By Mary Milliken and Nichola Groom
BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - Three films - 1970s con-men caper "American Hustle," space thriller "Gravity" and slavery drama "12 Years a Slave' - cemented their frontrunner status for the Oscars on Thursday.
Director David O. Russell's "American Hustle" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" each won 10 nominations, while Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" secured nine. All three films garnered nods for best picture and best director.
"This has been an amazing ride, and to receive nine nominations from the Academy is testament to all of the hard work," said McQueen, who is British.
But in a year hailed as one of high quality for the Hollywood industry, several other films could challenge the favorites in the race for the world's top film prize.
Somali piracy thriller "Captain Phillips," the AIDS activism tale "Dallas Buyers Club," and heartland comedy "Nebraska," which each garnered six nominations.
Martin Scorsese's cautionary tale on financial greed, "The Wolf of Wall Street," quirky computer-age romance, "Her" and adoption drama "Philomena" round out the nine nominees for best picture.
Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may nominate up to 10 films for best picture, but only chose nine this year. A notable exclusion was the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," which had won some top critics' awards.
The Academy will hand out the Oscars at a ceremony hosted by comedian Ellen DeGeneres in Los Angeles on March 2.
The Academy snubbed some veteran stars and instead chose to recognize up and coming talent.
Eight individuals in the acting categories are first-time nominees, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as the free man sold into slavery in "12 Years a Slave." He will compete in the best actor race with Matthew McConaughey, the Golden Globe winner last Sunday for his role as the unlikely AIDS crusader in "Dallas Buyers Club," and Leonardo DiCaprio as the swindling stockbroker in "The Wolf of Wall Street."
And while the best actor race included veteran Bruce Dern for his cantankerous old man in "Nebraska," it excluded Robert Redford, who won acclaim for his solo role as a sailor lost at sea in "All is Lost," and Tom Hanks as the captain under siege in "Captain Phillips."
GOOD YEAR FOR VETERAN ACTRESSES
It was a good year for veteran actresses and Oscar winners. Meryl Streep extended her lead as the most nominated performer with an 18th nomination, this year for best actress as the matriarch in "August: Osage County."
She goes up against fellow Oscar winners Sandra Bullock as the astronaut lost in space in "Gravity," Cate Blanchett as the riches-to-rags socialite in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," and Judi Dench as the Irish mother who loses her son in "Philomena." Amy Adams is nominated for her turn as a con-lady in "American Hustle."
"This is just the loveliest news," Dench said. "I'm so happy for everybody involved, and so proud to have been part of the wonderful experience that Philomena has been."
At the Golden Globes on Sunday, "12 Years a Slave," distributed by Fox Searchlight, a unit of 21st Century Fox, won best drama while "American Hustle," distributed by Sony, won best musical or comedy. "Gravity" was distributed by Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc.
In the next few weeks, Hollywood will look to see how the actors, producers, directors and writers guild awards shape up. Their members also constitute the bulk of the thousands of Academy members.
Oscar voters have a longer time this year between nominations and awards and there is a risk they could get bored by the frontrunners, change their minds or be distracted by the Winter Olympics, said awards handicapper Tom O'Neil of Goldderby.com.
"Right now it's looking like '12 Years a Slave' is ahead based on the momentum," said O'Neil. "It feels very important. It has the urgent social message that the Oscar voters like, but it's a hard movie to take."
"American Hustle," he added, has an A-list cast, a good box office and an easier theme to take in, while "Gravity" is "a spectacular achievement cinematically."
(Reporting By Mary Milliken and Nichola Groom; Editing by Sandra Maler)