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Oscars 2020: Sam Mendes takes the lead for Best Director with “1917”

The 2020 Oscar nominations were announced Monday, and now the race to Feb. 9 is running on jet fuel. This week in Gold Digger, our continuing look at the tussle for trophies, we look at the Best Director possibilities. . .

Sam Mendes
After “1917” won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture — Drama, and Sam Mendes triumphed in the best director category, the World War I film’s momentum is rapidly building. It went on to beat expectations during its first weekend in wide release, making $36.5 million at the domestic box office. And right now, that means Mendes is in the lead, having also tied with Bong Joon Ho for the director prize at last week’s Critics’ Choice Awards. “1917” still lags behind “Once Upon A Time in . . . Hollywood” for Best Picture, but we could very well end up with another picture/director split, like last year’s victors “Green Book” and Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”).

Oscar nominee Quentin Tarantino (left) already won a best director Golden Globe for “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.
Oscar nominee Quentin Tarantino (left) already won a best director Golden Globe for “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.AP

Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino is in a tough spot. The academy is torn by the quality options in the director category, and because he’s nominated in multiple categories — original screenplay and director — voters could choose to honor his originality for “Once Upon A Time in . . . Hollywood” in just the screenplay and Best Picture categories, as the Golden Globes did this month. And while Sam Mendes and Bong Joon Ho are also nominated in the screenplay category, the academy had pulled this move with Tarantino before — in 1995 for “Pulp Fiction.”

“Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho and actress Yeo-jeong Jo.
“Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho and actress Yeo-jeong Jo.AP

Bong Joon Ho
“Parasite” is still that movie everyone is talking about at parties. And Bong Joon Ho, having written and directed it, is looked on as something of a genius. That buzz keeps Bong in the running here, and he is the nominee most likely to benefit from voters’ split affections for Mendes and Tarantino.

Director Martin Scorsese (left) and “The Irishman” stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.
Director Martin Scorsese (left) and “The Irishman” stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.AP

Martin Scorsese
Could “The Irishman” roar back to life? It’s doubtful. After a smashing start, with National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle best picture wins, the movie and Martin Scorsese seemed to have taken the reins of award season. But the initial gush has petered to a drip, even with its acclaimed cast — Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro — being denied awards and, in De Niro’s case, even nominations by many awards groups. Scorsese isn’t out yet, but in recent years, the director winner hasn’t been a huge surprise. At this point, Scorsese winning would be a huge surprise.

“Joker” director Todd Phillips (left) and the movie’s star, Joaquin Phoenix.
“Joker” director Todd Phillips (left) and the movie’s star, Joaquin Phoenix.AP

Todd Phillips
Yes, it’s true that with 11 nominations, including Best Picture, “Joker” scored more Oscar nods than any other movie — a coup for the comic book genre. But a lot of those are tech and design-related, and fans’ enthusiasm for the film far eclipses that of the industry, which admires individual elements more than “Joker” itself. Todd Phillips’ direction is not one of those elements, and the guy has not yet won a director award anywhere for “Joker.” A Best Actor win for Joaquin Phoenix would be no surprise. But Phillips taking Best Director would require an earthquake of a shakeup.

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