It's a two-way race for the best directing award this year, and for two movies that couldn't be more different. One is Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," a richly detailed, rigorously composed historical drama about a free black man sold into slavery in 1841. The other is Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity," a sci-fi thriller driven by state-of-the-art special effects and dazzling camerawork. As for the other nominees, well, they're just happy to be here.
David O. Russell, "American Hustle:" Russell is the distant third here, but don't count him out. "American Hustle" is almost this year's "Argo," a smart and entertaining movie that just about everyone seems to like.
Alexander Payne, "Nebraska:" Payne has won two writing Oscars, for "Sideways" and "The Descendants," but he may have to wait for the directing statue.
Martin Scorsese, "The Wolf of Wall Street:" This may be the closest Scorsese has come to making a straight-up comedy. Voters clearly liked it, but don't bet on a win.
Steve McQueen, "12 Years a Slave:" McQueen comes on like the heir to Kubrick: austere, classical, violent. For Oscar voters, this movie may be easier to admire than to love.
Alfonso Cuarón, "Gravity:" The Directors Guild gave Cuarón its top award earlier this month, essentially sealing the Oscar deal. This year, Cuarón's technological dazzle will carry the day.