Directors step up to take their shot at Oscar
THE six nominees for this year's best director Academy Award have made a total of 23 feature films. To put that meager number into perspective, consider this: "The Departed," which finally won Martin Scorsese his directing Oscar last year (on his sixth nomination), was his 21st theatrically released feature. As with the acting categories, the best director Oscar often goes to overdue candidates -- which is to say, it's awarded for bodies of work as much as for the film under consideration -- but this year, instead of the usual lineup of establishment old-timers, voters are picking from a pool of career mavericks and comparative neophytes.

It's ill-advised to make big-picture pronouncements based on a single year, but the slender résumés and below-average age of the class of '08 -- Julian Schnabel, at 56, is the oldest nominee -- could signal an important changing of the guard.

Jason Reitman, director of "Juno," has made only one other feature, the 2005 satire "Thank You for Smoking," and is the youngest of the group, at 30. ( John Singleton, 23 at the time of "Boyz N the Hood," holds the record for the youngest nominated director. Norman Taurog, who won for "Skippy" in 1931, when he was 32, remains the youngest winner.)

Two other nominees, although relatively new to directing, have considerable track records in other areas. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is only Schnabel's third movie, but the Neo-Expressionist painter has enjoyed a reputation as an art-world enfant terrible since the early '80s. "Michael Clayton" is Tony Gilroy's first feature, but he has worked as a Hollywood screenwriter (on all three "Bourne" movies, notably) for more than a dozen years. (The last director who won for his debut effort was Sam Mendes, for "American Beauty" in 2000, and he was already an established theater director.)

Which leaves the maverick auteurs, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers. Anderson is only 37, a wildly talented and ambitious, self-taught filmmaker who received the best reviews of his career for his fifth movie, "There Will Be Blood." Joel Coen, 53, and Ethan, 50, are this year's elder statesmen -- "No Country for Old Men" is their 12th feature -- but despite being longtime critics' favorites, this is only their second movie to register during awards season. "Fargo" was nominated for seven Oscars and won for best actress and screenplay. (The Coen brothers and Anderson, incidentally, have taken home the top prize for directing in the much artier context of the Cannes Film Festival -- the Coens for "The Man Who Wasn't There" in 2001 and Anderson for "Punch-Drunk Love" the following year.)

Ballots, box office in sync

AS many reviewers have noted, 2008 was a banner year for American movies, and the unmissable vitality of the field seems to have given the academy a chance to catch up with critical opinion. It is not getting any easier to make adventurous, personal movies in Hollywood, but a notable cluster of filmmakers -- working in Indiewood or on the fringes of Hollywood, many of them in their 30s and 40s -- have figured out a way to do so. More than any previous Oscar roster, this year's nominees -- heavy on idiosyncratic fare, light on the bloated prestige pictures that typically dominate the night -- seem to reflect that reality.

It could also be argued that "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men," both neo-westerns centered on murderous and perversely charismatic sociopaths ( Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem are favorites to win their respective categories), are the American films of the year that best reflect the darkening national mood.

Whether or not Anderson wins the award, his elevation from film-geek hero to Oscar-sanctioned heavyweight is a victory for what you might call the new New Hollywood. Younger, indie-minded directors have had sporadic success in the last decade. Steven Soderbergh, who paved the way for the American indie film as we know it with "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," won an Oscar for "Traffic" in 2001, when he was also nominated for "Erin Brockovich." Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola and Alexander Payne have all earned directing nominations and won original screenplay Oscars the first time they were nominated (for "Pulp Fiction," "Lost in Translation" and "Sideways," respectively). Indeed, the original screenplay category has been notably friendly to writer-director types, including Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach.

With the Coens and Paul Thomas Anderson the clear front-runners, the 2008 directing Oscar will likely go to a writer-director. Of the last 10 winners, only Peter Jackson (who co-wrote "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King") and James Cameron ("Titanic") had screenplay credits on their films. The fact that writer-directors have not done too well gives a clue as to what voters are normally looking for in a category that has always been somewhat murky.

Swept up by their style

IT can be hard to pinpoint what exactly a director does on a film, given that he or she in theory oversees every aspect of the production and that the job description in practice varies from film to film and from director to director. The redundancy of having best picture and director awards has often been noted -- why would the best film not also be the best-directed, and vice versa? The distinction dates to the beginning of the Academy Awards, when producers were dominant creative forces (the best picture Oscar goes to a film's producers) and directors were often hired hands.

Recent winners (Jackson, Cameron, Ron Howard, Anthony Minghella) indicate that voters are drawn not necessarily to a distinctive directorial vision but above all to grandeur: an imposing or showy visual style, a skillful marshaling of resources on a large scale. This year, at least with the Coens and Anderson (and arguably Schnabel too), the category seems more in line with what French film critics of the '50s meant when they spoke of auteurs: directors whose films were an expression of authorial personality.

Anderson best fits that bill -- "There Will Be Blood," the most eccentric of epics, is nothing if not a film with personality, as well as the boldest American movie of the last year -- but the Coens, given the momentum of "No Country" and the sense that they are overdue, are probably the favorites. (They also won the Directors Guild award, a reliable predictor.) None of the other three could be considered strong contenders. Screenwriter Diablo Cody deserves much of the credit -- or blame, depending on how you see it -- for "Juno." "Michael Clayton" is solidly directed but not flashy enough for a win in this category, against this competition. "The Diving Bell" missed out on a best picture nomination, making Schnabel that much more of a long shot.

If it's any comfort to the losers, the roster of Oscar-winning directors, even more than the acting categories, is a notoriously incomplete one. The list of filmmakers who have never won a director Oscar -- Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Ernst Lubitsch and Robert Altman, just to name the most egregious half-dozen -- amounts to a veritable hall of fame.