Boyle is favorite, as Daldry mounts late bid

One might assume this year’s crop of Oscar directing nominees was cheered by the Cahiers du Cinema crew, because the director noms mirrored the Academy’s best picture choices for only the second time in the last quarter-century.

Whether the Acad intended a belated endorsement of auteur theory is hard to say, though it’s easy to discern voter feelings for “The Reader” director Stephen Daldry, who has been tapped in the category for all three of his films (previous noms came for “The Hours” and “Billy Elliot”). Yet his nom was still unexpected by many, for he grabbed a slot most prognosticators had reserved for “The Dark Knight” helmer Christopher Nolan.

Despite being a first-time nominee, Danny Boyle comes into the final stretch with the wind at his back, having picked up BAFTA, Golden Globe and British Independent Film Award honors (as well as a host of critics awards) for “Slumdog Millionaire.” Perhaps notably, “Slumdog” was the only film of the five to make a serious festival run, making Boyle a fixture on the fall kudo circuit and cementing his status as something of a comeback story — returning to Oscar-friendly filmmaking after a spell in the genre wilderness.

Opposite on the publicity spectrum, reclusive first-time nominee David Fincher turned in a mainstream breakthrough with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” just one year after the lukewarm commercial reception that greeted his “Zodiac,” a film as beloved by cineastes as it was ignored by the Academy. That he managed to retain his distinctive aesthetic (tech-savvy and stylish, with touches of the grotesque) while embracing the romance and epic sweep of Eric Roth’s “Gump”-ish screenplay could easily endear him to voters.

Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon”) and Gus Van Sant (“Milk”) have garnered consistent attention throughout Oscar season, not surprising considering the provenance of their projects (a smash play and a gay-rights icon, respectively) and history in this category (a nomination for Van Sant and a win for Howard).

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