Among the five Academy Award directing nominees, one name seems to be on everyone's lips: Martin Scorsese.
Nominated five times previously for best director since the 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull, Scorsese has gone home a loser each year.
With Scorsese's sixth directing nomination, this one for his return to the vivid and violent crime genre on The Departed, seemingly everyone in Hollywood figures he finally will have his Oscar come Sunday.
Not that he's up against a bunch of slouches. His formidable competition includes Clint Eastwood, who beat him for the directing Oscar two years ago and is nominated this time for the World War II saga Letters From Iwo Jima.
Also nominated are two Brits, Stephen Frears for the insightful palace drama The Queen and Paul Greengrass for the Sept. 11 chronicle United 93, and Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for the sprawling ensemble tale Babel.
Scorsese has made no secret over the years that he'd like to have that trophy. Contemporaries of his stature, such as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, have long since won theirs.
The chatty Scorsese has been modest and terse through awards season about his Oscar history and his prospects this time.
Last fall, as The Departed arrived in theaters, he said of his Oscar shutout: I guess it's all right. I'm disappointed, of course. But you don't make pictures to win Oscars.
After winning the Directors Guild of America's top filmmaking honor _ which almost always is a precursor to an Oscar triumph _ Scorsese was coy when asked if this was his year to win an Oscar.
I don't know, Scorsese said. It's good to have a nomination, especially for this picture.
Along with Raging Bull, Scorsese previously was nominated as best director for The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and The Aviator. Scorsese also had two screenplay nominations for co-writing Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence, losing both times.
A sixth loss would put Scorsese in the record books as the director with the most nominations without winning.
If Scorsese wins, it arguably will be for a lesser film compared to his best work. Still, despite the repetitive violence that concludes The Departed, the story of rival mob and police moles is magnificently directed, resurrecting much of the sardonic humor, wiseguy interplay and savage grandeur of Scorsese's vintage films.
Many thought Scorsese should have won for Raging Bull, but the directing prize that year went to Robert Redford for Ordinary People, which also beat Scorsese's film for best picture.
I voted for him back in the `Raging Bull' days as an academy member, Eastwood said. Everybody thought that would be his moment. It still is one of his defining films.
Two years ago, awards watchers branded the directing category a showdown between Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby and Scorsese for The Aviator. A previous best-director winner for Unforgiven, Eastwood beat out Scorsese, and Million Dollar Baby also took best picture over The Aviator.
While sentiment is firmly with Scorsese this time, some Oscar analysts have revived the notion of a two-man race, saying Eastwood could be a spoiler.
I really don't like that, and I don't think Marty does _ and don't think any of the other nominees do, because it's not fair to the other nominees who have done good work _ to have people pitting the two senior guys. Whoever delivers the goods, they'd like to win on delivering the goods, Eastwood said. When you make a sporting event out of it, it really shouldn't be like that.
Eastwood's nomination was a bit surprising considering he was overlooked by the Directors Guild, whose contenders usually line up closely to the Oscars'. The guild recipient has gone on to earn the directing Oscar 53 of 59 times, solidifying Scorsese's chances.
Yet in Eastwood's case, academy voters may have been honoring him for a remarkable dual achievement, directing Letters From Iwo Jima and the companion film Flags of Our Fathers in a single year.
First-time nominee Greengrass was another surprise because United 93 had been neglected in most earlier Hollywood honors. Yet the film marked a superb directing accomplishment as Greengrass re-created with agonizing, documentary-style authenticity the doomed flight of passengers who fought back against their terrorist hijackers.
Frears, the veteran behind such films as Dangerous Liaisons and High Fidelity, also was nominated for 1990's The Grifters, competing against Scorsese, who was up for Goodfellas that year.
The Queen is a marvel of economical filmmaking by Frears, who crafts what feels like an epic in well under two hours, with most of the film taking place behind cloistered royal walls.
The opposite comes from first-time nominee Inarritu, whose Babel ranges around the globe and encompasses a large international cast on three continents. Inarritu seamlessly weaves his story from a tragic shooting in the African desert to families in North America and Japan affected by that far-off violence.
All four challengers are deserving, but most Oscar watchers think it's Scorsese's year at last.
I think if it is, it's great. It's long, long overdue. It's crazy he doesn't have lots of them already, said Dreamgirls director Bill Condon, who might have proven strong Oscar competition for Scorsese if he not missed out on a directing nomination.
Scorsese's collaborators could not agree more.
I think this year may be the deciding year for him, said The Departed player Leonardo DiCaprio, who has starred in Scorsese's last three films and has quipped that it's virtually a practical joke that the director has yet to win an Oscar.
The Departed has gotten the critical success, it's gotten the commercial success. It's got all the right elements, and we're keeping our fingers crossed.