Put all five of these nominees before a jeweler and you will scarcely hear of flaws. Each of these directors — save the Coens, who count as one, like the Winklevii — represents a different kind of gem, so varied in temperament, yet epitomizing what technical achievement and artistic mastery should be about. Indeed, the only knock is that perhaps the finest offering of them all – Christopher Nolan’s Inception – was left out.

Still, 2010 presents an extraordinary assemblage of works, further signifying that while increases in special effects are inevitable, there is still plenty of raw talent out there. And that talent is being applied spectacularly toward award-worthy pictures – much to our delight and gain. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds … take your pick: this is one incredible group of nominees!

Darren Aronofksy is not a household name, but his prior work on Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler earned him hero’s status in some circles. This is his first Oscar nomination, which he more than earned with Black Swan. In some people’s eyes, Black Swan has been reduced to a steamy lesbian scene, some wickedly choreographed dance numbers, and an art house-film ending.

While all of those elements are present – and well-conceived – the real strength of his directing is in the tiny minutia. Whether it’s Natalie Portman staring at a dark reflection on the subway or a ballet company, run with so little regard for its ballerinas’ welfares that all kinds of depravity seem par for the course, Aronofsky’s disturbing needlework is ever present. For causing viewers to feel unsettled, confounded, and perhaps event vomit-induced, this nomination is extremely merited. The competition is just too steep, however, for him to come away with the prize.

David O. Russell is also new to the red carpet. His most notable work was probably in I Heart Huckabees, which, like The Fighter, featured Mark Wahlberg. Russell’s direction on The Fighter is truly exceptional, particularly because of the way he takes a well-stacked genre and reinvents it. Great boxing films are a dime a dozen, from Raging Bull, to Rocky, to Million Dollar Baby, to even Cinderella Man, yet somehow, The Fighter distinguishes itself as entirely original.

Aided by sensational performances from Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams, Russell drags you through the bowel of Lowell, Massachusetts, and from within this gritty, coarse, unrefined world emerges multidimensional characters worth liking and supporting. I loved his pacing, never piling on the sentiment, yet packing in some morsels of comedy when the movie most needs it. He won’t win the Oscar, but his nomination was more than justified. Fine, fine work.

And then there is Tom Hooper, who is also relatively unknown to most viewers. Watch out, world, because he is exploding onto the scene! I am proud to say that I am quite familiar with his work – though mostly by accident. I encourage any reader interested in period pieces to rent his Daniel Deronda or Love in a Cold Climate miniseries, along with the more famous, Emmy-winning Elizabeth I and John Adams. Pretty much everything Hooper has touched has turned out superbly, including the fascinating Longford, and his other major on-screen effort, The Damned United. Every listing in this paragraph oozes with quality.

Hooper looks poised to escape obscurity in grand fashion, as he has as good a chance as anyone with The King’s Speech. He already snagged the Director’s Guild Award, and with The King’s Speech chugging forward with a steamboat’s worth of momentum, you might call him a slight favorite. Never inundating the viewer with royal excess or rushed sequences, Hooper projected a barebones perspective on the glorious friendship between a king and his speech therapist. Some could argue that Hooper failed to do enough, but his restraint and devoted attention to character idiosyncrasy could very well land him the golden statue.

Hooper’s toughest challenger is David Fincher, who enters the coming year on a bit of a roll. Riding the success of Benjamin Button in 2008 and slated for the upcoming American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, everything is clicking into gear. Of course, bringing home an Oscar would only help the old mantelpiece.

Fincher seemed in terrific shape after seizing the Golden Globe, but losses in the DGA and SAG awards are extremely concerning. Furthermore, The Social Network – once a strong favorite – is scuffling right now. If this grand Facebook tale capsizes, so could Fincher, though some are speculating that he could still win, even if his movie falters in the Best Picture battle.

The Social Network is very much Fincher’s movie, and the fast-paced, new-age way in which it was shot can be entirely accredited to his interpretation of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. Three brilliant scenes stand out of particular note: in the beginning, when Zuckerberg squirrels through Cambridge with a self-created chip on his shoulder; when the Winklevoss twins puff the “Harvard code” in Larry Summers’ office; and when those same “Winklevii” compete in a rowing meet. The third of those struck me especially, as the extra time taken established the background and personalities of these twins, magnificently. For spinning brilliance out of such challenging subject matter, I give Fincher my personal endorsement.

The last contender is extremely familiar to Academy-watchers: the Coen brothers tagteam. True Grit marks yet another splendid reel from these talented siblings, and the respect Hollywood has for them is evident in their repeat nominations. Still, one wonders if this spot would have been better served on Christopher Nolan, who surely deserved a nomination for Inception.

Many have called True Grit an un-Coen-like movie, but I beg to differ. Some of the dark zaniness is sacrificed for the constructs of a more traditional Western, but their trademark style is still imprinted all over the work. Similar to their winning effort in No Country for Old Men, they apply meticulous detail to each scene. Nothing is mailed in, and everything is accounted for. Their depictions of the old country towns and unblemished landscapes were exemplary – as you might expect – and if True Grit is not their greatest film, there is still plenty to like. Just don’t expect them to have a prayer of winning, with Hooper and Fincher set up for an epic duel, Wild West of a showdown.

With the battle between Hooper and Fincher so close, I’ll off three tips of advice for pool participants:

1. If you have The Social Network for Best Picture, go with Fincher.

2. If you feel confident in The King’s Speech for Best Picture, pencil in Hooper.

3. If you’re leaning slightly towards The King’s Speech, but want to straddle the fence a bit, maybe consider cutting both ways and tapping Fincher for Best Director.

I should note, however, that the last time the Best Director’s movie did not win Best Picture was in 2005, and that – according to some – was because Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was robbed by homophobia. If you are going to hedge both sides, make sure you really think it over. And when the cameras hone in on the faces as the decision is being announced, give a hearty clap for all of them.

Adam Spunberg is a senior writer at Picktainment and founder of the Austen Twitter Project. Email him at adam@picktainment.com or tweet @AdamSpunberg.


Road to the Oscars Series:

January 27: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 29: Animated Short – Savanna New

January 31: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 1: Documentary Feature – Rebecca Rose

February 3: Foreign Language Film – Savanna New

February 4: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 7: Visual Effects – Ani Khashadoorian

February 9: Sound Mixing – Dennis Callahan

February 10: Sound Editing – Sasha Mitchell

February 11: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 12: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 13: Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 14: Costume – Jax Russo

February 15: Art Direction – Steve Neumann

February 16: Film Editing – Hannah Depew

February 17: Cinematography – William Paul Jones

February 18: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 19: Adapted Screenplay – Sasha Mitchell

February 20: Supporting Actress – Kacy Boccumini

February 21: Supporting Actor – Rebecca Rose

February 22: Actress – Rebecca Rose

February 23: Actor – Kit Bowen

February 24: Director – Adam Spunberg

February 25: Picture – Kit Bowen

February 27: The Academy Awards