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An interesting Oscar race with no clear favorite

In a hydra-headed Oscar race, “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” all have legitimate claims to favorite status. And that’s a good thing.

Even if a front-runner emerges from the much-nominated trio over the six weeks leading up to the 86th Academy Awards on March 2, the credentials of each film should be plenty to heighten nerves and add to the drama on Oscar night.

“It’s an extremely competitive year,” said David O. Russell, whose “American Hustle” landed 10 nods, tied for most with “Gravity,” in nominations announced Thursday from Beverly Hills, Calif. “It could go any which way.”

Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” an unflinching depiction of 19th century American slavery, trailed close behind with nine nominations, including nods for McQueen, lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and supporting players Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. Since its festival debut, it’s been seen by many as the movie to beat, a film bearing heavy historical gravitas that the lighter “American Hustle” and the literally weightless “Gravity” can’t match.

But Russell’s wild Abscam comedy, thick in 1970s style, has ridden a wave of enthusiasm for its manic performances. It’s three in a row for Russell, too, who may be due for bigger Oscar wins than his much-nominated films “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter” managed. A year after “Silver Linings Playbook” landed nominations in all four acting categories, “Hustle” managed the same feat with Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper all receiving nods.

Then there’s “Gravity,” which, along with nominations for director Alfonso Cuaron and lead actress Sandra Bullock, exerted its force with nominations in all seven technical categories. With $670 million in worldwide box-office, the 3-D space odyssey is easily the most popular of the best-picture nominees, widely credited with reinvigorating the spectacle of the big-screen experience.

The three films will vie in the best picture category with “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Philomena.” If any of them poses a dark-horse threat, it’s Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a nearly three hour-long portrait of hedonism and greed that some have said glorifies former trader Jordan Belfort.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” landed five big nominations, including best director (Scorsese, his eighth for directing), best actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), best supporting actor (Jonah Hill), and best adapted screenplay (Terence Winter). DiCaprio, now a four-time nominee, said he felt vindicated.

“To be recognized like this and to see that there were enough people out there who said, `Look, we get what this film’ – not what it’s trying to say, but what it’s trying to reflect,” said DiCaprio. “Nobody wants to be misunderstood.”

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