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In 86 years of Oscar history only two African-American directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar — John Singleton and Lee Daniels.  It isn’t that the Academy leans towards white American filmmakers to be exclusionary. It’s more a function of the fact that black directors in America, or even white directors making films about black characters, often tackle subjects laden with sensitive topicality that makes them too hot to touch, like Spike Lee. It isn’t easy to make a film that can aggressively address substantial subjects and still cross the black and white divide without doing anything that may seem offensive to either side. Add to that, trying to please the critics (who are 99% white), and making money to boot. It is as though the past, present and future stack up like heavy bricks on the back of every minority filmmaker but especially so with black filmmakers here in America. That there are at least two African-American directors “in the conversation” this year (Daniels and Ryan Coogler) is a impressive miracle in itself.  That British-born Steve McQueen has now emerged to lead the field means we could be witnessing history in the making — not just in terms of another nomination, but with a possible milestone win as well.

Make no mistake about it, winning an Oscar won’t make Steve McQueen or 12 Years a Slave look better than they already do. It would make the Academy and Hollywood look better. No one will be able to say McQueen won BECAUSE he was black. No one will be able to say the film doesn’t deserve it.

But it’s too early to count those chickens, and indeed, McQueen is likely to bristle at the notion of himself being categorized this way.  I suspect that’s because he isn’t African American, he’s British. Here in America things are a little different with regard to race. Despite what many Republicans keep denying, there is still a big problem here.  12 Years a Slave roars forth to confront the issue the head-on, and in the eye of the hurricane will be Mr. McQueen.

Working at the top of their game, though, are several other directors with great films in the race this year. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which has not yet opened, is a film that caps off Payne’s whole body of work with a road-trip story about a man near the end of his road. His mental grip is slipping. His past and memories are questionable, his choices are suspect and with assistance from his son it all comes to a head. Nebraska is one of the best films of the year. Payne has yet to win Best Director even after coming so close with Sideways and The Descendants.

Alfonso Cuaron‘s heartstopping thrill ride goes deep on emotion, dazzling on special effects, and leaves you waiting to exhale by the end of it. It took Venice, Telluride, and now Toronto by storm and should continue its run through Oscar season.  As a 3-D effects film with a singular female lead (and can we say: Wow) it will have an uphill climb to win the vote of all of the various guilds and branches.  Where the Golden Globes used to be the biggest influence, now the PGA mostly sets the ball in motion. The dominoes fall from there. This, since 2009.

 Paul Greengrass‘ exceptional Captain Phillips, which also has yet to run the gauntlet of the critics, seems poised for a nod.  Like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips is a heart-pounding  drama that doesn’t let up until the credits roll.  Sure to be Gravity’s biggest competition in the editing category (unless 12 Years clean sweeps), with exceptionally confident directing throughout, Captain Phillips doesn’t shy away from its subject, and cracks open the difficult, uncomfortable notion of “us and them” with regard to America’s world dominance.

Joel and Ethan Coen are American treasures.  No other directors turn in such consistently challenging and brilliant work as they do.  With Llewyn Davis what you see is most definitely not what you get. See the film a few times and a maze, or puzzle will emerge. They’ve laid out the breadcrumbs for their fans to discover and meanings to uncover. Two viewings now and I haven’t completely cracked the code, but it has to do with mirror scenes, done in double, to reflect, I think, the parallel lives of Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan. But I think I’ll need to see it a few more times to figure out the intricacies completely (maybe I never will). Saying it’s one of the best films already is a no-brainer. The problem with the Coens is that they are always so brilliant they might be taken for granted this year.

Woody Allen‘s Blue Jasmine is the best film this director, who makes a new film nearly every year, has given us since Crimes and Misdemeanors. He has actually grown as a director at a time in his career when many veterans recede into their safety zones. With chilling flashbacks and an adept ensemble cast, this biggest-grossing per-screen opening of Woody Allen’s career could make a mark.  But his recent run with Midnight in Paris could hold him back from the Oscars.

Jason Reitman‘s Labor Day was a hit and miss at Telluride with the critics and bloggers. The audiences, however, ate it up. While it isn’t the crowd-pleaser that Juno was, nor the exploration of the one cool remove that Up in the Air was, it is something completely different from Reitman. Thanks to his gifted cast he brings us a love story for all time. It stands out for that reason. There isn’t a lot of love flooding into the Oscar race this year — and this one fills the need without being a rom-com. It is a serious, poetically luscious indulgence that maybe only some of us out there will really get. But Reitman is worth paying attention to as an evolving artist, to be sure.

Ryan Coogler is one of the few writer-director hyphenates in this year’s race.  If you (or I) must lump black filmmakers together Coogler is the only one of the three who wrote his own film. That means he’s sure to get, at the very least, an original screenplay nod for Fruitvale Station.  Whether he can crack the Big Five for director is a different story. Nonetheless, there is no denying the impact Fruitvale Station has had this year. It is a giant step forward for black auteurs telling American stories that have been shunted to the sidelines for far too long. Big Hollywood can’t be relied upon to tell good stories anymore. They have to be pushed through despite the status quo. With a brilliant ensemble cast from top to bottom, Fruitvale Station has managed to stay relevant all of these months later.

JC Chandor builds on his success from Margin Call (which took around ten years to write) to make a breakthrough film with Robert Redford, All is Lost. Filmmakers who take those kinds of risks ought to be rewarded for them.  Chandor is right at the top of this list for having the balls to make a film with no dialogue whatsoever. Still, All is Lost is as much a spiritual journey about survival (like Gravity, like 12 Years a Slave) as it is a literal survival film. It is beautifully made, and the kind of experience you never really forget.

The other directors who have taken great risks and turned out brilliant works include:

Asghar Farhadi, The Past
Abdellatif Kechiche,
Blue is the Warmest Colour (although…)
Richard Linklater
for Before Midnight
Dustin Daniel Cretton for Short Term 12
Sarah Polley for Stories We Tell

Still left to be seen but their place is being held:

Martin Scorsese for Wolf of Wall Street. The Man needs no introduction. A living legend. Enough said.
Spike Jonze, Her
George Clooney, The Monuments Men
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
David O. Russell for American Hustle, a way overdue American director who might finally pull it off this year.
Ridley Scott for The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay, also headed straight for a nomination in that category.
John Hancock for Saving Mr. Banks, good buzz so far.
Ben Stiller for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

If I had to rank the directors most likely at this moment in time, I think I would want to avoid guessing the placement of films I haven’t yet seen. With that restriction in mind, the list would like this:

1. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
2. Alexander Payne, Nebraska
3. Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
4. Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
5. Lee Daniels, The Butler
6. The Coens, Inside Llewyn Davis
7. Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
8. Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
9. Jason Reitman, Labor Day
10. JC Chandor, All is Lost