By Piya Sinha-Roy
January 17, 2019 at 04:35 PM EST
Carlos Somonte/NETFLIX

A wildly ambitious fantasy about a mute woman falling in love with a fish-man, won Guillermo del Toro the directing Oscar last year for The Shape of Water. This year, wild ambition seems to be the only thread tying together the Best Director contenders.

There’s Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, remaking a tale as old as Hollywood (as well as starring in it alongside Lady Gaga) with A Star Is Born; Adam McKay’s satirical take on  Dick Cheney, one of the most elusive figures in U.S. politics and upending the traditional biopic; and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, which tackles African-American identity within the Marvel world. Tighter in scope, but no less impressive, are Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, exploring a black love story in a nostalgic and prescient tale, Peter Farrelly’s unlikely friendship between a black classical pianist and a white working-class bouncer in Green Book, Yorgos Lanthimos’ twisted nightmare of royal manipulation in The Favourite, and Spike Lee’s surreal true story of a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in BlacKkKlansman.

However, it was Alfonso Cuarón who won the best director Golden Globe earlier this month and, boosted by nominations from the Directors Guild (DGA) and Britain’s BAFTA, it’s safe to say he’s the one to beat this season. And his Roma is certainly a cinematic feast: filmed in Spanish and Mixtec and in black and white, with first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio as his lead, critics have called it Cuarón’s magnum opus. But don’t count out Cooper and Lee, who also landed DGA and BAFTA nods.

While all members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote on the Best Director Oscar winner, only the directing branch votes on who is nominated—and directors are a notoriously tough group to impress. Damien Chazelle, the youngest Best Director winner ever for La La Land in 2017, is in the running again this year with First Man, but the Neil Armstrong biopic was shut out of DGA and BAFTA nominations, lessening Chazelle’s Oscar chances. Dark horses include Bo Burnham for his endearing coming-of-age directorial debut, Eighth Grade, and Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski for his period romance Cold War, both receiving DGA nods. Paul Schrader’s climate-change meditation First Reformed or John Krasinski’s silent horror A Quiet Place could also pull off noms.

But where are the ladies? After all, it was a year ago that Natalie Portman introduced the Golden Globe director contenders with “Here are the all-male nominees,” and this year there are only a handful of women in the awards conversation.

Karyn Kusama directs a nearly unrecognizable Nicole Kidman in her gritty LA crime thriller Destroyer, Mimi Leder explores the origin story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the timely biopic On the Basis of Sex, and Josie Rourke takes on warring queens in Mary Queen of Scots, all of whom have all generated awards talk. Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? has earned raves for Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. Chloé Zhao—who has since been tapped to direct Marvel’s The Eternals—was critically praised for her intimate cowboy tale The Rider, and Debra Granik was similarly lauded for her complex father-daughter relationship in Leave No Trace. Both landed Film Independent Spirit Award nominations. All six female filmmakers, however, have been left off BAFTA and DGA lists.

That said, Cuarón—who made Oscar history in 2014 by becoming the first Mexican and Latino filmmaker to win Best Director for the space thriller Gravity—stands above the rest. While Roma may feel like a world away from Gravity, its quiet and nuanced examination of humanity once again demonstrates Cuaron’s specific vision, execution, and of course, ambition.

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