Premature Oscar Predictions: The 2014 Best Director Nominees

In recent years, trying to predict the Oscar nominees in the Best Director category has been especially tricky. In the past, you could just translate over your Best Picture nominees, maybe swap one out for a better-known or showier filmmaker, and you were relatively likely to be correct. But ever since the Academy made the switch to having more than five nominees in the top category it’s become more unpredictable, especially if you’re trying to make your predictions a year in advance.

We’ve never done a long-range pick of the potential directing nominees before, but rest assured that if we’d done such a thing twelve months ago, we would not have suggested that Michael Haneke would make it in. But having already picked out Best Picture, Actor, Actress and the Supporting categories, we wanted to close out our week of 2014 Oscar long-distance predictions with a challenge, so you’ll find our guesses below. You can find out if we’re right early in 2014, and in the meantime make your own predictions in the comments section. Our Oscar coverage is going into hibernation for a little while (they might resurface briefly at Cannes, but that’ll be it otherwise), but look for it to pick up towards the end of the summer, by which time many of our early questions will have been answered.

Strong Contenders

Alfonso Cuaron – “Gravity”
While adored by geeks and cinephiles, Alfonso Cuaron isn’t necessarily a name that rings many bells with the Academy; his last three films were a raucous coming-of-age sex comedy (“Y Tu Mama Tambien“), a “Harry Potter” film, and an apocalyptic sci-fi (“Children Of Men“), none of which is exactly typical Academy material. But the latter made a fair Academy impact despite being undervalued by many, earning three nominations including a screenplay nod shared by Cuaron himself. And if he ever breaks through further, a showy space picture starring Academy darlings Sandra Bullock and George Clooney would seem to be a good bet. If rumors are to be believed, it raises Cuaron’s long, impressive takes from “Children Of Men” to a whole new level, with the opening shot said to last as long as twenty minutes, so it’ll be a showcase for him as much as for Bullock, and it’s the kind of 3D extravaganza that just won Ang Lee the Oscar. Now, the film could end up on a knife-edge; maybe seen by some as too commercial, and by others as too arty. But if Cuaron can get the balance right and the film works, this could well be a good bet.

Bennett Miller – “Foxcatcher”
Having picked up a nomination for his first feature “Capote,” Bennett Miller missed out when “Moneyball” was nominated for Best Picture last year. On the one hand, it was a little puzzling (the old complaint of “What, did the film direct itself?”), but on the other hand, Miller has an unfussy, story-first style, so it’s understandable why he was excluded, even if the meat-and-veg directorial work was arguably more impressive than some of the others who were nominated last year. We’re expecting “Foxcatcher” to be a big player in the awards season, but will Miller be excluded again? Or will voters want to make up for him missing out last time? It’s a tough call to make: the film, on the page, looks unlikely to be any more attention-grabbing for its filmmaker than his previous two films. But assuming he does the same impeccable job that he did on “Capote” and “Moneyball,” he’s always going to be viable, and our gut says that Miller will make the cut this time, although he’s probably the shakiest of this Top 5.

David O. Russell – “Untitled David O. Russell Abscam Project”
Once, when he was the headbutted-by-George-Clooney, shrieking-at-LilyTomlin enfant terrible of the indie scene, a nomination for David O. Russell was unthinkable. But the filmmaker has mellowed in recent years, and now has two nominations in three years thanks to “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” and was seen by many as a viable winner for the latter, though Ang Lee beat him to the punch. But even before that happened, we thought that Russell might be a great threat in 2014. As we said when discussing the Best Picture possibilities, the Abscam project (which has the almighty cast of Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Louis CK) is likely to have all the advantages of Russell’s recent work, while also being a period piece, and with arguably more serious subject matter at play. The filmmaker is a perfect match for the script, so unless it’s a surprising misfire in execution (or if it slips into 2014, which is possible), we expect him to be among the nominees, and possibly even the front-runner.

Martin Scorsese – “Wolf Of Wall Street”
Any time that Martin Scorsese has a film out, you know he’s going to be a threat in this category; he has seven nominations in total, and while he finally won for “The Departed,” he still challenged quite heavily for “Hugo” in 2012, even if he ultimately lost to Michel Hazavanicius. So with a new film in 2013 — and one that involves examining the root of the global economic crisis in the excesses of a high-living stockbroker — he’s very much in the running, with material that might be his most awards-friendly since “The Aviator.” In the last decade, Scorsese has only failed to nab a nomination for “Shutter Island,” his most genre-led work in recent memory, so he’s a safe bet for a nod. That said, in a tough year which could be seen as something of a changing of the guard, with young bucks like Alfonso Cuaron and Steve McQueen competing, Scorsese can’t simply phone the film in.

Alexander Payne – “Nebraska “
Like Russell, Payne was once outside of the establishment, with his controversy-baiting debut “Citizen Ruth.” But now, the filmmaker has firmly been embraced by the Academy, with six nominations in total including directing nods for his last two pictures, “Sideways” and “The Descendants.” His latest, “Nebraska,” a father-son tale starring the unlikely combination of Will Forte and Bruce Dern, seems to be a lower-key, more personal kind of picture for the filmmaker, shot on a relatively low budget, and to be released in black and white. But despite the lack of star power, voters clearly adore Payne’s sensibilities, and unless the film proves truly surprising, he shouldn’t be dismissed in this category. If anything, going black and white is likely to give him more credit. The film might not work, of course, and if some of the showier possibilities below deliver, Payne could well fall out (even a film as fine as “About Schmidt” went mostly unrewarded, bar a nod for Jack Nicholson). But we wouldn’t want to bet against him.


Steve McQueen – “Twelve Years A Slave”
If Best Director was decided on merit alone, Steve McQueen certainly would have picked up a nomination for “Shame” — its absolute control and impressive visual eye belied the fact that it was only the filmmaker’s second full feature. The subject matter meant that McQueen was never really in the race, but thanks to the backing of Brad Pitt, an all-star cast, and the (only-slightly-less) taboo subject matter of slavery, which saw awards success for “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” last year, he could get more traction with his new film, “Twelve Years A Slave,” this time around. Detailing the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who was kidnapped and spent a dozen years as a slave in the south, the film also sees Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano, among others, in the cast. We’re assuming McQueen won’t be watering down his style too much, which might be a problem, but long takes and general visual austerity didn’t prevent Michael Haneke from getting a nomination last year. Perhaps the bigger question is over how palatable the film will be to voters: Academy members might have voted for slavery-themed pictures when they were revenge fantasies (‘Django’) or featured mostly white people (“Lincoln”), but will as unvarnished and brutal a take as “Twelve Years A Slave” apparently is have the same appeal? We’ll find out later in the year, but it’s likely that McQueen will need a swell of critical support to make it happen.

George Clooney – “The Monuments Men”
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last decade, it’s that the Academy are head-over-heels in love with George Clooney. The multi-hyphenate has eight nominations over the past seven years, and when he didn’t actually appear on-screen in a film, he STILL managed to win Best Picture, as a producer on “Argo.” So with three films expected to be in the heart of the awards season — he’s also in “Gravity,” and is a producer on “August: Osage County” — you’d be a fool not to expect him to be in play for his fifth effort as director, “The Monuments Men.” The film has a certain amount of bona fides: an all-star cast, a WWII backdrop, the kind of quirky true story that saw “Argo” have such success. But there’s a question of tone at play. If it’s closer to an “Ocean’s Eleven“-style caper (as cast-members like John Goodman, Jean Dujardin and Bill Murray might suggest), it’s probably not going to be a player. If it’s a more serious affair (as the presence of Daniel Craig and Cate Blanchett, and a late-December release would suggest), then Clooney could be more of a competitor than we think. With the race looking tight at this stage, we’re leaning towards him missing the cut, but unless it’s a “Leatherheads“-style misfire, he’ll certainly be snapping at the heels of the competition.

Paul Greengrass – “Captain Philips”
We didn’t go so far as to predict the Tom Hanks-starring Somalian pirate drama “Captain Phillips” as one of the potential Best Picture nominees, although it’s certainly in the running. But given that Greengrass earned a nomination in 2007 for “United 93,” when the film itself went otherwise unrewarded, Greengrass might have a better chance than his film does. After all, some of the more likely Best Picture nominees (“August: Osage County,” for instance) aren’t really director’s movies, while Greengrass’ brand of handheld sound and fury tends to be showier. That is dependent on the film being closer to “United 93” than to “Green Zone” in terms of critical reception, and on it being more than just a showcase for Hanks’ performance, but buzz is very strong. Still, there’s some tough competition this year, so the film will really have to take off for Greengrass to be in the final five.

Baz Luhrmann – “The Great Gatsby”
Despite the film itself earning eight Oscar nominations, Baz Luhrmann failed to make it to the final five for “Moulin Rouge!,” pushed out by luminaries like David Lynch, Robert Altman and, uh, Ron Howard. Indeed, the Australian auteur has never been nominated in the directing category (in part because the only film he’s made since, “Australia,” was something of a washout). Could “The Great Gatsby” be the one? Well, on paper, the prestige-y literary subject matter and an all-star cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan would suggest yes. But the film’s been plagued by delays and rumors of production troubles, and the trailers have been somewhat… divisive. The film might well end up working — let’s not forget that “Moulin Rouge!” also had a half-year delay and looked dicey on paper —  in which case Luhrmann could become a contender. As such, this is definitely the wait-and-see prospect of the list. Six months from now, the idea of Luhrmann as a nominee could be laughable, or it could be a foregone conclusion.

The Coen Brothers – “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Despite being some of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers in American cinema, Joel & Ethan Coen have fourteen Oscar nominations between them, starting with their move into more respectable fare (or as respectable as a film can be when someone gets fed into a wood chipper) with “Fargo.” With their screenplay victory for that, and their three Oscars for “No Country For Old Men,” their trophy cabinet is pretty full at this point, but there’s always room for one more. “Inside Llewyn Davis” looks pretty great, and word from early screenings suggests it’s another winner from the brotherly duo, who’ve been solid favorites with the Academy in recent years. But the question is whether they can manage a directorial nomination, and we’re not 100% convinced that they can; of all their earlier films, ‘Llewyn Davis’ looks closest to “A Serious Man,” which saw them nominated for Picture & Screenplay, but not Director. And as we’ve said before, distributors CBS Films have no experience in pushing a film for the awards season, which could be a hurdle. If the film is a critical darling like ‘No Country’ or “Fargo,” nominations are likely, but if it’s more divisive, ‘Llewyn Davis’ may be pushed out by more mainstream competition.

Also In Contention: Jason Reitman has two previous directing nominations for “Juno” and “Up In The Air,” but with the competition so stiff, our gut says that he’ll be on the outside unless new film “Labor Day” sweeps the board elsewhere. Meanwhile, “Saving Mr. Banks” and “August: Osage County” feel like obvious Best Picture hopefuls, but they’re the kind of films (see “The Help“) that often miss out with the directing category, particularly with the relatively low profile of helmers John Lee Hancock and John Wells — though the latter, as the WGA president and a TV veteran, is at least well-liked within the industry. Others who could end up in the mix, if their films work out, include James Gray for “Lowlife,” Susanne Bier for “Serena,” Ryan Coogler for “Fruitvale” (this year’s Benh Zeitlin?), Ridley Scott for “The Counselor,” Lee Daniels for “The Butler,” Spike Jonze for “Her,” Atom Egoyan for “Devil’s Knot” and Scott Cooper for “Out Of The Furnace. ”

And our final five predictions, for the record:

Alfonso Cuaron – “Gravity”
Bennett Miller – “Foxcatcher”
Alexander Payne – “Nebraska”
David O. Russell – “Untitled David O. Russell Abscam Project”
Martin Scorsese – “The Wolf Of Wall Street”

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