Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
Why he’ll win: With his seventh directing nomination and his first in 17 years, Woody Allen became the sentimental fave for his whimsical ode to the City of Light — an effort that critics say harkens his Acad-friendly comedies “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Perhaps more impressive than his critical comeback is the film’s box office, taking in $148 million worldwide, which marks a career best for the 76-year-old. In fact, “Midnight in Paris” is by far the biggest commercial hit of the director field, a fact that will be hard to overlook.
Maybe not: The director with the well-known New York bias didn’t attend the Oscars when he was named director in 1978 for “Annie Hall,” although he made a surprise appearance at the 2002 ceremony to pitch Gotham as a location for filming. And there’s nothing the Academy finds more inexcusable than a no-show winner. An original screenplay Oscar seems more likely for Allen, who has nabbed a number of writing trophies in the run-up to the Oscars but only one directing prize.

Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
Why he’ll win: If acting nominations reflect directing achievement, Hazanavicius should take home the trophy. He is the only nominated helmer whose cast garnered multiple mentions (for actor Jean Dujardin and supporting actress Berenice Bejo). By contrast, Payne generated just one, while Allen, Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese can boast none. Furthermore, “The Artist’s” 10 nominations overall — second only to “Hugo’s” 11 — prove that the Frenchman’s audacious black-and-white silent effort resonated well beyond the thesp branch of the Academy. Hazanavicius has already nabbed director honors from the New York, Broadcast and London film crix.
Maybe not: Hazanavicius lost out to the veteran Scorsese at the Golden Globes. And as the field’s only first-time nominee, the 44-year- old may be deemed too young and unproven by Academy voters, even if “The Artist” takes home the best picture prize. After all, “The Artist” marks only his fourth feature film and the first to land on the Academy’s radar. Still, “The King’s Speech’s” Tom Hooper overcame newbie status last year when he bested favorite David Fincher in the category.

Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”
Why he’ll win: Terrence Malick’s prismatic existential drama, his first film in six years, is widely seen as the most ambitious of the five director nominees. While Hazanavicius and Scorsese took on the birth of cinema, Malick tackled the birth of the universe — an effort that found the 68-year-old former MIT professor collecting images for more than a decade and consulting with elite scientists to depict the Big Bang and its aftermath. If the director heat turns out to be a hotly contested field, as predicted, look for the long-overdue Malick to benefit from any vote splits.
Maybe not: As the field’s only surprise nominee, Malick represents the category’s longest shot. And the reclusive filmmaker, who notched his only other director nomination for 1998’s “The Thin Red Line” when he lost to “Saving Private Ryan’s” Steven Spielberg, will likely do little increase his odds. In fact, Malick, who rarely gives interviews, would best Allen for least-likely-to-campaign honors.

Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
Why he’ll win: Occasionally, the effort behind an intimate drama trumps that of a spectacle, as happened when “Million Dollar Baby’s” Clint Eastwood beat “The Aviator’s” Martin Scorsese for director honors. Payne’s tale of a family wrought by tragedy fits the mold precisely. The 50-year-old helmer, who was nominated in the category for 2004’s “Sideways” (when he lost to Eastwood), has been hailed for getting memorable performances from his thesps including Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt,” Reese Witherspoon in “Election,” Paul Giamatti in “Sideways.” “The Descendants” is no exception, with star George Clooney racking up several lead actor trophies this awards season.
Maybe not: More often than not, the Academy has tipped its hat to a director who pulled off a film recognized by a wide swath of branches, including recent winners like Tom Hooper, Kathryn Bigelow, Danny Boyle and Peter Jackson. With just five nominations for “The Descendants,” Payne may be overlooked in favor of Hazanavicius and Scorsese, with their 10 and 11 mentions, respectively.

Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
Why he’ll win: Scorsese ventured well beyond his comfort zone for his first kid pic, as well as his debut undertaking in 3-D. The result is his seventh directing nomination, which accompanies the film’s 10 additional Oscar mentions, spanning from costume to visual effects to cinematography. The 69-year-old, who was took the director hardware for 2006 crime drama “The Departed,” already boasts a slew of helmer statuettes this awards season for his homage to Georges Melies and early cinema, including Golden Globe and National Board of Review. Even if “Hugo” fails to take best picture honors, Scorsese is well poised to take the director prize.
Maybe not: Where are the acting nominations? In the past decade, only two directors whose films have been overlooked in the acting categories have gone on to win the director trophy: “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Danny Boyle and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’s” Peter Jackson. Also, the Academy might prefer to anoint new royalty.

Best Picture | Director | Animated Film | Documentary | Foreign Language Film