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Phoenix Director First Place - Chloe Zhao

Giving the movie time to breathe.

Who Should Win: Chloé Zhao – Nomadland

Few directors so masterfully capture an entire mood the way Chloé Zhao does in Nomadland. Touching on themes of grief, longing, and never quite belonging, Nomadland is wistfulness and restlessness in film form.

Long takes of landscapes, sunsets, and tourist attractions make Nomadland the prettiest movie of the year by a long shot. Accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi’s score, they serve to portray at once a sense of adventure, and a melancholy that is hard to describe. Zhao uses these takes liberally, but effectively, creating an intimate viewing experience wholly unlike any other film in recent memory.

Of course, Zhao’s directorial achievements aren’t limited to her shot selection. With only two exceptions, the actors in Nomadland are untrained, yet Zhao manages to get emotional performances out of them which rival those of even some of this year’s Best Supporting Actor and Actress nominees. As real nomads, Nomadland co-stars Bob Wells, Swankie, and Linda May have plenty of stories from the road, and under Zhao’s direction they tell the best, most gut-wrenching ones authentically and effortlessly. The film includes not one, but at least two of the best monologues in any movie this year, told to the audience the same way a friend would tell you a story.

From framing to theming, Zhao creates the perfect portrait of those left behind in post-recession America. As if that wasn’t enough, she masterfully elicits unforgettable performances from her supporting cast and introduces a subculture better than any documentary could.

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Phoenix Director Runner Up - Leigh Whannell

Who Got Snubbed: Leigh Whannell – The Invisible Man

Departing wildly from the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, The Invisible Man is instead a genuinely frightening thriller about domestic abuse.

In Invisible Man, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) moves in with a friend after leaving her obsessively controlling, wealthy scientist partner Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Though Griffin is seemingly out of the picture, his influence still permeates every facet of Kass’s life.

Director Leigh Whannell creates a perfect unseen villain in Griffin through expert choices in production design, cinematography, and sound design. The film uses long-takes at several points to show an entire room or scene as it plays out, coaxing the audience to search for anything out of place. During zoomed-out shots, items will move almost imperceptibly, serving as both a treat for careful viewers and a subliminal method of adding to the threat of the invisible man.

At its best, Invisible Man makes viewers question their sanity like Kass does hers. Did that knife move? Is there something under the blanket?  Is there someone in this scene that I’m not seeing? Kass’s fears become ours, and the movie’s horror comes from empathizing with her, rather than from gruesome scenes and shocking imagery.

Most impressively, Whannell pulls it off perfectly. It takes a good director to scare an audience, but Invisible Man is terrifying.

Other Notable Snubs: Kitty Green – The Assistant, Jasmila Žbanić – Quo Vadis, Aida?, Brandon Cronenberg – Possessor