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Why Ben Affleck's DGA Win Matters Even Though He's Not Oscar-Nominated (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst tries to make sense of a night during which directors, animators and art directors all revealed their picks for the best work of 2012.

Ben Affleck Accepts the DGA Award
Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment
Ben Affleck

At the beginning, it looked like we were in for an awards season without an Oscar front-runner. At the end, it looks like we couldn't have a much stronger one.

On Saturday, Ben Affleck's Argo won the 65th Directors Guild of America Award for best directed feature film. In so doing, it completed a sweep of the top prizes of all of the season's major precursor awards -- it had already won the Critics' Choice Award for best picture (and best director), the Golden Globe Award for motion best picture drama (and best director), the Producers Guild of America Award for best produced picture and the Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble -- and it now heads into the final round of Oscar voting, which begins Feb. 8, with undeniable momentum. No film ever has been awarded the top prizes of all of the aforementioned precursor groups -- and only one film, Apollo 13 (1995), has won the top prizes of the PGA, SAG and DGA -- and not won the best picture Oscar.

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The DGA Award win for Affleck also must be read as a tacit rebuke of the Academy's directors branch, which didn't even include him among its five best director Oscar nominees, sparking widespread outrage. (Its 371 members account for only 6 percent of the Academy's entire membership.) The DGA Award is famous for presaging the winner of the best director Oscar on all but six occasions since it first was presented in 1948. Affleck will increase that number to seven -- and the fact that the DGA voted for him, even with the knowledge that he had been snubbed by the Academy, means that recognizing him was more important to DGA members than preserving their stellar prognostication track record. That's quite a statement. (Further good news for Argo: The film directed by the DGA winner has gone on to be named best picture by the Academy on all but 13 occasions in the past 64 years.)

The DGA Award outcome not only puts more wind behind Argo's best picture sails, it also fails to clarify the best director Oscar race, of which Affleck is not a part. Of the other four DGA nominees -- all of whom had won the DGA Award at least once before, unlike Affleck -- only two are nominated for the best director Oscar: Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) snagged Oscar noms, but Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) were bumped in favor of Michael Haneke (Amour), David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Had Lee or Spielberg won Saturday, it would have suggested that their film might have the support necessary to challenge Argo for the best picture Oscar. But the fact that neither did leaves that race completely muddled.

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Of course, the Oscar race cannot be declared over until the last envelope is opened Feb. 24, so, to one degree or another, the backers of Argo's eight fellow best picture Oscar nominees -- Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty -- will fight on. And there are a few stats that should offer encouragement to the most serious contenders among them: Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi, all of which secured picture, director, screenplay and editing nominations, among others:

Only one film in the past 80 years -- Driving Miss Daisy (1989) -- has won the best picture Oscar without also receiving a best director Oscar nomination.

On both of the two prior occasions on which the DGA Award winner was someone who had not received a best director Oscar nomination -- Spielberg for The Color Purple (1985) and Ron Howard for Apollo 13 (1995) -- that director's film did not go on to win the best picture Oscar.

Like most past best picture Oscar winners, Lincoln scored more Oscar nominations (12) and has a bigger domestic gross than any of the other best picture nominees ($170 million and counting).

And, finally, the second round of Oscar voting doesn't even begin for the better part of a week and will then extend until 5 p.m. PT on Feb. 19, more than two weeks from now. That leaves a lot of time for voters to tire of Argo and/or for one of Argo's principal players to put his or her proverbial foot in his or her mouth and turn voters off from it. For this reason, I'd expect to see a lot more of the Argo folks but hear a lot less from them over the coming weeks.

But, at least as of Saturday night, it's Argo's race to lose -- and, to paraphrase Alan Arkin's character in the film, everyone else can just Argo-f---themselves.

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Other important developments from Saturday night:

Searching for Sugar Man won the DGA Award for best directed documentary over fellow best documentary feature Oscar nominees How to Survive a Plague and The Invisible War; the other two Oscar nominees, the Israeli films Five Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers, were not nominated. Having previously won the PGA Award, among others, Malik Bendjelloul's film must be regarded as the clear favorite to win the Oscar.

Wreck-It Ralph, one of this year's best animated feature Oscar nominees, was the big winner at the 40th Annie Awards, claiming five trophies, including the two biggest: best animated feature and best director (Rich Moore). Two of its fellow Oscar nominees, Brave and ParaNorman, each claimed two other Annies, whereas the other two Oscar nominees, Frankenweenie and The Pirates! Band of Misfits, went home empty-handed. Presented by the International Animated Film Society, the Annies are not known as one of the more reliable Oscar precursors. But with these Annie wins plus the PGA and Critics' Choice awards under its belt, it's probably fair to assume that Ralph has a slight edge over Golden Globe winner Brave and Tim Burton's critics' favorite Frankenweenie.

And at the 17th Art Directors Guild Awards, the three big winners were Anna Karenina (in the period film category) and Life of Pi (in the fantasy film category) -- both nominees for the best production design Oscar (formerly known as the best art direction Oscar) -- plus the Oscar-snubbed Skyfall (in the contemporary film category). Of the other three Oscar nominees, Les Miserables and Lincoln competed in the period film category and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey competed in the fantasy film category. In 2006, the ADG jumped from two (period or fantasy and contemporary) to the current three categories; in seven of those 10 years, the best art direction Oscar winner won one of those prizes. Karenina previously won the best art direction Critics' Choice Award and probably is the favorite to win the best production design Oscar -- though in six of the past 10 years the Oscar winner was a best picture nominee (probably due in large part to coattails voting), which should give major hope to Life of Pi, in particular, but also perhaps Les Miserables or Lincoln.