Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David O. Russell, The Fighter
The winner here will depend on the Academy voters' notion of what a director does. Is he the imposing orchestrator of another man's script, as Fincher was with Aaron Sorkin's Social Network screenplay? Is he an "actor's director" like Hooper, eliciting well-judged performances from his stars (and caricatures from some of his supporting players)? Is he a cinematic Svengali, horsewhipping his performers to psychological extremes, as Aronofsky did with Natalie Portman and her weird sisters in Black Swan and Russell did with everyone but Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter? Or is he a Coen brother making a western? That worked when Joel and Ethan did No Country for Old Men. Soon True Grit will be twice the box office hit that their previous Academy Awardwinner was, though it's unlikely to snag them a second joint Oscar. Count on Fincher who is among the elite Hollywood directors but has been nominated for an Oscar only once before, for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to take home the gold.
One directorial job description that seemingly does not suit Oscar voters is the artful conductor of his own complex symphony, as Christopher Nolan was with Inception. Two years ago, Nolan's The Dark Knight was in contention, but he was ignored as a Best Director finalist, and his film wasn't one of the five nominees for Best Picture. The exclusion of that huge critical and popular success was the reason the top category was expanded to 10 slots. Apparently, the Best Director list will have to be bigger before the industry's most ambitious, audacious filmmaker gets on it.