In profile: 2014 Oscar winners
A look at the best director winner and his fellow nominees at the 86th Academy Awards.
WINNER: ALFONSO CUARON
Nominated for: Gravity - the visually stunning edge-of-the-seat space thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts stranded in the cosmos after an accident at their space station.
Oscar record: The Mexican film-maker has not previously been nominated for best director but was up for best original screenplay for Y Tu Mama Tambien in 2003 and best adapted screenplay and film editing for Children of Men in 2007.
The critics said: "If the film past is dead, Gravity shows us the glory of cinema's future. It thrills on so many levels. And because Cuaron is a movie visionary of the highest order, you truly can't beat the view." Richard Corliss, Time
Nominated for: The unflinching drama 12 Years A Slave, based on the 160-year-old memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black American who was tricked and sold into slavery. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an acclaimed performance as Northup.
Oscar record: None, although McQueen's previous feature films, Hunger and Shame, both received Bafta nominations.
The critics said: "12 Years a Slave proves McQueen's formal prowess and, more significantly, his utter seriousness as a dramatist... 12 Years does not care to showboat; its defining quality is rigour, which it needs to convey real pain." Calum Marsh, Sight and Sound.
Nominated for: Nebraska, a warm-hearted black-and-white road movie about an elderly father (played by Bruce Dern) who determines to travel hundreds of miles to claim a supposed $1m prize. His sceptical son (Will Forte) decides to humour him and join him on his quest.
Oscar record: He has won best adapted screenplay twice - for The Descendants in 2012 and Sideways in 2005. Both films were also nominated in the directing category, while Payne was also up for a screenwriting statuette for his breakthrough film, 1999's Election.
The critics said: "Is Nebraska a comedy or a drama? Like life, it's both. Payne takes his time. Deal with it. This is a movie to bring home and live with, to kick around in your head after it hits you in the heart. It's damn near perfect." Peter Travers, Rolling Stone.
DAVID O RUSSELL
Nominated for: American Hustle, set in the world of small-time 1970s con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) and an inept FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who gets in too deep when trying to snare New Jersey's crooked politicians and mobsters.
Oscar record: Russell has been nominated for best director three times in four years - his previous nods were for boxing drama The Fighter in 2011 and offbeat rom-com Silver Linings Playbook in 2013.
The critics said: "There is something unmistakably Russell-esque in the neurotic, shrill and often very funny drama: a kind of neo-noir farce. Russell distils his own toxic kind of nitrous oxide and pipes it into the cinema." Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian.
Nominated for: The Wolf of Wall Street, the riotous real-life tale of the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who took Wall Street by storm in the 1990s before ending up in jail for defrauding clients of more than $200m.
Oscar record: This is Scorsese's eighth best director nomination. From Raging Bull (1981) through The Last Temptation of Christ (1989), Goodfellas (1991), Gangs of New York (2003) and The Aviator (2005), Scorsese was nominated five times without a win. But his turn came when he picked up the statuette for The Departed in 2007. He was in the running again in 2012 for Hugo.
The critics said: "Great filmmakers don't grow old like the rest of us, and at 71, Martin Scorsese has stormed back with a picture that would have exhausted a director half his age." Robbie Collin, The Telegraph.