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Oscars 2023: Move Over Spielberg! The Daniels Will Win Best Director

The many faces of Evelyn: Yeoh is split in the multiverse in Everything Everywhere All At Once / Photo courtesy of A24

The many faces of Evelyn: Yeoh is split in the multiverse in Everything Everywhere All At Once / Photo courtesy of A24

The Directors Guild of America made the impending Oscars more interesting by giving their Best Director award to The Daniels. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a duo of Emerson College grads - go Lions! - managed to snatch the prize away from eminent Old Master Steven Spielberg, who, with The Fabelmans, delivered a piercingly personal biographical movie about falling in love with filmmaking and the pitfalls of mining our lives for art. 

The Daniels won with Everything Everywhere All At Once, a family melodrama dressed in sci-fi trappings. It is only their second feature-length film, against Spielberg’s thirty-second. It is quite a feat for a duo who cut their teeth as video clip directors. Alternating between alternative acts like The Shins and power pop stars like Halsey, the Daniels managed to harness their wild imagination to the zeitgeist, and now they are reaping the spoils.

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Nobody who saw their feature film debut, Swiss Army Man (2007), would have guessed this outcome. Paul Dano - who incidentally plays the father in The Fabelmans - is Hank, a castaway distracted from suicide by the appearance of a corpse on the beach of the little island where he shipwrecked. It is not a regular dead body. A very game Daniel Radcliffe, far from his Harry Potter preciousness,  plays the dead man. The lifeless body has special powers: he emits farts at will that propel him like a motor boat. Freshwater spouts out of his mouth whenever Hank needs a drink.

Manny is an all-purpose survival tool that talks - hence, the comparison to the famous Victorinox pocket knife of the title. He is conscious but unable to remember anything about life, like an amnesiac or an innocent child. As Hank uses him to get back to civilization, he digs into his own experience to teach him about life in an exercise of self-analysis that drives him toward catharsis.

Swiss Army Man combines juvenile humor and dish-deep existentialism. It is way too precious and enamored of itself, but the inventive visual sense of the filmmakers comes through. Imagine a Charlie Kauffman-Michel Gondry simulacrum for depressed teenage boys. Hank is a proto-incel, an alienated, inward young man incapable of approaching the woman he idolizes - played by millennial dream girl Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Ironically, there is also a dose of Spielberg worshiping, with plenty of adoring references to Jurassic Park (1993). The movie packs a lot of incidents in one hour and 37 minutes of running time. It is entertaining but exhausting.

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Everything Everywhere All At Once feels like a natural progression. It is more adult in its concerns but even more frenetic. Michelle Yeoh is Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese-American woman in crisis. She is emotionally disconnected from her husband, milquetoast Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and alienates her lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). An IRS audit, handled by zealous bureaucrat Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), sends Evelyn over the edge and into a maze of parallel lives invoking different film genres. In one, she is a martial arts expert worthy of a John Woo action movie. In another one, a dreamy beauty straight out of a Wong Kar-Wai film. Family dysfunction throws this multiverse in flux until reconciliation and forgiveness set the paths straight.

The DGA award should not surprise us. Everything is not necessarily better than The Fabelmans, but it enjoys the upper hand in cultural footprint, that elusive value that translates into popular culture discourse. The whimsical family drama's main selling point is providing a juicy role for Michelle Yeoh, the Malaysian star enjoying her second Hollywood homecoming.

After almost two decades of being a household name in Asian cinema, Yeoh broke through in Western cinema thanks to Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spotiswoode, 1997). Three years later, she got an Oscar nomination thanks to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee’s sublime wuxia homage - the movie is back in theaters, propelled by Yeoh’s increased popularity. Hollywood never knew what to do with her talents, squandering her in dismal sequels or stuffy prestige biopics. A small role in Crazy Rich Asians (Jon Chu, 2018) reminded cast agents of her star quality. When Jackie Chan turned down the lead, Kwan and Scheinert got the brilliant idea of switching the gender of the character and offered the role to Yeoh.

Alas, Yeoh is hardly a forgotten star. She has had steady employment since her breakthrough. If anything, Everything's prime vindication belongs to Ke Huy Quan. He broke through as a child actor in the early '80s, playing a spirited sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom(Spielberg, 1984) and one of the kids looking for a treasure in The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985). Roles dried up afterward. He got a film degree at USC and gravitated to jobs behind the camera. His evident joy at being back in the spotlight is contagious.

The production excels at showcasing Asian American talent at a moment when there is momentum around the issues of representation and opportunities within the entertainment industry. The plot development hinges on Evelyn accepting sexual diversity within the family structure, connecting with another big issue of our times. It plays the multiverse, perhaps the most popular storytelling device of our times, like a fiddle. The Matrix (Lana & Lilly Wachowski, 1999) planted a seed that Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse(Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, 2018) turned into pop poetry, and Marvel exploits drove it until it crashed into the ground. Everything performs the hat trick of making it socially conscious. It is also fun to see the movie working as bait for the anti-woke mob.

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It is also wildly popular. To this date, it is A24's biggest box office hit, with over 100 million dollars in worldwide ticket sales. It is back screening in some markets despite being available in home video almost one year after its theatrical release. Critical reaction was mostly positive, but even its detractors helped to make it one of the most talked about films of the year.

Besides, the numbers are in their favor. The Directors Guild has been handing out prizes since 1948. Since then, over 74 years, the DGA and the Best Director Oscar have been mismatched only ten times. The last one was in 2019 when the DGA went with Sam Mendes for 1917, and the Academy chose Bong Joon Ho for Parasite. If The Daniels prevail, they will match brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, the only directing duo who scored both prizes in 2007, for No Country for Old Men.

For all these reasons, Everything Everywhere All At Once has the upper hand at getting the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. I may prefer The Fabelmans, but Uncle Steven making a great movie is old hat. Everything taking the statue will make the best story. And the Academy is a sucker for those.

* Update, February 26. 2023: "Everything Everywhere All At Once" conquered the Best Film of the Year award at the Producers Guild of America Awards.

* March 12, 2023: Everything Everywhere All At Once won 7 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Leading Actress for Yeoh, Best Supporting Actress for Curtis, Best Supporting Actor for Quan, and Best Film Editing. "The Fabelmans" went home empty-handed, losing all seven nominated categories.

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