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14. Michael Haneke
THE EVIDENCE: Funny Games (1997), The Piano Teacher (2001), Caché (2005), The White Ribbon (2009), Amour (2012)
WHY HIM: For years, this Austrian director was known for his creepouts (Caché), freakouts (Funny Games), and the general air of dislocating disturbance that he imparts to everything his camera peers at. His films had a cold brilliance, but then, with Amour — a tale of old age and illness and love and death — Haneke found a new humanity and transcended his earlier films, even as he still found ways to unsettle us even more deeply. —Owen Gleiberman
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Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Oscar History: Lee won for directing 2005's Brokeback Mountain. He was also nominated for both directing and producing 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Impossible Dreams: Many regarded Yann Martel's 2001 novel about a teenage boy stranded on a lifeboat with a full-grown tiger as unfilmable. In the end, Lee devoted four years to trying to adapt the best-seller despite the challenges of working with water, animals, an inexperienced lead actor (Suraj Sharma), and 3-D. ''It was a long, hard journey,'' the director admits. ''It was one that had me concerned and required faith more than most.''
Cold Dancing Feet: Before committing to shooting Pi in 3-D, Lee embarked on a genre fact-finding mission. And he says he nearly abandoned the project after sitting through 2010's Step Up 3D. ''He said, 'This won't work, I can't do 3-D, it's a terrible mistake,'?'' recalls Pi cinematographer Claudio Miranda. ''He was serious, but he came back around.''
I've Got a Feeling: Though Lee spent a year and a half charting out the precise use of 3-D in Pi, Miranda says that on set the director worked by instinct as much as intellect. ''Ang doesn't really talk too much about technical [matters] — he talks to me about how things feel. 'It feels jiggly, very jangly, my eyes feel like jelly right now,'?'' says the cinematographer. ''That's why his movies have so much emotional connection.''
Up Next: He has yet to announce his next project. —Geoff Boucher
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David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Oscar History: He was nominated for Best Director in 2011 for The Fighter.
Ordinary People: The late director Sydney Pollack gave Russell the Matthew Quick novel on which Silver Linings is based, and Russell had planned to make the dramedy before The Fighter. ''The money didn't come together, so we made The Fighter first,'' says Russell. ''But the two [films] combined to give me an opportunity to really delve deep and focus on these worlds with families from particular neighborhoods'' — Lowell, Mass., in The Fighter and working-class Philadelphia in Silver Linings. ''I want to be around these people no matter how troubled some of them might be.''
Pajama Game: When he set out to film an explosive late-night confrontation between a father and son (played by Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper), Russell had at least one specific image in mind. ''I always had in my head the vision of Robert De Niro in his bloody pajamas walking across the neighbors' lawn,'' says the director. ''Bradley said recently that the moment of truth in a family or relationship always seems to happen in your pajamas. I think that's true.''
Up Next: Next month, he starts production on an as-yet-untitled film based on a real-life corruption case involving New Jersey politicians in the 1970s, starring Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner. —Sara Vilkomerson
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Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Oscar History: He now has 15 Oscar nominations, seven for Best Director and eight for Best Picture. He's won three, for directing and producing 1993's Schindler's List and for directing 1998's Saving Private Ryan. He also won the honorary Irving G. Thalberg award in 1987.
What's in a Name? On the set of Lincoln, Spielberg had everyone refer to the actors by their characters' titles. Daniel Day-Lewis, who famously stayed in character through most of the shoot, was Mr. President. ''That was something I felt was important to establish a little authenticity, maybe even more for me than for them,'' Spielberg says. Day-Lewis gave the director a nickname of his own: Skipper.
Honestly, Abe: What is Spielberg's final impression of Lincoln? ''He was a man of profound patience and obviously profound thought,'' says the filmmaker. ''He could see the outcome clearly, but then he had to go back in time and figure out, 'What parts of this vast [governmental] instrument need to be put into motion to the exact degree, and in the exact angle, to effect the outcome the way I envision the outcome?' No other president in our history has ever had a mind like that.''
Up Next: He aims to start shooting the sci-fi war epic Robopocalypse sometime in 2014. —Anthony Breznican
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Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Oscar History: First nomination.
Huck Finn on the Bayou: For his insanely ambitious first feature, Zeitlin depicted a postapocalyptic world from the point of view of a very young girl named Hushpuppy, played by Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. ''I wanted Hushpuppy to be this character like Huckleberry Finn or Robin Hood, like all these characters that you think of as heroes,'' says the writer-director. ''The movie is about survival and the power of this little girl.''
Surreality Bites: ''The maxim in film school is you shouldn't make films with children, you shouldn't make films with animals,'' says producer Dan Janvey. ''We set out to make a movie starring a child, half of it set in the water, and every single shot has animals or pyrotechnics in it. It was all crazy, but we were following Zeitlin.''
A Dream Fulfilled: ''There was a destiny to this that's hard to articulate,'' says Zeitlin of the $1.8 million project, which became a phenomenon at last year's Sundance Film Festival and landed distribution with Fox Searchlight. ''It's just hard to fathom where we came from and the conditions under which this started and where we've ended up in one year.''
Up Next: He's planning to write and direct another original story, set again in Louisiana. —Karen Valby