February 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

2014 Academy Awards

Best director race may not match up with best picture

British director Steve McQueen could win a best director Oscar in a '12 Years a Slave' sweep. (Carl Court / Getty Images)

The general wisdom is that the Oscar for best director goes hand-in-hand with the Oscar for best picture.

But that’s not how it worked last year, and there’s a good chance it won’t work that way this year either.

For the record, the winning picture did go along with the winning director in 2011 (“The Artist,” Michel Hazanavicius), 2010 (“The King’s Speech,” Tom Hooper), 2009 (“The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow), 2008 (“Slumdog Millionaire,” Danny Boyle), 2007 (“No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brothers) and 2006 (“The Departed,” Martin Scorsese), so nobody’s hallucinating the connection.

Still, last year was something of a shocker when director Ben Affleck didn’t even get a nomination for “Argo,” which won best picture. Ang Lee took the director’s statue for “Life of Pi.”

Whatever you thought of “Life of Pi,” it was undeniably visually stunning. And the frontrunning director nominee this year, Alfonso Cuaron, also delivered a technical wonder — “Gravity.”

Still, this is Cuaron’s first directing nomination, whereas David O. Russell (“American Hustle”) has been nominated three times in the past four years. Voters may feel he’s overdue. Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”) is also up for the third time and feels equally overdue.

And then there’s Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), nominated for the eighth time over more than three decades, with one win under his belt.

Obviously Cuaron’s up against some heavyweights, but his biggest challenge may actually be another first-time nominee, Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave.” McQueen’s unsparing picture has the sort of social and political heft the Academy traditionally appreciates.

So let’s break it down:

Martin Scorsese for “The Wolf of Wall Street”: There were many who thought “Wolf” might be too outrageously excessive to garner a nomination, but Scorsese is an icon. Still, the film has little to do with redemption and everything to do with excess and can feel repetitive. Not this year, Marty.

Alexander Payne for “Nebraska”: Certainly the most low-key film among the nominees, it seems more likely that the Academy would honor its veteran stars Bruce Dern or June Squibb before Payne. The film just doesn’t have the obvious fire that usually earns a best director win, although it’s undeniably stylish.

David O. Russell for “American Hustle”: Well, this one certainly has the fire. And with acting nominations in all four categories, it’s easily the year’s great ensemble film. There’s still a chance that the movie could sweep come Oscar night, and in that case Russell —who many thought should have won last year for “Silver Linings Playbook” — is a lock. Even without a sweep, best director-best picture is a possibility.

Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave”: When it comes to emotional impact and political import, this film leads the pack, and McQueen is both relentlessly honest in his portrayal of slave life and occasionally poetic (the hanging scene with kids playing in the background). This could also be part of a sweep, in which case McQueen is in. Again, it’s the sort of “important” film the Academy likes to honor.

Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity”: The Academy doesn’t usually honor science fiction films, nor is it particularly partial to action-adventure movies, and “Gravity” is both of those things. But Cuaron’s technical breakthroughs — the sense of endless, terrifying space the movie offers — along with Sandra Bullock’s mostly solo performance make the film feel sculpted in a way that’s rare. This is, quite simply, the most directed movie of the year. Plus, it just flew past the $700 million mark at the worldwide box office.

Who should win: Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity”

Who will win: Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity”

The 86th annual Academy Awards

8: 30 p.m.

March 2

ABC

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