Oscars: Breaking Down the Best Director Category (Analysis)

11:00 AM PST 12/05/2013 by Gregg Kilday
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"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.

Auteurs at Large

Americana -- from the antebellum south to the Disney studios during Walt's heyday to the lonely expanses of the Midwest states -- attracted the attention of a wildly diverse group of filmmakers. The British-born Steve McQueen chose to take an uncompromising view of American slavery in 12 Years a Slave, his third feature film -- in part because he felt no American filmmaker had done the subject justice. Coming off the success of 2009's Oscar-nominated The Blind Side, John Lee Hancock decided to focus his attention in Saving Mr. Banks on a fateful visit that P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, made to Los Angeles in 1961, when Walt Disney was trying to convince her to sign over the rights to her character so that he could make a movie. Adopting a black-and-white palette, Alexander Payne returned to his home state and neighboring Montana in Nebraska, in which Bruce Dern stars as an ornery old codger who reunites with family and old friends as he pursues a Don Quixote-like quest for a fortune he's convinced he won in a sweepstakes. By contrast, in John Wells' August: Osage County, which takes place in Oklahoma, it's an ornery mom, played by Meryl Streep, who makes life difficult for her extended clan, which comes together to search for their missing dad.

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Two Canadian directors who hail from Quebec offer their own perspectives on American life. In Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve follows the intersecting paths of a detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a father (Hugh Jackman) when two children go missing. And his countryman Jean-Marc Vallee heads to the Texas of the 1980s for Dallas Buyers Club, which tells the true story of how a straight roustabout who contracted AIDS fought the medical establishment.

The action shifts to South Africa in Justin Chadwick's Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The U.K.-born director recounts the life of freedom fighter and eventual president of South Africa Nelson Mandela, as embodied by Idris Elba.

And just to lighten up the mood, Ben Stiller, directing himself, offers a fresh take on James Thurber's classic The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

The Oscar Winners

A handful of this season's best director Oscar hopefuls already have been there, done that -- which doesn't mean they wouldn't welcome another walk back up to the winner's podium.

Within that select group, the most recent recipients are the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who took home the gold for 2007's No Country for Old Men, one of the darker movies to prevail at the Oscars in recent years. This time, they've tapped a gentler vein with their Inside Llewyn Davis, a trip back in time to the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early '60s, which captured the grand jury prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

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The year before the Coens' victory, Martin Scorsese was named best director for The Departed -- an honor that was a long time coming for the celebrated director, since it was his sixth directing nomination -- he's since been nominated again for 2011's Hugo. Scorsese's current film, The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as high-flying stock swindler Jordan Belfort, was postponed from an originally planned Nov. 15 release to a Christmas Day opening. And so, it's the last major contender to throw its hat into the ring -- but with Scorsese at the helm of the nearly three-hour movie, attention will be paid.

Ron Howard, who earned his directing Oscar for the 2001 drama A Beautiful Mind, about the eccentric intellectual John Nash, has switched gears. He's come up with a more visceral fact-based drama, Rush, which also functions as something of a high-octane action pic as it traces the careers and rivalry of Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

At 78, Woody Allen is the real veteran among previous Oscar winners. He was named best director for 1977's Annie Hall, and since then, he has received six more directing nominations, most recently for 2011's Midnight in Paris. Blue Jasmine is his bid to take home a second -- not that he plans to attend.

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