Denzel Washington, Antwone Fisher

Our way early look at Best Director contenders

In 2001 a director named Steven (Soderbergh) earned dual nominations for ”Traffic” and ”Erin Brockovich.” Can another Steven — — pull off the same feat next year with ”Catch Me if You Can” and ”Minority Report”? To get even one nomination, he’ll have to fend off recent winner Sam Mendes, who followed up 1999’s ”American Beauty” with ”Road to Perdition,” and a host of other previous nominees. Martin Scorsese could rack up directing nod No. 4 (and his first in more than a decade) for ”Gangs of New York,” while Peter Jackson might make it two years in a row with ”The Two Towers.” Meanwhile, ”The Hours”’ Stephen Daldry and ”Adaptation”’s Spike Jonze are also each gunning for their second citations in this category. And after winning prizes at Cannes, ”Punch-Drunk Love”’s Paul Thomas Anderson and ”The Pianist”’s Roman Polanski could be recognized by Oscar as well.

As for the potential rookies, Alexander Payne (a writing nominee for ”Election”) could make the list for ”About Schmidt,” while past foreign-film winner Pedro Almodovar may break through with ”Talk to Her,” and Spike Lee, who’s earned nods in the writing and documentary categories, looks to enter this race for the first time with ”25th Hour.” First-timers Rob Marshall, who directed ”Chicago,” and Denzel Washington, behind the camera for ”Antwone Fisher” (pictured), may also experience beginner’s luck. Indie filmmakers like ”Far From Heaven”’s Todd Haynes and ”Y Tu Mama Tambien”’s Alfonso Cuaron can’t be counted out. And ”Solaris”’ Steven Soderbergh himself may return two years after his historic Oscar twofer.