Alfonso Cuarón won the Oscar for director in 2014 for “Gravity.” Alejandro González Iñárritu took that prize the following two years for “Birdman” and “The Revenant.” Is this the year that Guillermo del Toro — close friends with Cuarón and Iñárritu since the ’90s and, like them, one of Mexico’s most acclaimed and successful filmmakers — wins his Oscar? Del Toro stands as a strong contender for directing “The Shape of Water,” a lavish, deeply felt love story involving a pair of outsiders — a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) and an Amazonian water creature (frequent Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones). "The Shape of Water's" Guillermo del Toro and Michael Shannon on taking a big risk by flipping the hero on the monster movie and asking, "What if the creature got the girl?" "The Shape of Water's" Guillermo del Toro and Michael Shannon on taking a big risk by flipping the hero on the monster movie and asking, "What if the creature got the girl?" WATCH: Video Q&A’s from this season’s hottest contenders » “The Shape of Water” won the Golden Lion for best movie at the Venice Film Festival in September, a sign that it could be in the mix when critics groups bestow their prizes in the coming weeks. It also possesses the kind of deep love for movies — in this case, Golden Age musicals, ’50s horror, big biblical dramas — that Oscar voters adore. Del Toro told me recently that for the first time in a decade, he doesn’t know what his next project will be. And he feels liberated. “Alfonso and Alejandro, they always said to me that I was wrong thinking about the next movie while I was prepping and shooting my current one,” Del Toro said. “But I didn’t understand it. And I guess at age 53 you learn something. They were right. I’m very happy.” Look for that newfound bliss to continue as Del Toro moves a step closer to joining his friends in the circle of Oscar director nominees. Here’s an early preview of the races for director and original and adapted screenplay. DIRECTOR Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk” Steven Spielberg, “The Post” Greta Gerwig, “Lady Bird” Luca Guadagnino, “Call Me by Your Name” On the cusp: Martin McDonagh, “Three