By Nicole SperlingDevan Coggan and Joe McGovern
Updated October 23, 2015 at 04:31 PM EDT
Caitlin Cronenberg

Many of this year’s most anticipated movies haven’t hit theaters yet, but the awards buzz is already deafening. While the directing category will likely include one or two filmmakers who’ve been nominated before — e.g., David O. Russell for Joy, and last year’s winner, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, for The Revenant — some of the most daring, unexpected, and thrilling movies this fall have come from directors who have never been nominated for Best Picture or Director: Lenny Abrahamson (Room), Peter Landesman (Concussion), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), and Patricia Riggen (The 33). The last first-time nominee to score a statuette for directing was Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) in 2014, and given their extraordinary new films, one of these four may join him.


When she was approached to direct The 33, an intense reenactment of the 2010 Chilean mine collapse, Riggen thought, “I loved that they were considering a female director for a movie about mines and drills and men in boots and hard hats.” The Mexican filmmaker behind 2007’s Under the Same Moon doubled down by shooting the movie not on a soundstage but in real salt mines. “Thirty-five days, six-day weeks, 14-hour days,” she says. “I wanted to give us all a taste of what it’s like to be a miner.” She got more than a taste. On the first day of filming, Riggen sat down in her chair and was immediately clobbered by a stone on her hard hat. “I took it as a good sign,” she laughs. “I said to the mine, ‘Okay, we know you’re here, we’ll respect you.’ “


He’s the writer-director of critically adored indies The Station Agent and The Visitor, but you probably know him best as Scott Templeton, the unscrupulous Baltimore Sun reporter from The Wire. Now McCarthy’s back in the newspaper business (sort of) as the director of Spotlight, the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that exposed the systemic sex abuse of children by Boston priests — and how the Catholic Church covered it up. McCarthy and his co-writer, Josh Singer, worked with the actual Globe reporters to make sure they got everything right. “Once we started digging into this story, we thought we had to be as true to the story as these reporters were,” McCarthy says.


Irish director Abrahamson persuaded Emma Donoghue, author of the 2010 best-seller Room, to sell him the film rights with one radical promise: He wouldn’t change anything structurally from page to screen. Room is about a mother and son imprisoned in a shed, and the film’s first half never departs the 10′ x 10′ space. Though the plot is grim, Abrahamson elicits an incredible performance from Jacob Tremblay, now 9. “With Jacob, there were aspects of the story we just didn’t want to burden him with,” Abrahamson, a father himself, says. “We talked about what it was to feel really happy — what it felt like just before you fell asleep.” The result is one of the most powerful experiences you’ll have in theaters this year.


Prior to becoming a filmmaker, Peter Landesman was a novelist, painter, and journalist covering such thorny issues as sex trafficking and the Rwandan genocide. Now the writer of Parkland and Kill the Messenger is making his highest-profile film, Concussion. The movie is based on the true story of forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), who discovered widespread brain damage among pro football players — and then fought to do something about it. Landesman let his journalist’s rigor for accuracy guide both the film and its star. “This movie was too important to f— up,” he says. “I didn’t want any false accusations or historical inaccuracy to distract from this amazing story, and from Will’s great performance.”