, many of whom are acting in a major role for the first time. John Reddy in particular gives a stellar performance in the main role, and its remarkable how Zhao brings out this kind of quality in actors considering it’s her first feature too. Songs My Brother Taught Me was the earliest sign that a new filmmaker was on the brink of greatness and Nomadland proves that she’s fulfilled that potential. Academy Award winner Chloe Zhao has a great ring to it should she be successful, and this is a great watch to see where it all started.


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Written by Bradley Weir

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