David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant for Milk
If you're paying attention, this matches 5/5 with the PGA, and all five films are represented in the WGA. If you were to hedge bets, that pretty much means these five films will be nominated for Best Picture.
And I'm pissed off about it. Unlike 2005, where I still love all but one of the films nominated (I'm looking at you, Crash!), this is a weak list in a weak year. Why is Ron Howard here? Why is this his 4th DGA nomination? For the love of cinema, he is NOT a fabulous director. He's Spielberg-Lite, a guy who makes capably entertaining movies (which Frost/Nixon is) that feel manipulated or stagnant (which Frost/Nixon is) and pull themselves down into mainstream instead of elevating themselves into something more profound (which Frost/Nixon does, and A Beautiful mind did it in SPADES).
As many problems as I have with Slumdog Millionaire, the directing is fantastic. Boyle's film is slickly designed, and if he were nom'ed and the film weren't, I'd be perfectly content with it. Ditto Benjamin Button, as much as I love it. If it's nominated for Best Picture I'll probably respect their decision, and every frame of the movie is directed to beauty, but that damn screenplay is as clunky as it is graceful (it is this year's Great Flawed Film).
BUT! Gus Van Sant emerges back into the mainstream! Thankfully Milk is here, and maybe people recognize it for what it is: it's not a bio-pic, I fail to admit that. It's a burning, passionate cry for political process and progressive reform. The staging and structure and wealth of ideas make it so creative and beautiful.
AND ON A SIDE-NOTE! Why do FOUR of these films revolve around framing devices? Slumdog's just draws attention to its contrivances, Button's feels stale and recycled (it's the SOLE reason that keeps me from embracing the film), Frost/Nixon's goes for docudrama and just feels weird and underdeveloped (even if the script as a whole is better). Milk is the only one that uses framing in an interesting way, letting Harvey Milk lay the groundwork in the beginning of the film, condensing narrative space, and ultimately giving a dead man the final, uplifting note (its most profound idea).
AND YET! I'm beyond thrilled for Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight is a director's film; without a strong presence behind the helm, the film would go to Hell in 10 minutes. He makes so many smart choices that give the film flourish and economy, he gives REAL narrative propulsion, generates suspense, and still gives time for moments of character. Honoring him and his screenplay (via WGA) should translate into an Oscar nod. If he gets in, I can forgive most anything, because I've loved him since Memento and he deserves this.
But still: Andrew Stanton was NOT ELIGIBLE for Wall-E? Do animated films direct themselves? Does minimalism not equate to strong direction, because Darren Aronofsky's direction of The Wrestler is astounding. Ditto Courtney Hunt, Mike Leigh, Tom McCarthy. In place of Howard, why not Shanley, whose Doubt translates stage to screen in a more contained and precise fashion that doesn't feel cheap. And I guess we won't be recognizing the outstanding pool of foreign talent this year, which is infinitely more interesting than what's been going on in America.
Either way, go Dark Knight.