Can Steven Spielberg nab his eighth nomination and third Oscar for directing? Can Alejandro G. Inarritu pull off two in a row? Will Quentin Tarantino finally add a director Oscar to his pair for screenwriting? And can Ridley Scott ride The Martian’s success to a first-ever Academy Award?

These are just some of the burning questions dominating this year’s race for Best Director. The rule of thumb is that the film that wins in this category usually also takes Best Picture, which certainly was the case last year with Inarritu’s Birdman triumph. However, precedent was broken the previous two years when the champ for Best Director (Life Of Pi’s Ang Lee and Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron) did not coincide with Best Picture winners Argo and 12 Years A Slave. There are always extenuating circumstances, but a more accurate bellwether for predicting the victor clearly is the Directors Guild of America Awards. Its winner has gone on to repeat at the Oscars nearly every year since its inception in 1949, except on seven occasions.

So how is this year’s race stacking up? Right now there appears to be a clear—and surprising—front-runner. Before it opened, no one really was expecting The Martian to be a major player outside of some crafts categories. Its enormous success and pure filmmaking smarts has lifted it higher than 20th Century Fox ever could have imagined. The man behind this, Ridley Scott, is much-admired among his peers. Throw in the startling fact that he has never won a directing Oscar and you have the recipe for success. It’s true that the 78-year-old veteran has been nominated three times—most recently in 2002 for Black Hawk Down—and even helmed a Best Picture winner in 2000 with Gladiator. Sadly for him, Scott was one of those exceptions when Steven Soderbergh cashed in one of his two helming nominations that year for Traffic. If anyone’s time is now, it is Scott’s.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu - The RevenantFox has a quandary, though, since it also is releasing two films on Christmas Day that promise to upset the apple cart. Alejandro G. Inarritu’s brutal and beautiful The Revenant puts its director in a position to do something that hasn’t been done for more than 60 years: win back-to-back directing Oscars. Joseph L. Mankiewicz pulled off this feat for 1949’s A Letter To Three Wives and 1950’s All About Eve, both, interestingly, from Fox.

Then there is the studio’s Joy, which cannot be ignored here either, considering its director, David O. Russell, is three-for-three with directing noms for his last three times at bat: The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

Not overdue in any sense of the word, but still a potent contender for one of the best-reviewed films of his career, is two-time winner and seven-time nominee Steven Spielberg, who most likely will add an eighth nom for Bridge Of Spies to his tally.

Bubbling under this quartet of proven Oscar players are a few indie stars previously nominated for writing but now looking to break into the Academy’s helming ranks. Most likely to garner a nom is Tom McCarthy for the widely-acclaimed, some say front-runner, Spotlight. The investigative journalism story revolving around the scandal in the Boston Archdiocese is a critics favorite sure to pay off with an Oscar nomination for McCarthy.

Todd Haynes and Cate Blanchett on the set of CarolAnd ever since the Cannes Film Festival, Todd Haynes’ lesbian romance Carol has been lauded for its strong filmmaking across the board. The Weinstein Company has turned the film into an indie hit, and that only can help Haynes.

Controversy surrounding Quentin Tarantino makes his re-entry a question mark after two previous noms for Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds. But the violence of The Hateful 8 could be even more problematic. Still, I bet fellow directors love the fact that Tarantino is trying to keep film alive by using 70-millimeter again on this pic, so don’t count him out.

And I would say the same for George Miller, who managed to make a fourth installment of the Mad Max series a thrilling cinematic event this summer and just received a Golden Globe nomination for his efforts. Another summer hit, Straight Outta Compton, could signal a first-ever nomination for F. Gary Gray, who brought urgency, passion and great musical sequences to the story of rap group N.W.A. His nomination also would be the somewhat rare one for an African-American director, something the Academy—with its diversity efforts—might welcome.

Two past winners also could factor in the race. Despite the box office failure of Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle managed to take a dialogue-driven Aaron Sorkin script and make it thoroughly cinematic. Tom Hooper, the 2010 Best Director winner for The King’s Speech—but overlooked a couple of years later for his Best Pic-nominated Les Miserables—turned the transgender story of The Danish Girl into a universal love story with two great performances at its heart.

Two Irish-born directors looking to crash the party just might do it with small, gem-like dramas that really have resonated. In Room, Lenny Abrahamson took the challenges of creating a film whose first half takes place in a 10-by-10-foot space and made it an emotional experience second to none. Well, that is, unless you have seen John Crowley’s lilting Brooklyn, which just might be the most romantic film of the year and was exquisitely filmed. And for sheer movie-making acumen, French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve followed up his powerful kidnap drama Prisoners with the equally riveting drug cartel story Sicario. This is a movie I have heard praised over and over again from filmmakers themselves, so I wouldn’t discount Oscar recognition for Villeneuve, a previous nominee in the Foreign Language category for Incendies.

Speaking of foreign filmmakers, Sony Pictures Classics doesn’t want to settle for a Foreign Language nom alone for its much-acclaimed Hungarian pickup—and Cannes jury grand prize winner—Son Of Saul. The sheer power of this Holocaust tale could put newbie Laszlo Nemes in the race, just as SPC did for Michael Haneke with Amour a couple of years ago. And could switching from Italian to English also do the trick for another Foreign Language film winner, Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) with Youth?

Two others whose films played better with the industry than with some critics: Jay Roach for the Hollywood Blacklist story Trumbo and Peter Landesman for the timely football brain trauma drama Concussion. Rounding out the possibilities is Netflix’s Beasts Of No Nation from True Detective director Cary Fukunaga. But how will the directors branch react to the fact that the film had very limited theatrical exposure?

Then there is a pair of films from Warner Bros. that exhibited strong directorial work: Scott Cooper’s Whitey Bulger pic, Black Mass, and Ryan Coogler’s Creed, which had the audacity to bring a new take on Rocky to the screen. The film is a box office and critical success, so do not discount the 29-year-old helmer.

Paramount’s late entry, The Big Short, has strong support as well that could benefit its director Adam McKay, who, until now has been known for broader comedy than this smart look at shady Wall Street tactics. The studio also is hoping to make history here with co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson for their stop-motion animated Anomalisa. Finally, from Disney, are two genuine wild cards: Will J.J. AbramsStar Wars: The Force Awakens extend beyond being a box office behemoth? And could yet another animated film sneak into this race for the first time with a long-shot directing nom for Pete Docter for his much-admired Pixar classic Inside Out? That really could shake things up!