2014 Calvin Awards: Best Director
By Kim Hollis
February 14, 2014

I like to torture my actors for fun and profit!

Our winner in Best Director is a runaway. Not only did it have more than twice the votes of the second place finisher, but it also earned more than second and third place combined. Clearly, it was an easy choice.

Our winner by a landslide is Alfonso Cuarón for the awe-inspiring and tension-filled Gravity. Our of 21 first place votes, Cuarón received a remarkable 16. Never before in the history of the Calvins has there been such a lopsided victory in the category. It’s Cuarón’s first win after having finished in sixth place in 2005 for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and second in 2007 for Children of Men. Needless to say, we’re fans of the director’s work.

He does make it easy for us to admire him, though. Gravity is a true masterpiece, the kind of film people will still be talking about decades from now. Of course, the effects are at the centerpiece of the film. Gravity makes the viewer feel almost as though they are in space themselves as we share Dr. Ryan Stone’s viewpoint. Through her eyes, we feel the awesomeness, sublimity and strange peacefulness of her work. When things quickly take a turn, the viewer is in a constant state of panic, claustrophobia and anxiety. Just when you think Cuarón might relent, he brings on a new set of perils.

And yet, the film is more than just a story about a person struggling to survive in space. Through her experience, Dr. Stone fights through feelings of dejection and loss to emerge as a brand new person (in a symbolic rebirth). Any film that leaves us this breathless deserves to be lauded, and Cuarón is our rightful winner of the Calvin.

Way, way back in second place is Steve McQueen, who crafted an oppressive 1850s Louisiana in 12 Years a Slave. Like Gravity, this is a story of survival, and it’s every bit as brutal and challenging as the ordeals faced in Gravity, and perhaps more so. 12 Years a Slave takes a frank approach to the storytelling, and it’s important that it do so because it reveals precisely how horrific life as a slave was. There are no moments of humor and nothing is whitewashed. Your heart breaks for both the main character, Solomon Northup, and the other slaves who pass in and out of his life. Even the “kindest” slave owner gives Solomon over to a man who is known for beating his slaves in the name of the Bible. 12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to watch, but it shouldn’t be. McQueen understood this.

Third place goes to Spike Jonze, who created a believable near future in which humans become so disconnected from one another that they begin to develop relationships with operating systems. Production design is kept minimal, allowing the story to be fully in focus. Most impressively, Jonze seamlessly integrates the performance from Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson, with natural, believable conversations and conflict. It’s a shockingly believable romance.

Martin Scorsese is a genius when it comes to exploring the dark side of humanity, as he has done in such films as Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. He continued on that course with The Wolf of Wall Street, which shows the excesses of a Wall Street brokerage boiler room. The movie piles on and piles on, making you despise the characters more with each passing scene. By the end scene, which shows Jordan Belfort in front of a crowd of suckers, we realize society has learned nothing from the negligent and dangerous actions of the people of his ilk. It’s biting commentary from Scorsese.

Fifth place belongs to the sibling duo of the Coen brothers for Inside Llewyn Davis, their study of a folk musician at the end of his ropes. It’s a thought-provoking portrait, focusing on the question of art versus commerce, not to mention the tenuous line walked by the creative spirit. A captivating story told well, it ends on an ambiguous note that invites the audience to come to their own conclusions.

Sixth and seventh go to directors two films whose only commonality is that they have one-word titles – Frozen and Nebraska. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee created an absolutely gorgeous world in Frozen’s Arrendelle, not to mention appealing, expressive characters (down to the snowman and the reindeer). In their hands, this animated feature becomes a touching tale of sisterhood and female empowerment, with two distinct heroines who take matters into their own hands when the situation calls for it. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a simple story filmed in black and white. On one side, it examines the aging process and how it impacts people in varied and dramatic ways, and on the other it is a simple story of a father and son. There is real beauty in Nebraska, and you’ll laugh a lot along the way, too.

Our final three directors are Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips, Rush’s Ron Howard and David O. Russell for American Hustle. Greengrass tells a straightforward story with Captain Phillips, but man is it engaging. From the moment the captain realizes his ship is about to be under assault by pirates, we are on board for a thrilling ride. Ron Howard accomplishes something that would seem to be impossible on the surface. He takes a story about Formula One racing, something very few people know or care about, and makes it electrifying. We are fully invested in James Hall and Niki Lauda. And Russell has now finished in the top 10 in this category three out of the last four years, and the year off was only because he didn’t have a new film. American Hustle is a snapshot of a specific moment in time, and the director captures it perfectly. He combines humor and a caper-like sensibility, and will probably be lurking for his spot in the next Best Director list, too.

A few directors who just missed making our top ten include Abdellatif Kechiche (Blue Is the Warmest Color), Richard Linklater (Before Midnight), James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) and Shane Carruth (Upstream Color).

2014 Calvin Awards
Calvins Intro
Best Actor
Best Actress
Best Album
Best Cast
Best Character
Best Director
Best Overlooked Film
Best Picture
Best Scene
Best Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress
Best TV Show
Best Use of Music
Best Videogame
Breakthrough Performance
Worst Performance
Worst Picture