They take on alien realms as well as real-world matters

KATHRYN BIGELOW
“The Hurt Locker”
How She Got Here: Bigelow has always excelled in a male director’s genre — the action pic — but never so adeptly and devastatingly as she did with this white-knuckle story of Iraq War bomb defusers. “The Hurt Locker” is one of the most intense films in recent memory, but it manages wonderful moments that expertly reveal its characters’ fears and aspirations as well. A win could revive attention to a war that many Americans have tuned out, and a well-timed reminder — a New York Times essay by critic Manohla Dargis — of Hollywood’s malignant indifference toward female directors couldn’t hurt her chances, either.

JAMES CAMERON
“Avatar”
How He Got Here: Cameron has redefined the way moviegoers approach blockbusters. His effects-heavy 3D epic immersed auds into a jaw-dropping world — developed through sheer creativity (and years of computer imaging) — cluttered with astounding visual details. What would prove sturdy lead characters in other film fantasies served as mere backdrop in “Avatar’s” Pandora realm. Cameron’s motion-capture characters became involving, and he also created a sensual world in which aliens’ interlocking hair braids felt like the most intimate of acts, a bravura feat of imagination.

CLINT EASTWOOD
“Invictus”
How He Got Here: A complex time in global history was elucidated with uncanny precision by Eastwood. He not only explicated the tricky nature of South African politics after the fall of apartheid with an assured intelligence, but also managed to fairly explain the rules of rugby to the vast majority of Americans unfamiliar with the sport without resorting to unseemly exposition. “Invictus” is the most morally uplifting film in this category. The HFPA, however, tends to be less susceptible to moral uplift than the Academy, and the film’s underwhelming box office performance could undercut Eastwood’s chances at a win as well.

JASON REITMAN
“Up in the Air”
How He Got Here: Reitman not only managed the rare feat of improving upon a critically acclaimed book (even author Walter Kirn said he liked the film better), but he directed his three principals (George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick) into receiving a plethora of awards and nominations. Moreover, he managed to tap into the zeitgeist: The film evokes many Americans’ rootlessness while also tapping into the anxieties that the current economic collapse has elicited. Plus Reitman’s film manages to be evisceratingly funny and yet wildly sexy and nominally romantic. He’s the thinking-man’s nominee.

QUENTIN TARANTINO
“Inglourious Basterds”
How He Got Here: Not from any spelling lessons, certainly. Tarantino charmed and amazed viewers through his sheer audacity — dragging out scenes past their breaking point and then exploding them into moments of pure delirium; recklessly rewriting history so he could create a finale of absolutely exhilarating mayhem; and, of course, by creating one of the most indelible characters of this (or almost any) movie year, Nazi Col. Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz, a revelation), an impossibly suave, erudite and gentlemanly killing machine who reveled in his grisly and sadistic assigned mission.

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