How do you go about predicting this category when at least three of the frontrunners would be considered candidates for the fifth-slot “slip your auteur in here, director’s branch” spot in any other year? Do you go all out and presume that this year’s non-Best Picture-aligning directors will be even more out of left field than usual? Or do you simply figure that this category will always look roughly the same, regardless of what’s going on over in the Best Picture category? The Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, and, arguably, Julian Schnabel are all pretty close to locks, and even though we’re not confident of Schnabel’s movie making the Best Picture lineup, he’s been cited enough by the precursors (Globes, DGA) to render his capacity for filling out that perceived fifth slot moot. Sean Penn is probably less assured of a nomination, since the days when actors behind the camera getting props from the director’s branch peaked a while ago (probably when Mel Gibson stole the Oscar from Tim Robbins; they’re still atoning for letting Ron Howard in the building on what should’ve been David Lynch or Robert Altman’s night), but we’re pretty sure Penn’s film will shape up to be the compromise choice in a number of categories, including Best Picture. Between those four, we have a lineup that represents the juiciest section of the bell curve delineating both directorial excellence and middlebrow credibility. The question is: Will the fifth slot be waxing or waning? There is no shortage of candidates in either category—Christian Mungui, Werner Herzog (though one of us thinks little Dieter needed to remain a documentary), David Fincher, and…brr, Jason Reitman—but the eventual nominee will likely fall somewhere in between. David Thomson has a swell reputation among old school cinephiles for whom all current cinema is stillborn and among everyone who thinks of Nicole Kidman when they wank, and he recently posted a few thoughts about which directors are in the mix. No surprise, he’s jazzed up (at least by his standards) by the prospect of Sidney Lumet scoring a nod. We’re going to have to veto that idea, since no director who has been in the game should have to resort to both lightening-flash edits and title cards reading “three hours earlier” to indicate flashbacks. Thomson also shortlists the perpetually photo-op-ready Joe Wright, who isn’t exactly an auteur in the traditional, Erich von Stroheim sense, so we have to assume he’s really just enthusiastic about Atonement’s chances, though he apparently thinks very little of the film. We don’t think quite so little of it and neither are we very enthusiastic about its Oscar chances. Lastly, Thomson brings up Tim Burton, whose self-flattering take on Sweeney Todd merits consideration, if only because the category’s other brand names—Coen, Anderson—branched off in strange directions this year. We predict him to replace DGA nominee Tony Gilroy, completing a category filled with, and we mean this as a comparative compliment, fifth-wheel contenders.