(The Oscar Guide will be your chaperone through the Academy's 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 26, with the Best Picture finale on Saturday, February 25.) 

For many Oscar voters and watchers, Best Director appears to be something of a superfluous category: If you directed the best film of the year, the reasoning goes, you must be the best director of the year too. That may be true more often than not, but the Academy doesn't always distinguish between a true visionary and a safe pair of hands guiding well-chosen collaborators.

So it is that, over 83 years of Academy Awards history, the Best Picture and Best Director awards have gone to the same film 75% of the time -- and in recent years, haven't been separated since the 2005 ceremony. Last year, the Academy opted for the safe pair of hands: Tom Hooper, a comparatively untested Brit with a TV background, beat four idiosyncratic American auteurs, to the chagrin of critics everywhere. This year again sees a foreign first-time nominee pitted against a quartet of more established Yanks. (All four of them, moreover, are previous nominees -- the highest proportion in the category since 1993.) Once again, the outsider is favored to triumph, though in this case, it's for a work of more director-centered ingenuity. He's also one of four writer-directors among the nominees, a number last matched in 1995.      

The nominees are...

Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"

Alexander Payne, "The Descendants"

Martin Scorsese, "Hugo"

Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"

Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life"

This was a relatively easy field to forecast, and one of the few where I went 5-for-5 with my own predictions. Some were expecting to see David Fincher score a second consecutive nod here for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," but his DGA nomination was a surprise to begin with; the Academy's smaller, more highbrow directors' branch was always likelier to favor the loftier auteur sensibility of Malick instead. Would that their adventurous extended to the silk-and-steel genre expertise of Nicolas Winding Refn for "Drive" or Lynne Ramsay's rigorous stylization of "We Need to Talk About Kevin" -- both BAFTA-nominated -- but we shan't ask for miracles.  

The comparative young Turk in the field is, conversely, a fortysomething Frenchman. I doubt most voters were familiar with Paris-born Michel Hazanavicius's name a year ago -- unless, of course, they're devotees of commercial Gallic comedy, in which case his pair of "OSS 117" spy spoofs, both smash hits at home, would have prepared them for the fleet-footed pastiche expertise of Best Picture frontrunner "The Artist." Hazanavicius stands to win three Oscars on Sunday -- he's also up for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing -- but this is the one that makes the most sense: whether you think it a gimmick or a revelation, "The Artist" is primarily a directorial gambit, appropriating past cinematic forms while reflecting its maker's own artistic enthusiasms. The BAFTA, BFCA, London and New York Film Critics' awards have all gone his way -- as, most crucially, has the DGA Award. As if you needed reminding, the Guild has anticipated the Oscar on all but six occasions. Don't expect this to be the seventh.

After "Sideways," for which he landed his first Best Director Oscar nomination and won his first statuette in the writing category, Alexander Payne indulged in a seven-year break. His return, however, suggested no time had passed at all: his latest dramedy of middle-aged, middle-class ennui, "The Descendants," returned him directly to the Academy fold, earning him a second straight directing bid and his third in the Adapted Screenplay category. It seems, however, that the Nebraskan will once more have to settle for the consolation prize of a writing Oscar: even at the film's peak points in the race, when it won Best Picture from the LA Critics and Golden Globes, Payne hasn't managed to take a single precursor prize for Best Director. It could be that the industry still views Payne as a writer first and a filmmaker second, in which case the modest, even televisual qualities of his latest won't do much to change their minds.

For a good few weeks, the blogosphere was hell-bent on making us believe this was a race between two directors with separate valentines to silent-era filmmaking, that even if the French film was unstoppable in the top category, sentiment would carry the day for Martin Scorsese. The Golden Globes, always glad of a chance to reward a known name, played along by handing him their Best Director award; the Academy, meanwhile, did their bit by making "Hugo" the top nominee. But is anybody really feeling it for Marty? His meticulously crafted children's film appears to be more admired than actively loved in the industry, and the fact remains that it's a wildly expensive commercial flop -- the kind of achievement the Academy is usually loath to reward with more than technical prizes. If he was still Oscar-less, it'd be a different story; but voters rewarded him only five years ago for a more popular movie, and are unlikely to feel they still owe him.   

Scorsese isn't the only former Best Director winner in the mix here, nor is he the only seven-time nominee. For his amiable time-travel comedy "Midnight in Paris," Woody Allen scored his first nomination in the category since 1994's "Bullets Over Broadway," and only his third tied to a Best Picture nomination. The media has heralded several mini-comebacks for Allen over the last few years -- as opposed to simply acknowledging that, like most directors, his latter-day work is uneven -- but this is the first of them the Academy has bought wholesale. They may yet reward him with a third Best Original Screenplay Oscar, but in the bigger categories, he's likely to be a victim of his past success: given that he won here 34 years ago for "Annie Hall," do even the new film's most devoted fans think it's in the same league as that classic? With no Best Director wins this season, Woody remains on the sidelines -- which is just how he likes it.

Rounding out the category is the second nominee, alongside Allen, unlikely to show up on Oscar night. The clear first choice of many a cinephile, reclusive slow-loris auteur Terrence Malick scores his second Best Director nomination 13 years after his first -- though only one film has landed in between, so his strike rate's getting pretty good. That's all the more impressive given how far his sensibility has drifted from any conventional notions of Oscar-friendliness: the only straight-up art film in the mix, "The Tree of Life" is a poetically personal meditation on faith and mortality that some find rapturous, some pompous and some simply inscrutable. (Some of us, meanwhile, opt for a bit from all three boxes.) It's always pleasing when the directors stand up for achievements this singular and polarizing -- but even if there's no mistaking just how directed the whole enterprise is, it's hard to see the membership at large being persuaded in sufficient numbers.

Will win: Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"

Could win: Martin Scorsese, "Hugo"

Should win: Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"

Should have been here: Lynne Ramsay, "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

Keep track of our current rankings in the Best Director category via its Contenders page here

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What do you think should be taking home this gold in this category? Who got robbed? Speak up in the comments section below!

(Read previous installments of the Oscar Guide here.)

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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