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The Director Crunch

Filmmakers with singular visions (and moderate budgets) lead the pack of Oscar hopefuls in one of the year’s tightest races

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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 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; 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 $154 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. The safest bet for the fifth slot is Nolan for his space epic Interstellar, but the directors’ branch of the Academy is small and notoriously unpredictable. (It has snubbed both Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow.) So the final nom may go to a less obvious choice: Wild‘s Jean-Marc Vallée, who was ignored last year for Dallas Buyers Club, newbie Damien Chazelle for his kinetic Whiplash, or perhaps Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), who has never been nominated in this category.

The true dark horse, though, may be Angelina Jolie for her WWII drama Unbroken. Yet to be screened by voters, it’s already being hyped as a Best Picture contender. Adding Jolie to the race — two female directors! — would not only glam up Oscar night, it would be unprecedented.

For more Oscar predictions from Nicole Sperling, go to ew.com/prizefighter.