Pete Hammond

If you are getting a sense of déjà vu from this year’s director race, you aren’t far off. Several past Oscar winners in the category are back competing for another go at the gold. Even one of the frontrunner-newcomers, Argo’s Ben Affleck, is a past winner in the original screenplay category (Good Will Hunting), as is two-time directing nominee Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) going for a third try with Django Unchained. Two of the best director winners in the past three years, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), are already back in the thick of the race trying for a matching Oscar for their followup film, a rare feat if either one can pull it off. Then there are the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Peter Jackson, Robert Zemeckis, and Sam Mendes—all past winners attempting to make room for another Oscar on their mantel. Some prominent past nominees are also back trying for a first win including Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, and Gus Van Sant. And could this be the year Christopher Nolan finally gets some love from his peers in the small Academy directing branch with his final Batman flick, The Dark Knight Rises? Here’s a rundown of the top contenders for best director.

BEN AFFLECK | ARGO
Early in his career, Affleck took home an Oscar with cowriter and star Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting in the original screenplay category. But after an up-and-down career as a leading man, he found new respect behind the camera with his first two directorial efforts—Gone Baby Gone and The Town—winning critical acclaim and comparisions to Clint Eastwood. With Argo, in which he also plays the lead role, he has cemented his reputation as a directing force and has been a frontrunner in the category since the film’s debut at the Telluride Film Festival. But can he keep up the momentum all the way to February?

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Chris Terrio

STEVEN SPIELBERG | LINCOLN
A two-time winner (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) and six-time nominee in this category, Spielberg has an Oscar track record that seems almost modest considering his remarkable career. Many think he is still deserving of more. His long-gestating and critically acclaimed Lincoln, a film that almost didn’t happen and one he told me recently he felt “might not have been in the stars for me,” has come triumphantly to the screen and made him another formidable contender for the big prize.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Tony Kushner

TOM HOOPER | LES MISÉRABLES
Although he already had an Emmy win for Elizabeth I and another nomination for John Adams, British director Hooper was not well-known outside of England when it came to feature films. After a little success with The Damned United, he hit paydirt and won the director Oscar on his first nomination for The King’s Speech just two years ago. With numerous projects to choose from, he has now followed it up with the movie version of the smash musical Les Misérables and instantly stakes a claim for another nomination and possible second win in just two years. But will voters think it is too much, too fast?

Related: SAG Awards Film: Who’s In And Who’s Out

ANG LEE | LIFE OF PI
A previous winner in this category for Brokeback Mountain (2005), Lee has another statuette for his foreign-language film winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The virtually unfilmable bestselling book Life Of Pi took its toll on a number of directors who attempted to bring it to screen until Lee finally cracked a way to do it and moved the art and science of film one step forward with his dazzling visuals. Fellow directors seem to be awestruck by what he has accomplished, and that should assure him yet another nomination if the movie gods are smiling on him this season.

KATHRYN BIGELOW | ZERO DARK THIRTY
Just three years after becoming the first woman ever to win the best director Oscar for her Iraq war film, The Hurt Locker, Bigelow, an action-movie veteran, proved she still had the stuff to make provocative, controversial cinema with this film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal started working on the film when bin Laden was still alive and eluding capture, reversing course and turning it into a look at how the world’s number-one fugitive was captured when the news broke. It’s a towering achievement, but considering it took 80 years for Bigelow to become the first woman to win the director Oscar, could it only take three for her to become the second?

Related: OSCARS: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Gives Sony Early Awards Heat

DAVID O. RUSSELL | SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
A director who always seems more comfortable working in the indie world, David O. Russell encountered some tough times in recent years before finding The Fighter and scoring a knockout punch that landed him in this category for the first time in 2010. Now, just two years later, he is in a strong position to go for the win with this quirky, touching comedy-drama that was the sensation of the Toronto Film Festival and winner of the audience award over Argo. But against epic competition, can Russell be driving the little engine that could or is the Oscar just not in his own playbook this time around?

ROBERT ZEMECKIS | FLIGHT
After 12 years of trying to convince the industry that motion-capture animation was the future, Zemeckis, a past winner for Forrest Gump (1994), returned to his roots and delivers a winning human drama about a pilot battling his own demons even as he accomplished a heroic act in crash-landing a plane and saving most of the passengers. Deferring his own salary and bringing this ambitious adult drama in for just $30 million, Zemeckis could find himself back in the race.

MICHAEL HANEKE | AMOUR
Although Haneke is likely to be a frontrunner in the foreign-language race for his Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, the film itself is eliciting such powerful response that he could also find himself with nominations for his original screenplay and directing. Certainly nominations for directors of foreign-language films are not unprecedented, and Haneke could be the latest if the film’s subject matter about the problems of an aging couple isn’t just too hard for voters to watch.

Related: OSCARS: Foreign-Language Films

J.A. BAYONA | THE IMPOSSIBLE
In only his second film, this Spanish director skillfully navigates the big-scale effects of re-creating the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami along with the powerful human drama of a family separated by tragedy and trying to survive in almost unthinkable circumstances. It’s an impressive balancing act, marking the arrival of a major new talent. But will this smaller release get swamped by higher-profile titles?

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Ewan McGregor

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON | THE MASTER
Although opinion on the film is wildly mixed, with filmgoers in and out of the industry either loving it or hating it, this is a category where the ambitious film, shot in 65mm at a time when no one is using the classic format, could impress Anderson’s colleagues for sheer audacity and filmmaking skill alone. And with only a single previous nomination in this category (2007’s There Will Be Blood) Anderson seems underappreciated.

QUENTIN TARANTINO | DJANGO UNCHAINED
Tarantino is a directorial maverick who always seems to deliver the goods, but will the ultraviolent western throwback just be too much of a good thing at nearly three hours? Early word is he knocks it out of the park again.

PETER JACKSON | THE HOBBIT
The Academy honored Jackson for his triumphant Lord Of The Rings trilogy with Return Of The King in 2003, so it’s unlikely they will go there again so soon, and especially for what is the first of another three films.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN | THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
The Aurora tragedy seemed to unfairly taint this film’s awards chances from the beginning, and the directors’ branch has never embraced the great Nolan, so should we expect them to start now?

WES ANDERSON | MOONRISE KINGDOM
This Cannes Film Festival opener became Anderson’s second biggest hit and an indie breakout, but Oscar recognition seems more likely for Anderson in original screenplay.

SAM MENDES | SKYFALL
This Oscar winner (American Beauty) is the most important director ever to take on the 50-year-old James Bond franchise, and the critics and audiences loved it. It’s the most successful and acclaimed Bond film of all and long overdue for a win, but Oscar voters just don’t seem to get it, do they?

JOE WRIGHT | ANNA KARENINA
Using a bold theatrical framing device, Wright took a big chance in making this Leo Tolstoy classic seem fresh again, but opinion on whether he succeeded was divided and likely will hurt his chances to gain his first director nomination.

BENH ZEITLIN | BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
The darling of the Sundance Film Festival, this daringly original indie sensation has plenty of admirers, but competition is just as fierce as those beasts.

GUS VAN SANT | THE PROMISED LAND
Directors love Van Sant, who has been nominated twice before (Good Will Hunting, Milk), but his film is the last to be released in 2012 and might not be seen widely enough to break through.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN | QUARTET
Can a two-time Oscar-winning actor break through as a director with a behind-the-camera debut at the young age of 75? The film is right up Oscar’s alley, but unlikely to be a contender here even though Hoffman did a terrific job.

SACHA GERVASI | HITCHCOCK
The great Hitchcock himself had trouble in this category and never won despite five nominations—including a final one for Psycho, the subject of this film within a film—so wouldn’t it be ironic if Gervasi were able to pull off a win? Despite Gervasi doing a fine job in his narrative directorial debut, don’t count on it.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.