This could be an unusually exciting year for the Best Director category. At least five likely contenders are women, the first time that's happened since ... well, ever.

In eight decades, only three women have ever been nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and none has won. This year, however, at least one woman has a lock on a nomination, and several others have decent shots at awards recognition as well. This could be an unusually exciting year for the Best Director category. At least five likely contenders are women, the first time that's happened since ... well, ever.

In eight decades, only three women have ever been nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and none has won. This year, however, at least one woman has a lock on a nomination, and several others have decent shots at awards recognition as well.

The Locks: The one woman we're certain is going to be nominated is Kathryn Bigelow (pictured, above right). Not enough people have seen her Iraq War drama 'The Hurt Locker,' but the acclaim it's been getting is undeniable, with much of the praise going toward a director long considered a pioneering woman in an all-boys-club world of action movies ('Point Break,' 'Blue Steel').

Lee Daniels, riding the wave of support for 'Precious,' could also make history. He'd be just the second-ever African-American nominee in this category (the first was John Singleton for 'Boyz 'N the Hood' 18 years ago). Rounding out the locks is Jason Reitman. Though his current film is only his third (and 'Precious' is only Daniels' second), his dramedy 'Up in the Air' seems to have unstoppable buzz.

The Hopefuls:
A lot of directors who've been to this party before have strong shots this year. Clint Eastwood (pictured, left) already won the National Board of Review prize for 'Invictus,' which at least puts him on the map for Golden Globes and Oscars voters. Fellow recent winners Joel and Ethan Coen are also strong candidates for a return to the podium with 'A Serious Man,' the brothers' most personal movie ever. With 'Bright Star,' her John Keats biopic, Jane Campion (one of the three women ever nominated before) has her best shot at an Oscar since 'The Piano' 16 years ago.

Other familiar names could squeeze in, thanks to the new rules governing the Best Picture race.That category is always closely tied to the Best Director race (the nominees usually match almost identically), so the expansion this year of the Best Picture race from five nominees to 10 opens up the field for directors as well (even though there are still only five directing slots). Some A-listers this year directed movies Oscar might not have considered in a five-picture race, but in a 10-film competition, there could be room for Quentin Tarantino (World War II fantasy 'Inglourious Basterds'), Steven Soderbergh (corporate comedy 'The Informant!') and Nora Ephron (biopic/food porn extravaganza 'Julie & Julia').

Newcomers to the Oscars could include another woman, Lone Scherfig, director of the much-buzzed-about 'An Education,' which will surely earn a Best Actress nod as well (and probably a few others.) And fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford could get a nod for his first film out of the box, 'A Single Man,' which is also likely to earn a nomination for Best Actor for Colin Firth.

The Long Shots: Some of this year's best directors made films that might usually have them relegated to the kiddie table, but this year's party offers them a slim chance to sit elbow-to-elbow with the grown-ups. That's because Spike Jonze (pictured, right) delighted adults as well as kids with his adaptation of the seemingly unfilmable 'Where the Wild Things Are.' Wes Anderson did the same with his stop-motion-animated 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.' And Pete Docter and Bob Peterson's 'Up' had parents misting up alongside their kids.

Also possible is a nomination for Oscar fave Pedro Almodóvar, even though 'Broken Embraces' is not earning the kind of buzz his past films have. Same with Rebecca Miller, the prickly indie director behind 'The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.' Michael Hoffman has already earned an Independent Spirit nomination for 'The Last Station,' though most of the attention for that film is going to stars Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer.

Too Soon to Tell: Can James Cameron (pictured, left) earn a nod for sci-fi fantasy 'Avatar'? Who knows? Not enough people have seen it yet for a consensus to form, but given his pedigree, he has to be considered. Same goes for Peter Jackson and Rob Marshall, directors of the still largely unseen 'The Lovely Bones' and 'Nine,' respectively.

Don't Forget:
Even with the expanded Best Picture pool, some directors' movies may still be too far out of the mainstream for Globes and Oscars voters to notice. Let's hope they don't overlook Robert Siegel, who earned the Breakthrough Director prize at the Gotham Awards for his sports-obsessive-stalker tale 'Big Fan'; Oren Moverman, the first-timer behind wartime drama 'The Messenger'; or So Yong Kim, the South Korean director of tearjerker 'Treeless Mountain.' She's yet another woman who could make Oscar history this year.