Kathryn Bigelow, Jason Reitman, and James Cameron are among this year's hopefuls

Kathryn Bigelow
The frontrunner
The Hurt Locker
Age 58
Oscar history With her first nod, Bigelow becomes only the fourth woman ever recognized in this category.

War is hell Over nearly 30 years, she has riveted audiences with adrenalized, immersive films like Point Break and Strange Days. She got topical with The Hurt Locker, an Iraq drama about a team of explosives-defusion experts in Baghdad. ”This is a war of bombs,” says Bigelow, who shot the film on the streets of Jordan in blistering summer heat. ”But it’s still somewhat abstract to the general public. This film has put a magnifying glass on what they’re facing over there, how hellish the environment is, and how potentially futile the effort is.”

Making history Locker has positioned Bigelow as possibly the first woman ever to win an Oscar for directing. ”I just feel deeply gratified that the film has been embraced,” she says. ”I suppose you always swing for the fences, but this…” One man who might keep her from the prize is Avatar‘s James Cameron, who happens to be her ex-husband. Luckily, there’s no tension there. (They’ve been divorced for 17 years.) ”We’ve always been great friends,” Bigelow says.

Up next She’s prepping Triple Frontier, an action film set at the border of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. —Sean Smith

Jason Reitman
Up in the Air
Age 32
Oscar history He earned a Best Director nomination for 2007’s Juno.

The Wedding Party The authenticity-minded director used footage of real, laid-off workers to play opposite George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer. Reitman’s vérité approach extended to the Missouri-set wedding of Ryan’s sister (Melanie Lynskey) to her cold-footed groom (Danny McBride). ”I hired a St. Louis wedding coordinator, a St. Louis wedding band, and a St. Louis priest,” he says. ”We stuck everyone inside the church, and the crew hid. We had the ceremony and the reception, and there was no interference from me, so it was like a real wedding. Danny and Melanie are married, as far as I’m concerned. They’re just short a license!”

Up next Reitman is currently adapting Joyce Maynard’s book Labor Day. —Missy Schwartz

James Cameron
Age 55
Oscar history Titanic dominated the Academy Awards in 1998, earning director-producer Cameron trophies for Best Editing, Best Director, and Best Picture.

How he did it To shoot his boy-meets-big-blue-alien-girl love story, Cameron invented new types of cameras and pioneered a breakthrough method of blending live action with photorealistic CGI. ”Avatar was a tough, tough movie to make,” says Cameron, who first conceived the film 15 years ago. ”Absolutely the toughest. With Titanic, at least I actually had something I could point the camera at. But Avatar was in a whole new landscape. It was a real twilight zone.”

The cat woman For stars like Sigourney Weaver, who spent parts of the past three years running around a blank soundstage in Playa Vista, Calif., pretending to have a tail, the Avatar experience was a refresher course in acting basics. ”We were in these little catsuits on an empty stage — it was glorious!” she says.

Up next An Avatar sequel, of course. ”The goal is to make it in half the time and for half the money,” says Cameron. He’s also optioned the rights to The Last Train From Hiroshima, which tells the true story of a man who managed to survive both atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. —Benjamin Svetskey

Lee Daniels
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Age 50
Oscar history First nomination.

Shorthand notes Thanks to their tough childhoods, Daniels and actress Mo’Nique, who plays abusive mother Mary Jones, were always in sync on set. ”When we were working together, I just grunted,” says Daniels. ”I worked in syllables. I’d just grunt and nod my head and use my hands a little bit. It’s almost like we were one. It was God working. I talked to her in tongues pretty much. Because you can’t really articulate Mary. We both grew up with her: She was our neighbor, she was our aunt, she was our classmate. Mary’s someone that we both completely 100 percent knew.”

That golden feeling Precious is only Daniels’ second film as a director, but he produced Monster’s Ball, for which Halle Berry won the Best Actress Oscar in 2002. ”I felt very similar to how I felt with Monster’s Ball,” he says of the Precious set. ”You knew that magic was happening.”

Up next He’s set to direct Selma, about the seminal 1965 civil rights march that began in the Alabama town. — Dave Karger

Quentin Tarantino
Inglourious Basterds
Age 46
Oscar history He snagged a Best Director nomination for 1994’s Pulp Fiction and took home a statuette (along with co-writer Roger Avary) for the film’s original screenplay.

Inspirations Over the past 20 years, Tarantino has tipped his auteur’s cap to gangster flicks (Reservoir Dogs), blaxploitation cheapies (Jackie Brown), and martial-arts bloodfests (Kill Bill). With Basterds, his model was a certain kind of war movie. The kind that…ah, we’ll just let him explain: ”I’ve always liked that subgenre: a bunch of guys on a mission. In the 1940s they made war movies with this wonderful mix of adventure and action. And comedy, too. That’s all my s—, you know?”

Up next Nothing’s in stone yet, but Tarantino has publicly flirted with making a third Kill Bill installment as well as a Basterds prequel.