When introducing Life of Pi at its New York Film Festival premiere, Ang Lee quipped that there are three things directors are warned to never work with: Children, animals, and water. With his latest, of course, the Taiwanese maestro broke all three rules, helming a high-seas adventure with an adolescent hero, and populating much of it with a part-CG, part-live-action menagerie. For his efforts, and for stepping up to the plate to adapt Yann Martel's worldwide bestseller (a supposedly insurmountable task previously passed over by M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuarón), Lee is likely to land on Oscar's Best Director shortlist, following prior nominations from the Broadcast Critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press. No stranger to the Academy's affections, the man who won this category in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain is the closest thing to a fourth-place lock this year, tailing behind three shoo-ins whose projects were all far more political.
The surefire frontrunners are Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck, and Steven Spielberg, who've already enjoyed widespread praise for piloting Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, and Lincoln, respectively. Bigelow returns to this field just three years after her history-making victory with The Hurt Locker, a film that surely paved the way for her newest triumph. Though she boasts more than three decades in the business, Bigelow may have only just recently emerged as a peerless action filmmaker, her singular knack for chronicling white-knuckle warfare having reached a superior peak. With Zero Dark Thirty, a film that saw her parlay exclusive access to intel into the ultimate manhunt chronicle, the director shied away from nothing, including the divisive depiction of torture, and she proved, once again, to be in perfect sync with her partners, like returning Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal. With more than 20 precursor citations under her belt, Bigelow is, once again, the gal to beat.
Discussed two years back for his work on The Town, a riveting film that presumably came just shy of a Best Picture nomination, Affleck is bound to receive the love of his peers, finally joining the club of Oscar-honored actors-turned-directors. Around here, there are those of us who admire the A-lister's third feature, but the rush of superlatives feels largely undeserved, feeding an ego that's plenty apparent onscreen, alongside industry back-patting, incongruous humor, and black-and-white, us-vs.-them nationalism. For Spielberg, who's poised to receive his seventh nod in this category, the accolade will be his most deserved since 1998, when the director ultimately walked away victorious for his work on Saving Private Ryan. Lincoln is Spielberg's classiest and most restrained production in years, and if it's indeed the film that stands to earn the largest nomination tally, there's no way a nod for its maker won't be in the mix.
A similar argument could be made for Tom Hooper, whose Les Misérables looks ready to collect a whole lot of Oscar bids, Best Director presumably being one of them. Though it's surely happened, the Academy rarely snubs the one at the helm of a nod-hungry Best Picture heavyweight, specifically one prepared to see so many disciplines recognized. Along with the foursome above, Hooper rounded out today's DGA finalists, and though that won't influence the Oscar crop this year (in a rare twist, Academy ballots were filed before the DGA announcement), we're thinking the two lineups are going to match come Thursday. Such would mean that David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), and Michael Haneke (Amour) fell just short of the big race, joining a number of other worthy auteurs ignored by the AMPAS. Daring to dream, we're still holding out shreds of hope for brilliant visionaries like Leos Carax (Holy Motors), Pablo Giorgelli (Las Acacias), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid with a Bike), and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), whose artful eyes and killer instincts were indispensable in 2012.
Will Be Nominated: Ben Affleck, Argo; Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty; Tom Hooper, Les Misérables; Ang Lee, Life of Pi; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Should Be Nominated: Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty; Leos Carax, Holy Motors; Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln; Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild