LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Gritty historical drama "12 Years a Slave" and dark comedy "Nebraska" led the nominees for the Independent Spirit Awards on Tuesday, both scoring nods in the best feature, best director and best acting categories.
"12 Years a Slave," a harrowing tale of a free black man sold into slavery, landed seven nominations including British-born filmmaker Steve McQueen for best director, actor Chiwetel Ejiofor for best male lead and newcomer actress Lupita Nyong'o for best supporting female.
The Fox Searchlight Pictures film has garnered praise from critics and is already a hot contender in the Oscars race.
"Nebraska," a sweeping melancholy black and white comedy about a dying man, scored six nominations including nods for its director Alexander Payne, lead actor Bruce Dern and comedian Will Forte for best supporting actor. Dern, 77, won the best actor prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
The Film Independent Spirit Awards are Hollywood's top honors for independent and art house films, and cast a spotlight on some of the smaller budget cinematic efforts that also become strong contenders for Oscars, Hollywood's top film honors handed out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Spirit Awards are often a indicator of Academy Award winners, with both Natalie Portman for "Black Swan" in 2011 and Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook" in 2013 landing the best actress Spirit award and going on to win the best actress award.
Both "12 Years a Slave" and Paramount Pictures' "Nebraska" are nominated for the best feature Spirit award, the top award of the night, along with quirky comedy "Frances Ha," Robert Redford's survival tale "All is Lost" and the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis."
"All is Lost," a co-production from Roadside Attractions and Lions Gate, follows a man lost at sea. It picked up four nominations including best lead actor for Redford. CBS films' "Inside Llewyn Davis," a tale of a struggling folk musician directed by Oscar-winning brothers Joel and Ethan Cohen, landed three nods including best actor for newcomer Oscar Isaac.
Cate Blanchett from Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," Julie Delpy from "Before Midnight," Gaby Hoffman from "Crystal Fairy," Brie Larson from "Short Term 12" and Shailene Woodley from "The Specacular Now" will contend for best female lead.
The awards, voted by Film Independent members, will be handed out at a lunch ceremony hosted by comedian Patton Oswalt in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica, California, on March 1, 2014, the day before the glitzy Oscars ceremony.
Smaller films such as The Weinstein Company's "Fruitvale Station," one of the top winners at the Sundance Film Festival this year, picked up three nods as did Cinedigm's "Short Term 12." IFC films' "Frances Ha" and "Crystal Fairy" picked up two nods each, as did Focus Features' AIDS drama "Dallas Buyers Club," which scored nods for Matthew McConaughey as best actor and Jared Leto for best supporting actor.
Roadside Attractions drama film "Mud," also starring McConaughey as a fugitive who befriends two boys, will receive the Robert Altman award that is given annually to one film's director, casting director and ensemble cast.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a favorite within the indie film community, landed a best first screenplay nod for his raunchy rom-com "Don Jon," along with actress Lake Bell, also nominated in the first screenplay category for her comedy "In a World."
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Doina Chiacu)