While adored by geeks and cinephiles, Alfonso Cuaron isn't necessarily a name that rings many bells with the Academy; his last three films were a raucous coming-of-age sex comedy ("Y Tu Mama Tambien"), a "Harry Potter" film, and an apocalyptic sci-fi ("Children Of Men"), none of which is exactly typical Academy material. But the latter made a fair Academy impact despite being undervalued by many, earning three nominations including a screenplay nod shared by Cuaron himself. And if he ever breaks through further, a showy space picture starring Academy darlings Sandra Bullock and George Clooney would seem to be a good bet. If rumors are to be believed, it raises Cuaron's long, impressive takes from "Children Of Men" to a whole new level, with the opening shot said to last as long as twenty minutes, so it'll be a showcase for him as much as for Bullock, and it's the kind of 3D extravaganza that just won Ang Lee the Oscar. Now, the film could end up on a knife-edge; maybe seen by some as too commercial, and by others as too arty. But if Cuaron can get the balance right and the film works, this could well be a good bet.
Having picked up a nomination for his first feature "Capote," Bennett Miller missed out when "Moneyball" was nominated for Best Picture last year. On the one hand, it was a little puzzling (the old complaint of "What, did the film direct itself?"), but on the other hand, Miller has an unfussy, story-first style, so it's understandable why he was excluded, even if the meat-and-veg directorial work was arguably more impressive than some of the others who were nominated last year. We're expecting "Foxcatcher" to be a big player in the awards season, but will Miller be excluded again? Or will voters want to make up for him missing out last time? It's a tough call to make: the film, on the page, looks unlikely to be any more attention-grabbing for its filmmaker than his previous two films. But assuming he does the same impeccable job that he did on "Capote" and "Moneyball," he's always going to be viable, and our gut says that Miller will make the cut this time, although he's probably the shakiest of this Top 5.
Once, when he was the headbutted-by-George-Clooney, shrieking-at-Lily-Tomlin enfant terrible of the indie scene, a nomination for David O. Russell was unthinkable. But the filmmaker has mellowed in recent years, and now has two nominations in three years thanks to "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," and was seen by many as a viable winner for the latter, though Ang Lee beat him to the punch. But even before that happened, we thought that Russell might be a great threat in 2014. As we said when discussing the Best Picture possibilities, the Abscam project (which has the almighty cast of Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Louis CK) is likely to have all the advantages of Russell's recent work, while also being a period piece, and with arguably more serious subject matter at play. The filmmaker is a perfect match for the script, so unless it's a surprising misfire in execution (or if it slips into 2014, which is possible), we expect him to be among the nominees, and possibly even the front-runner.
Any time that Martin Scorsese has a film out, you know he's going to be a threat in this category; he has seven nominations in total, and while he finally won for "The Departed," he still challenged quite heavily for "Hugo" in 2012, even if he ultimately lost to Michel Hazavanicius. So with a new film in 2013 -- and one that involves examining the root of the global economic crisis in the excesses of a high-living stockbroker -- he's very much in the running, with material that might be his most awards-friendly since "The Aviator." In the last decade, Scorsese has only failed to nab a nomination for "Shutter Island," his most genre-led work in recent memory, so he's a safe bet for a nod. That said, in a tough year which could be seen as something of a changing of the guard, with young bucks like Alfonso Cuaron and Steve McQueen competing, Scorsese can't simply phone the film in.
Like Russell, Payne was once outside of the establishment, with his controversy-baiting debut "Citizen Ruth." But now, the filmmaker has firmly been embraced by the Academy, with six nominations in total including directing nods for his last two pictures, "Sideways" and "The Descendants." His latest, "Nebraska," a father-son tale starring the unlikely combination of Will Forte and Bruce Dern, seems to be a lower-key, more personal kind of picture for the filmmaker, shot on a relatively low budget, and to be released in black and white. But despite the lack of star power, voters clearly adore Payne's sensibilities, and unless the film proves truly surprising, he shouldn't be dismissed in this category. If anything, going black and white is likely to give him more credit. The film might not work, of course, and if some of the showier possibilities below deliver, Payne could well fall out (even a film as fine as "About Schmidt" went mostly unrewarded, bar a nod for Jack Nicholson). But we wouldn't want to bet against him.