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The Best Director Race Experiences a Titanic Shakeup

With "Avatar: The Way of Water," James Cameron rushes into the race for the Best Director Oscar.

James Cameron

James Cameron attends the world premiere of “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Disney

This article contains IndieWire’s past Best Director predictions for the 2023 Oscars. We regularly update our predictions throughout awards season, and republish previous versions (like this one) for readers to track changes in how the Oscar race has changed. For the latest update on the frontrunners for the 95th Academy Awards, see our 2023 Oscars predictions hub.

We keep updating these predictions through the awards season, so keep checking IndieWire for all our 2023 Oscar picks. Nominations voting is from January 12 to January 17, 2023, with official Oscar nominations announced on January 24, 2023. The final voting is March 2 through 7, 2023.  And finally, the 95th Oscars telecast will be broadcast on Sunday, March 12 and air live on ABC at 8:00 p.m. ET/ 5:00 p.m. PT.

Our Awards Editor, TV & Film Marcus Jones joins Editor at Large Anne Thompson on the latest Oscars Predictions updates. See their previous thoughts on what to expect at the 95th Academy Awards here.

The State of the Race

The Best Director race seems poised to buck a few recent trends. While the last five years have seen a rise in wins for women and international directors, the current frontrunners are veterans who have won the Oscar in this category before.

Back in the fray is “Titanic” winner James Cameron, whose long-awaited follow-up to Oscar-winner “Avatar,” “The Way of Water” is wowing early audiences with a dazzling and intense mix of family drama, blissful underwater worlds, and war movie fare. In a year of big swings, the follow-up to the most successful film of all time could soar to the top of a stacked category, and knock “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Ryan Coogler’s global blockbuster for Marvel Studios, out of contention across the board.

Another veteran, Steven Spielberg, the maestro of American filmmaking, is Cameron’s main competition. “The Fabelmans,” his auto-fictional retelling of the hectic home life that shaped him into an artist not only won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, one of the more reliable Best Picture predictors, it also brought down the house at its U.S. premiere at AFI Fest in Los Angeles.

Though directors James Gray, Sam Mendes, and fellow two-time winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu have all generated Oscar buzz with their respective looks into their personal lives, “Armageddon Time,” “Empire of Light,” and “Bardo,” they are less likely to crack into the category.

Also in the recovering arthouse theater space, Todd Field’s “TÁR” and Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” two fall film festival favorites, have been generating a notable amount of box office returns and critics’ kudos, winning both Best Film and Actress at the recent New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Martin McDonagh took home Best Screenplay. Field and McDonagh have been nominated in the writing categories multiple times, but have been overlooked for directing Best Picture nominees. This awards season should change that as they have made two of the most fully realized and most-discussed films of the year.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 13: (L-R) Claire Foy, Sarah Polley, Jessie Buckley, and Rooney Mara attend the "Women Talking" Premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 13, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Claire Foy, Sarah Polley, Jessie Buckley, and Rooney Mara attend the “Women Talking” Premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival

Getty Images

The same could be said of Sarah Polley, another Best Adapted Screenplay nominee, who has the best chance of continuing the unprecedented streak of female Best Director nominees with her work on “Women Talking.” The incendiary film about a group of Mennonite women deciding how to deal with male sexual predators plaguing their colony aligns with many cultural conversations happening right now, and strikes a similar chord to “The Power of the Dog,” which just won the category, as well as Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which won Best Director in 2021.

As for the rest of the contender landscape, Damien Chazelle has maybe flown too close to the sun with “Babylon.” Although the orgiastic film is a feast for the craft categories, it will be an uphill battle for the recent winner to break into Best Director for the second time, in a year where even more recent past winners have delivered more celebrated work.

Though international directors have often broken into the Best Director category, as the Academy has become more global, there seem to be few viable options this year outside of recent winners like Guillermo del Toro (“Pinocchio”). The newcomer with the best shot of keeping that streak going right now may be S.S. Rajamouli, who recently got a boost from the NYFCC, and whose “RRR” (Variance Films) is now a must-see in Academy circles. If enough directors branch voters see the movie, they could recognize his extraordinary cinematic achievement.

Swedish director Ruben Östlund chances are now looking slim because while his film “Triangle of Sadness” did well at the box office, some Academy members, even if they admire his prior work “Force Majeure” and Oscar-nominated “The Square,” view the Palme d’Or winner as a gross-out comedy. Korean director Park Chan-wook took home the Cannes directing award for MUBI’s “Decision to Leave,” but its stylized film noir mise-en-scène and lack of emotion could be a negative for the film.

Not quite fitting any of the archetypes of recent Best Director nominees, but firmly on the bubble for a nomination, are Gina Prince-Bythewood and the Daniels, whose respective films “The Woman King” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” were two increasingly rare box office hits not based on any existing IP. The Academy has never nominated a Black woman for Best Director, and the category has never seen a Black winner either, so history works against the Africa-set historical epic filmmaker’s chances, but Prince-Bythewood was celebrated by the speakers onstage at the Governors Awards more than any other contender. A cosign from this year’s honorary Oscar winner Euzhan Palcy, who put “The Woman King” on her Sight and Sound poll, are gestures that have helped keep Prince-Bythewood on Academy voters’ radar.

Meanwhile “Everything Everywhere All at Once” shows no signs of losing momentum, with star Ke Huy Quan now elevated to the same Best Supporting Actor frontrunner status his co-star Michelle Yeoh has in the Best Actress category. The Directors branch and the DGA, which have plenty of overlap in members, have historically been extremely strict with how they judge the work of director duos with no familial relationship. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert may not overcome that bias, but their achievement may have gained enough recognition to persuade those voters to reconsider the issue.

Contenders are listed in alphabetical order, below. No director will be deemed a frontrunner until we have seen the film.

James Cameron (“Avatar: The Way of Water”)
Todd Field (“TÁR”)
Martin McDonagh (“The Banshees of Inisherin”)
Sarah Polley (“Women Talking”)
Steven Spielberg (“The Fabelmans”)

Damien Chazelle (“Babylon”)
Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”)
Guillermo del Toro (“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Bardo”)
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”)
Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King”)
S.S. Rajamouli (“RRR”)

Long Shots:
Darren Aronofsky (“The Whale”)
Noah Baumbach (“White Noise”)
Edward Berger (“All Quiet on the Western Front”)
Antoine Fuqua (“Emancipation”)
Oliver Hermanus (“Living”)
Rian Johnson (“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”)
Joseph Kosinski (“Top Gun: Maverick”)
Baz Luhrmann (“Elvis”)
Sam Mendes (“Empire of Light”)
Ruben Östlund (“Triangle of Sadness”)
Park Chan-wook (“Decision to Leave”)
Jordan Peele (“Nope”)
Charlotte Wells (“Aftersun”)

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