Here are the five nominees who did make the cut:
David O. Russell, American Hustle
For years, David O. Russell made his name with a range of idiosyncratic comedies like Three Kings (1999) and I Heart Huckabees (2004), as well as for his notable temper with his actors. However, he's since landed in the Academy's wheelhouse, earning a Best Director nomination for each of his past three films: The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and this year's American Hustle. Of these films, American Hustle feels the most like vintage Russell. Under his direction, the film has a verve of unpredictability, feeling as if the whole thing could fly off the handle at any given moment. Yet it's a controlled chaos, and Russell capably keeps everything together and nabs a collection of great performances from his cast. He's done fine work here, and it's interesting to see some of his more eclectic sensibilities sneaking back into his films.
More after the page break.
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Gravity is the kind of film that requires a strong vision, a director who can push the limits of what's possible and utilize innovative technology, to succeed. Alfonso Cuaron was just the man for the job. Cuaron has specialized in ambitious films, whether they be installments in mega-franchises (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), dystopian science-fiction thrillers (Children of Men), or intimate stories of sexual awakening (Y Tu Mama Tambien), and his latest is no exception. In filming this two-actor story of survival in space that is, really, a one-woman show, Cuaron expertly balances the more exciting setpieces with emotional sensitivity. But what's really impressive are those big disaster scenes, in which a field of debris routinely makes it's way back around the globe to threaten Ryan Stone's (Sandra Bullock) life. These scenes are expertly staged and choreographed, giving Cuaron the opportunity to showcase his consider skill as a director. What his film may lack in narrative substance it more than makes up for in visual amazement. Cuaron has incredible ambition, and he has the talent to make those ambitions succeed. He's a truly incredible talent.
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Similarly to Russell, Alexander Payne has earned a Best Director nomination for all three of his most recent films, even though his stretch over a longer period of time from Sideways (2004) to The Descendants (2011) to this year's Nebraska. In many ways, too, Payne's film is a return to form, focusing on a small-scale story that also marks a return to his native state. If there's a way to describe Payne's direction in this film, it's "humane." Payne is not a particularly fussy director: he doesn't really have a unique visual style, and he doesn't make films that seem to be adding up to some grand cinematic statement. In other words, his direction isn't sexy. What he does do is focus on the characters, and frames the story in a way that allows us in the audience to see the characters' complexities and understand who they are. His work is rewarding in a patient, quiet way. (You can read more about my thoughts on Payne here)
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
I've written before that 12 Years a Slave is the kind of film that needed to be made by a non-American filmmaker so that the complexities and harsh realities of the institution could be fairly examined and represented (Americans continue to prove incapable of really talking about slavery and other issues of race). Luckily, that filmmaker was Steve McQueen, who worked as a visual artist in Britain before entering the world of feature filmmaking with Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011). 12 Years a Slave, unlike his previous films, finds him emotionally engaging with the story and characters, and the result is a film that works as both a powerful gut-punch and an unforgettable glimpse into evil. McQueen's staging of each scene only highlights the far-reaching grip this system held over antebellum Southern society, and he never flinches from showing the damage done, whether it be physical or emotional. I've been impressed by McQueen's work in the past, but this film was on an entirely new level of greatness. It's nothing short of amazing.
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese has been impressing audiences with his remarkable, visionary films for so long that it no longer comes as a surprise that he's made another great film. This year he earned his eighth nomination in this category for The Wolf of Wall Street, as he examines yet another degenerate gangster, except that Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) does so with rotten financial investments rather than violence. Scorsese's direction is typically great, never holding back from Belfort and company's abhorrent actions and delicately presenting the film's dark satire: men like these live by a different set of rules, face minimal punishment for their misdeeds, and still run Wall Street today. It's ambitious work, and for the most part Scorsese handles it terrifically. Even though it's not among his best work, it's still the work of a master filmmaker investigating pitch-black territory.
"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." This race has been between Cuaron and McQueen all year, with the two of them utterly dominating the precursors in route to a showdown on Oscar night. In recent weeks, however, it's become increasingly clear that this is Cuaron's to lose, and even a strong showing on Oscar night by 12 Years a Slave will be enough to give McQueen the win. That said, there's still a slight chance he could be victorious, but the most likely scenario is that Cuaron will be at the podium Sunday night. Barring an unexpected upset by one of the other three nominees, it will be a historic win: the first Latino winner (Cuaron) or the first black winner (McQueen), and only the second person of color to ever win this award (following Ang Lee, who won in 2005 and 2012).
1. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
2. Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
3. Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
4. David O. Russell, American Hustle
5. Alexander Payne, Nebraska