Update: For some actual analysis of the nominations, go directly to Brian D. Johnson at this same website.
I have long thought that the Best Director category at the Oscars is somewhat pointless, leading to a misunderstanding of what a director’s job usually is, and always raising the question (on the rare occasions when the awards diverge), “how can he be the best director if he didn’t make the best movie?” Every other category, even writing, is separable from the quality of the movie to a certain extent. The director’s job is to supervise all those other categories. If they don’t blend into the best movie, then it may not be the director’s fault, but he and the producer were the ones in charge.
But, that said, the Oscars’ return to 10 Best Picture nominees instead of five has made the Best Director nominees a little more fun to look at, because it allows us to get a hint — just a slight hint — of which movies really have the support of the Academy as a whole and which ones were probably nominated for commercial reasons. Or at the very least which ones wouldn’t have made the cut if there had been only five nominees. So Chris Nolan’s non-nomination for Inception, more than anything else, is an indication that Inception probably wouldn’t have been nominated if it hadn’t been for the larger number of nominees. Like Toy Story 3, it’s there to represent the huge blockbuster hits, but is probably not a serious contender for the award.
Even in the five-picture era you got some of these, like Jaws getting nominated for Best Picture in 1975 but Steven Spielberg getting snubbed for Best Director. (Instead, Frederico Fellini got a Best Director nomination, and Spielberg was shown on TV wailing something like “I didn’t get it! I got beaten out by Fellini!” Though I should add that Spielberg doesn’t come off badly when he says that; just disappointed. I’m sure if you put a camera on Chris Nolan he’d have a similar reaction.) It was a hint that the movie was there out of respect to its enormous success, but wasn’t going to win. Driving Miss Daisy won even though its director was not nominated, but that’s very rare. What the expanded Best Picture field has done is open the category up to more “token” nominees that aren’t really taken seriously as potential winners.
But I still think that the concept of Best Director just doesn’t make sense. As Joe Spinell put it after Spielberg got snubbed, “Who made the picture? Somebody’s mother? Who made it, the shark?”