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First-Time Best Director Contenders Are Now Oscar Frontrunners

Several Oscar-nominated filmmakers that have never cracked the Best Director category are now likely to join Steven Spielberg in the mix.

Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh attends “The Banshees of Inisherin” UK Premiere.

Getty Images for Walt Disney Stu

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 her preliminary thoughts on what to expect at the 95th Academy Awards here.

The State of the Race

The current 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 frontrunner is someone that, until this past year, had not been nominated in nearly a decade despite steady celebrated work.

Steven Spielberg, the maestro of American filmmaking, is on his way to earning his third Oscar for Best Director with “The Fabelmans,” his auto-fictional retelling of the hectic home life that shaped him into an artist. Not only did it win the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, one of the more reliable Best Picture predictors, it recently 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.

Right now the filmmakers most likely to challenge Spielberg for Best Director have been nominated, and even won other categories, but have never won a directing Oscar. So many times the Best Director race is about acknowledging someone that has proven themselves multiple times over (just look at Jane Campion’s win this year).

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” director Ryan Coogler has only made four feature films, but every single one has been in the Oscar conversation. Having to fashion a commercial sequel despite the death of your beloved lead — Chadwick Boseman succumbed to cancer in 2020 — is a challenge no director would seek, but positive reviews, an A Cinemascore, and the biggest November opening of all time show that the Coogler and his grieving team prevailed.

The LA premiere of the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe film brought out numerous directing peers, from fellow Sundance alums David Lowery and Destin Daniel Cretton to filmmakers also currently on the awards circuit like “The Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood and “Glass Onion” director Rian Johnson. Respect among other directors is there, with Coogler even receiving a standing ovation at a recent DGA screening, and in today’s IP-driven industry, it would be inspirational to see someone rewarded for delivering something imaginative and artistic within the Disney live-action sandbox.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 26: Ryan Coogler attends Marvel Studios' "Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever" Premiere at Dolby Theatre on October 26, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Ryan Coogler attends Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” premiere

FilmMagic

On a completely different end of moviemaking, 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. The pair 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.

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 is Swedish director Ruben Östlund with his “Triangle of Sadness.” Though the film is doing well at the box office, the filmmaker’s chances are looking slim because 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.

All that’s really left to see is James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water.” 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.

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

Frontrunners:
Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”)
Todd Field (“TÁR”)
Martin McDonagh (“The Banshees of Inisherin”)
Sarah Polley (“Women Talking”)
Steven Spielberg (“The Fabelmans”)

Contenders:
James Cameron (“Avatar: The Way of Water”)
Damien Chazelle (“Babylon”)
Guillermo del Toro (“Pinocchio”)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Bardo”)
Rian Johnson (“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”)
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”)
Baz Luhrmann (“Elvis”)
Sam Mendes (“Empire of Light”)
Ruben Östlund (“Triangle of Sadness”)
Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King”)

Long Shots:
Darren Aronofsky (“The Whale”)
Noah Baumbach (“White Noise”)
Edward Berger (“All Quiet on the Western Front”)
Chinonye Chukwu (“Till”)
James Gray (“Armageddon Time”)
Oliver Hermanus (“Living”)
Park Chan-wook (“Decision to Leave”)
Jordan Peele (“Nope”)
Luca Guadagnino (“Bones & All”)
Joseph Kosinski (“Top Gun: Maverick”)
S.S. Rajamouli (“RRR”)
David O. Russell (“Amsterdam”)
Maria Schrader (“She Said”)

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