oscars 2014 nominationsKevin Winter/Getty Images

If Punxsutawney Phil were predicting the Oscars, there's one thing the famous groundhog forecaster could say for sure: he'd see his shadow and note that there'll be six more long and chilly weeks of the Academy Awards race.

While this morning's Oscar nominations seem like the culmination of a long year and a long awards season (one that seemed to begin with the summertime releases of "Blue Jasmine" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler"), it's really just the beginning of the actual race, the one that ends at the Dolby Theatre on March 2. And the nomination season is unusually long this year, too, since the Winter Olympics have pushed the Oscars back from late February to March.

Usually, a longer campaign season means we're in for a brutal race, one full of backbiting and anonymous accusations. (Watch, for example, for those movies based on true stories to have their fidelity to the historical record questioned.) Then again, it was already a tough season, with lots of worthy movies and performers up for awards. If anything, the removal of some of those tough competitors this morning clarifies and simplifies the race.

Before Thursday's announcement, Oscar watchers wondered: Will Tom Hanks have a chance against himself if he's nominated for both "Captain Phillips" and "Saving Mr. Banks"? That's moot now, as is the question of Emma Thompson's chances for Best Actress, since "Banks" earned a nomination only in the Best Score category. Will Robert Redford have a chance against Bruce Dern in the sentimental favorite-old-guy-who's-never-won-a-competitive Oscar sweepstakes? As it turns out, no he won't. The near total shutout of "Inside Llewyn Davis" means we don't have to wonder anymore whether it'll be too weird of a film for star Oscar Isaac or writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen to have a shot -- it is, and they don't.

"American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" took some of the acting nominations expected to go to other performers. Christian Bale hadn't really been on anyone's awards radar for his wig-tastic "Hustle" performance, and neither had Jonah Hill for his wank-tastic "Wolf" turn. That's not to denigrate either performer as undeserving, but rather to note how tightly jammed the competition was this year. Leonardo DiCaprio's "Wolf" nomination was also something of a surprise, though less so after his Globe win on Sunday.

"Hustle" and "Gravity" are tied with the most nominations, at 10 each, which makes them the leading Best Picture candidates. At this point, I'd give the edge to " Hustle" over "Gravity." After all, four of "Hustle"'s nominations are for acting, and actors make up the largest branch of the Academy. Most of "Gravity"'s nominations (with the notable exception of Director and Actress) are for technical achievements, and the movie may well be a frontrunner in those categories. But remember, that was true of "Avatar" as well, which, for all its visionary technical advancements, lost out on the Director and Picture prizes to "The Hurt Locker."

It's also possible that "12 Years a Slave" could win the top prize, even if it doesn't win any of the acting or writing awards, as happened Sunday at the Golden Globes. Especially in the absence of "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "12 Years" could be the consensus choice among voters who feel the movie a) is a very well done historical epic, b) a riveting film to watch, c) a corrective to a century of historically revisionist and even racist depictions of slavery, or d) a massive sop to white liberal guilt. (Yes, that's a cynical formulation. Doesn't mean it's not a real factor.) Besides, with nine nominations, it's the third most-lauded film on the list. (After that comes "Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club," and "Nebraska," with six each; then "Her" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," with five each.)

With just four nominations, "Philomena" is the biggest long shot among the Best Picture candidates, but the fact that it even has four (and not just one, for Judi Dench's performance) is a tribute to the awards-campaigning prowess of The Weinstein Company. Same with "August: Osage County" and its nominations for Best Actress (Meryl Streep) and Best Supporting Actress (Julia Roberts), which caused some audible gasps in the Academy auditorium this morning. After all, critics haven't loved the film, and audiences are iffy, but Streep is a virtual shoo-in for a nomination no matter what she does, and the narrative of Roberts as an underdog/comeback queen was apparently too appealing for the Academy to pass up.

What's left now for tea-leaf readers is to keep an eye on the upcoming awards ceremonies, starting with this Saturday's Screen Actors Guild Awards. Though the actors who make up SAG had a lot more love for "The Butler" than the Academy did, their list is still pretty similar to the Oscar lineup, and their votes are still considered indicative of what the actors who make up the majority of Academy members prefer.

Also coming up soon are the other guild awards -- the Writers, Directors, and Producers. Again, overlap with Academy membership gives their choices some weight.

Finally, there are the intangibles of the campaign -- what third parties say about the films (this is where historical accuracy or political correctness become issues), how humble and self-effacing the stars are at the annual nominees' luncheon, and how they behave in public over the next month and a half. (For instance, Russell Crowe is widely believed to have lost his potential "Beautiful Mind" Oscar because he punched out the TV director at the BAFTAs -- the British Academy Awards -- who cut short Crowe's acceptance speech.)

Remember, nominees, the Jennifer Lawrence rule -- that anything you do or say, no matter how awkward or gauche, will automatically be considered adorable -- applies only to Jennifer Lawrence.
CATEGORIES Oscars, Awards