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Seeking Direction: The 2014 DGA Nominees

The Directors Guild of America has announced its nominees for their 2014 Awards, and as usual, there are insights and snubs o' plenty.

If it's January, it's Award Season and with the various critics groups and cinema organizations announcing their Best-ofs, it's also the time when various Guilds give it up for their membership. The Producers have already weighed in, as have the writers, and now it's time for the Director's to dole out their annual accolades. As a predictor of Oscar glory, winning the DGA has been fairly accurate (it's rare that its winner doesn't go on to take home the Academy gold), but the group of filmmakers and friends has been known to go way off base at times in favor of efforts that few would really consider quintessential trophy fodder.

Well, that didn't happen this year, but there are a couple of surprises to be culled from the organization's 7 January announcement. For those keeping score, the DGA narrowed the 2013 field down to the following five faces behind the lens:

Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)

Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)

David O. Russell (American Hustle)

Of this group, America's auteur, Martin Scorsese, has the most previous nods -- nine to be exact. He earned his first nomination back in 1977 for Taxi Driver and was also recognized for Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed (which he won) and Hugo. He also has a TV nomination and win for Boardwalk Empire.

David O. Russell is a far distant second, having picked up his first DGA mention for The Fighter. Of the rest -- Steve McQueen, Paul Greengrass, and Alfonso Cuaron -- all are first timers. Pundits have immediately pushed the 12 Years a Slave guide to the top of the list, setting up a historic moment for the Guild. Only one African American director has previously been nominated for the prestigious award -- Lee Daniel's for Precious -- and McQueen seems poised to be the organization's first winner of color.

Of course, the snubs are equally intriguing. With Oscar going to 10 (or less) Best Picture nominations in the last few years, there are some obvious MIA mentions for movies everyone assumes will be vying for AMPAS acknowledgement. Two in particular come to mind -- Spike Jonze's beloved Her and the Coen Brothers latest masterwork, Inside Llewyn Davis. Both films have won numerous critics group's awards and both were seen as having a real shot at Oscar glory. Without DGA acknowledgement, however, that could be tough (not impossible, however. Ben Affleck won for Argo last year and yet didn't even get an Academy nomination. It did win Best Picture, though). Also absent were long shots like Alexander Payne (for Nebraska), Abdellatif Kechiche (for Blue is the Warmest Color) and Woody Allen (for Blue Jasmine).

Of the five up for final consideration, only one seems oddly out of place. It makes sense that Greengrass is a first time nominee since his films are usually considered more "commercial" than those featured. The closest he came to earning any real end of the year appreciation is when his brilliant United 93 hit theaters in 2006. That year, the DGA went with Scorsese, finally. But when looking at his output, what's the primary thing everyone talks about? The shaky cam -- Greengrass's outright love of using jittery handheld set-ups for everything he films. It's annoying. It's unsettling. Some even complain it causes nausea. In the case of Captain Phillips, it really adds very little to the story except the mandated "you are in the middle of the action" POV. It's a gimmick and one that this otherwise talented artist has relied on for a bit too long.

Everyone else has a decent case for being included. Russell's revisionist look at ABSCAM is all '70s splash, including bad hair, even worse fashion choices, and several sensational performances. Juggling the many divergent narrative elements in American Hustle deserves acknowledgement though there is a vocal contingent that believes this film is as big a con as the hucksters at the center. Similarly, the web has been going wild with "Open Letters" condemning/complimenting Scorsese over his vision of Wall Street excess, driving a potential wedge between voters. Still, for those who were shocked by the filmmaker's desire to highlight the hedonistic excesses of Jordan Belfort and his penny stock cronies, here's a question: where was your sense of moral outrage when everyone was calling Goodfellas a modern classic?

That just leaves Cuaron and McQueen and, frankly, in our opinion, this is the real race. 12 Years a Slave is the film about race and racism in the United States that only a British filmmaker could make, and his skin color could play a big part in the final decision (though it shouldn't considering how amazing the movie is by itself). The DGA has been known to play social politics before (Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker in a year which saw Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Jason Reitman, and Lee Daniels nominated for arguably better films) and giving McQueen the award would do two things: act as an indirect mea culpa for the years the DGA did NOTHING for artists of color and set-up Slave as the apology the Academy has been looking for ever since that organization's blatant racism was called out. Again, the movie is an unqualified masterpiece, which leaves all the other sniping as excess over-analysis.

As for Cuaron, there's a distinct chance as well. Gravity is an amazing technical achievement, a "how did they do that?" experience that's had fans and filmmakers wondering, well, just how he DID do it. Some might feel it is all bells and whistles, but there are personal moments in the movie where stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock prove that Cuaron is capable of eliciting magic out of human beings as well. While Gravity is nowhere near the monumental achievement that Children of Men was/is (one imagines he still would have lost to Scorsese -- it was 2006 after all), it does mark a major moment in mainstream moviemaking, a challenge to perceptions of both what audiences will accept and what technicians can create given the freedom and funds to do so.

Naturally, none of this will matter once the parties have been thrown and the press agents have spun the suspense out of the seemingly inevitable results. As they do every year, these guild-ed goings on only further push the annual expression of self-aggrandizement further and further away from the audience who makes such prestige pictures possible in the first place. While most of their choices are fine, the DGA still has a hard time finding the proper direction for its appreciation.

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