In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

While uncertainty reigns in the Best Picture race, the Best Director conversation has been rather more concrete for a while now -- which is not to say that it isn't a deep field. It was certainly a competitive one at the nomination stage, with one three slots seemingly nailed down and a generous handful of names duking it out for the final two. The field we got arguably isn't as adventurous or surprise-laden as last year's, but nonetheless includes five distincte artists with passionate followings : three Americans who have been nominated before, one Mexican who has been on the Oscar radar for some time and one Brit who has made the leap to mainstream art film from more experimental roots.

The nominees are...

David O. Russell, "American Hustle"
With three Best Director nominations (plus a pair of writing nods) in four years, Russell has rapidly become a new Academy favorite -- quite the turnaround from the days when voters wouldn't touch his singular sensibility (or reputedly difficult personality) in the likes of "I Heart Huckabees" or "Three Kings." The next time he makes a film as lively and well-liked as his last three efforts (the next time he makes a film, most likely), he could be hard to beat here -- but for now, if he's taking home any gold on Sunday, it'll be in the Original Screenplay race. "American Hustle" is a jazzily directed piece -- and Russell should score many a vote from the actors' branch for his nifty way with an ensemble -- but his achievement doesn't have the formal heft of Alfonso Cuarón's or Steve McQueen's. (Recognition for comedies is even rarer in this category than it is in Best Picture.) When/if Russell takes this award, my guess is it'll be for more of a sweeper. (Check out our interview with Russell here.)

Alfonso Cuarón, "Gravity"
From the LA Critics' Award to the Golden Globe to the BAFTA to the all-important Directors' Guild gong, Cuarón has won more key honors across the season than any of his fellow nominees -- and there's absolutely no reason to think that run won't continue on Sunday night. Even those predicting "12 Years a Slave" for the top prize mostly have the Mexican auteur down for this category: it's rare for a split to be so widely predicted in advance, but that's a testament to the universal agreement over the technical mastery and degree of difficulty involved in this particular directorial feat. (Last year, Ang Lee took the prize for another 3D spectacular, on the strength of similar "how did he do that" dazzle.) It helps, of course, that the supremely versatile Cuarón is widely perceived as due by this point: though he's been nominated before for writing and editing, this is the first Best Director nod for a craftsman who fanbase in drawn from both the multiplex and arthouse crowds. (Check out our interview with Cuarón here.)

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