If this year's Best Picture race is tough (and it is, even with films like "Foxcatcher" and "Monuments Men" pushed into 2014), it's nothing compared to the fight that's brewing in Best Director. The category has evolved somewhat since the Best Picture field expanded to ten films. Before that change, the line-up tended to mirror the five Best Picture nominees, with the occasional exception, usually for an arthouse Euro-auteur like Mike Leigh (for "Vera Drake" in 2005) or Julian Schnabel (for "Diving Bell & The Butterfly" in 2008). And it's still true that the directing nominees are mostly drawn from the Best Picture nominees, but with more opportunity for a film to get recognized in the bigger category, it does seem to have enabled the directors' branch to be more idiosyncratic in their choices.
Logic would suggest that with five directing nominations, it would be a reflection of the five films most likely to be nominated for Best Picture, but that's not really how it's shaken out: there was little-to-no chance of "The Tree Of Life," "Amour" or "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" actually taking the top award, but it didn't stop Terrence Malick, Michael Haneke or Benh Zeitlin all picking up nominations in recent years. Meanwhile, last year saw "Argo" become the first film since "Driving Miss Daisy" to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination (one could argue that the film's win was partly attributable to the upset over the snub for Ben Affleck). So how's the competition looking this year?
Even given the relative unpredictability in the category in recent years, one can probably rule out the likes of Richard Linklater, Ryan Coogler, Jason Reitman, Abdellatif Kechiche and Jeff Nichols, whose films don't quite have the Best Picture traction of some of their competitors, and are unlikely to be nominees. Other films are more on the border at the moment: the likes of "Prisoners," "Rush," "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" and "The Book Thief" looked like strong possibilities at one point, but have rather fallen over time. Outside of a groundswell of love or acclaim, it's unlikely that Denis Villeneuve, Ron Howard, Ben Stiller or Brian Percival will figure in this year. There's also a couple of directors, such as Peter Berg and Scott Cooper, whose films are yet to be seen, though both will be unveiled at AFI Fest in the next couple of weeks.
With most of those directors ruled out, we're left with a field of about fifteen viable contenders. Especially with the last few auteur-happy years, there's a certain kind of film that, while it might be awards-friendly, doesn't necessarily get attention for the filmmaker unless it's a real frontrunner (something like "The King's Speech" isn't a director's movie in the traditional sense, but if voters love it enough, the filmmaker will get a nomination, and even win, as did Tom Hooper). So, while "Dallas Buyers Club," "August: Osage County," "Philomena," "Lee Daniels' The Butler" might yet be Best Picture nominees, it's hard to see Jean-Marc Vallee, John Wells, Stephen Frears and Lee Daniels getting nods in January, despite the latter two being prior nominees (for "The Grifters," "The Queen" and "Precious," respectively).
John Lee Hancock is somewhat in the same boat for "Saving Mr. Banks," which is a surefire nominee, but not a particularly showy film. But it's not inconceivable that, if the voters really take to the film, he could end up in the final five. Meanwhile, Alexander Payne has two Oscars (both for writing), and two nominations for directing, but "Nebraska" doesn't quite have the same momentum that "The Descendants" did, so we suspect he'll miss out this time around. Similarly, Woody Allen is a favorite, and picked up a nod only two years ago for "Midnight In Paris," but with "Blue Jasmine" on the bubble as a Best Picture nominee, and showier competition around, he'll likely have to take another screenplay nod as a consolation (not that he cares, obviously).
At this point, we're left with a field of eight strong possibilities, most of whom are veterans with at least one nomination, and in the case of Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers, previous winners. The biggest neophyte of the group, even though he won a screenplay nod for his debut "Margin Call," is J.C. Chandor, whose "All Is Lost" is only his second film. Most of the attention on the film in advance has focused on Robert Redford's performance, and the actor will be a nominee whatever happens, but Chandor's achievement is just as impressive; he really demonstrates himself to be a first-rank filmmaker with an incredibly powerful piece of visual storytelling, and would be a worthy nominee (he's certainly be in our ballot at this point). But with the film underperforming at the box office, he has a harder road to walk, and his status as a relative unknown in a field of near-legends may see him missing out.