The age-old question people ask every year is, “How can you have a best picture nominee without also nominating its director?” It’s a good question, but the disconnect happens all the time. There is a great disparity between the 6,000 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, who all vote for best picture, and the much clubbier directors branch, which numbers less than 400. This is the category where the heartbreak really happens on the morning those nominations are announced. Who can forget the shock when it was Behn Zeitlin (Beasts Of The Southern Wild) and not Ben Affleck (Argo) who landed one of those prized five directing noms? Argo was a favorite to win best picture, which it eventually did, but how could that be without its director at least being nominated by that branch? The backlash might have worked in Affleck’s favor, as well as that of the movie, because both swept the remainder of awards that year, including the Directors Guild of America Award for Affleck over Ang Lee, who eventually won the Oscar for steering Life Of Pi.

Of course, this was not an isolated case, and there also are several instances when a split occurs, most recently last year, when Alfonso Cuaron took the directing Oscar but 12 Years A Slave took best picture. The disparity between director and picture has gotten even more pronounced—and controversial—since the Academy decided to increase the number of films that could be nominated for best picture from five to a possibility of 10. In that scenario, up to five directors automatically are relegated to having to endure the, “So, did your movie direct itself?” line of questioning. I know of a few Oscar voters who have even gone to the Board of Governors and tried to rectify this situation by expanding the possible number of directing nominees. No go, at least so far.

Birdman
Birdman director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu already has a Golden Globe nomination to his name for the film.

So with this year’s five best director slots history could be made with the very real possibility that two women, Angelina Jolie for Unbroken and Ava DuVernay (right, top photo) for Selma, could find themselves facing off against each other. That would be a significant breakthrough. Only four women have ever been nominated in this category, and only one has won—Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. For DuVernay, it would be doubly impressive because the number of African-American directors who have been nominated in the category is actually one smaller than the number of women. As for Jolie, who did a Herculean job behind the camera on Unbroken, the bigger question regarding a nomination, other than the fact she is female, is that she is an Oscar-winning acting superstar. Just ask Affleck where that got him, despite past thespian winners in the category, such as Kevin Costner, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood.

Speaking of two-time best director winner Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby), he has his best Oscar shot in recent years with the harrowing American Sniper. At 84, he again would be the oldest nominee in the category, breaking his own record set 10 years ago. And it certainly would be deserved because Sniper isn’t even his only film released in 2014—Jersey Boys came out in June.

For his unique and admired Boyhood, a movie shot over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater already is a critics group darling and promises to be formidable in the category. His only drawback might be that directors could resent the fact he had a dozen years to make his masterpiece, when some of them get less than 30 days. But the achievement is monumental, as was that of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose Birdman was indeed filmed in 30 days. Inarritu’s purely technical feat in his art of directing is that the film appears to have been shot completely in one take, a trick he accomplished with the aid of ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Inarritu and Linklater are the most likely pair to be duking it out for the final prize, unless Oscar wants to go British again this year. The real sleeper here is The Imitation Game, a very British story that ironically was written and produced by Americans and directed by Norwegian Morten Tyldum, making his English-language debut. With Harvey Weinstein putting all his eggs in this basket, Tyldum could benefit just as Tom Hooper did for 2010’s The King’s Speech. Don’t count him out. Academy members seem to love the film. Another English film, The Theory Of Everything also is beloved by voters and could find its helmer, James Marsh—an Oscar winner for his documentary feature Man On Wire—swept in on the goodwill for that film. Another Brit also in the mix for the very American film Interstellar is Christopher Nolan, who the directors branch seems to have something against. How can you explain three DGA noms for Memento, The Dark Knight and Inception but repeated snubs for all three by his peers in the Academy? Will Interstellar break the Nolan curse? It is hard to deny that his achievement on this emotionally powerful and intelligent sci-fi epic is not prodigious, but critical reaction has been mixed so that could hurt.

Boyhood
Boyhood director Richard Linklater has received best director mentions from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle, among other honors.

Solid favorites of the directors branch who were past nominees could be back, including Cannes Film Festival best director winner Bennett Miller for his searing work on Foxcatcher, Mike Leigh for Mr. Turner and David Fincher for Gone Girl. The latter’s box office success could overcome the genre bias of the thriller form, but Fincher has barely campaigned. Leigh is an Academy favorite with seven previous nominations, but most were for writing. He could be the dark horse here. Miller has a mixed track record. Both of his previous films, Capote and Moneyball, were best picture nominees, but only the former landed him a nom. Then there’s Rob Marshall. He took the DGA Award for Chicago in 2002 and was primed for an Oscar win, but even though the musical became the first in 34 years to win best picture, he lost to Roman Polanski. Into The Woods, Marshall’s new musical, is winning early raves and could surprise people by deservedly putting him back in this race. No one has won for a musical since Bob Fosse did in 1972 for Cabaret.

On the eclectic side of things, two Andersons—Wes Anderson with The Grand Budapest Hotel and Paul Thomas Anderson with Inherent Vice—fit the bill. Mixed reaction to P.T.A.’s Thomas Pynchon adaptation and an early March release date for Budapest might doom each director’s chances, perhaps opening the door for three newcomers to the category: Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle, A Most Violent Year’s J.C. Chandor and Nightcrawler’s Dan Gilroy. All three films are gaining increasing buzz around the Academy. I also would throw out Jean-Marc Vallee’s name as a possibility for the near-impossible task of turning Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild into a memorable motion picture.

Occasionally, the quirky directors branch turns to foreign-language films to fill a slot and deny more obvious contenders. If that’s the case this year, look to Argentina’s Damian Szifron for the rapturously received comedy Wild Tales or Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski for the popular black-and-white art film, Ida.