"This is truly an honor and I'm humbled by it," Cuaron said as he accepted the award, winning the DGA prize on his first nomination.
With this year's best picture Oscar race so tightly contested, the DGA award arrived as the last strong indicator of what film might be the eventual winner. (Eligibility restrictions reduce the impact of next week's Writers Guild Awards.) Last weekend, "American Hustle" won Screen Actors Guild ensemble honors, while "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" tied for the Producers Guild's best picture prize.
Cuaron's win, coupled with the PGA prize, would seem to mark "Gravity" as the best picture front-runner heading into the Oscars on March 2.
The DGA winner has gone on to win the director Oscar all but seven times in 65 years. One of those exceptions came last year, when Ben Affleck took the DGA prize for "Argo" after not being nominated by the Motion Picture Academy. "Argo" did wind up winning the Academy Award for best picture.
"The Square," the revelatory, riveting account of Egyptian revolution, won the DGA documentary award. Accepting the prize, director Jehane Noujaim delivered an emotional speech, noting that the movie had yet to be cleared by censors in Egypt.
"But it has been pirated, copied and uploaded again and again and 750,000 people have seen it in the last couple of days," Noujaim said. "I called Ahmed (Hassan), one of the main characters, and he told me, 'I can't walk the streets! Girls want to take pictures with me! The film has spread far beyond Cairo to villages you haven’t even heard of.'"
Steven Soderbergh received the Robert B. Aldrich Award for his work with the DGA over his career.
"I didn't want to join. I was forced to join," Soderbergh said, saying he initially believed the guild didn't have anything to offer him. "Learning I was wrong over and over again was one of the best things that ever happened to me."
Soderdergh returned to the stage later to accept his first DGA non-honorary award for his direction of the HBO Liberace biographical drama "Behind the Candelabra." He thanked his collaborators, whom he called, with joking appreciation, "performance enhancers."
Each of the five DGA feature film director nominees received medallions presented by a member of their movie's cast. The introductions provided many of the evening's highlights, with the reliably engaging Tom Hanks introducing "Captain Philllips" director Paul Greengrass and Rob Reiner wondering why, with all the nudity in "The Wolf of Wall Street," Martin Scorsese didn't include any bared flesh in his scenes in the film.
Introducing Cuaron, Bullock noted, "They say it's all smoke and mirrors in this business, but you had not the option of smoke or mirrors, but just your imagination."
"I go through life and I’m not very starstruck," Cuaron told The Times before the ceremony. "But my teen crushes were with directors. I talk to them and I get so embarrassed. I still get like a teen with a rock star. Even with people who are friends now. We’ve had endless dinners. But I still get nervous beforehand."
The DGA awards ceremony was held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel in Century City. The ceremony is not televised.