By Mary Milliken and Ronald Grover
BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - In a year widely regarded as a bountiful one for high-quality films and acting, the Golden Globes weigh in on Sunday with the first big honors of the Hollywood awards season, which culminates in seven weeks with the Oscars.
Two starkly different American stories lead nominations for the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards with seven nods apiece - the brutal depiction of pre-Civil War slavery "12 Years a Slave" and 1970s corruption caper "American Hustle." They will compete for best motion picture in different categories, drama and comedy or musical, respectively.
"Gravity," starring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut lost in space and life, also ranks high in experts' predictions and could give "12 Years a Slave" a challenge for the night's most coveted award, best drama.
Golden Globes are also given out for television, where established dramas like "Breaking Bad" and "Downton Abbey" will compete with the likes of Netflix newcomer "House of Cards."
The Golden Globes, under the purview of some 90 journalists in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, have outsized clout in the awards race as buzz around these first honors influences members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in their voting for the Oscars, which will be handed out March 2.
"You can just see the Oscar voter who starts to hear the buzz build for '12 Years a Slave,' and has been dreading picking up the (DVD) screener to watch the movie," said Keith Simanton, managing editor for the IMDB movie site.
"But he reaches for it, and says to his wife, 'Maybe we ought to watch it.'"
Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday, but voting has already concluded. The Globes have a mixed record when it comes to predicting the Oscar best picture, though last year's best drama winner, "Argo," did go on to win the Academy Award for best movie.
The Golden Globes follow a very good year for film, both commercially and critically. North American box office receipts totaled a record $10.9 billion in 2013 and top performers went beyond the typical blockbuster action movies to include acclaimed films such as "Gravity."
Sunday night could also boost the fortunes of smaller films that have fared well among critics, including Joel and Ethan Coen's paean to 1960s folk music "Inside Llewyn Davis," Spike Jonze's quirky computer-age romance "Her," and Alexander Payne's homage to the heartland "Nebraska."
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The intense competition extends to the acting races, where Britain's Chiwetel Ejiofor will compete for best actor in a drama for his role as the free man sold into slavery in "12 Years a Slave." Matthew McConaughey is also considered a frontrunner for his portrayal of an unlikely AIDS activist in "Dallas Buyers Club," for which he lost 50 pounds.
Leonardo DiCaprio will get his shot at best actor in a comedy or musical for his turn as a swindling stockbroker in Martin Scorsese's tale of American greed, "The Wolf of Wall Street." He has stiff competition from veteran actor Bruce Dern as a cantankerous and delusional father in "Nebraska."
For best actress in a drama, it's a battle between Oscar winners, with Bullock going up against Cate Blanchett for her riches-to-rags role in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" and Judi Dench for her turn as a mother looking for a long-lost son in adoption drama "Philomena."
The HFPA will also honor Woody Allen with the Cecil B DeMille award recognizing outstanding contribution to the entertainment field. Allen, famously averse to awards shows, is not expected to collect the honor, but one of his favorite actresses, Diane Keaton, will reportedly stand in for him.
While considered a warm-up for the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes live telecast on Comcast Corp's NBC network offers many of the same ingredients, such as the glamour of the red carpet for Hollywood's leading ladies and the dense concentration of Tinseltown's top talent in one room.
But the Globes serve up cocktails and an air of whimsy and unpredictability in contrast to the more tightly scripted Academy Awards.
Comedians Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will return to host the Golden Globes for the second consecutive year.
(Reporting by Mary Milliken and Ronald Grover; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)