Perhaps the most confusing race in Oscar history is taking place in the Best Director category.

Ordinarily, the front-runner in this category matches the lead horse in the Best Picture race. The trouble this year is that the most likely Best Picture winner, Argo, does not have its director nominated in a puzzling snub that can only be explained in this manner.

But enough about those who did not get nominated, there are five worthy candidates in the running for directing’s top prize and it’s an interesting mix of directing legends and independent newcomers whose names barely resonate.

So how do we make sense of this puzzling race? We don’t. But we can try…
 

Michael Haneke for Amour

MichaelHanekeRoadToOscars

Telling a delicate story with such precision and care is a monumental task for any director and Haneke does it with such ease that it’s almost as if the film directed itself. Staying out of the way, and letting the story unfold through is actors, Haneke creates a very intimate film environment that makes a small story large through the quiet moments he lets breathe.

Pacing does become an issue in this film as it tends to labor at times, it’s a slight nitpick, but it’s one that firmly lies on the director’s head.

No matter how you look at it; however, this is still a very small foreign film that lacks the scope of the type of film that wins the director’s prize. Plus, voters have a spot to honor the film in the Foreign Language category, so they’ll look elsewhere here.
 

Ang Lee for Life of Pi

Netter_PI_1418R - Director Ang Lee on the set of LIFE OF PI

Of all the nominees, Lee’s film is the one that stands out as the singular work of its director. It’s a true vision with every bit of Lee’s art dominating the screen.

As the film has dominated the technical categories with no love whatsoever for the performers this Oscar season, it’s clear the Academy and the industry as a whole agrees with that assessment.

However, the film is similar in that regard to another effects-heavy behemoth, Avatar, which swept the tech awards but left its director without an Oscar.

That will likely happen here again to Lee, though I can’t think of a more worthy winner among these nominees.
 

David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook

DavidORussellRoadToOscars

Comedies rarely do well in this category, especially non-stylized comedies that focus on the characters as many make the mistake of thinking these types of films are more about the writing than they are the directing.

It’s a misconception for sure, but one that certainly diminishes Russell’s chances quite a bit, despite his deft handling of tone in a film that shuttles so gracefully yet manically between comedy, family drama and an authentic-feeling examination of mental illness. All that put on screen in a visual style that enhances the performances and draws the audience in from the film’s opening seconds.

Not bad for a little comedy directing, and just the type of directing that could allow Russell to overcome his genre.

He’s got that on his side along with the Weinstein’s Oscar machine at his back and a film that dominates with the largest voting bloc in the Academy (the actors). It’s enough to make him almost a favorite in this category. He’s probably still a bit on the outside, but he’s closing fast.
 

Steven Spielberg for Lincoln

StevenSpielbergRoadToOscars

The old war horse (see what I did there?) in this category, enjoying his seventh nomination in this category and his first since Munich eight years ago.

On Oscar morning, after the shocking snubs of Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck, Spielberg appeared the clear winner by default: All his main competition was gone and he was left alone among a mixed bag of small films and the type of movies that don’t usually win.

However, nothing further has happened to strengthen his case since that nomination. He’s picked up absolutely no awards since the nomination, at least none of any consequence, as Ben Affleck has dominated the post-nomination awards giving Spielberg absolutely no steam going into big night.

Criticism of Spielberg also began to bubble up and justifiably so. The film languishes so much as Spielberg fails to turn Tony Kushner’s speeches into much of a forward-moving story. Were it not for Day-Lewis’ startling transformation, the movie could have felt very flat and who knows if Spielberg would even be here.

As it stands, I still make him the favorite, but this category is so scattered that he’s probably the weakest favorite in any major category this year.
 

Benh Zetilin for Beasts of the Southern Wild

BenhZeitlinRoadToOscars

The most puzzling inclusion on this list, so much so that it may have been a case of mistaken Bens.

Zeitlin went from absolutely obscurity to an Oscar nomination with his first feature film. It’s certainly not unheard of and even possible to win as Sam Mendes did with American Beauty in 1999.

That, however, was for a studio picture with a ton of buzz. Zeitlin pulled off the feat with a tiny indie that peaked in festival season. His nomination is confusing at best.

The film itself is a mess of clashing styles, over-reliance on voiceover and ridiculous tonal inconsistencies that it feels like it was directed by fourteen different people making fourteen different films. Not exactly the work the merits an Oscar for its director.

While this category has a lot of confusion, one thing’s for sure: Zeitlin won’t also win with his first nomination.

 

Road to the Oscars Series

January 14: Best Visual Effects – Ian Murphy

January 16: Best Sound Editing – Ian Murphy

January 18: Best Sound Mixing – Michael Benedict

January 21: Best Cinematography – Scott Youngbauer

January 23: Best Costume Design – Ian Murphy

January 25: Best Makeup and Hairstyling – Rebecca Susmarski

January 28: Best Film Editing – Dan Schindel

January 30: Best Production Design – Scott Youngbauer

February 1: Best Animated Feature – Carlos Aguilar

February 4: Best Documentary Feature – Dan Schindel

February 7: Best Documentary Short Subject – Dan Schindel

February 8: Best Live Action Short – Carlos Aguilar

February 9: Best Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 10: Best Foreign Language Film – Carlos Aguilar

February 11: Best Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 12: Best Original Song – Adam Spunberg

February 13: Best Original Screenplay – Dan Schindel

February 14: Best Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Best Supporting Actor – Angela Stern

February 17: Best Supporting Actress – Hiko Mitsuzuka

February 18: Best Actress – Andrew Payne

February 19: Best Actor – Kit Bowen

February 20: Best Director – Andrew Payne

February 21: Best Picture – Kit Bowen

February 24: 85th Annual Academy Awards