Phillip Noyce told a rebel's urgent tale as a real thriller in "Catch a Fire." Allen Coulter resurrected Ben Affleck's career while probing the fall of TV's Superman in "Hollywoodland."
Duos rarely get nominated but Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris could be an exception for "Little Miss Sunshine." The studio is championing many art-house filmmakers: Richard Eyre for "Notes on a Scandal," Kevin Macdonald for "The Last King of Scotland" and Nicholas Hytner for "The History Boys."
"The Queen" could lift up past nominee Stephen Frears ("The Grifters"), but "Venus" director Roger Michell is a long shot.
"Little Children" proves previous writing nominee Todd Field9 ("In the Bedroom") is maturing as a filmmaker.
The stable is crowded here. Clint Eastwood could get a nod for either "Flags of Our Fathers" or "Letters From Iwo Jima," while Oliver Stone could make the cut with "World Trade Center." Those two-time past winners join one of today's hottest names, Bill Condon, director of "Dreamgirls."
"Babel's" A-list cast may help Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu get some overdue academy notice.
Film critics are wild for Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth." Robert Altman received an honorary Oscar in March, but sentiment builds for the late director's "A Prairie Home Companion" as his first competitive win.
Unknown Italian Gabriele Muccino could be embraced for "The Pursuit of Happyness" thanks to voters' love of heart-tuggers. They traditionally shun comedies, which could hurt Nancy Meyers' chances for "The Holiday" and maybe "Stranger Than Fiction's" Marc Forster.
Sony Pictures Classics
The studio specializes in foreign-language entries: "Volver" (Pedro Almodovar), "Curse of the Golden Flower" (Zhang Yimou) and "Lives of Others" (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck).
A bounty of indie and critic awards get Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson" full notice.
Larry Charles crossed over spectacularly from TV ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") to film with "Borat". David Frankel's "The Devil Wears Prada" may appeal to Hollywood's dark side.
"The Good Shepherd's" Robert De Niro may have a good chance because Oscar voters love actors turned directors. Alfonso Cuaron weds artsy style with futuristic thrills in "Children of Men." "United 93" soars with Paul Greengrass' taut helming.
"The Departed" may prove Martin Scorsese's Oscar hopes aren't dead. Past champ Steven Soderbergh returns with "The Good German" while a blockbuster director -- Edward Zwick of "Blood Diamond" -- and a critics' favorite -- Darren Aronofsky of "The Fountain" -- aim for academy validation.
Christopher Guest will discover whether Oscar voters have an ironic sense of humor -- enough, anyway, to embrace his showbiz satire "For Your Consideration." John Curran creates a rich cinematic tapestry in "The Painted Veil."
"Miss Potter's" Chris Noonan was nominated for "Babe." "Breaking and Entering's" Anthony Minghella won for "The English Patient." Emilio Estevez is campaigning to overcome his heartthrob reputation with "Bobby."
-- TOM O'NEIL