Oscars: Breaking Down the Best Director Category (Analysis)

"12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen

Cuaron or Coogler? Woody or Wells? With no one filmmaker yet to establish himself or herself as frontrunner, Oscar voters face an abundance of options in an unusually crowded market.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Hitmakers

Directing a genuine blockbuster doesn't automatically secure awards laurels -- in fact, it can be an obstacle in a season that lavishes praise on "little movies." Still, as both James Cameron (Titanic) and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) have demonstrated, commercial success can go hand in hand with a directing Oscar. At this point, the box-office champ among 2013's awards hopefuls is Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. The 3D space odyssey has gone into orbit at theaters around the world. The survival tale, starring Sandra Bullock as an endangered astronaut trying to get back down to Earth, has grossed $249.7 million domestically and $615.3 million worldwide. It currently ranks sixth among the year's top grossers, although that ranking is bound to change once a couple of other movies such as Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug invade the multiplex this December.

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Baz Luhrmann -- who, like Cuaron, has yet to secure a directing Academy Award nomination -- also beat box-office expectations this year with an eye-popping 3D movie. The Great Gatsby, released in May as it opened the Cannes Film Festival, collected $144.8 million in North America but exceeded that number internationally to take home $348.8 million worldwide.

Paul Greengrass, who can boast an Oscar directing nom for 2006's United 93, returned to another tense hijacking that became an international incident for his latest film, Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks. Domestically, the film entered the $100 million club over the weekend of Nov. 22, and its domestic total currently stands at $102.7 million, while it has notched $188.7 million worldwide. Lee Daniels also has earned a place among top-earners with his $30 million-budgeted Lee Daniels' The Butler, which looks at the civil rights movement as witnessed by one man, a servant at the White House. Reaching out to a wide audience, the movie has collected $115.6 million domestically, $155.9 million worldwide.


Whether working alone or with a writing partner, plenty of this year's directors put pen to paper -- or fingers to keyboard -- before they even stepped on the set. Woody Allen, of course, always writes his own screenplays. And Alfonso Cuaron worked with his son Jonas on the screenplay they devised for Gravity.

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When it comes to the award for shortest screenplay, J.C. Chandor takes that one, hands down. Before embarking on All Is Lost, his virtually dialogue-free account of one man's battle with the sea, he wrote a screenplay that ran just 31 pages. But those 31 pages were enough to convince Robert Redford to set sail on the project.

David O. Russell, on the other hand, took a screenplay written by Eric Warren Singer and gave it an extensive rewrite until he ended up with American Hustle, his mosaic about cons all out to con each other. His shooting script ran 176 pages.

Richard Linklater found himself in familiar company as he sat down with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke to decide where life should take the characters the actors first played in 1995's Before Sunrise. In Before Midnight, the French-American couple find themselves married and vacationing in Greece as they confront their relationship.

Adapting a novel by Joyce Maynard, Jason Reitman, directing his fifth feature in Labor Day, also found himself exploring a fraught relationship, one forged over the course of a weekend by Kate Winslet, playing a single mom, and Josh Brolin as a convict on the run.

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Love also is at the center of Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said. The lone woman in the running for directing honors this season, Holofcener zeroed in on two divorced individuals -- played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini -- who discover they just might be made for each other. Working in an even more imaginative realm, Spike Jonze dreamt up Her, a slightly futuristic tale of a man who falls in love with his computer's operating system.

Meanwhile, the economic depression casts its pall over Out of the Furnace, which director Scott Cooper co-wrote with Brad Ingelsby, about two brothers who become entangled in a crime ring. And working from the true story of Oscar Grant, a young man gunned down by BART officers, first-time feature filmmaker Ryan Coogler wrote and directed Fruitvale Station.

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