By Jill Serjeant
BEVERLY HILLS (Reuters) - Steven Spielberg's tale of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's battle to end slavery emerged as the front-runner for Oscar glory on Thursday, after Academy Awards voters snubbed four major filmmakers for the coveted best director trophy.
In an eclectic shortlist that included thrillers, a comedy, an independent film and a harrowing French-language drama, "Lincoln" won a leading 12 nominations, including the top prize - best picture - and nods for actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones.
Ang Lee's eye-catching shipwreck tale, "Life of Pi," followed with 11 nominations, mostly in effects and technical categories, but including for best picture and director.
Musical "Les Miserables," Iran hostage drama "Argo," French-language drama "Amour," Osama bin Laden thriller "Zero Dark Thirty," comedy "Silver Linings Playbook," Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," and mythological film "Beasts of the Southern Wild" rounded out the competition for best picture.
But the director's category contained four big omissions - Tom Hooper ("Les Miserables") Ben Affleck for "Argo," Kathryn Bigelow for "Zero Dark Thirty" and Tarantino for his violent slavery-era Western "Django Unchained."
The snubs threw Hollywood awards pundits into a tizzy, and were seen as boding ill for the chances of any of those four films taking home the biggest Oscar prize on February 24.
"The snubs in the race for best director change everything," said veteran awards watcher Tom O'Neil of Goldderby.com.
"Before the nominations, pundits thought the race for best picture was between 'Argo,' 'Zero Dark Thirty' and 'Lincoln,' but the fact that Affleck and Bigelow are not nominated means they now only have a remote chance to win," O'Neil told Reuters.
'HITS ALL THE NOTES'
The Oscars are given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and voters only rarely split the awards for best picture and best director.
"I think this is a year when we can throw conventional wisdom out of the window," said Pete Hammond, awards columnist for entertainment industry website Deadline.com. "We are dealing in uncharted territory here ... It's like crazy."
"I think you have to look at 'Lincoln' being the conventional favorite, because it hits all the notes, and Spielberg directed it," Hammond told Reuters.
Fandango chief correspondent Dave Karger said "Lincoln" had everything going for it.
"It's done big business, it's done extremely well with high- brow critics, and it has done really well with the average moviegoer. Some people will say it is too talky and too dry but others say it really brought this man to life in a fascinating way," Karger said.
"Lincoln" and "Les Miserables" also emerged as the top pick among Americans for Oscar wins in an Ipsos/Reuters opinion poll released on Wednesday.
Day-Lewis, nominated for his towering performance as Abraham Lincoln, is widely seen as the frontrunner for what would be the British-born actor's record third win in the best actor category.
He will compete with Hugh Jackman, who plays a reformed petty thief in "Les Miserables," Denzel Washington as an alcoholic pilot in "Flight" and first time nominee Bradley Cooper as a bi-polar man in "Silver Linings Playbook."
"SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK" SCORES BIG
"Silver Linings Playbook" also earned the distinction of being the first film to receive nominations for best picture, director, screenplay and all four acting categories since 1981.
"I am feeling emotional and extremely humbled ... it's a very competitive year and I went to bed frankly not knowing what to expect," director David O. Russell told Reuters.
"There are many surprises in those nominees ... I was especially surprised not to see Ben (Affleck) and Kathryn (Bigelow) on the list," Russell added.
In the race for best actress, Jessica Chastain's young CIA agent in "Zero Dark Thirty" faces off against Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook"), and Naomi Watts for tsunami movie The Impossible."
They are joined by the youngest - nine year-old Quvenzhane Wallis ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") - and oldest (Emmanuelle Riva, 85, for "Amour") actresses nominated in the lead category in the Academy's 85 year-history.
"Zero Dark Thirty," which recounts the decade-long hunt for bin Laden, picked up five nods, including best screenplay for Mark Boal.
Boal said on Thursday he was honored by his nomination but added in a statement; "None of us would be so honored today without the genius and remarkable talent of Kathryn Bigelow."
The film has caused controversy in the United States over its depiction of torture and the possibly secret sources used by the filmmakers to reconstruct the long hunt for the al Qaeda leader.
James Bond film "Skyfall" won five nominations, including best original song and cinematography, but the British secret agent movie missed out on a coveted best picture mention.
The screen adaption of musical "Les Miserables" will compete in eight categories, including best supporting actress for Anne Hathaway as tragic heroine Fantine.
"Amour," Austrian director Michael Haneke's moving French-language love story about an elderly couple, won a rare double nomination in the best picture and the foreign language categories.
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Paul Simao)