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Oscars: Breaking Down the Best Director Category (Analysis)

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.

Writer-Directors

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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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.