"How are you not the best director if you made the best movie?” I remember this question being asked, with ingenuous bafflement, at an Oscar party earlier this year, as the puzzle of Ben Affleck’s missing Best Director nomination was being hashed out for the umpteenth time in six weeks. It’s one that surfaces repeatedly in similar situations, often by people who haven’t given that much thought to its politics – it’s a funny truth that hardline auteurists and many casual film fans are united in their belief that all films are the exclusive creative property of their directors, and should only be measured and compared as such.

 Quite aside from discounting the potentially balance-shifting individual contributions of writers, producers, actors and craftsmen to a finished film, that equation also underestimates the combined alchemy of collaboration, the spark that makes some great films more than the sum of their parts. For most critics, the best and best-directed films of the year tend to overlap, but they needn’t always: some directorial statements are stronger than others, even when the films are similarly effective.

It’d be nice to believe that the Academy believes this too, that last year’s Oscars judiciously split the difference between the humming Hollywood craftsmanship of “Argo” and Ang Lee’s more unusual, advanced creative vision in “Life of Pi.” But we know it was an accidental outcome more than anything else: Affleck would likely have won Best Director in a walk, had the select directors’ branch collectively nominated him in the first place. The Academy’s general reluctance to separate their two top prizes suggests they, too, are auteurists of a sort – albeit ones with occasionally bland taste in stylists. (Hey, even BAFTA balked at rewarding Tom Hooper.)

On the rare occasions that Best Picture and Best Director do part ways, it’s usually because the helmer of the voting collective’s favourite film lacks either industry or aesthetic presence relative to a more seasoned or distinctive rival: think Paul Haggis, Hugh Hudson, John Madden or Rob Marshall. There are exceptions, of course: think Ridley Scott or Francis Ford Coppola, both of whom lost Best Director to heavily styled directors’ pieces, even as their films triumphed. Still, considering how reputation-reliant the Oscars can be in other areas, it’s less common than you might think for the race to come down to a photo-finish between two filmmakers of comparably high critical and industry repute.

Which is why it’s exciting, this year, that the two leading contenders so far for the gold come not only from formidable filmmakers with identifiably singular visions, but filmmakers who have previously been a little outside the Academy’s comfort zone.

Alfonso Cuarón, the longer-serving of the two, has come closer, netting writing and editing nominations for “Children of Men” and “Y tu Mama Tambien,” though he’s never made something that hit both the highbrow and mainstream demographics quite as squarely as “Gravity.” (Not every director does, after all.) Steve McQueen may be only three features into his filmmaking career, but his muscular, sense-led style – bearing all the hallmarks of his celebrated career in visual arts – has seemed auspiciously established since his 2008 debut “Hunger” – an elemental history of human-rights abuse to which “12 Years a Slave” seems a natural, if enlarged, extension.

It’d be a thrill to have either director in the race in any given year. The prospect of them going to head-to-head is both tantalizing and a little saddening. It’d be painful to see either man (or, who knows, both men) lose for a landmark project that may or may not prove to be a unique awards opportunity; I’m also not looking forward to seeing two great artists subjected to the snippy side-taking and empty, backlash-laden discourse that comes with awards season, though it’s hard to see either one getting too fazed about it.

They won’t be alone, either: 2013 is shaping up to be the most robustly director-powered Oscar race in many a year, even more so than 2009’s memorable faceoff between contrasting genre experts and former partners Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron. Gutsy action realist Paul Greengrass, a former nominee for “United 93,” may well be in the mix for “Captain Phillips”; new Oscar regulars the Coens, following the mainstream allowances of “True Grit,” are back on cool, pristine auteur form with “Inside Llewyn Davis”; “Blue Jasmine” is Woody Allen’s most formally disciplined, tonally daring film since the early Nineties; the reliably playful Spike Jonze is said to be back on the awards radar for the tender exploration of “Her.” If David O. Russell nabs a third nomination in four years for “American Hustle,” he’ll be among the spikiest contemporary filmmakers to have attained the position of an Academy mainstay.

People will disagree over how many of these directors can be reasonably termed “auteurs” – a word that means different things to different cinephiles – but they’re certainly not journeymen. We have yet to see what more respectably workmanlike talents like John Lee Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks”) and George Clooney (“The Monuments Men”) have to bring to the table, but they’ll need to be at the very peak of their proficient powers to compete.

Or so one would like to think – though past experience has told us that when a sizable portion of the Academy really falls for a film, any director can benefit. It’s a crucial distinction that the Oscar category in question is technically named “Best Directing” rather than “Best Director.” Those who checked off Tom Hooper’s name three years ago over Russell, the Coens, David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky – to the chagrin of film critics and movie geeks alike – may not have thought he was a superior director to his competitors, but they dug his steering of one particular film that little bit more than the rest.

The Academy’s roster of Best Director winners runs the gamut from major (Polanski, Scorsese, Wilder, Allen, Bertolucci) to, well, less major (Delbert Mann, Kevin Costner, John G. Avildsen). Not all names in the former column have won deservedly, or for their signature work; not all in the latter are a blight on the award’s reputation. Still, the odds this year are in favor of the Oscars landing upon a heavyweight filmmaker for an equally heavyweight film – or perhaps even dividing the spoils between two. It’s not a possibility to take for granted.

Check out my updated Oscar predictions here.