In a strong year for directors, Oscar voters took notice.
The academy's directors branch chose a veritable who's who of English-language filmmakers, nominating Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave"), Alfonso Cuaron ("Gravity"), David O. Russell ("American Hustle"), Alexander Payne ("Nebraska") and Martin Scorsese ("The Wolf of Wall Street") for best director Thursday morning.
Not on the list were Spike Jonze ("Her"), Paul Greengrass ("Captain Phillips"), Jean-Marc Vallee ("Dallas Buyers Club") and Stephen Frears ("Philomena"), all of whom saw their movies nominated for best picture. Payne’s entry to the field over Greengrasss was a mild surprise, after the latter had achieved a Directors Guild of America nomination while Payne did not.
The academy avoided some of last year's topsy-turviness, when long-shots Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin both ended up in the field of five while presumptive front-runners and DGA nominees Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were left off the list. Only two of the five DGA and academy nominations matched last year, compared with a more typical four of five this year.
For Russell, the nomination marked his second in a row and third in four years, along with “The Fighter” in 2011 and “Silver Linings Playbook” in 2013.
“You always have to be ready not to get it,” Russell told The Times shortly after the nominations were announced. “You go to bed and you tell your cast and you tell your crew and you tell you craft services people you may not get it. And then you feel a great rush of exuberance when you see your name pop up on the screen.”
The film concludes a whirlwind period for the filmmaker in which he wrote “Hustle” while campaigning for “Silver Linings” and pushed to have the movie come out this year.
“People ask me if I would do it again and I say ‘I would do it again if it presents itself.’ This movie just unfolded itself through every actor, through all of us being together. It was a fountain that just came down on all of us,” he said.
Scorsese also continues a red-hot streak, with his second nomination in three years ( along with “Hugo”) and a remarkable five nominations for his last six films dating back to “Gangs of New York” in 2003.
Always an elite category, the directors award has come to be considered even more lofty in the wake of the best picture category's expansion to as many as 10 films. The winner of the directing award has overlapped with best picture every year in the last decade except for the two years in which Ang Lee took home the prize, 2006 and 2013.
The strong field wasn’t lost on some of the contenders. “There are such titans out there this year, intricate grand films,” said Payne, who directed the more intimate “Nebraska.” “It’s a great year for film. It's just nice that this personal film continues to be mentioned along with them."
McQueen, the man behind one of the most rigorous movies of the year in "12 Years," had a similar take on the field. “People are pushing the envelope and testing narrative in a way that they haven't before," he said. “And audiences are responding.”
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