“Captain Phillips - Tom Hanks” –

“Captain Phillips - Tom Hanks” –

Sandra Bullock in Gravity -  “Sandra Bullock in Gravity”

“Sandra Bullock in Gravity”

Nebraska - BruceDern

Nebraska - BruceDerne

Awards action: After seven months of playing film festivals, Hollywood finally has some meaningful nominations to help narrow the ranks of Oscar hopefuls

Last week's Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Golden Globes noms put the media spotlight on what are now Oscar's most likely contenders. But reading the Academy tea leaves is never a sure thing because the waters are typically murky and frontrunners have been known to fall behind while approaching the finish line.

Here's a look at who did best in these key noms and some thoughts about how the race for Oscar gold is shaping up.

SAG announced its noms last Wednesday. The actors' guild only honors acting excellence – for lead actor and actress and supporting actor and actress. There are no noms for directing, writing or technical work, but SAG does give an ensemble cast award that's widely regarded as the equivalent of a best picture award.

SAG's five ensemble cast noms went to: Fox Searchlight's “12 Years a Slave,” Columbia's "American Hustle," The Weinstein Company's "August: Osage County," Focus Features' “Dallas Buyers Club” and The Weinstein Company's “Lee Daniels' The Butler.”

As you'd expect, the individual acting noms reflected SAG voters' enthusiasm for those five ensemble casts. "Slave's" Chiwetel Ejiofor is a best actor nominee as are "Butler's" Forest Whitaker and "Dallas's" Matthew McConaughey. Also in the lead actor race are Bruce Dern for Paramount's "Nebraska" and Tom Hanks for Columbia's "Captain Phillips." Missing from SAG's noms is Robert Redford, who like Dern is 77 years old and still hoping for a best actor Oscar win, this time around for Roadside Attractions' “All is Lost. ” SAG's nod to Dern is a major boost to his Oscar hopes.

In the lead actress category SAG applauded only one of its ensemble cast films – Meryl Streep for "Osage." None of the other lead actress nominees has an ensemble nom going for her – Cate Blanchett for Sony Pictures Classics' “Blue Jasmine,” Sandra Bullock for Warner Bros.' "Gravity," Judi Dench for The Weinstein Company's “Philomena” and Emma Thompson for Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks."


On the supporting actor front, there were SAG noms for "Slave's" Michael Fassbinder and "Club's" Jared Leto. Their competition includes: Barkhad Abdi for "Phillips," Daniel Bruhl for Universal's "Rush" and the late James Gandolfini for Searchlight's “Enough Said.”

Four of the supporting actress nominees are from films with ensemble cast nods: Jennifer Lawrence for "Hustle," Lupita Nyong'o for "Slave," Julia Roberts for "Osage" and Oprah Winfrey for "Butler." June Squibb is nominated for "Nebraska," which isn't in the ensemble cast race.

SAG's noms carry a lot of weight with Oscar pundits because actors make up the Academy's largest voting block – nearly 1,200 active members or about 20 percent of the Academy's roughly 6,000 members. A great many more SAG members are eligible to vote in the SAG Awards -- about 150,000 altogether – so the Academy branch vote doesn't necessarily always mirror the SAG Awards vote, but it generally tends to do so.

SAG will announce its winners Jan. 18 at L.A.'s Shrine Exposition Center with a live telecast on TNT and TBS at 8:00 p.m., EST. That will be two days after Academy nominations are announced Jan. 16, but well before final Oscar voting, which runs from Feb. 14 through Feb. 25 at 5:00 p.m., PST. Clearly, what happens at the SAG Awards will be well known to Academy members as they ponder their options.

Unlike many other awards givers, some SAG members actually get to vote in the Oscar race -- the roughly 1,200 who also belong to the Academy's actors branch. So not only do SAG wins come with great timing, they also come from people who will play a part in deciding who gets to take home Oscar gold.

SAG's ensemble cast award and Oscar's best picture have matched up for nine of the last 18 years, including 2013 when “Argo” won both. That wasn't the case, however, in 2012 when SAG voted for “The Help” while the Academy chose “The Artist.”

Understandably, Hollywood will pull out all the stops when it comes to campaigning for SAG wins.

The Golden Globes nominations, announced last Thursday by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, are the highest profile film awards other than the Oscars and remain one of the best bellwethers of how films may fare with the Academy.

Not only are the HFPA noms an influence on Oscar voters, who won't start making their own nominations until Dec. 27, but the Golden Globes live telecast on NBC – Jan. 12, 2014 from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., PST -- is widely regarded in Hollywood as a kind of dress rehearsal for the Oscars.

Globes nominees who look good on the red carpet telecasts and Globes winners who make great acceptance speeches in front of the champagne swigging Hollywood elite at tables in the Beverly Hilton Hotel's International Ballroom enhance their prospects of winning Oscars. If they look like "winners" at the Globes, Academy voters start to perceive them that way.

On the other hand, those who embarrass themselves at the Globes, as some have over the years, seriously hurt their Oscar chances. Academy members take the Oscars very seriously and want their global telecast to reflect well not only on the Academy but on the American movie industry.

The last Globes telecast was a ratings powerhouse, driven significantly by the HFPA bringing Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on board as co-hosts, a role they'll perform again on the 71st annual Golden Globes Jan. 14. The 2013 Globes averaged a 6.4 rating and a 15 share in 18-49 adults with 19.7 million viewers – an increase of 28 percent in ratings (from 5.0 in 2012) and 17 percent in total viewers (from 16.9 million in 2012).

The HFPA's noms for 2013 reflect how intensely competitive this awards season is. The Globes is able to embrace more films than the Academy usually does because unlike the Oscars, the Globes has separate best picture categories for dramas and comedy or musical films as well as for lead actor and lead actress performances. There are five best picture nominees in each Globes race while Oscar's thoroughly confusing "preferential voting system" allows for up to 10 best picture nominees from all categories and five noms in most other races. That doesn't mean that there will be 10 Oscar best picture nominees since that depends on how many titles get a sufficient percentage of first choice votes to qualify for the list.

The Globes' approach allows for proper recognition in both categories, but comedy nominees typically face an uphill struggle with Oscar voters, who are known for looking down their noses at comedy.

Here's a look at the Globes noms in some key categories with a few thoughts about the possibilities. Titles listed here in CAPS are those that also received SAG noms and are, therefore, looking good in terms of Oscar potential.

Best Motion Picture – Drama: "SLAVE," "Phillips," "Gravity," "Philomena" and "Rush." With seven Globe noms, "Slave" seems the strongest nominee in this category, giving it major bragging rights just as Oscar nominating action heats up.

Despite enormous enthusiasm for "Slave" from Oscar bloggers following its showings this fall at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, the film didn't score in the best picture votes by the New York Film Critics Circle ("Hustle" won although Steve McQueen won best director for "Slave"), the Los Angeles Film Critics Association ("Gravity" and "Her" tied) or the National Board of Review ("Her" won). Balancing that is "Slave" having received four SAG noms, including an ensemble cast nod. "Slave" appears to be emerging as this year's "socially significant" contender for Oscar consideration.

"Gravity," on the other hand, is shaping up as a leading mainstream studio movie contender for Academy members' votes. Its grossed nearly $253 million in domestic theatres, making it the kind of commercial success that Oscar appreciates.

Besides its four Globes noms, it tied (with "Her") for top honors with the L.A. critics with Cuaron winning best director, Emmanuel Lubezki winning best cinematography and Cuaron and Mark Sanger winning best editing. That editing award is particularly important because Oscarologists know that films almost never win Oscar's best picture race if they aren't also nominated in Oscar's film editing category. Seeing this early in the race that "Gravity" can pull its weight in the film editing category is very encouraging for its best picture Oscar nomination prospects.

It's also important to remember that "Gravity's" at a disadvantage in terms of racking up multiple nominations because there only are two actors (Bullock starring and George Clooney supporting) in the movie. Bullock's a SAG best lead actress nominee and a Globes best actress – drama nominee.

Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical: "HUSTLE," "Her," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Nebraska" and Paramount's "The Wolf of Wall Street."

"Hustle" received seven Globe noms, equaling the total "Slave" achieved in the drama category, so "Hustle" has to be viewed as the comedy or musical front runner. It's already flexing its boxoffice muscles, opening last weekend to $690,000 at six theatres, a staggering average of $115,000 per screen. "Hustle" expands this Friday to about 2,500 theatres and is expected to perform very well.

"Wolf," which doesn't open until Dec. 25, has been screened selectively thus far. It was shown to HFPA members just in time for them to vote and clearly enough of them liked what they saw to put it in the race. They also nominated Leonardo DiCaprio for best actor – comedy or musical where he faces stiff competition from "Nebraska's" Bruce Dern, who won the best actor prize at Cannes last May and has been generating a strong Oscar buzz ever since.

Best Actress – Drama: CATE BLANCHETT ("Jasmine"), SANDRA BULLOCK ("Gravity"), JUDI DENCH ("Philomena"), EMMA THOMPSON ("Banks") and Kate Winslet (Paramount's “Labor Day”).

Since "Jasmine" opened last summer with critical acclaim for Blanchett, there's been an Oscar buzz on her behalf. Her Globes category is filled with dual SAG/Globes nominees, however, making it ultra competitive. Blanchett tied (with Adele Exarchopoulos from Sundance Selects' “Blue is the Warmest Color”) in the L.A. critics' vote, won the N.Y. critics' prize and lost to Thompson in the NBR awards.

Best Actor – Drama: CHIWETEL EJIOFOR ("Slave"), Idris Elba (The Weinstein Company's “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”), TOM HANKS ("Phillips"), MATTHEW MC CONAUGHEY ("Dallas") and Robert Redford ("Lost").

This will be one of the toughest Globes races to handicap. Redford benefits from Dern being nominated in the comedy or musical category. Hanks is one of Hollywood's best liked actors and popularity helps in the Oscar race. With the very recent sad passing of Nelson Mandela, "Mandela" and Elba could get more interest than might otherwise have been the case. Ejiofor and McConaughey (like Hanks) also have SAG noms, which has to be considered very helpful.

Best Actress – Comedy or Musical: Amy Adams ("Hustle"), Julie Delpy (Sony Pictures Classics' “Before Midnight”), Greta Gerwig (IFC Films' “Frances Ha”), Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("Enough") and MERYL STREEP ("Osage").

Streep is always an automatic front runner whenever she's nominated and is the only nominee here who also has a SAG nom. Best Actor – Comedy or Musical: Christian Bale ("Hustle"), BRUCE DERN ("Nebraska"), Leonardo DiCaprio ("Wolf"), Oscar Isaac (CBS Films' “Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Joaquin Phoenix (Warner Bros.' "Her").

Dern won best actor in the NBR and L.A. critics' votes, but lost to Redford in the N.Y. critics' awards. With his SAG nom for lead actor, Dern appears to have front runner status in the Globes vote and, possibly, over Redford in the Oscar race, at least as of right now.

DiCaprio's a super high profile Globes nominee, having been nominated nine times over the years by the HFPA. However, he's only won once – in 2005 for best actor – drama for “The Aviator,” directed by "Wolf" director Martin Scorsese. Scorsese's not a best director Globes nominee, but could turn up on Oscar's best directing list.

Best Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins ("Jasmine"), JENNIFER LAWRENCE ("Hustle"), LUPITA NYONG'O ("Slave"), JULIA ROBERTS ("Osage") and JUNE SQUIBB ("Nebraska".

With four nominees also boasting SAG noms, this race could go any which way. Lawrence won the N.Y. critics' vote and Nyong'o topped the L.A. critics' vote. All five nominees will benefit from the fact that despite awards bloggers' predictions, Oprah Winfrey wasn't nominated for supporting actress for "Butler" by the HFPA as she would have been a powerhouse candidate – and still could be in the Oscar race, if she's nominated there. Oprah did land a SAG nom and that could help her with Oscar voters.

Best Supporting Actor: BARKHAD ABDI ("Phillips"), DANIEL BRUHL ("Rush"), Bradley Cooper ("Hustle"), MICHAEL FASSBENDER ("Slave") and JARED LETO ("Dallas").

Same thing here – with four dual SAG/Globes nominees in this category the results could go any direction. Leto has the advantage of having won the N.Y. critics' vote and tied in the L.A. critics' vote (with James Franco for A24's “Spring Breakers”).

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron ("Gravity"), Paul Greengrass ("Phillips"), Steve McQueen ("Slave"), Alexander Payne ("Nebraska") and David O. Russell ("Hustle").

Cuaron won the L.A. critics' vote and McQueen won the N.Y. critics' vote. As the race is shaping up, they represent the leading "socially significant" film and the leading "mainstream" studio film. Since SAG doesn't have a best directing category, there's no advantage to be had there.

Bottom line: The SAG and Globes noms are key stops on the railroad to Oscar gold, but there's still a long journey ahead. Surprises are not only possible, but likely considering past awards races.