BEVERLY HILLS, California - Show business satire "Birdman" and colorful caper "The Grand Budapest Hotel," on Thursday captured nine Academy Award nominations each, including best picture, for a year recognised for its original feats in filmmaking.
Joining the two Fox Searchlight releases in the best picture race is "Boyhood," whose director, Richard Linklater, pushed cinematic boundaries by making it over 12 years with the same actors.
"Boyhood" received six nominations overall and comes to the race as a frontrunner after winning the Golden Globe for best drama last weekend.
"It's harder and harder to get any film made, and all of these movies are really original and difficult," said Tim Gray, awards editor for entertainment industry publication Variety. "On the scale of difficulty, all of these are off the chart."
British World War Two biopic "The Imitation Game" garnered eight nominations, including best picture and best actor for Benedict Cumberbatch. "American Sniper," an Iraq war film by director Clint Eastwood, also earned six nominations, notably best picture and a surprising best actor nomination for Bradley Cooper as the sharpshooting hero.
Other best picture nominees were "Selma," a slice of Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights work, and "The Theory of Everything," a portrait of the marriage of physicist Stephen Hawking. Sundance festival winner "Whiplash" rounded out the field of eight competing for the top Oscar, a number that surprised some awards watchers since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can nominate up to 10.
If it was a good year for offbeat films, it was not so favourable for diversity, after inroads last year. Most notably, "12 Years a Slave" made history as the first film by a black director to win as best picture.
This year, in the 87th Academy Awards slate, there were no actors of colour in the four acting races, and no women managed to crack the best director category.
"Selma" in particular seemed to stumble badly, picking up just two nominations, best picture and best song, despite speculation that it would fare well and that Ava DuVernay had a shot at becoming the first black woman to be nominated for best director.
"We can blame Hollywood for a lack of diversity, which we're seeing across Oscars today," said Tom O'Neil, founder of awards tracker Gold Derby. "It is the whitest Oscars in recent times in acting categories, and there is no gender diversity in directors."
'A LOT OF COURAGE'
The best picture race promises to be competitive, with no clear favourite five weeks before the Feb. 22 awards ceremony in Los Angeles. But the Academy branches that nominate contenders seem to have gravitated to films that challenged the creative status quo.
Both "Birdman" from Mexican director Alejandro G. Inarritu and Wes Anderson's quirky "The Grand Budapest Hotel" offer innovative visual spectacles and original characters. They go head-to-head in four races - picture, director, cinematography and original screenplay.
"Birdman" features Michael Keaton, a best actor nominee, as a washed-up former superhero actor battling to make a comeback by putting on his own Broadway play, his angst captured in what looks like one long shot in the cramped confines of the theatre.
"I am very happy for the whole Birdman flock because it took a lot of courage to make this film out of conventions," said Inarritu.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" was an early favourite last year with critics, with its whimsical story of a hotel concierge caught up in a murder plot. It won nominations for its colorful production design, costumes and makeup, among others.
If there was a latecomer to the race, it would be "American Sniper." The real-life story of the most deadly sniper in American military history is also roaring to life at the box office, but Eastwood, 84, failed to make the cut for best director.
Some of the other notable surprises were the nomination of Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard as a beleaguered worker in "Two Days, One Night" and the exclusion of Jennifer Aniston, who gave a critically acclaimed performance in "Cake."
The animation category may have served up the biggest snub of the day with the omission of "The LEGO Movie," which is based on the toy building blocks loved by critics, children and their parents.
Julianne Moore is considered the favourite to win the best actress Oscar for her portrayal as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's. Fellow Golden Globe winner, Eddie Redmayne, is a strong contender for best actor for his role as physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything."
Meryl Streep extended her Academy lead as the most nominated performer of all time with her 19th nod, this time for her supporting role in the musical "Into the Woods."
Next page: Full list of Oscar nominees
Following is a list of nominees in leading categories.
BEST PICTURE: "American Sniper" "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" "Boyhood" "The Grand Budapest Hotel" "The Imitation Game" "Selma" "The Theory of Everything" "Whiplash"
BEST ACTOR: Steve Carell, "Foxcatcher" Bradley Cooper, "American Sniper" Benedict Cumberbatch, "The Imitation Game" Michael Keaton, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" Eddie Redmayne, "The Theory of Everything"
BEST ACTRESS: Marion Cotillard, "Two Days, One Night" Felicity Jones, "The Theory of Everything" Julianne Moore, "Still Alice" Rosamund Pike, "Gone Girl" Reese Witherspoon, "Wild"
BEST DIRECTOR: Alejandro G. Inarritu, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" Richard Linklater, "Boyhood" Bennett Miller, "Foxcatcher" Wes Anderson, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" Morten Tyldum, "The Imitation Game"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Robert Duvall, "The Judge" Ethan Hawke, "Boyhood" Edward Norton, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" Mark Ruffalo, "Foxcatcher" J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette, "Boyhood" Laura Dern, "Wild" Keira Knightley, "The Imitation Game" Emma Stone, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" Meryl Streep, "Into The Woods"
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Jason Hall, "American Sniper" Graham Moore, "The Imitation Game" Paul Thomas Anderson, "Inherent Vice" Anthony McCarten, "The Theory of Everything" Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bo, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" Richard Linklater, "Boyhood" E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman, "Foxcatcher" Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" Dan Gilroy, "Nightcrawler"
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: "Ida" (Poland) "Leviathan" (Russia) "Tangerines" (Estonia) "Timbuktu" (Mauritania) "Wild Tales" (Argentina) BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM "Big Hero 6" "The Boxtrolls" "How to Train Your Dragon 2" "Song of the Sea" "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya"
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: "CitizenFour" "Finding Vivian Maier" "Last Days in Vietnam" "The Salt of the Earth" "Virunga"
BEST ORIGINAL SONG: "Everything is Awesome," from "The Lego Movie" "Glory," from "Selma" "Grateful," from "Beyond the Lights" "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," from "Glen Campbell...I'll Be Me" "Lost Stars," from "Begin Again"
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Alexandre Desplat, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" Alexandre Desplat, "The Imitation Game" Hans Zimmer, "Interstellar" Gary Yershon, "Mr. Turner" Johann Johannsson, "The Theory of Everything"
BEST COSTUME DESIGN: Milena Canonero, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" Mark Bridges, "Inherent Vice" Colleen Atwood, "Into The Woods" Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive, "Maleficent" Jacqueline Durran, "Mr. Turner"
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Emmanuel Lubezki, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" Robert Yeoman, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" Lukasz Zal, Ryszard Lenczewski, "Ida" Dick Pope, "Mr. Turner" Roger Deakins, "Unbroken"
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: Bill Corso, Dennis Liddiard, "Foxcatcher" Frances Hannon, Mark Coulier, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou, David White, "Guardians of the Galaxy"
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" "Guardians of the Galaxy" "Interstellar" "X-Men: Days of Future Past"