With the exception of Best Picture, the Academy Award for Best Director is arguably the most prestigious award to receive. It often goes hand-in-hand with that category, although it is actually quite rare for the Best Picture and Best Director ballots to be identical.

And while the Best Director Oscar is not the end-all, be-all of directing merits (as evidenced by plenty of awesome directors over the years who did not receive the award), it is definitely one of the main reasons people watch the ceremony. Along with Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress, and Best Supporting Actor and Actress, it is among the Big Six.

It’s been around since the Academy Awards themselves, going all the way back to 1929, which honored films from 1927 as well as 1928. It is the award with some of the richest history and most notable names. Indeed, some of the best directors ever have received far more nominations than they have won, and some have received plenty of noms but no awards at all (like Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick).

This year, as with many others, the big question isn’t as much who will win but will the vote split between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. It’s happened before, even in recent years (e.g., Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan in 1998, Steven Soderbergh in 2000 for Traffic, Roman Polanski for The Pianist in 2002 and Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain in 2005).

And the nominees are…

Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood

Why He Was Nominated: Even before it was released, There Will Be Blood had Oscar buzz written all over it. With as much cred as P.T.A. got from Best Picture nods over the entire award season, it was impossible to leave him out of the Oscar running.

Why He Might Win: Anderson has flirted with Oscar before, most notably with the screenplays for Boogie Nights and Magnolia. He’s never won a statue, and hasn’t even been nominated for director. This could be his year to break in.

Why He Might Not Win: This year’s field is fierce, and There Will Be Blood shares such a similar tone with No County for Old Men. And, when it comes down to love from the award voters, No Country tends to edge out Blood by a slight sip of a milkshake.

Joel and Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men

Why They Were Nominated: No Country for Old Men has been gobbling up awards left and right throughout the season. It’s also a Best Picture nominee, and the Coen Brothers flat-out deserve the recognition.

Why They Might Win: This is the first time the Coen Brothers have shared screen credit as directors and been nominated. This film has been called their best since Fargo, which was the last time the bros made such a splash at the Oscars.

Why They Might Not Win: Because it is so similar in tone and style to There Will Be Blood, No Country is in real danger of splitting the vote with it for this and other awards, making the way for dark horses to seize the day.

Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton

Why He Was Nominated: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that at least part of Gilroy’s nomination is due to George Clooney. The Academy loves Clooney, and they just seem to want to shower at least one of his movies each year with accolades.

Why He Might Win: If There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men split their vote and suppress the Juno vote at the same time, Gilroy might just pull this one out. But I wouldn’t run the Vegas odds just yet.

Why He Might Not Win: Let’s face it, when people think of Michael Clayton, they think of George Clooney. And this makes sense as this film is Gilroy’s directorial debut. The Academy may love to give nominations to newcomers, but they generally don’t hand out statues to them.

Jason Reitman for Juno

Why He Was Nominated: This year, Juno is the little movie that could. It was a quirky indie hit that took the nation by storm. Reitman had a strong command over Diablo Cody’s script, and he directed his leading lady to an Oscar nomination.

Why He Might Win: With Juno running as the dark horse in oh-so-many categories, it would be no surprise if this little flick could pull it off. Plus, with all the other nominees having such a heavy undertone, the Academy voters might just mark the box for the feel-good movie this year.

Why He Might Not Win: With as much positive buzz as Juno has garnered, people seem to forget it is a long shot dark horse. Like last year’s Little Miss Sunshine, it’s grabbed a lot of nominations, but the little movie that could might walk away with only the screenplay Oscar this year.

Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Why He Was Nominated: This year’s Oscar slate is filled with understated, more somber movies. And what can be more understated than a POV movie about a paralyzed guy? Better yet, Schnabel made the whole thing pretty darn interesting, and that’s worth some honors at the end of the year.

Why He Might Win: This could be an upset yet. Plus, Schnabel pulled out a Best Director win at the Golden Globes earlier this year, taking the award from a field of excellent films.

Why He Might Not Win: The biggest problem Schnabel’s going to have is that fewer people have seen his movie than the other nominees. Plus, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is in subtitled French, and no amount of innovative camerawork and intimate finesse is going to break that language barrier.

Who Will Win?

Joel and Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men

These guys have never won an Oscar for directing, and they really deserve one. Plus, if you look at the field, No Country for Old Men has secured more top honors than its closest competitor, There Will Be Blood. While the Best Director/Best Picture category has split four times in the past ten years, the better director usually wins out… and the Coen Brothers have done a superior job over P.T. Anderson this year.


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