Ring leader

This year's best director race features a number of battle-tested Oscar heavyweights.

He was the front-runner, the all-but-certain Oscar winner, the man widely acknowledged as America's greatest living filmmaker, who mysteriously had never taken home a directing statuette. But somehow, Martin Scorsese lost his chance at a best director Oscar for the fifth time at the 77th Academy Awards. Scorsese's film, 2004's "The Aviator," a sweeping biopic about the young Howard Hughes starring Leonardo DiCaprio, had earned great respect among Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters, but it was Clint Eastwood's $30 million boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" they deemed the more impressive directorial achievement, leaving many cineastes to wonder if Scorsese would ever take home the coveted gold statuette in the category.

Judging from the way the Oscar race for director is shaping up, the pair appears poised for a rematch. Scorsese's blistering cops-and-crooks epic, Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," has become one of the year's most widely admired films (and the director's highest-grossing picture to date, with more than $119 million in receipts at press time). But Eastwood has helmed not one but two critically acclaimed films: Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers" and Warners' "Letters From Iwo Jima," both of which depict the circumstances surrounding the famous World War II battle but from opposite sides of the conflict.

By late December, "Letters" appeared to have gained an edge with critics and other awards groups -- the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. named it the year's best film -- but it is premature to rule out "Flags," which was generally perceived as a lock for a nomination as soon as it went into production.

Eastwood also was nominated as director for both films at the Golden Globes, an extraordinary indication of his popularity.

Of course, Scorsese and Eastwood aren't the only filmmakers in contention. The Academy announces its nominations Jan. 23, and writer-director Bill Condon is a likely bet for Paramount/DreamWorks "Dreamgirls," though his chances looked somewhat less than certain after he was bypassed at the Globes. Condon previously was nominated in the adapted screenplay category for 1998's "Gods and Monsters" and 2002's "Chicago" -- he won the Oscar for his script for the former, which he also directed -- but this would mark his first nomination in the director race.

With those three directors almost certain to receive nominations, a host of admired filmmakers are in contention for the remaining two slots. Foremost among them is Stephen Frears, the veteran British director of Miramax's "The Queen," who has been relatively absent from the Hollywood scene for several years (his last American film was 2000's "High Fidelity"). Insiders think Frears is guaranteed a nomination given that his picture continues to build awards-season momentum on the back of Helen Mirren's Oscar-worthy lead performance, but the larger question is whether Frears can win for a rather low-key film that deliberately eschews the flamboyance of some of the other best picture hopefuls.

For his part, Frears has said that he feels the film's strength lies in its subtlety: He and his production team consciously chose to avoid anything too overtly sensational in their depiction of the way the royal family and British Prime Minister Tony Blair reacted to Princess Diana's untimely death and carefully researched historical events to present a fair and accurate portrait of what might have gone on behind the palace walls in the wake of that tragedy.

Another European director who had to grapple with the right way to handle arguably more sensitive subject matter, Paul Greengrass should be a serious contender for Universal's "United 93," which recounts in real time the events that took place onboard one of the planes that crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. The LAFCA named Greengrass director of the year, but his odds for a nomination might be somewhat compromised since a number of Academy voters have expressed reluctance to watch the film because of its emotionally harrowing content.

Oliver Stone might find himself in a similar situation with his Sept. 11 film, Paramount's "World Trade Center," though the director was praised for his restrained, patriotic take on the material, which was based on the real-life experiences of two Port Authority officers who were trapped under the rubble of the twin towers but managed to survive.

Emilio Estevez is in the running for a nomination for a third film based on recent history, MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Bobby," which offers a complex look at the lives of people who were present at the Ambassador Hotel the day Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Having Harvey Weinstein orchestrating a film's Oscar campaign certainly never hurts a director's chances, but Estevez has won plenty of acclaim all on his own for managing such a complicated multipart narrative.

The work of a number of international filmmakers is garnering plenty of attention this year, which means that one of the acclaimed directors behind some of the season's best films might wind up earning a nomination. Pedro Almodovar, perhaps the most audacious European director since Federico Fellini, is back in contention with Sony Pictures Classics' "Volver," which has been widely hailed as one of the director's best films. Almodovar's 1999 film "All About My Mother" garnered the best foreign-language Oscar, and he took home the original screenplay statuette for 2002's "Talk to Her." In a wide-open year, it is impossible to rule out this genuine auteur as a contender in the directing category.

Additionally, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is being touted for Paramount Vantage's "Babel," which took on added heft after leading the pack in the Globe nominations. Alfonso Cuaron is being pushed for Universal's "Children of Men," and Guillermo del Toro has an outside chance at a nomination for Picturehouse's Spanish-language fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth." While "Babel" is still at the forefront of Oscar hopefuls, "Children" and "Labyrinth" face something of an uphill struggle despite the talents of the men behind the camera: Both have genre elements, either science fiction or horror, which typically leave Academy voters cold.

Apart from Frears and Greengrass, several other British helmers could receive nominations, all for Fox Searchlight films: Nicholas Hytner for "The History Boys," his adaptation of Alan Bennett's Tony Award-winning play; Richard Eyre for his Judi Dench/Cate Blanchett starrer "Notes on a Scandal"; and Kevin Macdonald for "The Last King of Scotland," about Idi Amin's relationship with a young Scottish doctor. Australia's Phillip Noyce also is a possibility for Focus Features' apartheid-era drama "Catch a Fire."

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris could prove the only directing duo to be nominated in Oscar history if a fourth Searchlight movie, "Little Miss Sunshine," is recognized this year, but they will be competing for recognition against filmmakers responsible for weightier dramas. Todd Field's second film, New Line's "Little Children," has received attention for its depiction of suburban angst. Robert De Niro is earning buzz for his work behind the camera on Universal's CIA drama "The Good Shepherd," as is Edward Zwick for Warners' Africa-set "Blood Diamond."

The biggest question mark in the category, however, looms over Mel Gibson for his ultraviolent Buena Vista release "Apocalypto," which has received praise for its impressive filmmaking technique (though not so much for its high body count). Still, it remains far from clear whether critical plaudits will translate into Oscar votes.

Many voters interviewed for this article said they had resisted seeing the movie as much because of its violence as because of objections to Gibson himself, who remains a controversial figure in the industry -- both for his outspoken nature and for his brush with the law this past summer. The studio is hoping viewers will be able to judge "Apocalypto" on its own merits, though; if they do decide to deem Gibson's achievement worthy of a nomination, the fast-approaching Oscars could honor the most eclectic group of directors in recent memory.