The Directors Guild of America nominations confirm what we already know: There are four frontrunners for the Best Picture and Director Oscars. Two are critically hailed, small-scale dramas, Kenneth Lonergan‘s “Manchester By the Sea” and Barry Jenkins‘ “Moonlight;” two are movies of scale and scope, Denis Villeneuve‘s sci-fi drama “Arrival” and Damien Chazelle’s retro musical romance “La La Land.”
The surprise was the fifth DGA slot went to Garth Davis for “Lion,” one of two DGA nominations he received. The Australian commercials director who collaborated with Jane Campion on lauded series “Top of the Lake” also landed the less-significant nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Filmmaker. So did Nate Parker, who can derive some small consolation from the recognition of his peers for his excellent rookie effort, “Birth of a Nation,” which fell from view after the emergence of Parker’s old college rape scandal.
But for Davis to also land among the top five feature directors is a sign of strength. Among the best attributes of “Lion” is his directing of young non-pro Sunny Pawar as well as SAG, Globe and BAFTA-nominated Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel, who clearly have actors’ support. But the movie also has recognition from the other guilds, which will cross over to the Academy.
“Lion” landed on the PGA Top Ten. And veteran director of photography Greig Fraser landed a nomination from the American Society of Cinematographers, as did Chris Kennedy from the Art Directors Guild. Both BAFTA and the Globes Globes nominated Dustin O’Halloran’s moving original score.
So who’s heading for the five directing Oscar slots? Remember, the DGA is more mainstream than the smaller and snobbier Academy directors branch, which has added many non-American voters over the decades. That’s why art-film auteurs like Mike Leigh, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Haneke, and Lenny Abrahamson have landed Oscar nominations in the past.
Assuming Lonergan, Jenkins, Globe-winner Chazelle, and Villeneuve score the same four slots, Davis also seems the likeliest consensus choice for the fifth. Here’s why.
If “Hacksaw Ridge” was directed by anyone other than “Braveheart” Oscar-winner Mel Gibson, he’d easily land a nomination. But the Academy may withhold that honor, as did the DGA.
Other possibilities for the fifth slot include three Americans — Jon Favreau for his extraordinary live-action animation hybrid “The Jungle Book,” Denzel Washington for organically opening up August Wilson’s stage drama “Fences,” and Jeff Nichols for sensitive biracial romance “Loving” — as well as Scotsman David Mackenzie for timely heist western “Hell or High Water,” Chilean Pablo Larrain for his first English-language drama “Jackie,” Greek Yorgos Lanthimos for his scathing social comedy “The Lobster,” and German Maren Ade for three-hour comedy tour-de-force “Toni Erdmann.”
As often as the DGA and Academy have rewarded eminence grises Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood in the past, late-breaking “Silence” is not getting any traction except for Rodrigo Prieto’s extraordinary photography (recognized by the ASC). And we tend to take Eastwood for granted; he made “Sully,” which took an early-fall commercial route without chasing awards, look too easy.