Noms in the helmer race could signal a major changing of the guard

It’s not just the Oscar hosts who are getting younger this year.

The pool of likely director nominees seems to be skewing next-generation as well. If the Academy’s handful of helmers aligns with some of the early awards-season bellwethers, the five vying directors will fit right in at the ceremony emceed by 32-year-old James Franco and 28-year-old Anne Hathaway.

“The Social Network’s” David Fincher, aged 48, gained frontrunner status after being tapped best director by myriad organizations including the Boston Critics and the National Board of Review. Brit helmer Tom Hooper, a decade Fincher’s junior at the wee age of 38, is seen as a major threat thanks to kudos magnet “The King’s Speech.”

While Fincher and Hooper each snagged Golden Globe nominations, so did another pair of under-50 directors: “Inception’s” Christopher Nolan, 40, and “Black Swan’s” Darren Aronofsky, 41. That leaves “The Fighter’s” David O. Russell — an indie darling who burst onto the scene in the 1990s alongside Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson — as the Globes most senior nominee at age 52.

Could 2010 be the year that marks a changing of the guard for Oscar-recognized directors?

Sure, there’s nothing new about the Acad anointing new blood, as evidenced by past nominees Tarantino, Anderson and Fincher, who nabbed his first Oscar nom two years ago for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Still, each young gun vied for the honor amid a more seasoned group — Tarantino against Woody Allen in 1995 and Kathryn Bigelow in 2010, Anderson against Joel and Ethan Coen in 2008 and Fincher against Ron Howard in 2009.

But 2011 is shaping up as the year when not a single elder statesman competes in the best director race. Earlier this year, prognosticators liked the chances of Clint Eastwood (“Hereafter”) and Oliver Stone (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”), who are now all but out of the mix. Add to that a handful of relatively fresh faces — “The Kids Are All Right’s” Lisa Cholodenko, 46; “Winter’s Bone’s” Debra Granik, 47; “Somewhere’s” Sofia Coppola, 39; and “The Town’s” Ben Affleck, 38 — waiting in the wings if Fincher, Hooper, Nolan, Aronofsky and Russell should be overlooked.

Still, previous winners like “Shutter Island’s” Martin Scorsese, “127 Hours’?” Danny Boyle and “True Grit’s” Coen brothers could sneak in, giving the competition some veteran edge. Ironically, “True Grit” centers on an aging gunslinger trying to stay relevant. But in a year when a Facebook movie is the toast of the awards season, it seems possible that the Acad might tap five Gen Xers.


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