Just a Bigelow: Can Kathryn gain her second Oscar and become the only woman to win two for best director? Ask rivals Tom Hooper and Steven Spielberg

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Photo: Columbia/ Kevin Winter (Getty Images)/Universal

2012 has evolved into a strong movie year, with an impressive core group of experienced filmmakers. Director Kathryn Bigelow makes a daring raid on a second Oscar for best directing with "Zero Dark Thirty." Tom Hooper leaps from historical crowd pleaser "The King's Speech" to pop mega-musical with "Les Miserables." And Christopher Nolan attempts to rise from the blockbuster ghetto to get his due for "The Dark Knight Rises." The race is on!

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Kathryn Bigelow (Columbia Pictures)

Kathryn Bigelow: Bigelow courts a second best director Oscar with a one-two punch of war action and espionage thriller in "Zero Dark Thirty." And, in her first film after "The Hurt Locker," she puts a woman front and center, with Jessica Chastain as the CIA Agent driving the search-and-destroy mission aimed at Osama bin Laden.

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Tom Hooper (Universal Pictures)

Tom Hooper: With "The King's Speech" behind him and a hugely popular megamusical in the race that's destined to earn the most Oscar nominations of any film in competition, the "Les Miserables" director definitely will be up for a nomination.

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Daniel Day Lewis and Steven Spielberg (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Steven Spielberg: Having last won a directing Oscar for "Schindler's List" in 1997, Spielberg like the guy who is desperate to be class president. It just doesn't look good to want the award that much, even if it's for the highly praised and well-attended "Lincoln." It's a serious film, and it will earn a cluster of actor nominations. Daniel Day-Lewis will likely be at the top of the best actor heap. Excuse me, but that doesn't happen without the director.

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David O. Russell (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)

David O. Russell: With "The Silver Lining Playbook," Russell has balanced comedy and pathos and heart in a crowd-pleasing adaptation about the meet-cute between a bipolar estranged husband and a cop's widow. It boasts great performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, and Jacki Weaver. The Oscar-nominated director of "The Fighter" is overdue for recognition.

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Ben Affleck (Warner Bros.)

Ben Affleck: The academy loves an actor turned director, and with his third film, "Argo," Affleck has helmed a movie that's smart, funny, and makes Hollywood the hero following an act of international terrorism. What's not to love about this movie, which has crossed the $100 million mark?

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Ang Lee (20th Century Fox)

Ang Lee: "Life of Pi" director Lee doesn't stand still. This year he delivers a 3D adaptation of a previously considered unfilmable novel about a young castaway who's adrift with a Bengal tiger in a magical tale of human survival. Lee has directed thirteen movies as varied as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hulk," and "Sense and Sensibility." In 2006, he won best director for "Brokeback Mountain," another audacious literary adaptation.

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Quentin Tarantino (Photo by D Dipasupil/FilmMagic)

Quentin Tarantino: Twice-nominated director Tarantino ("Inglourious Basterds," "Pulp Fiction") is another director overdue for Oscar recognition, even as "Django Unchained," his flamboyant, violent look at the racist antebellum South, couldn't be less academy-friendly.

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Paul Thomas Anderson (Photo by Amanda Edwards/WireImage)

Paul Thomas Anderson: Love it or hate it,  Anderson's "The Master" is  an ambitious, highly original tale of postwar America, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic head of a cult that may just be Scientology, and Joaquin Phoenix as his alcoholic disciple. While Anderson's been nominated five times, the writer-director of "There Will Be Blood," "Boogie Nights," and "Magnolia" has not yet received a statuette.

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Michael Haneke (Photo by Alexandra Wyman/WireImage)

Michael Haneke: Austrian native Haneke's French-language "Amour" has been showered with awards ever since it premiered at Cannes last spring. The director of "The White Ribbon" turns the not-so-simple interior tale of an aging husband and wife (brilliantly played by veterans Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) into an absolute horror story as the wife succumbs to complications from a stroke and the couple's cozy life spirals downwards.

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Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros.)

Christopher Nolan: Nolan has risen from independent auteur with "Memento" to the Batman thrillogy that culminated in this year's blockbuster "The Dark Knight Rises." Along the way, the three-time Oscar nominee also directed "Inception." That's quite a life achievement for a man who's only 42, and who has never allowed bigger budgets to drown his nimble storytelling skills.

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