J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek”)
The prolific TV vet (“Alias,” “Lost”) kickstarted his bigscreen directing career with a sequel (“Mission: Impossible III”) but earned greater notice for energizing a faltering movie franchise with his youthful, quick-witted reboot of “Star Trek,” one of the year’s big moneymakers. The twin strengths of critical and B.O. prowess could make for an awards-season surprise.
Wes Anderson (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”)
Adapting Roald Dahl’s book “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” this master of high-minded quirk (“Rushmore”) utilized old-fashioned stop-motion techniques to restore both a beloved animation art form and his own reputation for painterly, accessible eccentricity. In a crowded animation field this year, Anderson’s aesthetic rigor could help him stand out among directors.
Pete Docter (“Up”)
Pixar vet (“Monsters, Inc.”) earned some of the animation studio’s best reviews — not to mention a Venice Film Festival award — for the ravishingly adventurous “Up,” which put regular human beings front and center for the first time in a Pixar film, to memorable emotional and B.O. effect.
Nora Ephron (“Julie and Julia”)
This romantic-comedy stalwart (“Sleepless in Seattle”) won some of the best reviews of her filmmaking career with “Julie and Julia,” her witty and heartwarming commingling of two memoirs about food, ambition and marriage. With the incomparable Meryl Streep leading the charge as cooking goddess Julia Child, Ephron’s passion plate of a movie could spark voters’ appetites.
Michael Haneke (“The White Ribbon”)
The celebrated Austrian filmmaker (“Cache”) won the Palme d’Or for “The White Ribbon,” his austere, haunting, black-and-white epic of morality and persecution set in a German village prior to World War I. It’s Germany’s selection for Oscar’s foreign-language film prize, but a 2009 Stateside release also qualifies it for other categories.
Rob Marshall (“Nine”)
Returning to the musical form that made his name, “Chicago” Oscar nominee Marshall has a chance to show even more directorial flair with “Nine,” given the Broadway show’s source material is none other than Fellini. Positive critical reaction could be key, but strong box office will matter more.
Nancy Meyers (“It’s Complicated”)
Though never nominated before as a director, Meyers has a radar for contemporary romantic comedy that is always buzzworthy (“Something’s Gotta Give”), and with the exes-reconnecting holiday release “It’s Complicated” she’s got Oscar powerhouse Meryl Streep and beloved stars (and Oscar hosts) Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin in her corner.
Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”)
It’s never an easy road for comedy helmers to the big five on Oscar night, but there’s no denying the overwhelming summer heat generated by “The Hangover,” which earned Phillips (nommed for co-adapting 2007’s “Borat”) plenty of praise for his classically modulated, unpredictable take on good times gone comically bad.
Jim Sheridan (“Brothers”)
No stranger to Oscar noms (“My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father”) or starkly intense character drama, Sheridan explored the chasm between two siblings with “Brothers.” If this brooding actors’ showcase catches on, Sheridan could be recognized once more for his handling of tricky material.
Steven Soderbergh (“The Informant”)
After a low-profile experiment (“The Girlfriend Experience”), this Oscar winner (“Traffic”) turned a jaw-dropping true story of corporate malfeasance into this satirically etched character study. Soderbergh’s rep as a smart, stylish pro, combined with Matt Damon’s lauded lead perf, could make for a sneaky one-two combo.