BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (Reuters) - Show business satire "Birdman" and colorful caper "The Grand Budapest Hotel" led the Academy Award nominees on Thursday with nine nods apiece, including best picture, in the quest for Hollywood's top film prize.
The two Fox Searchlight films are joined in the best picture Oscar race by "American Sniper," "Boyhood," "The Imitation Game," "Selma," "The Theory of Everything" and "Whiplash." The Academy chose only eight films to compete for its highest honor, although it can nominate up to 10.
British World War Two biopic "The Imitation Game" garnered eight nominations, including best actor for Benedict Cumberbatch, while Iraq war portrait "American Sniper" and coming of age tale "Boyhood" each earned six.
The best picture race promises to be competitive, with no clear frontrunner before the Feb. 22 Oscars ceremony. Several of the top films have pushed cinematic boundaries with novel approaches to storytelling.
"Boyhood," which director Richard Linklater made over 12 years with the same actors, was considered a favorite after winning the Golden Globe for best drama last weekend.
"Birdman" from Mexican director Alejandro G. Inarritu lost in the best comedy or musical category to Wes Anderson's quirky "Grand Budapest Hotel."
Both films offer innovative visual spectacles and original characters. "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 theater.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" was an early favorite 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.
"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 at Variety. "On the scale of difficulty, all of these are off the chart."
If there was a latecomer to the race, it would be "American Sniper" from 84-year-old director Clint Eastwood. The real-life story of the most deadly sniper in American military history is also roaring to life at the box office. Star Bradley Cooper was a surprise best actor nominee, although Eastwood was left out of the directors' category.
The Martin Luther King Jr. biopic "Selma" fell short of some expectations on Thursday, earning only an original song nod for "Glory" alongside its best picture nomination. Ava DuVernay was passed over for best director, an omission that prevented her from becoming the first black woman nominated in that category.
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."
Julianne Moore is considered the favorite to win the best actress Oscar for her portrayal as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's. Another Golden Globe winner, Eddie Redmayne, is a strong contender for best actor for his role as physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything."
"It's all too much to take in really," Redmayne told Reuters. "Come later today, I will have a stiff glass of something."
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.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Oscars, will reveal the winners in Los Angeles at a Feb. 22 ceremony hosted by actor Neil Patrick Harris.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy and Mary Milliken; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)