This year’s director race is all about the Oscar virgins. Most of the contenders in the running — starting with Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) — have never been nominated in the category before. But one caveat to remember: predictors have been wary of declaring any locks in this competition since the Academy snubbed sure-thing contenders Ben Affleck (“Argo”) and Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty“) two years ago, so there’s always the possibility of a few surprises come Jan. 15.
If there’s another good bet in the category, it’s Norwegian director Morten Tyldum for “The Imitation Game,” which tells the story of World War II code breaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). A prominent Oscar publicist calls him the Tom Hooper of this year’s race. Like 2010’s “The King’s Speech,” “The Imitation Game” comes with a DNA that Oscar voters love, including a historic pedigree and the backing of super campaigner Harvey Weinstein.
Voters will inevitably be comparing “The Imitation Game” to the other British biopic of the year, “The Theory of Everything,” directed by James Marsh. For Marsh to land a nod, the doc filmmaker will need to campaign hard with the narrative that his Stephen Hawking story isn’t just a vehicle for stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Marsh laid the intricate groundwork for creating such a true-to-life story that made Hawking himself cry at a screening. Academy voters already love the film — it’s just a matter of them embracing his top-notch directing.
Also circling the competition is 29-year-old Damien Chazelle, the wunderkind behind “Whiplash.” He could be the darkhorse contender that wakes up on Oscar nomination morning with an unexpected gift (a la Benh Zeitlin for “Beasts of the Southern Wild”). The drama about a drummer, starring Miles Teller, has been slow at the box office, yet there’s no denying its director’s strong point of view. And it should pick up more buzz after the critics awards are announced.
But the burning question in the race is if the Academy will finally come to its senses and honor the Susan Lucci of the category. At first glance, the odds might not look promising for Christopher Nolan, who was snubbed for “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Inception.” But “Interstellar” is his most Academy-friendly film to date — and I mean that as a compliment. This meditation about love and mortality set in outer space feels like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” doused in Steven Spielberg-esque sentimentality. Even if the film is divisive, the weighted balloting (which uses math that asks each member to rank their favorites) could help Nolan — all he needs is a passionate group of colleagues to champion his $165 million epic.
The elite group of just under 400 directors who vote on this race tend to embrace quirkier filmmakers that take artistic risks. Many believe that Alejandro Inarritu will earn his second directing nomination (after 2006’s “Babel”) for his Hollywood drama “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” despite the film’s polarizing third act. He’ll probably land the Paul Thomas Anderson vote, since the director of “The Master” will be sitting out of this year’s ceremony for his out-there “Inherent Vice.”
If Chazelle manages to grab the Bennett Miller spot, will there still be room for the real Bennett Miller? In 2006, he was the young underdog when he snagged his first directing nomination for “Capote.” This year, Miller kicked off the race by claiming the top directing prize out of Cannes for “Foxcatcher,” his masterful tragedy about Olympic wrestling brothers Mark and David Schultz (played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). Even if buzz around the picture has cooled somewhat as other contenders have entered the competition, Miller’s film will be hard for directors to ignore at balloting time.
The question marks in the race are a pair of actor-directors who could be last-minute game changers. Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” hasn’t officially screened yet, but those who have seen it say it’s another strong effort from the prolific director, who hasn’t factored into this category since 2007’s “Letters from Iwo Jima.” (He definitely isn’t getting nominated for “Jersey Boys.”) And then there’s Angelina Jolie, who makes her English-language directing debut with “Unbroken.” The movie, about World War II Olympic hero Louis Zamperini (the pitch sound like “The Imitation Game” and “Foxcatcher” combined), will need to be great to convince stuffy voters who snubbed Affleck that she deserves a seat at the ceremony as one of the best directors of the year.
Looking Good: Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”), Morton Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”), Alejandro Inarritu (“Birdman”), Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar”) and Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”).
Question Marks: Clint Eastwood (“American Sniper) and Angelina Jolie (“Unbroken”).
For Your Consideration: James Marsh (“The Theory of Everything”).