It's a good thing the Best Director category didn't go the way of Best Picture to accommodate more nominees, because this year's campaign has only ever been a three-man race even in its most competitive stages. The two non-contenders are Alexander Payne (Nebraska) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), who've each enjoyed a nearly spotless recent track record for landing in the category. Payne has received nods for his last three films, while five of Scorsese's last six non-documentary films have earned the legendary director an aisle seat at the ceremony. But with only one win between the two filmmakers (Scorsese's The Departed) in that stretch, their nominations likely speak more to the compulsory voting habits and pre-digested tastes of Academy voters than to the merits of either Nebraska or The Wolf of Wall Street. And though David O. Russell has been on a nomination hot streak of late, with American Hustle capping a trio of Best Director nominations over the last four years for the filmmaker, his chances, which seemed much higher back when his crime caper stormed onto the scene last December, have since fizzled along with the film.
Despite the familiar faces on this year's ballot, the winner here will be one of the category's two first-time nominees: Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). The latter's film has carved out a presumably modest lead in the Best Picture race, but 12 Years a Slave's failure to break away decisively from the pack, especially in light of its awards bait-y subject matter, is very likely a byproduct of McQueen's detached direction, which keeps viewers at arm's length from the inhuman acts depicted in the film. On the other hand, while it would be easy to cite the technical mastery of Gravity to explain how Cuarón has remained one step ahead of McQueen in the precursor lead-up, the Mexican auteur's eventual Oscar victory is more a credit to his aesthetic instincts being in sync with the film's economical storytelling and sharp, intense emotional focus.
Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Could Win: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity