David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, and Joel and Ethan Coen are among this year's hopefuls

David Fincher
*The frontrunner
The Social Network
Age 48
Oscar history He was nominated for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Bio Hazard Though The Social Network is a detailed portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, don’t tell Fincher it’s a biopic. ”In a biopic you’re trying to explain why somebody did something,” he says. ”And that’s the least interesting question about the formation of Facebook to me. I don’t care why. I just want to see what [different people] said happened.”

True Lies Fincher tried to stick to the facts as much as possible. But he proudly admits that at least one scene was dreamed up by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin: Zuckerberg sending a Facebook friend request to his ex-girlfriend (Rooney Mara). ”I don’t know whether she was that important to him. I don’t know that he ever friended her. Is it insensitive or unprofessional to say that I don’t care?” says Fincher. ”We have plenty of [scenes in the script] that make Mark look callous. And then Aaron created this little moment of doubt and wanting connection. There’s no reason to believe it ever took place, but I think it’s important in making Mark a whole person.”

Up Next Fincher is now filming a Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, due Dec. 21. —Adam Markovitz

Tom Hooper
The King’s Speech
Age 38
Oscar history First nomination.

The Crying Game While researching The King’s Speech, his third feature, Hooper found archival footage of King George VI stuttering his way through a 1938 speech in Glasgow. ”Every time you go back to a close-up of King George VI, there is this look in his eyes that is utterly heart-breaking,” says Hooper, who won an Emmy for directing the 2006 HBO miniseries Elizabeth I. ”You could see that all he wanted to do is get it right.”

Start With A Bang On the first day of production, instead of beginning with a mundane scene, Hooper opted to film Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush’s initial therapy session. ”I felt there was something about the nerves that happen on a first day between the actors and a director that was peculiarly appropriate to the nervousness of that first meeting,” says Hooper.

Up Next Hooper hasn’t yet chosen his follow-up project. —Dave Karger

David O. Russell
The Fighter
Age 52
Oscar history First nomination.

The Misunderstood Auteur Ever since he crossed over from being the indie darling behind 1994’s Spanking the Monkey and 1996’s Flirting With Disaster, Russell has been depicted as…a complex character. He can be passionate, abrasive, brilliant, and occasionally a bad boy — as in his infamous dustups with George Clooney on 1999’s Three Kings and Lily Tomlin during the shooting of 2004’s I [Heart] Huckabees. But Amy Adams, his leading lady in The Fighter, insists Russell is even more complicated. ”Deep down, I think he’s a delicate and a gentle soul,” she says. ”But when we were doing our first table read for The Fighter, David was sitting there texting as I was reading. And I thought, ‘Ooo-kay.’ When I left, I realized he’d been texting me! He had pages of notes about my character. My first reaction was insecurity — he hates what I’m doing! He isn’t even paying attention! But he was getting excited watching me read. On face value, it seemed pretty off-putting, but that’s just David being David.”

Up Next Russell will reteam with Fighter star Mark Wahlberg for Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, an adaptation of the hit videogame series about a treasure-hunting descendant of Sir Francis Drake.
Chris Nashawaty

Darren Aronofsky
Black Swan
Age 41
Oscar history First nomination.

Turning Point Aronofsky grew up watching his older sister practice ballet. ”The whole family would watch,” he says. ”I didn’t know what I was looking at. In my head it was something so alien, something out of the 19th century. I figured there must be some real stories and feelings about that world.”

Practice Makes Perfect Black Swan star Barbara Hershey says Aronofsky leaves no stone (or scene) unturned while shooting. ”He has you do 10 different versions. You walk away from the set having really explored it. You don’t go home at night and hit your head and say ‘Why didn’t I do that?”’

Up Next This spring, Aronofsky begins shooting The Wolverine, the latest in the X-Men series starring Hugh Jackman (whom he directed in 2006’s The Fountain). —Sara Vilkomerson

Joel And Ethan Coen
True Grit
Age 56 and 53
Oscar history They have four Oscars: Original Screenplay for 1996’s Fargo and Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture for 2007’s No Country for Old Men. Each has earned six other nominations, for those films as well as O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and A Serious Man (2009).

Insiders At Last With grosses now above $138.5 million, True Grit is the Coen brothers’ biggest commercial hit so far. And they’re not thrilled about it. As Ethan recently told EW about attending last year’s Oscar ceremony, ”I was looking around thinking, ‘I’ve been here several times and I know most of these people. Am I now a Hollywood insider?’ You kind of relate to Alec Guinness at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai when he goes, ‘What have I done?”’

A Kid-Friendly Coen Movie True Grit is the brothers’ first PG-13 film since 2003’s divorce comedy Intolerable Cruelty. ”We wanted the movie to have a certain feel — a young-adult adventure,” says Ethan. Adds Joel, ”The taste and tone is different [from No Country for Old Men]. Yes, okay, people get shot, but the violence is in a completely different context.”

Up Next ”We have no idea,” says Ethan. —Benjamin Svetkey