Showbiz satire Birdman and colourful caper The Grand Budapest Hotel lead the Academy Award nominees with nine nods apiece.

Two Fox Searchlight films – Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel – are joined in the best picture Oscar race by American Sniper, Boyhood, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory Of Everything and Whiplash.

The Academy chose only eight films to compete for its highest honour, although it can nominate up to 10.

British World War II biopic The Imitation Game garnered eight nominations, including Best Actor for Benedict Cumberbatch, while Iraq war portrait American Sniper and coming-of-age tale Boyhood each earned six.

The Best Picture race promises to be competitive, with no clear front-runner before the Feb 22 Oscars ceremony. Several of the top films have pushed cinematic boundaries with novel approaches to storytelling.

Birdman leads the Oscar nominations with nine nods, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Michael Keaton, shown above in a scene from the film.

Boyhood, which director Richard Linklater made over 12 years with the same actors, was considered a favourite after winning the Golden Globe for Best Drama last weekend. Birdman from Mexican director Alejandro G. Inarritu lost in the Best Comedy or Musical category to Wes Anderson’s quirky Grand Budapest Hotel.

Both films offer innovative visual spectacles and original characters. Birdman features Michael Keaton, a Best Actor nominee, as a washed-up former superhero actor battling to make a comeback by putting on his own Broadway play, his angst captured in what looks like one long shot in the cramped confines of the theatre.

Hosts Chris Pine and Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences president Cheryl Boone announcing the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel as one of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture last night. — AFP 

The Grand Budapest Hotel was an early favourite with critics, with its whimsical story of a hotel concierge caught up in a murder plot. It won nominations for its colourful production design, costumes and makeup, among others.

“It’s harder and harder to get any film made, and all of these movies are really original and difficult,” says Tim Gray, awards editor at Variety. “On the scale of difficulty, all of these are off the chart.”

Nominees for Best Director (from left): Bennett Miller, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Morten Tyldum and Alejandro G. Inarritu. 

If there was a latecomer to the race, it would be American Sniper from 84-year-old director Clint Eastwood. The real-life story of the most deadly sniper in American military history is also roaring to life at the box office.

Star Bradley Cooper was a surprise Best Actor nominee, although Eastwood was left out of the Best Director category.

The Martin Luther King, Jr biopic Selma fell short of expectations at the announcement, earning only a Best Original Song nod for Glory alongside its Best Picture nomination. Ava DuVernay was passed over for Best Director, an omission that prevented her from becoming the first black woman nominated in that category.

Some of the other notable surprises were the nomination of Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard as a beleaguered worker in Two Days, One Night and the exclusion of Jennifer Aniston, who gave a critically acclaimed performance in Cake.

However, Julianne Moore is considered the favourite to win the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.

Golden Globe winner Eddie Redmayne is a strong contender for Best Actor for his role as physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. “It’s all too much to take in really,” says Redmayne. “Come later today, I will have a stiff glass of something.”

The animation category may have served up the biggest snub of the day with the omission of The Lego Movie, which is based on the toy building blocks loved by critics, children and their parents.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Oscars, will reveal the winners in Los Angeles at a Feb 22 ceremony hosted by actor Neil Patrick Harris.

NEXT PAGE: Check out the list of nominees in 11 key categories!