Steven Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck were among the nominees Tuesday for top honors from the Directors Guild of America (DGA), seen as a key bellwether for Oscars glory.
Others nominated for the DGA's prize for directorial achievement in a feature film -- the winner of which regularly goes on to take best director Oscar -- were Tom Hooper for his musical adaptation Les Miserables and Taiwanese-US director Ang Lee for the stunning 3D Life of Pi
The DGA shortlist was announced two days before the all-important unveiling of nominees for this year's Academy Awards, the climax of Hollywood's annual gongs season. The DGA winner will be announced on February 2.
Spielberg's political drama Lincoln already has strong momentum after topping nominations for the Golden Globes, the winners of which will be announced on Sunday.
Also tipped by the DGA is Bigelow's Osama bin Laden manhunt movie Zero Dark Thirty, which has sparked controversy over its depiction of enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA which critics say amount to torture.
Bigelow won best film and best director among six Oscars for 2008's The Hurt Locker, along with screenwriter Mark Boal who joined her again on the bin Laden film.
Actor-director Affleck was nominated for Iran hostage drama Argo, which tied for second in Golden Globes nominations, in the running in five categories.
The DGA top prize winner has gone on to win best director Oscar in all but six years since 1948. The last time it didn't was 2002, when Rob Marshall won the DGA for Chicago, but the Oscar went to Roman Polanski for The Pianist.
Last year's DGA winner was silent movie The Artist, which went on to Oscars glory with five Academy Awards including best film and best director for Michel Hazanavicius.
Spielberg has won the DGA's top prize three times, for 1985's The Color Purple, 1993's Schindler's List and 1998's Saving Private Ryan.
Hollywood is bracing for the all-important Oscar nominations, to be announced shortly after 5:30 am (1330 GMT) on Thursday, with the Academy Awards themselves to be handed out on February 24.