No one was surprised that “Gravity,” “American Hustle” and “12 Years a Slave” emerged as the three front runners when Oscar nominations were announced Thursday morning – they were among the best reviewed movies of the year, and proved popular with audiences as well.

Still, that line-up reflects a certain poetic balance, testifying to the kind of healthy cinematic ecology that made 2013 such a stand-out year.

“Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron’s magnificent 3-D outer space adventure, is at its core a simple genre exercise, but executed with surpassing vision, technical prowess and soul. Not for nothing, in an age when theaters are losing audiences to iPhone screens and home entertainment centers, it presented a rare instance of a movie that must be seen on the big screen to be appreciated.

“American Hustle,” David O. Russell’s larky, liberated caper flick only very loosely based on the 1970s Abscam FBI scheme, is a delicious, not-too-self-serious period piece in the tradition of “Argo,” which last year snuck up and snagged the big award from “Lincoln,” the kind of classy, high-brow historical epic that is often derided as “Oscar bait.” That’s a belittling pejorative “Lincoln” didn’t deserve – nor does “12 Years a Slave,” which also takes place in slavery-era America, and which through brilliant writing, directing and acting is the odds-on (and deserved) favorite to take best picture this year.

The fact that “Gravity,” “American Hustle” and “12 Years a Slave” are the most honored speaks to the breadth and depth of a year that may be the strongest period for film since 1939 – the year that produced “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Gone With the Wind,” a mythologized, moonlight-and-magnolias portrait of the slavery-era South to which “12 Years” offers such a potent corrective.

Director Steve McQueen adapts the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofer), a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. The film was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and Ejiofer, Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o earned nods for their performances. (Fox Searchlight)


Full list of Oscar nominees

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See the trailers for best picture nominees

"American Hustle" is one of the nine best picture nominees in this year's Academy Awards. The film's four stars, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, were also nominated for their performances in David O. Russell's film which is loosely based on the FBI's 1978 Abscam investigation. (Sony Pictures)

Complete coverage of Awards Season 2014