A Directors Who's Who
The small circle of men, and just one woman, who have won Oscars as Best Director comprise one of the most exclusive clubs in Hollywood. And this year, the competition to break into the club couldn't be stiffer. No film is yet a dominant front-runner, and it's generally agreed that the array of competing movies couldn't be stronger. Some directors are playing to their strengths -- Kathryn Bigelow is again waging war, while Peter Jackson has returned to Middle Earth. And some, like Sam Mendes taking on a license to kill, have struck out in surprising new directions. With so many movies to watch and time running short -- Academy voting starts Dec. 17 -- here's a guide to what each filmmaker is bringing to the table.
Life of Pi
A protean filmmaker who never seems to repeat himself, his newest work couldn't be more different from 2005's Brokeback Mountain, the gay love story for which he won a directing Oscar. For much of the film, there's nothing but a boat, a neophyte actor and a CG tiger, all shot in 3D -- and yet somehow, he makes the fable work.
The Academy loves actors turned directors -- think Redford, Beatty, Eastwood -- and he showed he belongs in their company with his third feature, combining a meticulous re-creation of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis with sharp inside-Hollywood jabs. Audiences love it, too: It has grossed $100 million domestically.
A polio survivor himself, he helps his audience discover inspiration in his recounting of the real-life story of Mark O'Brien, a poet and advocate for the disabled who set out to lose his virginity at age 38 despite being confined to an iron lung. Sundance audiences applauded.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Talk about the triumph of the human spirit: His film, set in the Mississippi Delta, is arguably the most original imaginative work of the year, winning kudos on the festival scene ever since it was unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival and introducing moviegoers to the irrepressible Quvenzhane Wallis, who was just 6 when she first stepped in front of his cameras.
The Dark Knight Rises
His third Batman movie achieved a grand operatic finale (and grossed more than $1 billion worldwide) as he brought the saga of Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne to its end while introducing seductive, new characters such as Anne Hathaway's Catwoman.
Not Fade Away
At 67, he's no newcomer. Since he began writing for Kolchak: The Night Stalker in the '70s, graduated to producing with The Rockford Files and then in 1999 created The Sopranos, the seven-time Emmy winner has been a major force in TV. But he never before directed a feature until this nostalgic look at the rock music of his youth as filtered through a New Jersey garage band.
DAVID O. RUSSELL
Silver Linings Playbook
Proving his first Oscar directing nomination for 2010's The Fighter was no fluke, he shifted from dysfunctional family drama to dysfunctional family comedy with this crowd-pleaser, a hit on the fall festival circuit and winner of the audience award in Toronto.
Never an actor to sit and passively wait for a director to tell him what to do, it's safe to say his fingerprints are on any number of scenes in his dozens of films, for which he's already won two acting Oscars. But this is the first time he's formally assumed the directorial reins, fittingly tackling a story about showbiz folks -- in this case, former opera singers and musicians in a proper British retirement home.
GUS VAN SANT
Constantly shifting between smaller, experimental films and more mainstream subject matter, here he reunites with his Good Will Hunting star Matt Damon for a drama that aims to focus attention on the controversial practice of extracting natural gas by fracking.
Reteaming with his Atonement muse Keira Knightley, he's tackled an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel with the help of playwright Tom Stoppard. But he's also decided to reinvent the rules by staging it all as a heightened theatrical exercise.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
The director of best picture winner Shakespeare in Love knows how to juggle a large cast of scene-stealing British veterans, headed by frequent collaborator Judi Dench, to tell the tale of retirees discovering a new lease on life in India.
JUAN ANTONIO BAYONA
The Spanish director staged a virtual tsunami of his own in order to tell the true story of a married couple and their three children, torn apart when that massive wall of water swept ashore in 2004 at the Thai resort where they were spending their Christmas holiday.
This Is 40
With the aid of his wife, Leslie Mann, as well as their daughters Maude and Iris, he concocted a veritable home movie -- at least the kind of home movie you'd make about upper-middle-class life on the Westside of L.A. if you happen to be a comedy kingpin.
Zero Dark Thirty
For 2009's The Hurt Locker, she became the first woman to win the best director Oscar but has barely rested on her laurels, enlisting with Locker writer Mark Boal in a campaign to bring the hunt for Osama bin Laden to the screen. The movie hits theaters Dec. 19, but the New York Film Critics Circle has already saluted.
Already an Oscar winner for 2009's The White Ribbon, the Austrian filmmaker triumphed once again this year at Cannes with his newest drama, a rigorous look at the ravages of age that stars two French acting legends, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, at their most luminous.
PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON
It's been five years since his There Will Be Blood collected seven Oscar noms, and he confounded all expectations with his newest film, another exploration into the more extreme corners of the American experience. Advance word claimed it would be about Scientology, but he delivered a mysterious character study rooted in the post-World War II era.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
He dominated the Oscars in 2004, when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won all 11 trophies for which it was nominated. Now he's back in the Shire, conjuring up the first part of a new trilogy that not only sports the latest 3D but also higher frame rates.
Is the Academy ready for his riff on slavery in the antebellum South, complete with violent flourishes borrowed from Italian Westerns? Well, they said his Inglourious Basterds would be too off-putting, but the film scored eight noms and a win for Christoph Waltz, who also stars here.
After a decade-long detour into motion capture, Zemeckis returned to live action with this Denzel Washington drama. But the director, whose Forrest Gump swept the 1995 Oscars, also can't resist scaring the bejesus out of his audience with a terrifying plane crash just as in 2000's Cast Away.
A writer on Spielberg's The Terminal and an award-winning documentary filmmaker (2008's Anvil! The Story of Anvil), he made the jump into feature directing with this autopsy of the relationship between master director Alfred Hitchcock and his supportive wife, Alma. If he needed inspiration, he didn't have to look far -- part of the job required him to re-create the scene surrounding Psycho.
A winner for 1999's American Beauty, he made a name for himself mostly with quiet, actor-driven meditations on society, but this year, he busted out with Bond, James Bond that is. The 23rd 007 caper has grossed more than $868 million worldwide and could become the first film in the series to stake some real claims at Oscar time.
He keeps talking about getting out of movies, but the movies keep pulling him back in -- in this case a collaboration with actor Channing Tatum that was one of the year's most unexpected critical and popular hits, grossing $166 million worldwide.
The winner of two directing Oscars -- for 1999's Schindler's List and 1998's Saving Private Ryan -- he tapped into the political zeitgeist by going back in history to study Abraham Lincoln's political skills. President Obama, who watched it at the White House, is the movie's biggest fan.
Singing was one trick George VI used to cure his stutter in Hooper's previous film, The King's Speech, for which he won the Oscar in 2011. For his next trick, the director decided to tackle a completely sung-through musical, an adaptation of the hit Les Miserables, which should have fans storming the multiplex.
TOM TYKWER & THE WACHOWSKIS
To borrow a wisecrack from Thelma Ritter's character in All About Eve: "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end!" But credit the German director and his two American co-conspirators for creating the year's most audacious movie. Their $100 million gamble, which intercuts between five separate stories from David Mitchell's novel while reshuffling the deck by using the same actors from tale to tale, exhilarated some and mystified others. While it's found only $26 million in the U.S., much of its worldwide rollout is still to come.
His motto could be: Round up the usual eccentrics. Relying on some of his go-to actors like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman and surprising draftees like Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton, he concocted a New England-set midsummer night's dream about young love that has delighted audiences since it debuted in Cannes.