Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Director – Cuarón is on a collision course with Oscar

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

While uncertainty reigns in the Best Picture race, the Best Director conversation has been rather more concrete for a while now — which is not to say that it isn't a deep field. It was certainly a competitive one at the nomination stage, with one three slots seemingly nailed down and a generous handful of names duking it out for the final two. The field we got arguably isn't as adventurous or surprise-laden as last year's, but nonetheless includes five distincte artists with passionate followings : three Americans who have been nominated before, one Mexican who has been on the Oscar radar for some time and one Brit who has made the leap to mainstream art film from more experimental roots.

The nominees are…

David O. Russell, “American Hustle”
With three Best Director nominations (plus a pair of writing nods) in four years, Russell has rapidly become a new Academy favorite — quite the turnaround from the days when voters wouldn't touch his singular sensibility (or reputedly difficult personality) in the likes of “I Heart Huckabees” or “Three Kings.” The next time he makes a film as lively and well-liked as his last three efforts (the next time he makes a film, most likely), he could be hard to beat here — but for now, if he's taking home any gold on Sunday, it'll be in the Original Screenplay race. “American Hustle” is a jazzily directed piece — and Russell should score many a vote from the actors' branch for his nifty way with an ensemble — but his achievement doesn't have the formal heft of Alfonso Cuarón's or Steve McQueen's. (Recognition for comedies is even rarer in this category than it is in Best Picture.) When/if Russell takes this award, my guess is it'll be for more of a sweeper. (Check out our interview with Russell here.)

Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”
From the LA Critics' Award to the Golden Globe to the BAFTA to the all-important Directors' Guild gong, Cuarón has won more key honors across the season than any of his fellow nominees — and there's absolutely no reason to think that run won't continue on Sunday night. Even those predicting “12 Years a Slave” for the top prize mostly have the Mexican auteur down for this category: it's rare for a split to be so widely predicted in advance, but that's a testament to the universal agreement over the technical mastery and degree of difficulty involved in this particular directorial feat. (Last year, Ang Lee took the prize for another 3D spectacular, on the strength of similar “how did he do that” dazzle.) It helps, of course, that the supremely versatile Cuarón is widely perceived as due by this point: though he's been nominated before for writing and editing, this is the first Best Director nod for a craftsman who fanbase in drawn from both the multiplex and arthouse crowds. (Check out our interview with Cuarón here.)

Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”
There was a time when the Academy wasn't completely in love with Alexander Payne's sourly sentimental worldview (“About Schmidt” was a notable under-performer in the 2002 race) but those days are long gone: two writing Oscars later, the fact that Payne, previously nominated in this category for “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” could score a third nod for a modestly scaled film as comparatively low on buzz as “Nebraska” speaks to his popularity within the group. (This time, he even did it without the support of the DGA, elbowing Guild nominee Paul Greengrass out of the lineup.) “Nebraska,” however, is a softer contender than its two predecessors: the morosely monochrome father-son dramedy is the lowest-grossing on the Best Picture nominees, and didn't exactly storm the critics' circle. Payne's strictly a fifth wheel this time, but if his invisible campaign is any indication, the native Nebraskan is okay with that.

Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
Around the time “12 Years a Slave” drove pundits in Toronto and Telluride to premature declarations of a cut-and-dried Best Picture race, much was made of British artist-turned-auteur potentially becoming the first black filmmaker to win the Best Director award. That this narrative has gone rather quiet in the latter stages of the season is partly because Cuarón has emerged as such a strong frontrunner, but largely because McQueen, to his immense credit, hasn't played ball. Rather like Kathryn Bigelow in the year of “The Hurt Locker,” director has strenuously avoided representing himself as his demographic, or as a cause case, conducting himself with reserved intelligence throughout his campaign, mostly content to let his work speak for itself. It does, and it'll get a lot of votes — but, as in every major head-to-head contest this season, probably not quite enough. (Check out our interview with McQueen here.)

Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
It's funny to think back to the time when the Academy's resistance to Martin Scorsese was a source of great vexation to cinephiles. Now, with Scorsese having scored nominations for five of his last six features (winning once), the director everyone seems to chummily call “Marty” is on the verge of seeming — dare I say it — overrewarded. He clearly had a great time making this fast and furious adaptation of corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort's Wall Street memoirs, and many critics have delighted in what they perceive as a “GoodFellas”-channeling relaxation of the veteran's craft. Still, it's hardly his most formally rigorous or personally revealing work, and for every viewer who revels in its excesses, there's one (and within the Academy, probably more than one) who finds its a morally problematic indulgence. Scorsese may yet win another Oscar, but it won't be for this. (Check out our interview with Scorsese here.)

Will win: Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”
Could win: Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
Should win: Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”
Should have been here: Park Chan-wook, “Stoker”

There may be disagreement over the merits of this field, but there's little denying that it's a throughly auteurist-minded one: with no coattailing journeyman directors along for the ride this year, there's little possibility of misidentifying any one nominee's style. Still, it could have been richer still: it'd have been lovely to see Spike Jonze welcomed back into the fold this year, or a loose-cannon nod for Abdellatif Kechiche. (My own most-missed pick, of course, was never in the running.)

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How do you think this race will pan out, and is there a contender you wish were here? Share your thoughts in the comments.