Less a race than a ping-pong match, this year's battle for Best Director has shifted favor from an obvious lock to a popular spoiler and back again, leaving us one more not-quite-certain category to pay attention to on February 26. Not long after The Artist stormed out of Cannes, Michel Hazanavicius established a surge of directorial momentum that hardly let up, its reach even cracking the Indie Spirit lineup, which isn't exactly known to invite the Oscar frontrunner to the party. But as the season stretched on, and a certain genre-defier (kids' flick? Biopic?) began performing exceedingly better than expected, a Picture/Director split seemed more and more probable, with Martin Scorsese potentially benefiting from Hazanavicius's lack of notoriety. A Golden Globe win strengthened suspicions about the Hugo helmer, as did a subsequent tally of 11 Oscar noms for the 3D cineaste fantasy. Could this be the year the Academy honors both men who blew the industry a nostalgic kiss? One of them certainly has the firm voter support to make the generosity possible. Still, as everyone from the DGA to the folks at BAFTA will testify, odds are the rise of Hugo was a mere bump on The Artist's fated path to glory, which now looks like it may encompass Best Actor too.
That means Screenplay hopes only for Woody Allen and Alexander Payne, whose sophisticated comedies will see their even keels rewarded with appropriately lukewarm endpoints. Payne, a class act who deserved to garner love from at least a few of the precursor bodies, has a win in him somewhere—though it likely won't be realized until he makes a middlebrow meditation on the Holocaust. Allen, whose inevitable no-show will lead to Diane Keaton accepting the Screenplay prize on his behalf, seems to have delivered a career crown with Midnight in Paris, as it's more than a little wishful to think all that success will come again to someone pushing 80. But then, we're talking about cinema's great, bittersweet, one-man sausage factory here, so who's to say he won't kill again with Nero Fiddled? Finally, there's Allen's long-laboring antithesis, Terrence Malick, whose worthiness in this category really can't be overstated. Even those who were zoned out by the time Hunter McCracken put his neighbor's nightie in the river can agree about the mammoth proportions of Malick's achievement, which will be revisited by all walks for years to come. Unlike some of us around these parts, I'm perfectly cool with a Hazanavicius win. But to say that he, or any of these other auteurs, for that matter, are more worthy of a statuette than the man behind The Tree of Life is enough to leave me as speechless as Jean Dujardin.
Will Win: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Could Win: Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Should Win: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life