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SAG Awards nominations begin to clarify season -- and yet they don't

From the SAG Awards nominations: 'Birdman' and 'Boyhood' become front-runners of 2014 awards pack

For months, the only consensus about this year's awards race has been that there is an overall lack of consensus. But the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations Wednesday started to bring some clarity, focusing the conversation around two front-runners — "Birdman" and "Boyhood" — and crystallizing this year as a particularly strong one for smaller films.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu's "Birdman" — a gonzo portrait of a washed-up movie star (Michael Keaton) trying to regain his artistic credibility — came out on top with four nominations, including one for its ensemble cast as well as individual nods for Keaton and supporting stars Edward Norton and Emma Stone.

"Boyhood," director Richard Linklater's experimental coming-of-age film that was shot over 12 years on a shoestring budget, followed with three nominations for its ensemble cast and for Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.

The major studios got shut out from the critical ensemble category, with "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory of Everything" claiming the remaining spots.

SAG AWARD NOMINATIONS 2015: Top Nominees | Complete List | Nominee reactions | Full coverage

Jake Gyllenhaal, who scored a surprising nomination for his disturbing turn in the noirish indie "Nightcrawler," thinks it's no surprise that smaller films scored big.

"There's an intimacy that the audience goes into the dark for," he said after the nominations were announced. "When you make an independent film, there's not pressure to please the audience. You can ask the complex questions."

There were other unexpected picks as well. Jennifer Aniston, who has been on the awards circuit trying to drum up recognition for her against-type turn as a chronic-pain sufferer in "Cake," squeezed into the lead actress category. Naomi Watts ended up in the supporting actress category for her colorful and atypically comical portrayal of a pregnant Russian stripper opposite Bill Murray in "St. Vincent."

According to SAG, 2,200 of the guild's 165,000 members were randomly selected to serve on the film nominating committee this year. Actors make up the largest voting bloc of the motion picture academy, which is why many prognosticators look to the SAG nominations as one of the best predictors of the Oscars. The SAG Awards will air Jan. 25.

A few films expected to be major players in the awards season — some of which have not yet opened — were largely ignored by the guild. Paramount Pictures did not send out screeners of its civil rights drama "Selma" because director Ava DuVernay had not locked the final cut of the film, which is due in theaters on Christmas Day. Though widely considered a strong Oscar contender for best picture and star David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr., the film received no SAG nominations.

There were no African Americans among the 51 film actors recognized by the guild — a sharp contrast from last year, which saw black-led films like "12 Years a Slave" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler" score numerous nominations.

Three other films also set for release on Dec. 25 — Clint Eastwood's Navy SEAL drama "American Sniper," Angelina Jolie's World War II epic "Unbroken" and Tim Burton's quirky artists' tale "Big Eyes" — also received no nominations. The much-anticipated adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical "Into the Woods" got just one nod for perennial nominee Meryl Streep.

SAG AWARD NOMINATIONS 2015: Top Nominees | Complete List | Nominee reactions | Full coverage

But the day provided much-needed boosts for two films that have received less attention from pundits. Though director Wes Anderson's offbeat movies such as "Royal Tenenbaums" and "Moonrise Kingdom" have never gotten awards love from the guild, this year SAG voters reversed the trend, bestowing "The Grand Budapest Hotel" with a best ensemble nod — perhaps not surprising given the movie's deep roster of talent, including Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton and Owen Wilson.

"I think that movie is pretty deserving," said Wilson, a regular in Anderson's movies going all the way back to his feature debut, "Bottle Rocket." "Adrien Brody is great in it, and of course Ralph Fiennes. It's funny: I remember when Wes was telling me the idea, I thought, 'I don't know about that. I wouldn't bet on the commercial prospects for that movie.' But then it ended up doing really well."

Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" — the dark, true-life story of a wrestler (Channing Tatum) who falls under the spell of a twisted millionaire (Steve Carell) — was honored with two nominations. Carell earned a nod for his career-redefining lead performance, and Mark Ruffalo got a supporting nod for his understated turn. The nominations give fresh life to the film, which was deemed a strong awards contender early on but has yet to garner widespread support either among Oscar bloggers or at the box office.

With only one nomination separating the top two SAG contenders and a few bigger films such as "Unbroken" likely to have stronger showings down the road, the awards race is still very much in flux. That lack of clarity has been a boon to a film like "Boyhood," which came out last summer and has proved the proverbial little engine that could.

"There's certain movies that the second you do them, people think you're hunting for awards," said Hawke. "Some of these movies come out and you can smell it on them. 'Boyhood' was the most artistically pure experience I've had for over a decade."

"Theory of Everything" producer Lisa Bruce, whose film got three nominations, was pleased that both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were nominated, since their performances were so linked.

"The fact that Eddie and Felicity are being honored is so important because their chemistry is really what floats the film to the end in a beautiful way."

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