It was the battle of Australia when the Academy Awards announced the Oscar nominations in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
While La La Land romped into the lead, as predicted, with 14 nominations, tying for all-time best with Titanic and All About Eve, two films by Australian directors grabbed six each.
In a surprise move, Mel Gibson usurped Garth Davis in the five-strong Best Director list.
In one corner stands Davis’ remarkable debut feature and staggering true Australian story Lion, starring Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel as Saroo Brierley.
Raised in Tasmania by adoptive parents (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), Saroo returns to India to find the family he lost as a young boy in this heart-wrenching adventure that co-stars Sunny Pawar – who was only five when shooting began and spoke only Hindi – as a young Saroo.
Controversial actor/director Mel Gibson’s American war biopic Hacksaw Ridge is in the other corner, his first recognition by the Academy since Braveheart took home Best Picture and Best Director in 1996, after a spell in the wilderness following a sexist and anti-Semitic roadside outburst and accusations of domestic violence.
Lion producer Emile Sherman, who also worked with Davis on Top of the Lake with Oscar-winning New Zealander Jane Campion, said having two films by Australian directors in contention for Best Picture only helps the local industry.
“It’s extraordinary,” he told The New Daily. “What makes it even rarer is that Lion is an Australian story, with Australian characters, accents and locations and it’s just so special that it can sit there amongst the top nine films in the world.”
Sherman said Lion was Davis’ film and he shares the credit for all six nominations.
“It was an enormous film to pull off as your first feature, shooting in two Indian locations thousands of kilometres apart as well as Tasmania and Melbourne, and working with Sunny, a little kid who does not speak English.
“It’s a complex story told in two parts and Garth makes it all hang together emotionally and just holds you,” he added.
While Sherman admits they hoped Davis would secure the director nod, he acknowledges it was always going to be tough.
“Garth is over the moon. He’s a newcomer, he’s not known by the Academy, but he was given two Directors Guild of American nominations and I think that’s a great credit to him. Directors have long careers and this is an incredible way for Garth to launch himself onto the scene.”
Zak Hepburn, chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and resident critic on ABC News Breakfast was disappointed not to see a director’s nod for Davis.
“Given Lion is such an impressive feature film debut for Garth Davis, and the multitude of other nominations the film has received, it’s disappointing not to see him nominated for Best Direction,” Hepburn said. “The direction of the film is key, especially in the early sequences where Davis manages to command a fine performance from young Sunny Pawar.”
There was some backlash against Gibson’s nomination on Twitter. Ryan Porter, an entertainment writer for the Toronto Star, tweeted: “As if Mel Gibson hasn’t already done enough, now he’s stolen Lion director Garth Davis’s Oscar nomination.”
As if Mel Gibson hasn't already done enough, now he's stolen Lion director Garth Davis's Oscar nomination
— Ryan Porter (@MrRyanPorter) January 24, 2017
AfterElton.com contributor Louis Virtel used a scathing GIF borrowed from Best Actress nominee Isabelle Huppert’s film Elle.
Actual footage of me dealing with the prospect of a Mel Gibson Oscar nomination. pic.twitter.com/leVb5TFcLj
— Louis Virtel (@louisvirtel) January 24, 2017