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A common indicator of what film will take home the Academy Award for Best Picture is the frequently foreshadowing category of Best Director. In the past 20 years of the Academy's history, there have only been five instances where a movie didn't take home both honors: 1998 (Saving Private Ryan for Best Director; Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture), 2000 (Traffic for Best Director; Gladiator for Best Picture), 2002 (The Pianist for Best Director; Chicago for Best Picture), 2005 (Brokeback Mountain for Best Director; Crash for Best Picture), and 2013 (Life of Pi for Best Director; Argo for Best Picture).
Aside from being a huge honor of itself, this year's showdown for Best Director could well determine Oscar night's top award. And we've got some serious heavyweights fighting for the gold. One is an eight-time nominated director and Hollywood icon. Two are unconventional storytellers up for their third Oscar nomination for Best Director. And the final two are foreign-born helmers celebrating their first Academy Award nomination for this particular accolade. But who will win? We break it down below:
DARK HORSES: Alexander Payne And Martin ScorseseThis marks Alexander Payne's third nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards. His first came in 2005 with his deliciously dark comedy Sideways. The second came in 2012, when he offered up the bittersweet family dramedy The Descendants. But third time won't be a charm for Payne. Nebraska is a tender and poignant comedy that has received heaps of critical praise, but with only 6 nominations its not an especially strong contender on Oscar night in general. Besides that, Payne has earned far less directing honors as his competitors this year, boasting only six while others have over 20 from various critics circles, award shows and film festivals.
Though he is arguably one of America's most legendary living filmmakers, Scorsese hasn't had a great track record with the Academy. Sure, this is his eighth nomination for Best Director, but he has only won once, and that was for The Departed, 26 years after his first nod for Raging Bull. Between the polarizing response Wolf of Wall Street has had among critics and its low count of four Academy Award nominations, this will not be Scorsese's night.
CONTENDERS: David O. Russell And Steve McQueenThis is also David O. Russell's third time being nominated for Best Director, following The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. With 10 Oscar nominations, American Hustle is poised to be a big winner come show time, thanks to a cast that includes nominees like Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. However, it's less certain that Russell will take to the stage. While he's earned a string of nominations for his helming here, he hasn't taken home many of those awards. Plus, some in the Academy might have a distaste for the director's reputed mercurial nature on sets. Don't doubt the Oscar's are in part a popularity contest.
Steve McQueen has earned his first-ever Academy Award nomination with 12 Years A Slave. With 9 nominations his unforgettable biopic about the life of Solomon Northup has a great pole position, bolstered by representation in such major categories as Best Director, Best Lead Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and both Supporting performer categories. For his work here, McQueen has earned a long list of directing honors all over the world, including Golden Globe and DGA Award nominations. However, he has already lost these two major awards to our frontrunner…
FRONTRUNNER: Alfonso CuarónGravity wasn't just a heart-wrenching drama; it was a cinematic event that had people rushing to 3D and IMAX to take in the enormity and terrible grandeur of space from the safety of a theater. At their core, The Academy Awards are about promoting movies, moreover promoting people to go to the movies. And Gravity gave audiences around the world a reason to go to the theater. Aside from that, Cuarón managed to make a film that felt infinite and yet intimate in the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia, the latter of which won the Best Director Oscar for David Lean.
Like American Hustle, Gravity has 10 Oscar nods. But Cuarón has also got some serious momentum on his side. Already he's beat Payne, McQueen and Russell at the Golden Globes (Scorsese was not nominated). Then, he beat McQueen, Russell and Scorsese for the DGA award (Payne was not nominated). Between the incredible innovation of practical and visual effects, the awe-inspiring use of 3D and IMAX, and the captivating story of an astronaut lost in space, I'd say Cuarón has this race all sewn up.
Check out our breakdowns on the other categories here.