Mike Pont/FilmMagic
Nicole Sperling
December 01, 2014 AT 12:00 PM EST

If 2014 is the year of the auteur, with filmmakers driving their independent visions onto the screen without the ­benefit of megabudgets—I’m not talking to you, Christopher Nolan—the battle for Best Director will come down to who executed that vision most successfully. And it’s sure to be a hell of a race.

The locks, in my opinion, go to four directors with distinct, incisive points of view: ­Richard Linklater for his 12-year effort Boyhood, one of the year’s best-reviewed movies, which excels in transcending what could have been little more than a ­gimmick (it also nabbed prizes for director, picture and supporting actress from the New York Film Critics Monday); Alejandro G. Iñarritú, the brooding Mexican who lightened up (finally) this year with Birdman, a dark comedy that feels like a bright jazz riff; David Fincher, who turned the pitch-black best-seller Gone Girl into a $160 million juggernaut that mixes ­stylized pulp with impeccable craft; and Ava DuVernay, the rising filmmaker who is stunning audiences with her grand-but-intimate portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Adding oomph to her odds, she would be the first African-American woman—and only the fifth woman ever—to land a directing nod.

From there, the predictions get tricky. Both Bennett Miller and Nolan seemed like the obvious choices early on in this race—but with Foxcatcher residing squarely in the grim category, will the methodical portrait of a sociopath (brilliantly played by Steve Carell) gather enough eyeballs to land the nomination? As for Nolan, he has been nominated three times by the Academy—but never in the directing category. Considering the divisive nature of his space odyssey Interstellar, it’s not clear if this will be his year.

The other powerhouse gunning for the slot is, of course, favored son Clint Eastwood. His war drama American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, features some of Eastwood’s best work in recent years, and the man is clearly a favorite among the Academy. (He’s won twice in the category and been nominated two other times.) But does Sniper say anything about the atrocities of modern-day warfare that we haven’t seen in earlier films like The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty?

The small-ish directors’ branch of the Academy has always been notoriously unpredictable. (It has snubbed both Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow.) So the final nom may go to a less obvious choice, and there are plenty of those to choose from: Wild’s Jean-Marc Vallée, who was ignored last year for Dallas Buyers Club, newbie Damien Chazelle for his kinetic Whiplash, Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), who has also never been nominated in this category, or Morten Tyldum, the Norwegian director behind The Imitation Game.

The true dark horse, though, may be Angelina Jolie for her WWII drama Unbroken. Just screened for voters over the Thanksgiving holiday, the film is already a likely contender for the Best ­Picture race. It’s clear Jolie was the force that was necessary to finally push Louis Zamparini’s historic tale to the screen, and the result is a solid effort by the sophomore director. But Jolie was just rewarded by the Academy last year for her humanitarian efforts; another bit of recognition so early in her directing career may be a bit much. That being said, the Academy does like to be historic—and adding two female directors to its nomination list would surely be unprecedented.

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