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 recognized 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 favorable 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 color 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 GoldDerby. "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 favorite 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 theater.
"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 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.
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 favorite 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."