Pete Hammond
The Oscar race for best director is chock-full of major names and past winners who are back with some of their most acclaimed and anticipated films in years. Consider this: Woody Allen, a past winner in the category for Annie Hall (1977), is back this year with Midnight In Paris, not only his most acclaimed film in years but his most successful at the box office ($131 million worldwide). Martin Scorsese, a winner in 2006 for The Departed, has in Hugo a film that many are calling a masterpiece and one that is perhaps his most personal. Steven Spielberg, a two-time winner in the category for 1993’s Schindler’s List and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, is having a banner year not only with a possible nomination for best animated feature for his first-ever ’toon The Adventures of Tintin, but he is also expected to be a major player as director of the film adaptation of this year’s big Tony-winning play War Horse. Roman Polanski, 2002 winner for The Pianist, also has a pony in the race with Carnage, the film version of the Broadway smash and Tony winner God Of Carnage. Two-time winner Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby) is competing with J. Edgar, his biopic of controversial FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Past nominees Alexander Payne, Terrence Malick, Stephen Daldry, Bennett Miller, David Fincher, Jason Reitman and George Clooney are also in the hunt in what promises to be one of the most competitive races in years. But could the big prize actually go to a first-time nominee who made a black-and-white silent film?
Here’s the rundown on who are the hot helmers in the race for Oscar this year:
FRONTRUNNERS
STEVEN SPIELBERG, WAR HORSE
Hollywood’s most famous and powerful director is going for his seventh nomination in the category and first since Munich in 2005 . Previously nominated for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and a winner for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, this is his best chance to make it a three-peat with his screen adaptation of the beloved book and play War Horse. The epic look at the adventures of a brave horse in World War I has all the elements of a winner: strong emotion, big action scenes and a major pedigree. With his well-reviewed first animated foray Tintin also being released at the same time, Spielberg is a force to be reckoned with this year.
ALEXANDER PAYNE, THE DESCENDANTS
Although his filmography is not large, it includes such modern classics as Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, which won him an adapted screenplay Oscar in 2005 and represents his only nomination in the directing category. A second nomination for the much-acclaimed Hawaiian-set dramedy The Descendants would seem a strong bet, and the film — which resembles past winners like Terms Of Endearment and The Apartment in its effortless mix of comedy and drama — would seem a perfect recipe for success here.

WOODY ALLEN, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Like Spielberg, Allen has been Oscar-nominated six previous times as best director, but his last nod came 17 years ago for Bullets Over Broadway. He won the first time out for Annie Hall in 1977, although he also has two other Oscars for screenwriting and 14 overall nominations in that category. Since its opening-night debut in Cannes in May, Midnight In Paris has seemed destined to put Allen back in the driver’s seat in both categories this year, and the continuing box office and critical success of the movie has not hurt his chances. Once thought to be well beyond his prime, Allen is a longtime Academy favorite who could benefit from proving he is this year’s true comeback kid — although comedy isn’t usually a huge factor here.
MARTIN SCORSESE, HUGO
Yet another six-time nominee in this category for the likes of Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ, GoodFellas, Gangs Of New York, The Aviator and his winner The Departed, Scorsese has made his first 3D excursion and family film with Hugo, based on the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. While serving as a history lesson in the origins of cinema, Hugo is a true director’s treat, and the use of 3D may be the best yet seen onscreen. It makes this master a formidable contender here, even if the film itself fails to make the cut as a best picture nominee.

TERRENCE MALICK, THE TREE OF LIFE
Although his directing resume is thin — only five films released in 38 years, and he has been nominated in the directing category only once before, for 1998’s The Thin Red Line — Malick’s long-awaited existential epic The Tree Of Life is the kind of personal, uncompromised filmmaking directors love. Although it was a modest performer ($13.3 million domestic box office.) and has divided audiences, it did win Cannes’ Palme d’Or and could nab the reclusive Malick his second nomination for best director based on prestige factors alone.
CLINT EASTWOOD, J. EDGAR
Eastwood is a four-time nominee and two-time winner in the category, so that’s a pretty good track record. Working again in the biographical genre with this portrait of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the icon proves he still has style and stamina even at age 81. Directors just might want to reward the oldest contender this year for hanging in there and still turning out challenging movie dramas that go against the grain of what major studios normally traffic in these days.
DAVID FINCHER, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Many thought Fincher’s time for his first best director Oscar had come with 2008’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, but he ran into the Slumdog Millionaire juggernaut. Then he became a frontrunner last year for The Social Network until he was derailed by a certain king with speech problems. Could this finally be his year? Although his remake of the Swedish book and film phenomenon is said to be intensely violent, it is right in line with Fincher’s gritty fare. It may be that working in his comfort zone will finally bring him that Oscar.
STEPHEN DALDRY, EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
Although  this acclaimed stage and film director has only made three movies – Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader — each one brought him an Oscar nomination as best director, the best  movie-to-nomination record in the category. It’s expected that this highly emotional post-9/11 drama starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock could make it 4 for 4. The directors branch clearly loves this guy. and this kind of material (the script is from Oscar winner Eric Roth) usually spells Oscar anyway.
BENNETT MILLER, MONEYBALL
Moneyball only represents Miller’s second narrative movie, but the first one six years ago, Capote, brought him an Oscar nomination and this one has the bones to do that too. With a star turn from Brad Pitt, a script from Oscar winners Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and a producing team that includes two of last year’s nominees for The Social Network — including Scott Rudin — Moneyball is poised for across-the-board success. Coming in to save the day after original helmer Steven Soderbergh was jettisoned just a few days before production was to start, Miller also comes off as a bit of a hero for not only stepping in but also producing a critical hit.

GEORGE CLOONEY, THE IDES OF MARCH
Clooney is quickly becoming a renaissance man in show business and was previously nominated in the directing category for 2005’s Good Night, And Good Luck. An Oscar winner already for his supporting performance in the same year’s Syriana, Clooney continues to take on challenging material and bringing this highly charged political thriller to the screen as a writer, producer, director and co-star is something fellow directors may well admire. That’s especially true since having a sex scandal as part of its plot makes it seem even more relevant and prescient since its opening.
JASON REITMAN, YOUNG ADULT
With three major movies under his belt, Reitman managed two best director nominations already for Juno and Up In The Air. This dark comedy about a woman in her 30s (played by Charlize Theron) who refuses to grow up is gaining early raves after surprisingly skipping the film festival circuit this fall. Paramount is hoping to spring it as a late-inning surprise in December, and the timing could bode well for Reitman’s chances of landing a third directing nod, although most pundits see this as a long-shot possibility. They said the same thing about his chances for Juno. Don’t count him out.
MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS, THE ARTIST
Could the one candidate among the frontrunners who has never had a nomination — or even been in the awards conversation — take it all? Hazanavicius, previously best known for the OSS 117 French James Bond spoofs, has been dutifully working the festival circuit since Cannes with this black-and-white silent charmer, and it may pay off in his first Oscar nomination. Wherever it has been shown, audiences have stood up and cheered; could the same reaction happen within the much more insular and exclusive directors branch? A movie like Scorsese’s Hugo that deals with Hollywood’s beginnings, The Artist also has the benefit of Harvey Weinstein’s awards-season savvy, and with this unusual entry he smells Oscar.
POSSIBILITIES
TATE TAYLOR, THE HELP
Actor-turned-director Taylor is riding a hot hand with the summer smash hit ($168 million domestic box office), and while the film seems more and more a sure thing in the best picture race, his very assured direction is in danger of getting overlooked. He stands a better shot in the adapted screenplay category.
STEVE MCQUEEN, SHAME
This festival favorite and controversial NC-17 drama is an acquired taste and may be seen as too indie and indulgent by some. But don’t count it out, even if it is a long shot for the directing prize. Michael Fassbender’s lead performance may be its best bet.
ANGELINA JOLIE, IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY
This very intense and important Bosnian-set story marks superstar Jolie’s directorial debut, and the fact that she took on such challenging material may impress the directors branch. Plus it is also being released in its native language, which gives her points for authenticity. Angie’s the real deal but not really a member of this club yet, so her chances are iffy, but late December momentum and good reviews could help.
PHYLLIDA LLOYD, THE IRON LADY
This seems more like a slam dunk for its star Meryl Streep than anything else, but The Weinstein Company is quietly starting to boost its chances across the board. Lloyd, previously known for Streep’s Mamma Mia!, may not be able to ride the wave.
CAMERON CROWE, WE BOUGHT A ZOO
Fox has not put Crowe’s latest front and center as a major Oscar-type picture so far, and not many have seen it yet. The studio seems more intent on selling it as a feel-good family film for the holidays (it opens December 23). Crowe’s early directorial credits including Say Anything, Jerry McGuire and Almost Famous (for which he won a best original screenplay Oscar) made him a force, but Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown were not as well received. Could this be a box office and artistic comeback?
NICOLAS WINDING REFN, DRIVE
Directors love style and cool, and the Denmark-born Refn supplies both in droves. The movie’s middling performance and early September release may mean it has faded a bit too much though to put him into this race.

SIMON CURTIS, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

Initially seen as more likely to win acting nods for Michelle Williams’ brilliant portrayal of Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh’s Laurence Olivier, early reaction out of Academy screenings has been through the roof for the movie too. That increases the dark-horse chances of TV and stage director Curtis, who makes his feature film directorial debut here.
TOMAS ALFREDSON, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
This stylish adaptation of the John le Carré book and miniseries is so dense it may take a guidebook for some to be able to follow its myriad plot twists. That doesn’t bode well for its director, but the British contingent could push it forward.
PEDRO ALMODOVAR, THE SKIN I LIVE IN
Although it was passed over for prizes after its official competition screening in Cannes, many critics thought Almodovar’s first foray into the horror genre was worthy of Hitchcock at this sinister best. Too complex and creepy for some, the Almodovar directorial touches are evident everywhere, and his long-awaited cinematic reunion with muse Antonio Banderas is another plus. The two-time Oscar winner has only one nomination in this category, for 2002’s Talk To Her, so count this one as a long shot.
DAVID YATES, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2
Yates directed the last four Potters, but the Academy has barely recognized the series. Still, this extremely well-reviewed and financially successful swan song ($1.3 billion worldwide box office) could get them to take a second, er, eighth look.
J.J. ABRAMS, SUPER 8
Another summer hit ($260 million worldwide box office) in the mix won very nice reviews and was given a personal touch by Abrams and a boost from producer Steven Spielberg. Due to its “summer movie” stigma, it’s definitely a dark horse, but its superb direction deserves consideration for the well-liked and talented helmer.
ROMAN POLANSKI, CARNAGE
Polanski’s first film since his Swiss incarceration is an adaptation of the Tony-winning hit Broadway play God Of Carnage, but it is darker in tone and less farcical. Still its unexpected territory for Polanski and his fellow directors might like the offbeat casting between helmer and material.
AGNIESZKA HOLLAND, IN DARKNESS
Poland’s official entry for the best foreign-language film Oscar competition is also being released by Sony Pictures Classics by the end of the year in order to qualify in other categories — notably directing, where the veteran Holland would become a first-time nominee. This harrowing holocaust story of the rescue of Jewish refugees hiding in a sewer in a Nazi-occupied Polish city has gotten great buzz from its foreign-language committee screening and also won plaudits at the fall festivals.
DAVID CRONENBERG, A DANGEROUS METHOD
Incredibly, Cronenberg has never been nominated for an Oscar and is way overdue. Could this talky, intelligent story about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud do the trick? It came into Venice with high hopes but has not ignited the way some pundits expected. New momentum following its first theatrical engagements in November could give it new life and add Cronenberg’s work to the Oscar conversation, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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