By Todd Leopold
Two stories of America -- one about its sometimes perverse capacity for reinvention, the other about the most tragic period in the country's history -- were among the leaders for the nominations Thursday for the 86th Academy Awards.
"American Hustle," a story about con artists based loosely on the late 1970s Abscam scandal, tied for the lead with 10 nominations. The movie was nominated in several major categories, including picture, director (David O. Russell), actor (Christian Bale), actress (Amy Adams), supporting actor (Bradley Cooper), supporting actress (Jennifer Lawrence) and adapted screenplay.
And "12 Years a Slave," based on Solomon Northup's 19th-century narrative about being taken from freedom into slavery, earned nine nods, including picks for best picture, best director (Steve McQueen), best actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), best supporting actor (Michael Fassbender) and best supporting actress (Lupita Nyong'o).
"This has been an amazing ride, and to receive nine nominations from the academy is testament to all of the hard work. And for that I am truly grateful," McQueen said.
"Gravity," about a space mission gone wrong, also received 10 nominations, including picks for best picture, best director (Alfonso Cuaron) and best actress (Sandra Bullock).
"I am particularly moved by Sandy's nomination," said Cuaron in a statement. "She is the heartbeat of our film. I thank her for her grace, her trust and her dedication to finding the truth of this character."
The academy nominated nine films for best picture overall. They are "American Hustle," "Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Gravity," "Her," "Nebraska," "Philomena," "12 Years a Slave" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."
"The Wolf of Wall Street" had divided critics -- and, more to the point, industry audiences -- with its relentless depiction of hedonism among financial traders in 1990s New York. In one instance, according to a story that quickly gained currency in Hollywood, an academy member heckled director Martin Scorsese after a screening.
But Oscar sided with the film, giving it five nominations, all in big categories: best picture, best director, best actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), best supporting actor (Jonah Hill) and best adapted screenplay (Terence Winter).
Love for 'Dallas Buyers Club'
There was also good news for "Dallas Buyers Club," the story of an HIV-positive man in the 1980s who rallies others to battle the AIDS crisis. The low-budget film, which cost $5 million, received six nominations, tying it with "Nebraska" and "Captain Phillips."
Matthew McConaughey, who won a Golden Globe for a performance that required him to lose 45 pounds, was among the best actor nominees. The film was also nominated for best supporting actor (Jared Leto, another Globe winner) and best original screenplay, along with best picture.
The academy also smiled on director Alexander Payne, a two-time Oscar winner whose films include "Sideways," "The Descendants" and "About Schmidt." His "Nebraska," the story of a curmudgeon and his son who make a trip to the Cornhusker State in the possible vain pursuit of a sweepstakes prize, included nominations for picture, director, original screenplay, supporting actress (June Squibb) and best actor. The last went to 77-year-old film veteran Bruce Dern, whose only other nomination was for 1978's "Coming Home."
Another sleeper, "Philomena," received nominations for picture, adapted screenplay and star Judi Dench.
The tireless Meryl Streep was recognized yet again by the academy, receiving a best actress nomination for "August: Osage County." It's Streep's 18th nomination. She has three wins, for "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Sophie's Choice" and "The Iron Lady."
Hanks, Oprah missing
But not everyone ended up touched by Oscar's golden glow.
Perhaps the biggest shocker was the lack of a nomination for Tom Hanks, who pretty much carries "Captain Phillips" as the titular seaman. The film did receive nominations for best picture, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor (for former limo driver and Somalia native Barkhad Abdi), but neither Hanks nor director Paul Greengrass ended up with nods.
Hanks' other major film, "Saving Mr. Banks," was almost entirely snubbed. Though Emma Thompson won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers, the academy overlooked her in the best actress race, and the film failed to earn a best picture nomination.
Oprah Winfrey and the film she starred in, "Lee Daniels' The Butler," also came up empty.
And Robert Redford was expected to make a run at best actor for his almost wordless performance in "All Is Lost," about a lone sailor lost at sea when his boat is damaged. But the 77-year-old actor didn't get a nomination.
Pixar, which once a sure thing in the animated feature category, was left off the nominations list again. The nominees for best animated feature are "The Croods," "Despicable Me 2," "Frozen," "The Wind Rises" and "Ernest & Celestine."
DeGeneres promises fun again as Oscar host
The Oscar race now shapes up as a battle between "Hustle" and "12 Years."
Both have their critics. For all the praise "Hustle" has received -- including a Golden Globe for best musical or comedy film -- it's been called slick and hammy. McQueen's "12 Years" (which received the Golden Globe for best drama) has fewer naysayers, but even those who liked the film noted it's difficult to watch.
Slate's Dana Stevens described it as "overpowering," and admitted she was having a hard time finding critical distance from the film's portrayal of brutality.
"Buyers Club" could sneak in. Like "12 Years," it has a high-minded subject the Oscars tend to like, and McConaughey and Leto have been widely touted for their performances.
"Gravity" may be a longer shot for best picture, but Cuaron's amazing direction -- juggling state-of-the-art, computer-generated imagery with moving performances by Bullock and George Clooney -- has been greatly admired.
Of course, as much as the Oscars is about designating the best of Hollywood, it's also supposed to be an entertaining show. This year, Ellen DeGeneres returns as host, and given a short ad shown just before the nominations announcement -- which featured DeGeneres dancing through a backlot accompanied by a growing army of tuxedoed dancers -- it could be a lot of fun.
The 86th Academy Awards will air March 2 from Hollywood's Dolby Theatre. The show will be on ABC.
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