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The DGA has opted to recognize three biopics in its five nominations for best director, saluting Clint Eastwood for “Million Dollar Baby”; Marc Forster, “Finding Neverland”; Taylor Hackford, “Ray”; Alexander Payne, “Sideways”; and Martin Scorsese, “The Aviator.”

Of the five, only Eastwood has ever won before. Payne and Forster are nominated for the first time.

The nominations, unveiled Thursday at Directors Guild of America HQ by prexy Michael Apted, closely followed the PGA’s noms for best pic.

The only difference: The DGA favored Hackford and “Ray,” while the PGA chose Disney-Pixar’s “The Incredibles.” That Brad Bird-helmed pic was not eligible for the DGA, which nominates only live-action films.

Among the absentees from the list were Michael Mann (“Collateral”) and Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), along with such foreign-language directors as Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), Pedro Almodovar (“Bad Education”), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“A Very Long Engagement”) and Alejandro Amenabar (“The Sea Inside”). These and other helmers are still in the Oscar race, though: In the past 20 years, the DGA and Oscar noms have been identical only once, in 1998.

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For example, last year, the DGA tapped Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”), but the Academy nominated Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”).

Apted noted, however, that 50 of the 56 DGA winners have gone on to win the Oscar. “Obviously, that distinction alone makes this nomination special,” he said.

“I think what makes this award truly meaningful to directors is the knowledge that it’s decided solely by their peers — the men and women who know the love and passion and fear that goes into each production.”

Eastwood racked up his second consecutive DGA nom, following one for 2003’s “Mystic River.” He won in 1992 for “Unforgiven.”

“I am truly honored to be recognized by the DGA with this nomination,” he said in a statement. ” ‘Million Dollar Baby’ is a film that inspired me and captured my heart. It’s not that often that a film like this comes along, and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with the actors and the crew and the entire creative team that made this movie possible.”

Forster called it “surreal” to be listed among icons like Eastwood and Scorsese. He had been nervously checking the Web Thursday morning from his Venice, Calif., office but gave up to go for a walk, only to get the news on his cell phone. “It hasn’t sunk in to me that it’s actually real yet,” he said.

Forster’s fourth film

“Finding Neverland” is only his fourth film as director, and Forster said he’d followed his instincts, against a lot of advice, in taking it on.

“Going in and out of the fantasy sequences was really tricky, so there were so many odds against me making the film. People advised me not to do it, that there’s no real upside.”

Hackford has been nommed once before, for the 1982 “An Officer and A Gentleman.”

“It definitely is different this time,” Hackford told Daily Variety. “It’s lot more meaningful.”He was also grateful the DGA looked past the media buzz over Jamie Foxx’s lead performance to recognize the film’s direction.

“My style is to make things look as easy as possible. The great thing about the DGA is that these are people are filmmakers, and they understand that you try to make things look simple, but this involves a huge amount of craft.”

Scorsese a DGA veteran

Nomination is Scorsese’s sixth, after “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980), “Goodfellas” (1990), “The Age of Innocence” (1993) and “Gangs of New York” (2002).

He received the DGA’s lifetime achievement award in 2003.

Payne, along with co-writer Jim Taylor, had received an Oscar nom for “Election” and won the WGA award for that script; the pair scored another WGA nom for “About Schmidt,” but this is his first guild nom as director.

The five nominees are spread among four studios: Miramax (“Finding Neverland” and “The Aviator”), Warner Bros. (“Million Dollar Baby”), Universal (“Ray”) and Fox Searchlight (“Sideways”).

“Ray” has garnered $71 million domestic in 66 days of release. “The Aviator” is off to a solid start, with $31 million in just 17 days. “Finding Neverland” has taken about $25 million in 52 days and “Sideways” took $22 million in 73 days, but both pics surged at year’s end.

“Million Dollar Baby” is in platformed release and has garnered about $1 million at nine engagements over 19 days.

Recent divergence

The DGA and Oscar winners have differed six times, but two of those were in the last five years. In 2000, the DGA honored Ang Lee for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but the Acad feted Steven Soderbergh for “Traffic.” In 2003, Rob Marshall won the DGA for “Chicago” but Roman Polanski snagged the Oscar for “The Pianist.”

The DGA will announce noms in other categories in the next few weeks, with primetime TV noms coming Monday. The Directors Guild of America will present its honors at the 57th annual DGA Awards dinner Saturday, Jan. 29, at the Beverly Hilton.

The DGA has also set the date for next year’s kudos: Saturday, Jan. 28.