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Oscars cheat sheet: meet the Best Director nominees

This year’s talent slate broke Oscar records.

Christina Animashaun/Vox; Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Oscar nominations for Best Director represent a bevy of milestones. Nominee Greta Gerwig is only the fifth woman to be nominated in the category in Oscars history; Jordan Peele is only the fifth black person to be nominated in the category, and the first black person to be nominated for writing, directing, and producing in the same year. It’s the first nomination in the category for everyone except Paul Thomas Anderson — surprising especially given the presence of Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro, both beloved filmmakers with many hit movies under their belts.

Each of these directors exhibits a distinctive style and comes from a filmmaking background that’s markedly different from that of the other nominees — from mumblecore to comedy to idiosyncratic dramas and more. Here’s a quick guide to each of the filmmakers nominated in the category, and what’s made them distinctive over their careers.

Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk

BAFTA: A Life In Pictures: Christopher Nolan - Photocall
Christopher Nolan in December 2017.
Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Christopher Nolan’s films have been nominated for a total of 26 Oscars before this year, and won seven of them. And Nolan himself has been nominated for three: two for screenplays (Inception and Memento), and one as producer of Inception. But he’s never won an Oscar. And perhaps more surprisingly, Nolan — who may be the most bankable director working today — has never been nominated for Best Director, until Dunkirk.

Nolan, who was born in London and holds both British and American citizenship, made his debut as a director 20 years ago, with Following, but his follow-up to that film, 2000’s Memento, is what made people sit up and take notice. Memento landed two Oscar nominations, including one for Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who co-wrote the screenplay based on a short story by Jonathan.

After Memento and its follow-up, Insomnia (the only one of his films on which he does not have a screenplay credit), he changed the way many people thought about superhero films with his Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises), punctuated by a few mind-bending films with original screenplays (The Prestige and Inception). His last film prior to Dunkirk was Interstellar, an epic sci-fi drama.

So Dunkirk, a historical film about war that feels like anything but a war film, was a bit of a surprise in the context of Nolan’s filmography. But the movie plays with time and memory in a way that feels entirely in keeping with all of Nolan’s movies. Dunkirk feels like a pure distillation of what Nolan does best: spare, innovative, visually stunning, and philosophically rich, it’s no wonder it’s the movie for which he finally got the nomination.

Read our review of Dunkirk, explanation of the various formats in which it is projected, interview with Oscar-nominated composer Hans Zimmer, historical background on the film’s “mole,” and overview of Nolan’s ouevre.

Jordan Peele, Get Out

24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Red Carpet
Jordan Peele at the SAG awards in January 2018.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Turner

Prior to Get Out, Peele was primarily known as a comedian and a TV performer, with four Emmy nominations (and one win) under his belt. He’s also racked up awards and nominations from the NAACP, the Writer’s Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, and a number of critics’ associations. Peele is best known for his comedy collaborations, which often comment on issues of race in America — and in that light, Get Out makes sense, though it’s a much more ambitious and polished project than any of his previous work.

Peele started his on-screen career as a cast member on Mad TV in 2003, at the same time as Keegan-Michael Key. He left the show in 2008 and did a variety of other roles, but the duo eventually landed their own show on Comedy Central, the sketch comedy show Key & Peele. They often focused on race and class (and were screamingly funny), for which they won acclaim, including an Emmy in 2016. One of the pair’s funniest and most popular bits centered on then-President Obama’s “anger translator”; Peele played the cool and collected Obama, while Key played a character named Luther who said what he really thought. (Obama liked the bit so much that he had Key show up and play Luther at the 2015 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.)

Peele co-wrote the 2016 film Keanu with Alex Rubens, and he and Key starred in the film — a kooky amalgam of stoner comedy and adventure-heist centering on a missing kitten — but it’s safe to say nobody quite saw Get Out coming the following year. Peele’s confident writing and direction is clear from the first frame of the very funny socially-conscious horror movie, which has the distinction of being the first February release nominated for Best Picture since 1991, when The Silence of the Lambs took home Best Picture and four other Oscars. Get Out is clearly hoping for a repeat performance — not just for star Daniel Kaluuya in the Best Actor category, but for Peele, who is the first black man in history to be nominated as writer, director, and producer at the Oscars.

Read our review of Get Out, an analysis of how the film deconstructs racism for white people, and an exploration of how its nominations show the Academy’s shifting relationship to horror.

Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird

43rd Annual Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards - Arrivals
Greta Gerwig in January 2018.
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Greta Gerwig is only the fifth woman nominated for Best Director in the history of the Oscars, and on paper Lady Bird doesn’t seem like the most likely candidate to occasion that milestone. A coming-of-age story about a high school senior in Sacramento, California, Lady Bird isn’t the sort of movie the Oscars have typically honored. But it’s nominated for five awards, including Best Picture, and Gerwig is up for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

Gerwig hasn’t always been known as a director, though. She started her career as an actress in “mumblecore” movies, low-budget films about young people in urban centers that typically relied on improvisational performances. Her first feature was the 2006 film LOL, directed by mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg, and followed up in 2007 with Hannah Takes the Stairs, which she co-wrote with Swanberg.

Gerwig went on to collaborate on other films, including 2008’s Nights and Weekends, which she co-wrote and co-directed with Swanberg. Gerwig worked steadily with a number of prominent directors (including Woody Allen and Whit Stillman), breaking into more mainstream films after co-starring in Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg alongside Ben Stiller and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Gerwig and Baumbach (who became a couple in 2011) co-wrote his 2013 film Frances Ha, in which she starred. And in 2015 she starred in his film Mistress America while also co-starring in Rebecca Miller’s film Maggie’s Plan. The following year, she co-starred in Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women and Pablo Larrain’s Jackie.

Lady Bird is Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, and it became one of the most well-reviewed films of the year following its debut at the Telluride Film Festival in September and a triumphant festival circuit that included the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. The movie netted nominations for star Saoirse Ronan and supporting actress Laurie Metcalf, and it solidified Gerwig’s reputation as one of the most promising and celebrated young filmmakers working in Hollywood.

Read our review of Lady Bird.

Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread

Vanity Fair And Focus Features Celebrate The Film 'Phantom Thread' with Paul Thomas Anderson at the Chateau Marmont
Paul Thomas Anderson in January 2018.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

Paul Thomas Anderson has always been considered something of a wunderkind, an idiosyncratic director with a clearly defined vision and a style deeply influenced by both cinema history and his upbringing in the San Fernando Valley. Anderson has worked in a variety of genres — noir, screwball comedy, historical epic, and straight-up relationship drama — but his films always bear his distinctive fingerprints: sharply drawn characters (some of whom are uneasily at odds with the world around them); a sense of humor filtered through dark situations; and a stable of actors with whom he works regularly.

Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight (sometimes called Sydney), was released when he was only 26. It starred Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, all three of whom would return for his 1997 breakout film Boogie Nights, about the porn industry in the 1970s and 80s (and the film that would effectively revive Mark Wahlberg’s flagging career). Boogie Nights was nominated for three Oscars, as was his 1999 follow-up Magnolia.

In 2002 he released Punch-Drunk Love, starring Adam Sandler, which, as a character-driven comedy, felt like an idiosyncratic left turn; five years later, he teamed up with Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood, a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, which couldn’t have been more different from its predecessor (and which netted him his first Oscar nomination for directing). The Master followed in 2012 — his first of two collaborations with Joaquin Phoenix, and his last with Philip Seymour Hoffman — and in 2014 he adapted Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice.

These films are all considerably more sprawling than the taut Phantom Thread, but you can see the seeds of this latest film (which Day-Lewis claims is his last) in the others — strange and unsettling narrative turns, idiosyncratic characters, a wicked sense of humor, and an enigmatic screenplay that rewards repeated watching.

Anderson, who dated Fiona Apple for several years, is also an accomplished music video director, having collaborated with Apple, Michael Penn, Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, Joanna Newsom, Radiohead, and Haim. His last several films feature scores by Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who is nominated for his first Oscar for Phantom Thread.

But though Anderson’s films have been collectively nominated for 20 Oscars prior to Phantom Thread, they’ve only won two — both for There Will Be Blood, one for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance (Day-Lewis is nominated for Phantom Thread as well) and one for Robert Elswit’s cinematography — and Anderson has not personally won any. Phantom Thread could be his year.

Read our review of Phantom Thread.

Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

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Guillermo del Toro after winning Best Director at the Golden Globes in January 2018.
George Pimentel/WireImage

Del Toro’s name is almost synonymous with a kind of monster-haunted gothic horror that’s often tinged with affection, magic, and even romance. The Mexican director has been making mainstream Hollywood movies for years, though only one of them — 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth — earned any major Oscar nominations, including Best Cinematography, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Original Screenplay. (Hellboy II was nominated for its makeup.)

Del Toro has always made horror-tinged films, starting with his early features Cronos (1993) and Mimic (1997). His 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone, set during the Spanish Civil War, garnered critical acclaim. He followed it up by jumping to a big Hollywood production — Blade II, starring Wesley Snipes — and stuck with studio fare for his next film, Hellboy, in 2004.

The director’s best-known and most-loved movie (at least until now) may be 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a dark allegorical fairy tale also set in Spain during the Civil War. After making Hellboy II: The Golden Army in 2008, del Toro tried his hand at sci-fi with Pacific Rim in 2011, then gothic romance with Crimson Peak in 2015.

The Shape of Water is a cross between a dark fairy tale, historical fiction, and an epic romance (between a mute woman and a fish-man), and with its occasional gore and imaginative monster stylings, it’s very much a del Toro film. It’s also the first of the director’s movies to land him a Best Director nomination, and may be the most broadly appealing of his films so far. Such a strong field of contenders presents a lot of competition, but del Toro may have an edge coming off his Golden Globe for the same prize.

Read our review of The Shape of Water.

Check out what our critics roundtable had to say about all nine Best Picture nominees:

Call Me By Your Name | Darkest Hour | Dunkirk | Get Out | Lady Bird | Phantom Thread | The Post | The Shape of Water | Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri