With such strong Oscar Best Picture contenders as The Revenant, The Big Short, Spotlight, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian dominating the DGA’s list of five directing nominees this morning, there really was no surprise at all with the inclusions on this lineup. Although in my view there was a real Pete Hammond badgeeye opener with one who wasn’t there: Steven Spielberg (more on that later).

Reigning DGA champ Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman) continues the momentum of The Revenant’s outstanding box office and Golden Globe win Sunday with a shot at becoming the first director in DGA history to win this twice in a row. I recently pointed out the last director to pull off that feat at the Oscars was Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1949 for A Letter To Three Wives and 1950 for All About Eve. (He won the same two awards from the DGA as well, but oddlyDGA Logo 2 they were separated by a win for 1950’s All The King’s Men since Wives had become the winner of the guild’s first-ever award presented in May of 1950 before the contest was moved to February. Technically then, Iñárritu would be the DGA’ first-ever back to back winner.)

To pull off that feat though, Gonzalez Iñárritu has got to face down his 20th Century Fox stablemate Ridley Scott, who earned his fourth DGA nomination (after previous noms for Thelma And Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down). The 78-year-old Scott is riding a wave of sentiment as well as admiration for The Martian and may likely be the early favorite here — though this year is anything but predictable.

Joining those two big-scale epics on the list is another: George Miller earning his first DGA nod (he’s an Oscar winner though for Animated Feature with Happy Feet) for his brilliant reboot of Mad Max: Fury Road for Warner Bros and Village Roadshow, easily the earliest 2015 release on the roster having opened May 15. Another first-time DGA nominee Adam McKay is really not a shocker here as Paramount’s The Big Short has really FURY ROAD George Miller Charlize Theronbeen surging lately, and he won a BAFTA nomination just last week as well as a WGA nomination — the only nominee to do that here other than writer-director and fellow first-time DGA’er Tom McCarthy, whose Spotlight from Open Road represents the sole indie film on this year’s list. This one is a big deal, and a relief, for Spotlight as the once-presumed front-runner was unexpectedly shut out Sunday at the Globes, and McCarthy missed out on a Best Director nom from BAFTA (although the movie and script were nominated there). Both Mc’s — McKay and McCarthy — have directed real-life stories and classically entertaining movies with a message (both end with sobering reminders of reality on their end crawls) and will compete against large-scale, big-budget studio movies. It should be interesting.

Overall, this is a very solid lineup dominated by major studio releases. But the biggest shocker by far for Ridley Scott - The Martianme was the exclusion of guild favorite Spielberg, working at the top of his game in Bridge Of Spies. Ironically, that film comes from DreamWorks (and distributed by Disney), which actually had Spotlight at one time but put it in turnaround. Spielberg is an 11-time nominee, three-time winner and recipient of the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award. He was last nominated in 2012 for Lincoln, and I expected he would be again this year — the 40th anniversary of his first DGA nom, for Jaws — but it wasn’t to be. It’s surprising as well since, until DGA stopped it in its tracks, Bridge Of Spies has virtually run the table for nominations with other guilds, even including the Visual Effects Society and Cinema Audio Society earlier today. It led Spotlight - Mark Ruffalo - Michael Keaton - Tom McCarthyBAFTA with nine nominations (tied with Carol which was also ignored by DGA), and he received a directing nom there, and it could be nominated for the Oscar on Thursday, but we’ll see.

The DGA has a strong track record with Oscar parity though. Only seven times have the two orgs differed on the ultimate directing winner (one time, ironically, was when Spielberg took the DGA Award and wasn’t even Oscar-nominated for The Color Purple). Usually there is one DGA nominee who doesn’t make the Oscar list. Perhaps the reason is the DGA is a vastly larger voting block, mostly from TV and other areas, while the Academy’s directors branch is small and insular. For the DGA, these nominations really represent their Best Picture vote for which Oscars’ directors, all from film, also get a separate Best Picture vote and can be a little more adventurous in their choices.  That should give hope not only toAdam McKay Spielberg but also to other overlooked contenders here, with most likely beneficiaries of a DGA/Oscar disagreement being Todd Haynes (Carol)Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton), Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), or perhaps even someone like first-timer Laszlo Nemes for Hungary’s short-listed Foreign Language entry Son Of Saul. 

Nemes is, by the way, a DGA nominee this year in a brand new category designed to recognize emerging talent called Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film Director, Son of Sauland where foreign films can  compete at the DGA. Joel Edgerton (The Gift), Fernando Coimbra (A Wolf At The Door), Alex Garland (Ex-Machina) and Marielle Heller (The Diary Of A Teenage Girl) compete with him for the inaugural award that Spielberg announced during last year’s DGA ceremony.

Winners of the 68th annual DGA Awards will be announced February 6 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. Jane Lynch returns as host. Let me make one certain prediction: The Directors Guild will definitely break with tradition in having the previous year’s winner present the Outstanding Directorial Achievement In Feature Film Award this year, unless Iñárritu gets to potentially give it to himself.