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Oscar Breakdown: Best Director

This year's nominees: An old master who made a vibrant film, a younger master who made one in black-and-white, a Mexican and a Brit plus a guy who has now been nominated in this category in three of the last four years.

Oscar Contenders Directors Split - H 2014
AP Images

Prior to the 86th Oscars on March 2, THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg will present an eight-part series of posts breaking down the key facts and figures pertaining to each of the "big eight" Oscar categories. (For his predictions, see the weekly "Feinberg Forecast" post.) This post focuses on the best director Oscar race. And the nominees are...

For his deft direction of one of the most ambitious undertakings in cinematic history, Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron received his first Oscar nomination in this category this year. While it is true that the Mexican filmmaker did not personally create or apply the technology and visual effects that make his space-set drama so awe-inspiring, he did have to captain a ship of hundreds of the people who did, while still guiding emotional performances from stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and that must have been no easy feat. For his efforts, he has been awarded best director prizes from the DGA (which has predicted the best director Oscar winner on all but seven occasions over the last 65 years), BAFTA, Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and LA Film Critics Association.

12 Years a Slave is a completely different sort of film, except that it also posed great challenges for its helmer, Steve McQueen, who is also a best director Oscar nominee this year for the first time. Working in the sweltering heat of Louisiana, with a group of mostly non-Americans, to tell the story of the most shameful institution in American history, slavery -- which Mrs. McQueen had called to his attention -- the Brit had only one camera with which to shoot his entire film over the course of 35 days. The deeply moving final product has garnered him the best director prize from the New York Film Critics Circle and DGA, Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and BAFTA noms. He has a still-pending Independent Spirit nom, as well.

Alexander Payne has been in this situation before: he was previously nominated for best director for Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011). This year, the soft-spoken midwesterner is nominated for Nebraska, a film that is a road movie (like the former) about a family in disarray (like the latter) that stars people who are great actors but far from A-listers (like the former). Many love its old-fashioned humor and feel, which is only further evoked by its black-and-white cinematography. Payne received a Golden Globe nomination en route to his Oscar nom and has a still-pending Independent Spirit nom, as well.

Remarkably, David O. Russell is up for his third best director nom in four years -- the others coming for The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) -- for his dramedy American Hustle, which reunites him with almost all of the stars of those previous two films. There could be no greater testament to this man's standing as the ultimate actors' director of today than the fact that he has now directed back-to-back films that scored noms in all four acting categories -- only 13 other films have ever managed that feat. Russell has already been recognized this year with DGA, BAFTA, Critics' Choice and Golden Globe noms.

And, at 71, Martin Scorsese is the veteran of this group -- he already has under his belt seven other best director noms and one win, for The Departed (2006) -- but you wouldn't know it from The Wolf of Wall Street, a vibrant and anarchic film that has become his most commercially successful release ever. It is his fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio (only three fewer than he has made with Robert De Niro), and many would argue their best yet. Scorsese has already been recognized with DGA, BAFTA and Critics' Choice noms this year.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg