By Mary Milliken and Piya Sinha-Roy
BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - Slavery drama "12 Years a Slave" and 1970s con-artist caper "American Hustle" led the Golden Globe Awards nominations announced on Thursday with seven nods each, fortifying their frontrunner positions in a crowded field ahead of the Oscars.
In the coveted best drama category, "12 Years a Slave" will compete against Somali piracy nail-biter "Captain Phillips," space thriller "Gravity," adoption drama "Philomena," and race-car rivalry "Rush."
"American Hustle" was nominated for best comedy or musical, alongside computer-age love story "Her," folk singer tale "Inside Llewyn Davis," heartland ode "Nebraska" and the story of a crooked banker, "The Wolf of Wall Street."
Best acting nominations favored acclaimed actors with long careers, like 79-year-old Judi Dench for her role as an Irish mother looking for the son she was forced to give up in "Philomena" and Robert Redford, 77, the sole cast member as a sailor fighting for his life in "All Is Lost."
The Golden Globe nominations voted by members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) are a leading indicator for the awards season and underscored the strong year for film, with many critically acclaimed movies and performances jostling for prominence. That highly competitive field is making for an unpredictable run-up to the Oscars.
"It is the most schizophrenic awards season I have ever seen," said Tom O'Neil, of awards handicapping site GoldDerby.com. He notes that while "12 Years a Slave" is a frontrunner, it has yet to win any Hollywood or top critics' group awards.
"Nebraska" won five Golden Globe nominations overall, including best actor in a comedy or musical for veteran actor Bruce Dern and best director for Alexander Payne.
"Captain Phillips" and "Gravity" each secured four nominations, including best actor and actress nods for their lead characters, Oscar winners Tom Hanks as the ship captain under siege and Sandra Bullock as a stranded astronaut.
The Golden Globes will be handed out on January 12 in Beverly Hills, just a few days before the nominations for Academy Awards, the highest honors in Hollywood. While the HFPA can make some unconventional choices, last year's Golden Globe for best drama went to Iran hostage thriller "Argo," which went on to win the Oscar for best picture.
RACE FOR OSCARS HEATS UP
And while "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle" compete in separate categories for Globes, they are likely to go head-to-head in the Oscars race for best picture.
"12 Years a Slave" by director Steve McQueen, a real-life story about the free black man Solomon Northup sold into slavery in Louisiana, has been a top contender for awards since winning at the Toronto International Film Festival. On Wednesday, the depiction of brutal pre-Civil War American slavery won the most nominations for acting awards from the Screen Actors Guild, with four nods.
"I am delighted for my cast and crew who worked so hard on this film to shine a light on a forgotten American hero, Solomon Northup," said McQueen after learning of the Golden Globe nods.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, was nominated for best actor in a drama, while Michael Fassbender as the evil plantation owner and Hollywood newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as the slave girl he desires received best supporting nods.
In "American Hustle," director David O. Russell reunites some of his favorite actors from previous films "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," like Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, for a romp through heady 1970s New York, with con-men and an FBI sting operation gone awry.
All four of his returning actors received Globe nominations, with Bale up for best actor in a comedy or musical for his portrayal of a complex con-artist with a bad comb-over.
'GRAVITY' WEIGHS IN
"Gravity" might prove a formidable challenge to the two frontrunners. It has performed well at the box office, hauling in $250 million in the United States and Canada, and shows a high rate of repeat viewings, making the film from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron a notable contender, O'Neil said.
Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," an adaptation of a fraudulent banker's memoir, got some much-needed awards attention from the HFPA after a late start to its promotion, including a best actor nomination for Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Golden Globe nominations also gave a boost to the new biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," which premiered shortly before the death of Nelson Mandela. Idris Elba was nominated best actor in a drama for his role as the South African anti-apartheid leader.
But another film from The Weinstein Company, civil rights drama "Lee Daniels' The Butler," which earned three SAG acting nods, received no Golden Globe nominations.
"Rush," the story of rival Formula One drivers in the 1970s from director Ron Howard, got legs from the Globe nominations after a strong performance globally, but a lackluster box office in the United States.
"It's a real thrill, especially in such a year considered this rich with really interesting, effective movies," Howard said.
The French lesbian love story and Cannes film festival winner "Blue is the Warmest Color" was predictably nominated for best foreign-language film. It will compete against "The Great Beauty" from Italy, Denmark's "The Hunt," Iran's "The Past" and the animated Japanese film "The Wind Rises."
In television, Golden Globe nominations highlighted some new and edgy shows, like the history of sexual study in "Masters of Sex" and the Netflix political thriller "House of Cards," both nominated for best drama. Old favorites like the advertising industry drama "Mad Men" were excluded.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Reaney in New York; Editing by Vicki Allen)