Steve McQueen - "Twelve Years A Slave"
If Best Director was decided on merit alone, Steve McQueen
certainly would have picked up a nomination for "Shame
" -- its absolute control and impressive visual eye belied the fact that it was only the filmmaker's second full feature. The subject matter meant that McQueen was never really in the race, but thanks to the backing of Brad Pitt, an all-star cast, and the (only-slightly-less) taboo subject matter of slavery, which saw awards success for "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained" last year, he could get more traction with his new film, "Twelve Years A Slave," this time around. Detailing the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who was kidnapped and spent a dozen years as a slave in the south, the film also sees Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano, among others, in the cast. We're assuming McQueen won't be watering down his style too much, which might be a problem, but long takes and general visual austerity didn't prevent Michael Haneke from getting a nomination last year. Perhaps the bigger question is over how palatable the film will be to voters: Academy members might have voted for slavery-themed pictures when they were revenge fantasies ('Django') or featured mostly white people ("Lincoln"), but will as unvarnished and brutal a take as "Twelve Years A Slave" apparently is have the same appeal? We'll find out later in the year, but it's likely that McQueen will need a swell of critical support to make it happen.
George Clooney - "The Monuments Men"
If there's one thing we've learned over the last decade, it's that the Academy are head-over-heels in love with George Clooney. The multi-hyphenate has eight nominations over the past seven years, and when he didn't actually appear on-screen in a film, he STILL managed to win Best Picture, as a producer on "Argo." So with three films expected to be in the heart of the awards season -- he's also in "Gravity," and is a producer on "August: Osage County" -- you'd be a fool not to expect him to be in play for his fifth effort as director, "The Monuments Men." The film has a certain amount of bona fides: an all-star cast, a WWII backdrop, the kind of quirky true story that saw "Argo" have such success. But there's a question of tone at play. If it's closer to an "Ocean's Eleven"-style caper (as cast-members like John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Bill Murray might suggest), it's probably not going to be a player. If it's a more serious affair (as the presence of Daniel Craig and Cate Blanchett, and a late-December release would suggest), then Clooney could be more of a competitor than we think. With the race looking tight at this stage, we're leaning towards him missing the cut, but unless it's a "Leatherheads"-style misfire, he'll certainly be snapping at the heels of the competition.
Paul Greengrass - "Captain Philips"
We didn't go so far as to predict the Tom Hanks-starring Somalian pirate drama "Captain Phillips" as one of the potential Best Picture nominees, although it's certainly in the running. But given that Greengrass earned a nomination in 2007 for "United 93," when the film itself went otherwise unrewarded, Greengrass might have a better chance than his film does. After all, some of the more likely Best Picture nominees ("August: Osage County," for instance) aren't really director's movies, while Greengrass' brand of handheld sound and fury tends to be showier. That is dependent on the film being closer to "United 93" than to "Green Zone" in terms of critical reception, and on it being more than just a showcase for Hanks' performance, but buzz is very strong. Still, there's some tough competition this year, so the film will really have to take off for Greengrass to be in the final five.
Baz Luhrmann - "The Great Gatsby"
Despite the film itself earning eight Oscar nominations, Baz Luhrmann failed to make it to the final five for "Moulin Rouge!," pushed out by luminaries like David Lynch, Robert Altman and, uh, Ron Howard. Indeed, the Australian auteur has never been nominated in the directing category (in part because the only film he's made since, "Australia," was something of a washout). Could "The Great Gatsby" be the one? Well, on paper, the prestige-y literary subject matter and an all-star cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan would suggest yes. But the film's been plagued by delays and rumors of production troubles, and the trailers have been somewhat... divisive. The film might well end up working -- let's not forget that "Moulin Rouge!" also had a half-year delay and looked dicey on paper -- in which case Luhrmann could become a contender. As such, this is definitely the wait-and-see prospect of the list. Six months from now, the idea of Luhrmann as a nominee could be laughable, or it could be a foregone conclusion.
The Coen Brothers - "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Despite being some of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers in American cinema, Joel & Ethan Coen have fourteen Oscar nominations between them, starting with their move into more respectable fare (or as respectable as a film can be when someone gets fed into a wood chipper) with "Fargo." With their screenplay victory for that, and their three Oscars for "No Country For Old Men," their trophy cabinet is pretty full at this point, but there's always room for one more. "Inside Llewyn Davis" looks pretty great, and word from early screenings suggests it's another winner from the brotherly duo, who've been solid favorites with the Academy in recent years. But the question is whether they can manage a directorial nomination, and we're not 100% convinced that they can; of all their earlier films, 'Llewyn Davis' looks closest to "A Serious Man," which saw them nominated for Picture & Screenplay, but not Director. And as we've said before, distributors CBS Films have no experience in pushing a film for the awards season, which could be a hurdle. If the film is a critical darling like 'No Country' or "Fargo," nominations are likely, but if it's more divisive, 'Llewyn Davis' may be pushed out by more mainstream competition.
Also In Contention: Jason Reitman has two previous directing nominations for "Juno" and "Up In The Air," but with the competition so stiff, our gut says that he'll be on the outside unless new film "Labor Day" sweeps the board elsewhere. Meanwhile, "Saving Mr. Banks" and "August: Osage County" feel like obvious Best Picture hopefuls, but they're the kind of films (see "The Help") that often miss out with the directing category, particularly with the relatively low profile of helmers John Lee Hancock and John Wells -- though the latter, as the WGA president and a TV veteran, is at least well-liked within the industry. Others who could end up in the mix, if their films work out, include James Gray for "Lowlife," Susanne Bier for "Serena," Ryan Coogler for "Fruitvale" (this year's Benh Zeitlin?), Ridley Scott for "The Counselor," Lee Daniels for "The Butler," Spike Jonze for "Her," Atom Egoyan for "Devil's Knot" and Scott Cooper for "Out Of The Furnace. "
And our final five predictions, for the record:
Alfonso Cuaron - "Gravity"
Bennett Miller - "Foxcatcher"
Alexander Payne - "Nebraska"
David O. Russell - "Untitled David O. Russell Abscam Project"
Martin Scorsese - "The Wolf Of Wall Street"