The Best Picture race is a dead heat this year, which is such a rare occurrence in this age of the preferential ballot (which famously failed to determine the PGA's preference), that for the first time in the years I've been following the Oscars, we have to consider the Best Director race apart and separate from the Best Picture race. Now I hear you exclaim, "But, Awards Nazi!... We had to do that last year when Argo won Best Picture and Ang Lee won Best Director!" This is true. But last year was an odd exception wherein the DGA vote came so late, that it was unable to influence the Academy's directors branch into even nominating the Best Picture winner for Best Director. This year, however, there is little doubt that whichever film wins Best Picture will be one of the contenders for Best Director as well, but we still have to analyze that contest separately from Best Picture due to the closeness of the race. We can't afford the luxury of simply assuming that whatever wins the top prize naturally wins for its director too. It may well be the case at the end of the day, but we can't assume that as we have in years past. This time, there's more nuance than that.
Firstly, the frontrunner...
Alfonso Cuaron has emerged victorious at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, and DGA Awards for his visionary direction of Gravity. And that should come as no surprise. What makes him the favourite in this category is that, much like Life of Pi last year, the direction is the true star of his film. Sure, Sandra Bullock sold the tickets, but what people remember most about the movie is how Cuaron wowed them. If we pontificate that fans of a certain movie are going to vote for its director as well (ie; Wolf of Wall Street fans vote for Scorsese, Gravity fans for Cuaron, 12 Years a Slave fans for McQueen, etc.), then the question we must ask ourselves is: who are the people whose favourite film wasn't nominated for Best Director going to vote for? Cuaron just seems like the default choice for them, even if they do ultimately prefer 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture.
And that brings me to Cuaron's primary competition, Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave. If you prescribe to the auteur theory -- that people will vote for a director with a distinct cinematic voice -- then you have to consider McQueen as serious a threat to take this as Cuaron. I don't prescribe to this logic, but not because I don't believe McQueen is an auteur. He absolutely is. 12 Years a Slave is every inch of it a Steve McQueen piece, from his patient long takes to his sensory minutiae, but the difference lies in whose auteurial style speaks more loudly for itself. When ballots are finally in hand and online, whose distinct vision will undecided voters remember more: McQueen's reserved subtlety, or Cuaron's jaw-dropping spectacle? The answer looks to be somewhat obvious, but even this race could be much closer than we're presuming.
The next closest contender, and one who still has an angle on this race, is David O. Russell for American Hustle. While he and his spry caper comedy certainly appear to be a healthy distance in third place, it bears mentioning that his movie is more broadly appealing than either of the two films discussed above. Bradley Cooper did a very nifty bit of campaigning on Russell's behalf while accepting the SAG Ensemble award by describing him as an "actors' director". The actors are the largest sector of the Academy, and you know a lot of them are going to feel that's the sort of director worth rewarding. There's also a bit of a narrative brewing about how this is his third consecutive Best Director nomination after losing twice in the last three years. All that being said, it seems the more likely place for Russell to claim his reward is in Original Screenplay, where he faces no competition from either 12 Years a Slave or Gravity, but there's still a chance he could slide up the middle here.
The Wolf of Wall Street ended up being much more popular with the Academy than I gave it credit for. And while I definitely acknowledged that it had more than a decent shot at getting nominated for Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Screenplay, I honestly didn't think Martin Scorsese was in line to be nominated here, despite his DGA nod. But looking back, I realize it should have been a no-brainer. He's been nominated for every narrative feature he's made this millennium except for Shutter Island. Clearly, the directors branch loves him, and for good reason. Yet after The Departed finally earned him an Oscar of his own, the general membership has been in no hurry to reward him further.
Coming up the rear is Alexander Payne for Nebraska. For a film that seemingly played so well to the Academy, it seems funny to think that it'll probably go home empty-handed. It's only hope is probably Original Screenplay (which Payne didn't even write), and his direction is probably too low key to convert the undecided.
Will win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Runner-up: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Should win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Should've been nominated: Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell