By Jeremy Martin

This awards season has brought an interesting match-up in the Best Director category, pitting a formerly married couple against one another. James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow were briefly married from 1989-1991, and in that time Cameron made “The Abyss” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” while Bigelow made “Blue Steel” and “Point Break.” Both those Cameron films remain benchmarks in the evolution of special effects and Bigelow’s “Point Break” is an action as well as a cult classic. From there, the directors’ career paths diverged quite a bit. Until now. In 2009, they both made films that have put them back in the spotlight.

It’s shaping up to be an intriguing race not only because of the competitors’ relationship, but also because the two films couldn’t be more different. “Avatar” is a polished landscape of pure fantasy that, by some reports, cost nearly half a million dollars to make, yet is already on track to become the most successful film in history. “The Hurt Locker,” by contrast, is a gritty, devastatingly realistic war drama made on a shoestring budget that has succeeded where so many other Iraq War dramas have failed – it’s found an audience and has people talking. It could easily go down as that conflict’s classic statement. This generation’s “Platoon,” if you will.

In terms of awards, Cameron just took home the Golden Globe Award for Best Director and Best Picture, “Avatar.” Bigelow and her film, “The Hurt Locker,” were nominated in the same categories. Though she lost out at the Globes, Bigelow has won numerous Critics Circle awards, including the prestigious National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Director and Best Picture (she is also a producer on “Hurt Locker”). With that, it seems fair to say that we will be seeing the pair up against each other once again come Oscar time. And each has an equally good chance at taking home the golden stature. Even the notoriously pompous Cameron himself considers it anyone’s race – after winning the Best Director Golden Globe, he admitted that he thought Bigelow would win.

That the two should find themselves here makes a certain amount of sense. Both are action-oriented directors who seem to choose their projects carefully. They’ve each made only a handful of films in the past 20 years or so. Bigelow has made only five other films between “The Hurt Locker” and her breakthrough, “Near Dark,” in 1987 (the others being: “Blue Steel,” “Point Break,” “Strange Days,” “The Weight of Water,” and “K-19: The Widowmaker”). Not counting documentaries, Cameron also has made just five other films between “Avatar” and his own breakthrough, “The Terminator,” in 1984 (his others being: “Aliens,” “The Abyss,” “Terminator 2,” “True Lies,” and “Titanic”). In addition to being choosy, both directors have a reputation for being perfectionists, and no matter what you think of them, both make films that you remember. Through very different means, when watching either of their latest films – You. Are. There. They ensure that the audience feels every bit of the action.

So who should win? On some levels the films are so fundamentally different that it seems silly to argue. Oscar history isn’t much help here as precedents for both types of films have been set. One could cite “The Deer Hunter,” or again, “Platoon,” in support of grim war pictures such as the “The Hurt Locker.” But then one could also cite “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” or Cameron’s own “Titanic” in support of epic effects pictures like “Avatar.”

But there’s one precedent that the Academy has yet to set: awarding the Best Director stature to a woman. And now is the perfect opportunity. Only three other women have even been nominated as Best Director: Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties” back in the 70s, more recently Jane Campion for “The Piano” and Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation.” And let me say first and foremost that, gender aside, “The Hurt Locker” is superbly directed. Still, at the risk of sounding sexist (but let’s face it, Hollywood is sexist) I don’t think anyone would have expected a film of non-stop testosterone and adrenaline like “The Hurt Locker” to have been directed by a woman.

Cameron’s had his day, even though yes, “Avatar,” ups the ante and leaves “Titanic” in its dust. But are we really that surprised? Isn’t this what we’ve come to expect from him? “The Hurt Locker,” on the other hand, probably comes as a complete surprise to anyone unfamiliar with Bigelow’s background as an action director. It’s a rare opportunity for the Academy to have its cake and eat it too. They can make history by finally awarding a girl the Best Director Oscar, and then privately tell themselves it’s okay because she made a guy’s movie. Make no mistake, though, Bigelow’s directing is superb and “The Hurt Locker” is a film that speaks to our times and deserves to win. Put the two in a time capsule and a hundred years from now, which is more representative of our world at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century? Not of how we wished it could be, but how it was. How it is.