- Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
- David Fincher, The Social Network
- Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
- Christopher Nolan, Inception
- David O. Russell, The Fighter
What's great about this list is that each of the five gentlemen selected really had to earn this berth, and that each feels so rightfully earned. Aronofsky has been a critical and cinephile favorite since his debut with Pi (1998), yet awards groups have never singled him out, even when his actors have been nominated. What's striking is that he earns his first DGA nomination for a film that's as rich, complicated and uncompromising as his past work. Media hype and solid box offices returns for Black Swan may have been the reason why the film is out there, but he's nominated based solely on merit, and that the fact that other directors not only watched the film, but embraced the impeccable craftsmanship of it.
Fincher is one of the most consistent and wondrous American filmmakers currently working. He may have come into greater Academy approval thanks to his 2008 big budget period piece The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which he was DGA and Oscar nominated, but The Social Network is a return to a harder, denser, more complicated narrative; thankfully he's earned the respect of his peers at this point for them to notice the bravura filmmaking here that shamefully was so underrated before. I'd argue he's the frontrunner here, and likely with Oscar as well, even if The King's Speech ends up winning Best Picture.
As for The King's Speech director, Tom Hooper, the question was never if the film would work it's magic on Academy members, but rather would the directors branch bequeath their olive branch to a director largely unknown and unheralded before. That, of course, is silly, but the film industry being silly itself, sometimes elitism plays it ugly head into the game. Hooper previously directed the Emmy-winning mini-series John Adams, and earns his first DGA award here. While I'll admit it's my least favorite of the five-- please don't shoot me-- I do concur that the classical pace and tone likely come from Hooper.
Nolan received DGA nominations for both Memento (2001) and The Dark Knight (2008), but neither translated into an Oscar nomination for Best Director; he did receive an Oscar nod for screenwriting for Memento. The outcry and hoopla over the snubbing The Dark Knight was likely one of the reasons the Academy expanded the Best Picture field to ten, but still his determined and viral fanbase has acknowledged what hopefully the Academy will rectify this year: a Best Director nomination for Christopher Nolan. I, myself, and all for it, but for the right reasons, not because he's due, but because he's deserving. The technical bravura of Inception is so purely a director's film-- big and dreamy, yet brainy and romantic as well That the whole experience came from Nolan's head is not just a wonder, but a fantastical idea of the expansive possibilities of cinema. A big budget blockbuster based on an original idea; what a concept.
O. Russell's mention for The Fighter is the most surprising for me, but he (as well as the film) has been a popular mainstay in every step. O. Russell's challenge was never his ability as a filmmaker (although The Fighter is easily his more heartfelt and emotionally accessible), it was coming back from a painfully bad reputation the last years. Being dissed by George Clooney and the I Heart Huckabees YouTube leaks, crossed with the failure to finish his last film (Nailed with Jake Gyllenhaal) had given the director awful PR. Thankfully talent salvaged all that; fortunate because whatever the experiences making his are; they're often great.
One final DGA caveat: 2010 was not-so-quietly known as "Year of the Woman," with the history making win of Kathryn Bigelow and the astonishing degree of the leading actress category this; however no women were nominated by DGA this year. The two with the best chances likely were Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right and Debra Granik for Winter's Bone. Instead were back in the race with five white males-- the times are staying the same, for now at least.