The Best Director field this year is unique for its one oddity. It’s a field stacked with respected industry pros and Oscar veterans. From the highest of the mighty (Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese) to those with smaller resumes but a near-equal level of respect (Alexander Payne and Terrence Malick) this seems like it should be a battle of icons if not for one French newcomer set on crashing the party: Michel Hazanivicius. For a director to simply be included among this elite company should be a major honor, but to beat them? What would that mean? Well, I think Hazanavicius is about to find out, but before we make any predictions, let’s go over the nominees:

Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)A certifiable legend, Allen notches his seventh Best Director nomination for what many consider his true return to form: A light comedy bursting with more literary figures than the Algonquin Round Table modeled to deal with themes of idealization. A lot to throw together, but that’s just classic Woody. Here he did an excellent job balancing the light tone, different eras and dozens of moving parts in an elegant manner that allowed furthering his theme to be his primary focus in telling the film’s story. Altogether, this was a breezy comedy with the weight of a heavy gale, exactly as the Wood-man intended it. An excellent job, but given the film’s status as a comedy and Allen’s stature as a multiple winner and more of a writer, he likely won’t be honored for his efforts in this category.

Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) The only newcomer in this category is also its frontrunner. A lot to say considering the lofty company he joins on the ballot, but that’s just the type of year this is, and the type of movie The Artist is. Hazanavicius has won just about all the important precursor awards including the crucial DGA win. He’s got the Weinsteins running his campaign and the residual love for this film overall boosting it. Even with a field of legends, Hazanavicius is the one to beat.

Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) It’s crazy to say in a category that includes legends like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, but Terrence Malick is probably actually the most respected nominee on this list. Those in the industry are in absolute awe of this man and his work and are desperate to give him an Oscar eventually. The Tree of Life felt like the film where they might finally do it. It’s the most ambitious film that came out this year and Malick’s singular vision. However, I think the Academy is going to wait for a moment where Malick is an absolute slam dunk and the esoteric nature of this film probably left a few too many cold for this to be that anointing moment. His Oscar is coming, but not this year.

Alexander Payne (The Descendants) Only five films into his young career and already a second Best Director nomination for Payne. He’s not flashy with his films, but he does all the stuff that’s most important: He tells the story, he controls the tone, and he paces it expertly. All that was firing full-on with this film and it may be his most accomplished directorial work to date, though not his best film (that would be About Schmidt). The problem here is that flash, breadth and visuals seems to win out at the Oscars and there just isn’t much room for comedy directors who do all the harder stuff right. Payne will likely miss here, as voters mistakenly see this as a writer’s film only.

Martin Scorsese (Hugo) I’ve said this before on a couple of podcasts but it’s worth reiterating here because it’s important to note exactly how stupid The Oscars can be. If Martin Scorsese had not won an Oscar for The Departed he’d be one of the biggest locks in the history of The Academy Awards. Now that he’s nabbed an Oscar, he moves into the place of being the unlikely beneficiary if Hazanavicius falters. That is not likely to happen and Scorsese will be left with another non-winning nomination to go with his 474 others (approximately). Sometimes the Oscars are all about timing and even with some of the best reviews of his career, timing just isn’t on Scorsese’s side this year.

This category has a clear-cut favorite: Michel Hazanavicius. He has the precursors. He has the campaign. He has basically everything that led Tom Hooper to a win last year. Unlike Hooper, however, he doesn’t have an acclaimed director super-close to overtaking him. This seems like Hazanavicius in a walk. Just like most other things with The Artist this year.

Road to the Oscars Series

January 27: Best Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 31: Best Animated Short – Savanna New

February 1: Best Documentary Short – Christa Youngpeter

February 2: Best Documentary – Dantzler Smith

February 3: Best Foreign Language Film – Steve Neumann

February 4: Best Visual Effects – Michael Benedict

February 5: Best Sound Editing – Michael Benedict

February 6: Best Sound Mixing – Joseph Doherty

February 7: Best Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 8: Best Costume Design – Jax Russo

February 9: Best Art Direction – Scott Youngbauer

February 10: Best Film Editing – Michael Benedict

February 11: Best Cinematography – Scott Youngbauer

February 12: Best Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 13: Best Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 14: Best Animated Feature Film – Steve Neumann

February 15: Best Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Best Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Best Supporting Actor – Joseph Doherty

February 18: Best Supporting Actress – Angela Stern

February 20: Best Actress – Andrew Payne

February 21: Best Actor – Kit Bowen

February 22: Best Director – Andrew Payne

February 23: Best Picture – Kit Bowen