The graph above charts the feature-length filmography of this year’s five Best Director nominees: Lenny Abrahamson, Adam McKay, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Tom McCarthy, and George Miller. The x-axis represents the years their movies premiered. The y-axis is worldwide box office gross (adjusted for inflation) in the first graph, Metacritic score in the second.
In the individual graphs below, the x-axis represents the director’s feature-length filmography; the y-axis is shared by Metacritic score (blue) and worldwide box office gross in millions (green). To show the relationship between the two, the max bounds for worldwide box office gross were scaled to the max bounds for Metacritic rating.
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Nominated for The Revenant
Birthplace: Mexico City
Year of First Feature: 2000
Number of Films: 6
Average Metacritic Score: 71
Worldwide Box Office Gross: $761,340,369
Total Oscar Nominations: 7
For many, Alejandro González Iñárritu didn’t become a household name until Birdman, but his success long precedes his first Academy Award win. The director followed a winding path towards film: after being expelled from school at the age of 16, Iñárritu worked as a commercial sailor traveling through Europe and Africa, then returned to academics in his hometown of Mexico City, where he also worked as a DJ at a rock radio station. Most of his playlists had a narrative bent; in an interview with The AV Club, Inarritu joked, “I like to make films, but the only reason I do is because I’m a very bad musician.”
After gaining some traction directing commercials for Volkswagen and Coke, Iñárritu produced and directed his feature debut, Amores Perros (2000). The first film in his “death trilogy” with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Amores Perros scored a Best Foreign Film nomination from the Academy; the other two films in the trilogy, 21 Grams and Babel, saw increasing international and critical acclaim and star power. All three films are driven by multiple nonlinear storylines.
Iñárritu’s nontraditional influences and worldly experience partly explain both his often-unorthodox filming practices and predilection for edgier stories. With The Revenant, these tendencies have reached a zenith: a sprawling story shot with only natural light, in subzero temperatures. This aspect of the film has drawn much attention. “I’m glad I made that irresponsible decision,” he told The Guardian. “Like when you climb Mount Everest and nobody dies, but we were so close! It’s that feeling of relief.” The director’s recklessness has drawn criticism, as has his perceived penchant for novelties (e.g., Birdman‘s single-take aesthetic); but it’s this insistence on trying new, often seemingly crazy things with each work that distinguishes his oeuvre, his collaborators, and his vital voice in an increasingly crowded industry.
Nominated for Room
Year of First Feature: 2004
Number of Movies: 5
Number of Oscar Nominations: 1
Average Metacritic Score: 76.6
Worldwide Box Office Gross: $13,284,811
Born in 1966, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s path to film was not a direct one. Raised in Dublin, Abrahamson attended Trinity Dublin College where he studied physics and philosophy. While in college, he co-founded the Trinity Video Society, in which he directed a number of short videos. Abrahamson continued his studies in philosophy at Stanford University, but did not complete his PhD. Instead he returned to Ireland and continued to experiment with shooting short films on a 16mm camera, and also directed numerous TV commercials.
In 1991 his first short film, 3 Joes, won a handful of awards, most notably the Best European Short Film Award. Over the next decade, Abrahamson continued to direct commercials until the release of his first feature film, Adam & Paul, in 2004. This downbeat comedy, which follows two drug addicts through Dublin in search of a fix, won the Grand Prix at the 2005 Sofia International Film Festival. Three years later his second feature film, Garage, was selected for Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.
What Richard Did, Abrahamson’s third feature film, which explores the unraveling of a teen’s life after a drunken mistake, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012. Two years later, Abrahamson’s Frank, a dark comedy based on the life of British post-punk musician Chris Sievey, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. For his fifth — and Academy Award-nominated — feature-length film, Abrahamson directed an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room. The emotionally tense film portrays the life of a woman and her five-year-old son, who, after being held captive for seven years, eventually gain their freedom. Of Abrahamson’s process, producer Ed Guiney says, “Lenny’s very good at including people in his process, while at the same time he is confident about being the rock at the center of the endeavor.”
Abrahamson’s films revolve around difficult situations, and his characters are deeply complex, with private lives in shambles. He describes his own style as “challenging and arthouse,” a sentiment echoed in his low box office earnings. After four films getting less-than-stellar numbers (but high critical acclaim), he had a revelation: “The reality of the industry is that if you want any power, you need success on their terms.” With Room, Abrahamson was able to gain both critical acclaim and popular appeal. The popularity of the book definitely helped, but he stood true to his strength of creating “intimacy with the characters.” Now breaking from the arthouse into the popular sphere, Abrahamson wryly acknowledges a personal crossroads: “Do I leverage that to explore films of depth and profundity, or for limo trips and buzzy phone calls?”
Nominated for The Big Short
Birthplace: Philadelphia, PA
Year of First Feature: 2004
Number of Films: 6
Average Metacritic Score: 64
Worldwide Box Office Gross: $926,750,473
Total Oscar Nominations: 2
Adam McKay on the surface: the comedy guy. The one who helmed both Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City before being swept off to SNL where he became the head writer. The one who made fast enough friends with Will Ferrell at SNL to team up and churn out five absurd films (Anchorman 1 and 2, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys) and an online comedy empire (Funny or Die). Adam McKay is the comedy guy; that’s his thing. He’s set; he’s smiling; he’s stable.
Which is why his decision to write and direct The Big Short was unexpected. The Big Short is a film about the 2008 financial crisis that brought America to its knees. The first half is kind of funny. The rest is a train crash as compelling to watch as it is tragic. “What we’re trying to point out is moral hazard,” said McKay to the Wall Street Journal. It is not a comedy; it is a film about a reality that was always present, but just needed some digging to figure out.
So you start digging into Adam McKay. You find out that the Upright Citizens Brigade tackled politically activist sketches during his tenure, and that he wrote cold opens at SNL whose primary design is biting political satire. You unearth his scathing Huffington Post editorials. Suddenly it’s clear Anchorman is a critique of sexism, and Talladega Nights is an unforgiving lens on southern culture in the wake of Bush’s reelection. In interviews McKay explains that The Other Guys was intended as a critique of the financial crisis before The Big Short was even conceived: “I did all this research and I talked to economists,” he said on a Vulture podcast. “I just started reading everything.” “Everything” included the Michael Lewis text that inspired his career-altering attempt at The Big Short. In videos, Adam McKay is neither stable, nor smiling; in fact he has an essential tremor that makes it hard to do either, and has forced him to seek therapy to make it through lengthy press engagements.
Adam McKay is still the comedy guy. But he’s always been a lightning-quick realist with a penchant for taking rigorous research and translating it into hard-hitting culture schtick. It just took some digging to figure it out.
Nominated for Spotlight
Birthplace: New Jersey, US
Year of First Film: 2003
Number of Films: 5
Average Metacritic Score: 70.2
Worldwide Box Office Gross: $97.8 million
Total Oscar Nominations: 2
Tom McCarthy is the last director anyone would have expected to direct Spotlight, the best picture front-runner. He was born Catholic. He went to Boston College. He was an altar boy. His film dramatizes and lauds investigative journalism as the last bastion against the evils of lazy, or worse, unethical, journalism; in 2008, just seven years after the events depicted in his film, which he co-wrote with Josh Singer (writer of The Fifth Estate), McCarthy portrayed the unethical journalist Scott Templeton in season five of The Wire excellently enough to inspire appropriate loathing of his character.
As his performance as Templeton indicates, McCarthy began his career as an actor, having graduated from the Yale School of Drama. He landed roles in Meet the Parents and Good Night, and Good Luck and, as a passion project, directed Station Agent, a low-budget film starring Peter Dinklage that kicked off a string of understated, low-budget and well-liked films like The Visitor and Win Win. Then McCarthy swung and missed with The Cobbler. (“I think Spotlight probably is a better movie because of The Cobbler,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “But it’s funny, the response hasn’t shaken my confidence in The Cobbler — I still really enjoy that movie.”)
But it was his work for The Wire that impacted Spotlight most. There is no book laying out the events depicted in Spotlight. The producers, Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust, own only the reporters’ and editors’ life rights. To make the film, McCarthy, with the help of Singer, used tools he absorbed from working with David Simon, the veteran journalist and creator of The Wire. He interviewed the original reporters and editors and investigated the case himself. The driving force behind a true story about great reporting turned out to be great reporting.
Nominated for Mad Max: Fury Road
Birthplace: Queensland, Australia
Year of First Feature: 1979
Number of Films: 9
Average Metacritic Score: 72.2
Worldwide Box Office Gross: $1.7 billion
Total Oscar Nominations: 6
George Miller has two very different audiences. One giggles at dancing penguins. The other giggles at paint-huffing maniacs, buggy racing their way through an apocalyptic sandstorm, blowing each other to smithereens along the way. The connection between the two — the ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘Mad Max’ franchises, respectively — is Miller’s incredible ability to make both animal hip hop and apocalyptic survival straightforward, believable and fun. That kind of turning the complex and subtle into the gloriously simple is a tough thing to pull off. It brings incredible films, like Mad Max: Fury Road, to life.
At 70, Miller is the oldest director nominated by 18 years. He was 34 when he made Mad Max in 1979 on a budget of $350,000 (he paid the bills not as a waiter or barista, but as a doctor). The film’s style, its unabashed deep dive into a violent punk world with obvious nods to Western, made it an instant cult classic, and, after mixed reviews, eventually brought it immense box office success. Miller made two more Mad Max movies, both with the same spirit as the original and Mel Gibson’s grunty personality. He went on to direct a mainstream Hollywood flick, The Witches of Eastwick, in 1987, and a critically acclaimed drama, Lorenzo’s Oil, in 1992. Then, a pivot: children’s movies. He cowrote Babe, then directed Happy Feet, Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet 2. “Even my mother said, ‘When you started making the Babes and Happy Feets I thought you were calming down,'” Miller told NPR. “But then she saw the latest, Fury Road, she said, ‘Sometimes I wonder what goes on in your head.'”
Fury Road is a reboot, but it’s also a proof of concept. Miller needs no origin story, no dramatic rebirth of the franchise’s character and tone. There need be only former cop Max Rockatansky, still reeling from the death of his wife and daughter in a postapocalyptic world. Only other would-be heroes out there, struggling. Only souped-up buggies, war wagons and motorcycles, and the nuts who careen them. Miller put these players on a linear path from point A to point B and back to point A; he kept dialogue sparer than the roll cage of a war buggy; he captured the frenetic chaos of the film’s continuous car chase using real effects rather than superfluous CGI, because “it’s real people in a real desert; there’s no men in capes flying around or space vehicles and so on.” The New York Times called it “imaginative discipline” in their review, and they got it exactly right.
These simple factors combine to make Fury Road feel like a pure snort of action movie adrenaline after years of stuff cut with laxative. Its literal explosions are so big that the figurative ones — like the notion of a female protagonist (Furiosa) in an action movie — don’t make you think twice. But to Miller, it was easy. “The thing that’s in conflict is human and female,” he told NPR. Simple as that.