Competitors?

Directors Steven Spielberg, left, and Rob Marshall could face each other in the best director race. (Matt Sayles / AP)

The Oscar for best director does more than just hail a maestro who orchestrates a great film's actors, writers, cameramen and other sundry pieces and parts.

It also usually foretells the winner of the best picture race.

Why? There are two reasons.

First, logic says that the person who crafts the best film of the year did their job best, too, and deserves the helmer's prize.

The second reason is a curious quirk of Oscar voting that links the two awards. When voters embrace a top film, they usually want to hug someone.

Sometimes it's an actor they want to welcome into the superstar arena (Russell Crowe in "Gladiator") or a producer whose perseverance deserves a backslap (Michael Douglas finally getting the novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to the screen, or Harvey Weinstein making the Bard sexy and funny in "Shakespeare in Love").

Usually, though, the academy wants to reward a director.

When "Schindler's List" was proclaimed best picture, it meant industry insiders had finally acknowledged Steven Spielberg for making movies that not only made money, but also had true artistic value.

And in 2001, even though "A Beautiful Mind" was under siege by the media for sugarcoating the life of its subject, headstrong voters were determined to reach out to former child star Ron Howard and recognize him as a major filmmaker.

Of course, a movie doesn't have to win best picture to earn the director's trophy. Twice in the past 15 years the two awards split. In 2000, Crowe and "Gladiator" snagged the actor and picture honors, while Steven Soderbergh won the directing award for "Traffic."

And in 2002, voters stuck by front-runner "Chicago" as best picture, but thought it was time to honor expatriate Roman Polanski ("The Pianist") at the expense of "Chicago" director Rob Marshall.

That gives Marshall one of this year's most compelling backstories. Plus, his "Memoirs of a Geisha" has many elements that academy members adore. It's a historical costume drama based upon the best-selling novel about the last famous geisha of Imperial Japan.

In many respects it looks a lot like Chinese epic "The Last Emperor," which reigned at the 1987 Oscars with nine wins, including best picture.

What could spoil things for Marshall this time? Once again, it may be academy members' desire to forgive an esteemed veteran for a scandalous relationship with a young gal.

This time it's Woody Allen, who redefines himself as a filmmaker with "Match Point." Then again, he had to. Allen's films had performed so poorly at the box office in recent years that he could no longer drum up financial backing in the U.S. So he headed to England for the tale of a dapper tennis pro who nets a rich wife but can't resist swinging on the side.

The film looks nothing like classic Woody Allen: it's a dark, doomed drama that feels more like Hitchcock, updated and moved to London. But it's a finely honed film that could put Allen back in the Oscar game.

The presumed front-runner for best director laurels is Spielberg, who previously won for "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan." If he prevails for "Munich," Spielberg will be tied with Frank Capra and William Wyler as the second-winningest Oscar directors. The champ is four-time victor John Ford.

"Munich" chronicles the hunt for the Palestinian militants who killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Going far beyond the usual thriller format, the film takes aim at the conscience of Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), who is haunted by the choices he had to make while heading up the hit squad pursuing the assassins.

In the film, Israeli leader Golda Meir shrugs off such fretting saying, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." But as Spielberg told Time magazine, "It's bound to try a man's soul, so it was very important to me to show Avner struggling to keep his soul intact."