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When it comes to this season’s director races — particularly the Oscars — the big question revolves around Martin Scorsese.

Will the man who is arguably America’s finest helmer finally be honored by the Academy?

It would seem to be Scorsese’s year. “The Aviator,” after all, is his best-reviewed film since “GoodFellas.” But as Scorsese knows, after four prior Oscar directing noms, there’s always another helmer lurking in the shadows.

With his last Oscar nomination, for “Gangs of New York,” it was Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”) who snatched away the golden boy.

So, who could it be this time?

Clint Eastwood, who earned an Academy Award nom last year for “Mystic River” and has won an Oscar in director category once before (“Unforgiven”), is likely to loom large with his femme boxing opus, “Million Dollar Baby.” He’s already racked up kudos from the New York and Chicago critics groups.

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There’s also Alexander Payne, whose vino-and-veritas road pic “Sideways” is one of the year’s most raved-about films. Payne has earned director prizes from the L.A. film critics, among others.

And Marc Forster, another helmer of a well-reviewed picture, the bittersweet J.M. Barrie tale “Finding Neverland.”

All four of these helmers are nommed for DGA and Golden Globe kudos.

The fifth nominee in the Globes director race is Oscar vet Mike Nichols, whose relationship drama “Closer” has drawn more mixed critical reactions.

Rounding out the DGA final five is Taylor Hackford, whose Ray Charles biopic “Ray” has been widely praised for the performance of lead actor, Jamie Foxx.

Beyond these contenders, Michael Mann is in the mix again this year for his ground-breaking work on L.A. mood piece “Collateral.”

Mann has already nabbed the National Board of Review directing honor. And there’s Bill Condon, who made an impact with his brainy, sex-scholar biopic “Kinsey.”

But when it comes to Oscar, nominations and statues aren’t always limited to American films and U.S.-based filmmakers.

Last year’s Academy Awards race saw Brazilian Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) score a nom without being recognized by the Globes or the DGA.

This year a strong group of overseas helmers could enter the fray, including Brazilian Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), Frenchman Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), China’s Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”), Spaniards Alejandro Amenabar (“The Sea Inside”) and Pedro Almodovar (“Bad Education”), and British veteran Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”).

ALEJANDRO AMENABAR
Age: 32
Prior Oscar noms: 0*
2004 award noms: 0
Total B.O. since 1994: Estimated $200 million
Film: The Sea Inside
Distributor: Fine Line Features
Rating: PG-13
Release date: Dec. 17
Opening weekend B.O.: $55,681
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $2,421
B.O. cume-to-date: $142,474

BILL CONDON
Age: 49
Previous Oscar noms: 2*
Previous Oscar wins: 1
2004 award noms: 0
Total B.O. since 1994: Estimated $218 million
Film: Kinsey
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Rating: R
Release date: Nov. 12
Opening weekend B.O.: $169,038
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $33,808
B.O. cume-to-date: $6,734,321

CLINT EASTWOOD
Age: 74
Previous Oscar noms: 6*
Previous Oscar wins: 2
2004 award noms: Golden Globes; Broadcast Film Critics Assn.; DGA
2004 Award Wins: New York Film Critics Circle (director)
Total B.O. since 1994: Estimated $470 million
Film: Million Dollar Baby
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Rating: PG-13
Release date: Dec. 15
Opening weekend B.O.: $179,953
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $22,494
B.O. cume-to-date: $1,044,149

MARC FORSTER
Age: 34
Previous Oscar noms: 0*
2004 award noms: Golden Globes; Broadcast Film Critics Assn.; DGA
Total B.O. since 1994: Estimated $56 million
Film: Finding Neverland
Distributor: Miramax
Rating: PG
Release date: Nov. 12
Opening weekend B.O.: $220,524
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $27,566
B.O. cume-to-date: $24,676,372

TAYLOR HACKFORD
Age: 60
Previous Oscar noms: 1*
Previous Oscar wins: 1
2004 award noms: Golden Globes; Broadcast Film Critics Assn.; DGA
Total B.O. since 1994: Estimated $192 million
Film: Ray
Distributor: Universal
Rating: PG-13
Release date: Oct. 29
Opening weekend B.O.: $20,039,730
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $9,990
B.O. cume-to-date: $71,611,065

MIKE LEIGH
Age: 61
Previous Oscar noms: 3*
Previous Oscar wins: 0
2004 award noms: 0
Total B.O. since 1994: Estimated $29 million
Film: Vera Drake
Distributor: Fine Line Features
Rating: R
Release date: Oct. 10
Opening weekend B.O.: $13,207
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $6,604
B.O. cume-to-date: $2,122,643

MICHAEL MANN
Age: 61
Previous Oscar noms: 3*
Previous Oscar wins: 0
2004 award noms: National Board of Review
2004 Award Wins: National Board of Review (director)
Total B.O. since 1994: Estimated $261 million
Film: Collateral
Distributor: DreamWorks
Rating: R
Release date: Aug. 6
Opening weekend B.O.: $24,701,458
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $7,748
B.O. cume-to-date: $100,170,152

MIKE NICHOLS
Age: 73
Previous Oscar noms: 5*
Previous Oscar wins: 1
2004 award noms: Golden Globes
2004 Award Wins: 0
Total B.O. since 1994: Estimated $203 million
Film: Closer
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Rating: R
Release date: Dec. 3
Opening weekend box office: $7,707,092
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $16,193
B.O. cume-to-date: $27,460,754

ALEXANDER PAYNE
Age: 43
Previous Oscar noms: 1*
Previous Oscar wins: 0
2004 award noms: Broadcast Film Critics Assn.; Independent Spirit Awards; Golden Globes; DGA
Total B.O. since 1994: Estimated $288 million
Film: Sideways
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Rating: R
Release date: Oct. 22
Opening weekend B.O.: $207,042
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $51,760
B.O. cume-to-date: $22,404,206

MARTIN SCORSESE
Age: 62
Previous Oscar noms: 6*
Previous Oscar wins: 0
2004 award noms: Golden Globes; Broadcast Film Critics Assn.; DGA
2004 Award Wins: Broadcast Film Critics Assn.
Total B.O. since 1994: Estimated $405 million
Film: The Aviator
Distributor: Miramax
Rating: PG-13
Release date: Dec. 17
Opening weekend B.O.: $858,021
Opening weekend per-screen avg.: $20,927
B.O. cume-to-date: $31,541,390