DGA Nominations: 'Lion' Roars, 'Birth of a Nation' Reborn, 'Deadpool' Stays Alive

No guild has a longer or stronger track record of anticipating the nominees for both the best picture and best director Oscars.
Mark Rogers/ Long Way Home Productions
Double-DGA nominee Garth Davis (right) on the set of 'Lion'

Lion roared. The Birth of a Nation was reborn. And Deadpool stayed alive. I'm referring, of course, to Thursday morning's announcement, by the Directors Guild of America, of the nominees for the 69th edition of the DGA Awards.

Why is the best direction of a feature DGA Award — for which the nominees are Arrival (Denis Villeneuve), La La Land (Damien Chazelle), Lion (Garth Davis), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) and Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) — perhaps the most coveted of the many guild honors? Because no group has a longer or stronger track record of anticipating the nominees for both the best picture and best director Oscars.

For this reason, the teams behind the widely expected nominees La La Land, Moonlight and Manchester undoubtedly breathed a huge sigh of relief this morning when their American-born directors were included; and the teams behind Arrival and Lion, two films directed by non-Americans which were considered to be on-the-bubble, were overjoyed. (A member of one, who is based on the other coast, opened an email to me this morning by writing, "You probably heard our screams...")

Canadian Villeneuve's DGA nom — the first of his career — comes on the heels of best director BAFTA and Critics' Choice noms. As for Davis, many assumed that if any Australian was going to be able to crack this American guild, it would be Hacksaw Ridge's Mel Gibson, a past DGA nominee (for 1995's Braveheart) whose big comeback this season already has led to Golden Globe and Critics' Choice noms. But instead the nomination went to Davis for his feature directorial debut, perhaps partially out of respect for the immense challenge he faced in helming a movie in which the leading man was just five years old and spoke a different language.

Lest Davis wonder if the guild likes — really likes — him and his film, Lion also registered a nom in the best direction of a first feature DGA Award category. In that category, it was nominated alongside Deadpool (Tim Miller), which continues to demonstrate strength with the guilds, on the heels of its PGA and WGA nominations; The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig); 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg); and — wait for it — back from the dead, The Birth of a Nation, which was considered to be the Oscar frontrunner a year ago, after winning Sundance's grand jury and audience awards, but then faded after old rape charges against director Nate Parker (on which he was acquitted) came to the public's attention (rendering him effectively toxic in terms of awards consideration).

So what does this all mean? Is this the end of the road for the best director hopes of Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford landed Golden Globe and BAFTA noms), Fences (Denzel Washington hoped to join Gibson, Kevin Costner and a long line of others who won accolades for directing themselves), Silence (Martin Scorsese spent 28 years struggling to get this passion project made), I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach just got a BAFTA nom for this film, which won Cannes' Palme d'Or), Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie bagged a Critics' Choice nom), Sully (Clint Eastwood is an old favorite of the Academy's directors branch), Rules Don't Apply (ditto for Warren Beatty) and Loving (Jeff Nichols)?

Don't start writing obituaries quite yet. While the DGA is a very accurate predictor of best picture and best director Oscar nominations and wins, all five nominees for the best direction of a feature DGA Award almost never duplicate in the best directing Oscar noms  — indeed, it has happened just five times in 68 years. (Last year, for instance, the DGA nominated The Martian's Ridley Scott, but the Academy's directors branch gave its fifth slot to Room's Lenny Abrahamson.)

What might explain this? The DGA currently is comprised of about 15,000 members, many of whom primarily work as TV directors, whereas the Academy's directors branch currently is comprised of around 400 members, the vast majority of whom are film-specific. Also, DGA noms tend to reflect which way the wind was blowing a few weeks ago, since the guild's voting — which takes place entirely online — began way back on Nov. 30, finally winding to a close on Jan. 9, and that does not always reflect the actual regard for films that only began accruing buzz over and after the December holidays. Oscar nomination voting, in contrast, began Jan. 5 and closes Jan. 13.

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