The analysis

After six occasions of being Oscar’s bridesmaid (including two writing noms), if Martin Scorsese won the Academy Award for director this year it would be easy to chalk it up to the sympathy vote. But “The Aviator” succeeds on so many levels that it stands among the helmer’s most accomplished work.

Ironically, the Howard Hughes biopic is one of the few lauded Scorsese efforts to which the filmmaker wasn’t initially attached, nor does it tap into the New York milieu with which he is most associated. But Scorsese infuses the pic with the passion one might attribute to his most personal projects, and the parallels between Hughes and Scorsese are apparent to followers of his career: an obsession with filmmaking, a propensity to take big risks, and the sacrifice of romance to career aspirations.

Clint Eastwood, though, seems to be on a roll, with “Million Dollar Baby” strong testament to his continually evolving gifts as a director. After several years of being Warner Bros.’ own million-dollar baby, Eastwood was forced to play the prodigal son on his last two movies, forced to shop “Mystic River” and “Baby” to other studios before Warners acquiesced, only to find itself with one of the year’s most acclaimed films. Like Scorsese before him, Eastwood has become the director every actor wants to work with, and his rep for wrapping his pics on time and within budget has become legend.

With “Sideways,” Alexander Payne has enjoyed some of the year’s most rhapsodic reviews — so much so that the rumblings of a “Sideways” backlash were inevitable. But Payne has always exhibited a humility that would prevent him from succumbing to the deadly sin of pride. With his fourth feature, Payne continues to bat a thousand with the critical establishment. That’s no guarantee of an Oscar, but a sign that he can write his own ticket for the foreseeable future.

Compared to his competitors, Taylor Hackford (“Ray”) might be considered more of a solid craftsman whose best days were seen by many to be behind him. But projects such as the docu “Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll” and “La Bamba” (which he produced but didn’t direct) show, Hackford appears to have a special gift for musical biopics. If there were such thing as a true labor of love, “Ray” — which Hackford worked 13 years to get backing on — would be it.

Mike Leigh has been to the big dance once before, for 1996’s “Secrets & Lies,” and as with that film, he might be considered the most auteur-ish of the bunch — writing the scripts, workshopping with his cast for months, and creating an uncompromising work about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

The Aviator

Martin Scorsese

Current kudos: BAFTA (nom), Golden Globe (nom), Broadcast Film Critics (win)

Oscar pedigree: “Gangs of New York” (nom), “Goodfellas” (nom), “The Last Temptation of Christ” (nom), “Raging Bull” (nom)

Why he’ll win: Acknowledged by many as America’s greatest living filmmaker, this could finally be Scorsese’s year.

Why he won’t: The money appears to be leaning toward a split between pic (“Aviator”) and director (Clint Eastwood).

Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood

Current kudos: DGA (win), Golden Globe (win), Chicago Film Critics (win), New York Film Critics (win), San Diego Film Critics (win)

Oscar pedigree: “Mystic River” (nom), “Unforgiven” (win)

Why he’ll win: With Golden Globe and DGA wins , the momentum seems to be heavily in Eastwood’s favor.

Why he won’t: Eastwood already has a helming Oscar, and Scorsese might be perceived as bringing more to the table stylistically.

Ray

Taylor Hackford

Current kudos: None

Oscar pedigree: None

Why he’ll win: “Ray” is a rousing, foot-stomping popular entertainment.

Why he won’t: The competition is simply too stiff.

Sideways

Alexander Payne

Current kudos: Broadcast Film Critics (nom), DGA (nom), Golden Globes (nom), Indie Spirit Awards (nom), L.A. Film Critics (won)

Oscar pedigree: None

Why he’ll win: Considered the most solid of Hollywood’s new breed of writer-directors, and “Sideways” might have garnered the year’s best reviews.

Why he won’t: Payne’s films exhibit much heart and wit, but his directing style is deemed pedestrian compared to the competition.

Vera Drake

Mike Leigh

Current kudos: BAFTA (nom)

Oscar pedigree: “Secrets & Lies” (nom)

Why he’ll win: Leigh is one of the medium’s true distinct voices, and the subject of abortion is treated in such a nonpartisan, humanitarian fashion that controversy hasn’t been a stumbling block.

Why he won’t: Leigh directs small, highly personal films that are rarely awarded Oscars outside the writing and acting categories.

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