Are we underestimating Morten Tyldum (‘Imitation Game’) for Best Director Oscar?

There’s an anomaly in our Oscar predictions: “The Imitation Game” ranks fourth in the Best Picture race with 9/1 odds while its director, Morten Tyldum clings to fifth place for Best Director with 20/1 odds. Why is he such a longshot when his film could pull off an upset? 

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Best Picture and Best Director often go hand-in-hand, but not always. Sixty two out of Oscar’s 86 Best Picture winners also took Best Director, including seven of the last 10. But despite occasional splits like there were in the last two years – “Argo” and “Life of Pi” split Picture and Director, respectively, in 2012, and “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” split the awards in 2013 – the nominees still mostly line up. Since the academy expanded Best Picture in 2009 from five nominees to as many as 10, all Best Director nominees have helmed a Best Picture contender.

That’s good news for the filmmakers of our top 10 predicted contenders for Best Picture, including “The Imitation Game,” but unlike several of his rivals, Morten Tyldum is not a well-known name, and he doesn’t have an established track record with the Oscars.

Consider some of the filmmakers behind “Imitation’s” Best Picture rivals. Richard Linklater (“Boyhood“) is already a two-time nominee for screenwriting. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman“) earned Picture and Director bids for “Babel” and his films “21 Grams” and “Biutiful” earned acting nominations.

David Fincher (“Gone Girl“) is a critics’ darling with two pasting directing bids (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network”). Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel“) is also a critics’ favorite with past nominations for screenwriting and animation.

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Angelina Jolie (“Unbroken“) has limited experience behind the camera, but she’s an A-list star as an actress and philanthropist. Ava DuVernay (“Selma“) has more limited name-recognition, but stands out from the pack as potentially the first black woman to be nominated for a directing Oscar.

Meanwhile, Tyldum is a Norwegian filmmaker whose past projects were little seen by American audiences: “Buddy” (2003), “Fallen Angels” (2008), and the BAFTA-nominated “Headhunters” (2012).

But let’s not be so quick to assume he’s an underdog just because he’s a relative unknown. Young Benh Zeitlin earned a directing bid in 2012 for his first feature film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Lee Daniels had only one previous feature film credit when he earned a nomination for “Precious” in 2009. Bennett Miller, a contender again this year for “Foxcatcher,” was a Director nominee in 2005 for his first dramatic feature, “Capote.”

Unknowns can even win. Few were familiar with Michel Hazanavicius when he took Best Director honors for “The Artist” in 2011. And veteran theater director Sam Mendes claimed that prize in 1999 for his film debut, “American Beauty.”

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The bigger challenge for Tyldum may be his film’s lack of a showy visual style. “The Imitation Game” is a straightforward historical biopic, which has drawn more attention for its writing and acting than for any signature filmic flourishes. That, combined with his limited name-recognition, may lead voters to nominate the actors, the writer, the crafts, and even the film itself, while snubbing the director.

But showy direction isn’t always what the academy is looking for. Consider Tom Hooper, who won Best Director in 2010 for his own straightforward historical biopic (“The King’s Speech”) against four filmmakers dripping with auteurist style: Fincher (“Social Network”), Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”), Joel and Ethan Coen (“True Grit”), and David O. Russell (“The Fighter”).

Do you think Tyldum is a stronger Best Director contender than we’re giving him credit for? Use our drag-and-drop menu to make your Best Actor predictions, or click here to enter your picks in all Oscar categories, as well as Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, Independent Spirit Awards, and more.

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