The Directors Guild of America has announced its choices for its top five filmmakers of 2014. And like so many areas of this edition of Hollywood's film award season, it contains its share of eyebrow-raisers.
Richard Linklater ("Boyhood") and Alejandro G. Iñárritu ("Birdman") landed expected nominations for their movies, which have been seasonal favorites. But also making the DGA grade were less obvious choices: Clint Eastwood ("American Sniper"), Wes Anderson ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") and Morten Tyldum ("The Imitation Game").
Not on the list? Ava DuVernay, whose civil-rights drama "Selma" is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year.
The Tuesday announcement of nominees for the prize, formally known as the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, deepened the intrigue for one of the most competitive Oscar categories ahead of the film academy's nominations Thursday.
Paramount, which is distributing "Selma," explained the DGA development by noting that the company did not send out screeners to the guild's members. The DGA voting period ran Dec. 3 to Jan. 12, and the studio did not have screeners ready until the third week of December, when it calculated that many members would already have voted.
Still, the absence of "Selma," which tackles three critical months in the civil rights movement in 1965, raised questions about the movie's award prospects.
Last week, the picture was shut out of nominations from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts despite the fact that its star, David Oyelowo, is a Brit who has drawn rave reviews for his portrayal of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And at Sunday's Golden Globes, "Selma" had just one win, in the minor category of original song. The film was also shut out of the Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, a turn similarly explained by a lack of available screeners.
Also absent from the DGA list was David Fincher. The "Gone Girl" director is a perpetual DGA favorite, landing on the list with his previous three movies, including the tepidly received "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Yet despite strong reviews and stellar box office, "Gone Girl" didn't pass muster with many award groups, and it didn't make the grade with the DGA. An Oscar nomination is now considered a long shot.
And missing the cut were Christopher Nolan ("Interstellar") and Angelina Jolie ("Unbroken"), whose movies came into the season with high hopes. However, prospects dimmed after both films received less-than-glowing reviews.
Since the Oscars moved to as many as 10 best picture nominees in 2010, the ceremony's most elite prize is, by many accounts, the one for director.
The DGA is a key indicator of that prize. The group will hand out its award Feb. 7 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, just a day after the nearly two-week Oscar-winner voting period begins. The DGA winner, incidentally, has gone on to collect the Oscar in 10 of the last 11 years.
Still, the roughly 15,000 people who vote for the DGAs are a far larger group than the 400 or so members of the academy's directors branch who decide Oscar nominees. That means there is some divergence between the two award-selecting bodies. In seven of the last eight years, the two groups have differed on at least one nominee.
That fact gave heart to the snubbed filmmakers Tuesday and increased the odds that there will be further drama when Oscar nominations are announced Thursday.
All three of the nominees who made the cut with Linklater and Iñárritu were surprises for different reasons.
Eastwood's film, about famed U.S. sniper Chris Kyle, had been shut out by many award groups, including the Golden Globes and BAFTA. Although a legend among DGA veterans, Eastwood hadn't drawn much affection for "American Sniper" until Tuesday. In fact, it had been eight movies since his last DGA nomination, in 2005 for "Million Dollar Baby." (He did land a director's prize from the lower-profile National Board of Review.)
Tyldum, meanwhile, is a Norway-born director making his English-language debut with the historical drama about British code-breaker Alan Turing, which has earned solid but not across-the-board positive reviews.
And Anderson, a quirky auteur who had never made the DGA list with seven previous movies, made the cut with "The Grand Budapest Hotel." It's been an unexpected and meteoric rise for Anderson, whose film came out in March with few award ambitions and who has never been a major player with award groups. Anderson landed his first Globe director nomination for "Budapest" and also scored his first screenplay win with the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
The addition of the trio to the DGA list has added a layer of tension to a season in which "Boyhood," Linklater's epic coming-of-age tale has been regarded as an easy frontrunner. But the tightly fought contests for director nominations continues to draw interest and surprises.
Indeed, the competitive nature of the category has not been lost on nominees themselves.