At the last Academy Awards, Barbra Streisand ripped open the envelope and revealed that Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman ever to win Best Director. No such groundbreaking moment is expected this year, but the category could offer up several surprises. With a wide open Oscar race, there’s probably a split in the offing between Picture and Director, two categories which traditionally pair up three-quarters of the time. But not always. Voters in the earliest Oscars didn’t believe strongly in a correlation between the Best Picture of the year and the person directing from behind the camera. Since then, there have been scattered years where that aberration occurred (such as for Hamlet, All the King’s Men, An American in Paris, and The Greatest Show on Earth). For Driving Miss Daisy, its director Bruce Beresford wasn’t even nominated. Going by recent history, the split has happened fairly frequently, culminating when Ang Lee took Best Director for Brokeback Mountain but Crash proved an upset Best Picture winner. Will another director be left at Oscar’s altar this year? Will The King’s Speech or The Fighter triumph, while David Fincher for The Social Network or Christopher Nolan for Inception wears the directing crown? An early signal will be the Directors Guild of America choice on January 29th. That group has a strong track record predicting the Director Oscar. Only six times since the DGA awards began in 1948 has the Guild and Academy not aligned. Here’s the alphabetical lineup of likely contenders and their chances this year:

BEN AFFLECK, The Town (Warner Bros.) – This Best Original Screenplay co-winner earned impressive notices for his first directing gig, Gone Baby Gone, and this year’s box office success, The Town, which he also co-wrote and stars in. He has won strong industry respect for his work behind the camera, but is a long shot to make the magic five. However, it looks like he’s becoming the new Clint, and that could eventually lead to his second Oscar — as a director.

DARREN ARONOFSKY, Black Swan (Fox Searchlight) – His intense indie films pull no punches. Now his dark and twisted Black Swan has dazzled the autumn fest circuit and became Fox Searchlight’s biggest box-office opener ever. Although its critical reception has been strong, it may be too much for more conservative Academy members. Nevertheless, Aronofsky’s eye-popping work here could impress enough of his peer group to land a spot in the top five.

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DANNY BOYLE, 127 Hours (Fox Searchlight) – The well liked Boyle comes off his 2008 Oscar triumph, Slumdog Millionaire, with this unexpected follow-up. Using dazzling directorial tricks, styling with visual invention, and guiding star James Franco, Boyle pulls off this virtual one-man show. But some voters may be too squeamish to pop the DVD in their players after reports of faintings at early screenings. Plus, he just won, so it may be someone else’s turn.

LISA CHOLODENKO, The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features) – Previous films High Art and Laurel Canyon didn’t prepare the Industry for her confident work as director and co-writer of this warm and perceptive comedy. Showing she could assure superlative performances from major stars should further impress colleagues. But the notoriously male dominated directors’ club may not be ready to make it two in a row for her. An Original Screenplay nod is her best shot.

DEREK CIANFRANCE, Blue Valentine (The Weinstein Company) – This very personal study of the disintegration of a marriage was 12 years in the making for Cianfrance. His first feature, he elicited no-holds-barred acting from leads Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Problem is, it may be too raw and intimate, which could overshadow the achievement. But here’s hoping it doesn’t take as long for this promising director’s second movie to reach the screen.

JOEL COEN & ETHAN COEN, True Grit (Paramount) – The Academy loves this prodigious writing/directing/producing team and have already honored them with four Oscars each, including one in this category. Can a remake of a John Wayne classic put them in contention again? The execution is flawless, and they have returned to Charles Portis’ original novel for inspiration while drawing first-rate performances. But Westerns don’t usually score for directors.

SOFIA COPPOLA, Somewhere (Focus Features) – Coppola lost Best Director for Lost In Translation in 2003 but won for her original screenplay. This latest film represents her second original screenplay and should be put in the writing category, but not necessarily in the directors’ circle again — although she did take the top prize at the Venice Film Festival (amid controversy because her pal Quentin Tarantino was head of the jury). No such problems now.

CLINT EASTWOOD, Hereafter (Warner Bros.) – A two time Best Director winner for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood can never be counted out. He didn’t make the cut for his last two attempts, Gran Torino and Invictus. His latest, Hereafter, drew mixed reviews and disappointing box office, so he’s a Director’s category dark horse at best this year. Though, never underestimate the respect from his peers for this 80-year-old icon.

DAVID FINCHER, The Social Network (Sony Pictures) – The director behind such dark but acclaimed films like Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac finally found an Oscar nod with the challenging crowd-pleaser The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and now this successful Facebook-founding flick. Critics’ plaudits are piling up, and he’s back in the heat of the race, this time going for the win from Sweden where he’s rebooting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

DEBRA GRANIK, Winter’s Bone (Roadside Attractions) – Her austere, even bare bones, filmmaking is why she has attracted much critical notice for her first two films, Down to the Bone and now Winter’s Bone, which already has won critics’ honors and film awards. It promises to earn strong Oscar attention for Granik, although the small film, filled with authenticity, still has an uphill climb competing against studio juggernauts helmed by bigger names.

TOM HOOPER, The King’s Speech (The Weinstein Co.) – If ever a movie seems tailor-made for the perceived tastes of the Academy, this is it. But Hooper’s warm and brilliantly acted story of a royal friendship breaks through to become snob-free entertainment with wide appeal. His no-flash direction could deter his chances, but it’s classic helming to the core. Meanwhile, The Weinstein Co. has made Hooper a strong presence on the awards circuit since Telluride.

ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU, Biutiful (Roadside Attractions) – From Amores Perros to 21 Grams to Babel, and now to Biutiful, Inarritu has become a staple on the awards circuit. Previously nominated in the foreign language category for Amores Perros and the directing category for Babel, Inarritu could find himself in contention for both with the Spanish language Biutiful. This talented director is back in the race for a disturbing and personal film.

MIKE LEIGH, Another Year (Sony Pictures Classics) – This four-time screenplay nominee has also been in contention twice in this category (for 1996’s Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake in 2004). Obviously an Academy favorite (sometimes even more than in his home country), Leigh’s unique improvisational style for developing characters from a simple script outline has made a big impression among Oscar voters. Another Year is probably his most accessible work.

DOUG LIMAN, Fair Game (Summit Entertainment) – Liman won good notices from the main competition at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, but no prize. Since then, the heat hasn’t been on for this political thriller, so his chances for his first directing Oscar nomination are minimal at best. But the film has shown him capable of things other than the smashhit, popcorn- entertainment of The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and that will set up a future nomination.

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL, Rabbit Hole (Lionsgate) – Who would have guessed the director of such quirky and out-of-the-mainstream work as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus would have even been interested in an award-winning play about a couple dealing with the sudden death of their four-year-old son. Yet, he directed three of the year’s best reviewed acting turns, and also made himself a Best Director contender
for the first time.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, Inception (Warner Bros.) – With a handful of films, Nolan is a major force in the film industry, a cash cow for Warner Bros., and a superstar among directors. Still, he has only been nominated once for Oscar, and that was Best Original Screenplay for his breakthrough Memento a decade ago. Does the Academy owe him one for The Dark Knight? If he’s snubbed this time for his risky, original, and complex Inception, just wait for the outcry.

TYLER PERRY, For Colored Girls (Lionsgate) – The prolific Perry’s films, with strong ethnic appeal, have been cash cows for Lionsgate but haven’t won him critical plaudits or Oscar attention. This adaptation of an iconic play is the closest he has come to “award worthy” work, but the critics still pounced despite an outstanding ensemble cast. Chances are likely he’ll still be standing on the sidelines as far as Oscar is concerned, but this is a good start.

ROMAN POLANSKI, The Ghost Writer (Summit Entertainment) – Polanski’s well-documented legal troubles and fugitive status often overwhelm the power of his remarkable talent. But critics wrote he was working at the top of his form with this Hitchcock-like thriller. Still, the 2002 Best Director winner will be waging an uphill climb this time around, though he’s helped by the fact that The Ghost Writer did just sweep the European Film Awards.

DAVID O. RUSSELL, The Fighter (Paramount) – He won’t win any popularity contests in Hollywood if past behind the-scenes stories (especially during the filming of Three Kings) are any indication. But he pulled together this long in-the-works passion project for Mark Wahlberg and delivered a crowd-pleasing character study that is more than a fight film. The movie had more traction for Oscar than Russell before it opened in December: not anymore.

AARON SCHNEIDER, Get Low (Sony Pictures Classics) – This indie sleeper success from August is probably more likely to land acting nominations for its stars Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek or Bill Murray, than a nomination for its debuting feature director. If Schneider, who started out as a cinematographer, is passed over, he can still take solace in the fact that he already has an Oscar for his 2003 liveaction short Two Soldiers.

MARTIN SCORSESE, Shutter Island (Paramount) – Perhaps the most admired living helmer, Scorsese finally received his Best Director Oscar in 2006 for The Departed, so the onus is off the Academy for failing to celebrate this major talent. The early release of Shutter Island doesn’t help Marty’s chances, although Paramount is campaigning hard for him and Leonardo DiCaprio, so don’t count them out. And Shutter Island is their most successful release at the box office.

OLIVER STONE, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Twentieth Century Fox) – Stone won two directing Oscars: Platoon in 1986 and, three years later, Born on the Fourth of July. His only other directing nomination came in 1992 for JFK. In fact, he wasn’t even nominated for the first Wall Street 23 years ago. It would be a major upset if he landed one now for the sequel. Best bet for this one is in supporting actor for Michael Douglas, who reprises Gordon Gekko.

LEE UNKRICH, Toy Story 3 (Disney/Pixar) – No director of an animated film has ever been nominated outside of the Animated Feature category (where the helmer actually receives the Oscar). Will this be the first year the directors’ branch actually acknowledges the work of an animation director on a toon? After all, Toy Story 3 is the best-reviewed film of the year and the top grosser if that counts for anything here. The answer: don’t hold your breath.

RANDALL WALLACE, Secretariat (Walt Disney Pictures) – Wallace was Oscar nominated for his 1995 screenplay Braveheart and went on to direct The Man in the Iron Mask and We Were Soldiers. His current Disney film, Secretariat, is his third period piece but a significant departure in style, tone, and substance. It’s well-liked but didn’t come out of the box-office gate strongly. Wallace remains a real long shot to land in the Best Director race for the first time.

PETER WEIR, The Way Back (Newmarket) – Weir is a four-time directing nominee (Witness, The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, and Master and Commander, his most recent film from seven years ago). Popular with his peers, he is surely overdue for a win. But even though The Way Back is the kind of epic made for Oscars, its year-end run with a severely limited campaign may make his own Director’s bid too insignificant to challenge higher-profile entrants.

ED ZWICK, Love & Other Drugs (Twentieth Century Fox) – Zwick moves away from his historic bent of recent years—films like Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond and most recently Defiance —to take a walk on the light side with this dramedy. He drew engaging performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, but the movie has been a box-office under-performer, and comedy generally doesn’t nail nominations here.