There's not an Academy Awards category this year that doesn't feature some element of exciting new talent, captivating backstories or the possibility of an Oscar landmark victory.
But, oh, that best director category.
In even the glittering array of nominees to the 90th Academy Awards, the best director category stands out. Want history-making diversity? Check. First-time nominees? Check. Overdue veterans? Check.
Just about the only thing missing from this year's directing nominees (that is, not counting The Post director Steven Spielberg and The Florida Project filmmaker Sean Baker) is cut-throat competition. The five nominees — Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), Jordan Peele (Get Out), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) — have effusively praised one another as they've navigated their way along the awards-season campaign trail.
They have, like everyone else, seemingly come to the conclusion that this is one heck of a good bunch of filmmakers.
"Everybody in my opinion, for different reasons, had one of their best moments," said del Toro in a recent interview. "Paul Thomas Anderson making a movie that is faithful to his obsessions, exacting and deep in a way he always his. Chris Nolan creating a symphonic work of cinema. Greta Gerwig, first movie off the bat, is a movie that's in appearance simple but is incredibly complex, well-calibrated audio-visually, incredibly intimate."
And Peele, del Toro said, shares a love of horror — a genre that seldom reaches the highest honours of the Oscars.
"We've been brothers in arms in a way because we took a genre that's normally not in the conversation and through each of our personal alchemies we transformed it with other genres," he said. "In my case, musical theatre, comedy. In his case, he makes it into a social parable of enormous potency."
Del Toro, a meticulous maestro of dark Gothic fantasies, is considered the favourite of the five for his sumptuously made period monster romance, the Oscars-leader with 13 nods. He won the highly predictive top honour from the Directors Guild. But whoever wins, it will be their first directing Academy Award — or, provided none win best screenplay earlier in the ceremony, their first Oscar, period.
That personal history will be made is for certain. But larger milestones could be set, too.
Gerwig, whose coming-of-age drama artfully turns on a mother-daughter axis, is just the fifth woman nominated for directing in the nine-decade history of the Oscars, a distinction she has been proud to celebrate while remaining vocal about the disgrace of that statistic as an emblem of the movie industry's wider gender imbalances. But in a Hollywood that has lagged behind in inclusiveness, she and Peele — both making their solo directorial debuts, both in their '30s — represent the future. On the morning of Oscar nominations, Peele was one of Gerwig's first calls.
"I feel connected to him because we're part of the group to come up," said Gerwig in a recent interview. "We've been on this journey together, in a way. It's both of our first films. I love his film so much. It's so groundbreaking, it's so wonderful. It deserves everything."
If Gerwig were to win, she would be only the second woman to be awarded best director, after Kathryn Bigelow (2008's The Hurt Locker). If Peele were to win, he would be the first black filmmaker to take the honour. (Previously nominated were John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen and, last year, Barry Jenkins.)
Peele set out to make a rip-roaring thriller propelled by a powerful social critique of latent racism. That Get Out, released last February, has made it all the way to the Oscars has been an unexpected affirmation.
"I've been dreaming about this moment since I was 13. And to be honest I've gone through times where I believed in it and times when I didn't believe in it," said Peele. "It comes with a really important lesson and realisation for me which is that it's bigger than me. It's an important thing for a lot of people and the people who supported the film and the people out there who have the same dream but feel like they can't do it for whatever reason."
Del Toro is, himself, the third Mexican-born filmmaker nominated for best director, a mark all the more meaningful at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric courses through US politics. With a nomination, del Toro joins his close friends and countrymen: Alfonso Cuaron (who won for 2013's Gravity) and Alejandro Inarritu (a nominee for 2006's Babel and a winner for both 2014's Birdman and 2015's The Revenant). The trio were dubbed "the three Amigos" when they stormed Hollywood more than a decade ago, and have often relied on each other for feedback on scripts and editing advice.
"When we came onto the landscape, it was a very different landscape when you're talking about Latin American directors in the industry," said del Toro. "It was a lot of effort to change it and to get here, so it's to be celebrated."
And then there's Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan — both among the very most revered and most ambitious filmmakers of the last two decades, both 47-years-old and in their prime. And yet neither has taken home an Academy Award. (This is Nolan's first best director selection and Anderson's second, following one for 2007's There Will Be Blood.)
They have navigated far different paths — Anderson, a thoroughly independent filmmaker who eludes classification; Nolan, a big-screen maximalist drawn to IMAX-sized spectacles — but both are slavish devotees to celluloid who have in recent years banded together to help preserve film in an increasingly digital industry.
In praising each of his fellow nominees' films at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Tuesday — "all of the films are just incredible work" — Nolan noted that since taking his kids to see Phantom Thread, they have taken to calling him Mr Woodcock, after the film's demanding, egotistical protagonist.
It's entertaining to imagine other cross-pollinations. What if Peele directed The Shape of Water? What if Gerwig directed Phantom Thread? But the impossibility of those hypotheticals only reinforces how no one else could have made any of these five films except those who did. All either wrote or co-wrote their movies. All are carried forward by the expansive and idiosyncratic imaginations of their creators. There isn't a bad choice in the bunch.