In a hydra-headed Oscar race, "American Hustle," ''12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" all have legitimate claims to favorite status. And that's a good thing.
Even if a front-runner emerges from the much-nominated trio over the six weeks leading up to the 86th Academy Awards on March 2, the credentials of each film should be plenty to heighten nerves and add to the drama on Oscar night.
"It's an extremely competitive year," said David O. Russell, whose "American Hustle" landed 10 nods, tied for most with "Gravity," in nominations announced Thursday from Beverly Hills, Calif. "It could go any which way."
Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," an unflinching depiction of 19th century American slavery, trailed close behind with nine nominations, including nods for McQueen, lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and supporting players Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o. Since its festival debut, it's been seen by many as the movie to beat, a film bearing heavy historical gravitas that the lighter "American Hustle" and the literally weightless "Gravity" can't match.
But Russell's wild Abscam comedy, thick in 1970s style, has ridden a wave of enthusiasm for its manic performances. It's three in a row for Russell, too, who may be due for bigger Oscar wins than his much-nominated films "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter" managed. A year after "Silver Linings Playbook" landed nominations in all four acting categories, "Hustle" managed the same feat with Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper all receiving nods.
Then there's "Gravity," which, along with nominations for director Alfonso Cuaron and lead actress Sandra Bullock, exerted its force with nominations in all seven technical categories. With $670 million in worldwide box-office, the 3-D space odyssey is easily the most popular of the best-picture nominees, widely credited with reinvigorating the spectacle of the big-screen experience.
The three films will vie in the best picture category with "Captain Phillips," ''Dallas Buyers Club," ''Her," ''Nebraska," ''The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Philomena." If any of them poses a dark-horse threat, it's Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," a nearly three hour-long portrait of hedonism and greed that some have said glorifies former trader Jordan Belfort.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" landed five big nominations, including best director (Scorsese, his eighth for directing), best actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), best supporting actor (Jonah Hill), and best adapted screenplay (Terence Winter). DiCaprio, now a four-time nominee, said he felt vindicated.
"To be recognized like this and to see that there were enough people out there who said, 'Look, we get what this film is' — not what it's trying to say, but what it's trying to reflect," said DiCaprio. "Nobody wants to be misunderstood."
The nominations seemed to favor new blood over esteemed veterans. In an especially strong best actor race, Tom Hanks ("Captain Phillips") and Robert Redford ("All Is Lost") were surprisingly left out. Emma Thompson was omitted from best actress, and her film, Disney's making-of "Mary Poppins" tale "Saving Mr. Banks," was overlooked in the best picture category.
The best actor category is led by first-time nominee Matthew McConaughey, whose Texas HIV drama "Dallas Buyers Club" earned six nominations.
"I'm at home in Malibu, having a cup of tea, catching the sunrise. My newborn's walking around," said McConaughey, whose nod capped a remarkable reinvention by the actor after sliding into mediocrity. "What a great alarm clock and news to wake up to this morning."
Others enjoying their first nod were Ejiofor, McQueen, Fassbender, Barkhad Abdi (a limo driver before being cast as a Somali pirate in "Captain Phillips"), 84-year-old June Squibb ("Nebraska") and Jared Leto, who had devoted himself to music before returning to play a transsexual in "Dallas Buyers Club."
Said Leto: "Yesterday I was doing jury duty, today I woke up with an Academy Award nomination. Only in America."
Even 77-year-old Bruce Dern, nominated for best actor for his performance as a gruff, taciturn wandering Montana man in "Nebraska," has an uncommon youthful vigor. Few have taken more pleasure in awards season than Dern (nominated 35 years ago for Hal Ashby's "Coming Home"), revitalized by a film he's happily viewed, he estimates, "approaching the upper 30s."
"I can't see it enough to realize how lucky we all were with the collaboration that went on on this particular movie," said Dern. "I feel somehow that the industry has suddenly today put their arms around our little movie."
The black-and-white "Nebraska" earned six nominations, including best director for Alexander Payne.
One of the day's biggest winners was the 27-year-old producer Megan Ellison, the daughter of billionaire Larry Ellison. Her Annapurna Pictures produced two of the best-picture nominees ("American Hustle" and "Her") as well as the Wong Kar-Wai martial arts drama "The Grandmaster." She is the first woman and only the fourth person to receive two best picture nods in the same year. She celebrated by tweeting "17!" — the total nominations her films received.
"Her," Spike Jonze's futurist romance, scored five nominations Thursday, including best original screenplay for Jonze. He actually earned three nods in all, including best song, having co-written "The Moon Song" with Karen O.
There were plenty of familiar faces, though, too. Meryl Streep padded her acting record with her 18th nomination, best actress for her truth-telling, pill-popping matriarch in "August: Osage County." Streep, Adams and Bullock are joined by Cate Blanchett (her sixth nom) for "Blue Jasmine" and Judi Dench (her seventh) for "Philomena."
Along with Nyong'o, Squibb and Lawrence, the best supporting actress nominees were Julia Roberts ("August: Osage County") and Sally Hawkins ("Blue Jasmine").
Woody Allen scored his record 16th screenwriting nomination for "Blue Jasmine." Also up for original screenplay are "American Hustle," ''Dallas Buyers Club," ''Her" and "Nebraska." In the adapted screenplay category are "Before Midnight," ''Captain Phillips," ''Philomena," ''12 Years a Slave" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."
Joel and Ethan Coen's folk tale "Inside Llewyn Davis," one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, garnered only nominations for cinematography and sound mixing. And while 2013 was trumpeted as one of the best years for African-American cinema, movies like "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "Fruitvale Station" were shut out.
Though historically the most-nominated films have taken home best picture, that's not recently been the case. In six of the last 10 years, the most-nominated film hasn't triumphed in the end, including last year when Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," with 12 nominations, was beaten by Ben Affleck's "Argo."
This year's Oscar telecast on ABC, with Ellen DeGeneres hosting for the second time, has particular pressure on it to live up to the increasingly popular Golden Globes, led by hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. The Academy Awards have struggled to freshen up its more prestigious brand.
But comebacks are always possible. The most notorious flop of 2013, "The Lone Ranger," managed to land two nominations, for visual effects and makeup and hairstyle.
Associated Press writers Derrik J. Lang and Anthony McCartney in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyleBy JAKE COYLE - AP Film Writer