Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron won the top prize at the Directors Guild of America (DGA) on Sunday for the movie "Gravity" as the outer space drama gathers momentum, alongside "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave", for the Oscars.
The best director award is Cuaron's first from the DGA and is considered a strong predictor of Oscar success in six weeks. The DGA top honor has correctly predicted the best picture Oscar winner for nine of the past 10 years.
"This is truly an honor and I'm humbled by being recognized by your peers," Cuaron, 52, said, accepting the award at a ceremony in Los Angeles.
Cuaron's special effects-laden existential drama about an astronaut who becomes separated from her space shuttle also won a joint prize with "12 Years a Slave" from Hollywood's producers last week in a rare tie.
"Gravity" stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone on her first space mission and George Clooney as veteran astronaut Lt. Matt Kowalski, who tries to save Stone's life.
In his acceptance speech, Cuaron related how part of his job as director was examining the high-resolution satellite photos of Earth that were used as the movie's backdrop and how little they said about the lives of humans.
"What you cannot see from up there is this bizarre experiment of nature that is the human experience and that experiment is what directors try to sort out in their films," Cuaron said. "And thankfully that experience is as diverse as the films that these filmmakers make."
Since 1948, there have been only seven occasions when the DGA award winner has not gone on to win the corresponding Academy Award. Last year's DGA winner, Ben Affleck for Iran hostage drama "Argo", was not nominated for the best director Oscar award, which was given to Ang Lee for "Life of Pi".
Cuaron's film topped Paul Greengrass' Somali piracy thriller "Captain Phillips," Steve McQueen's slavery drama "12 Years a Slave," David O. Russell's 1970s crime caper "American Hustle" and Martin Scorsese's tale of disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf of Wall Street."
So far in Hollywood's busy awards season, "12 Years a Slave" has earned victories at the Golden Globe Awards and from the Producers Guild of America, while "American Hustle" has won at the Golden Globes and for best ensemble cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Other winners of DGA awards include Vince Gilligan, creator of the television series "Breaking Bad", who won the best director prize for a dramatic series, and Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim won for best documentary.
Her film, "The Square," about Egypt's revolution and its aftermath, has so far yet to be cleared by the country's censors, but the director said that Internet piracy has allowed the film to be seen by at least 750,000 people there.
Director Steven Soderbergh collected two prizes from the DGA, one for best television movie or miniseries for "Behind the Candelabra," a story of the pianist Liberace and one of his lovers, and a special prize for his service to the guild.