November 26, 2013 at 07:18 PM EST

12 Years a Slave may have the most nominations, but Nebraska will probably benefit the most from its Independent Spirit Awards recognition — which give a much needed boost to low-budget movies competing for Oscar attention.

The epic slavery drama collected a leading seven nominations, while Nebraska was right behind it with six. Both films are in the running for Best  Feature, alongside All Is Lost, Frances Ha, and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Fruitvale Station, this year’s grand jury winner at the Sundance Film Festival, was honored in a separate category for “first feature,” which also included Blue Caprice, Concussion, Una Noche, and Wadjda.

The Independent Spirit Awards, distributed by the non-profit arts organization Film Independent, are only a sporadic indicator for the Academy Awards, but can help cast a spotlight on scrappier, more intimate films that don’t always have huge marketing budgets.

Acclaim for the intense and harrowing 12 Years a Slave has already secured it a solid place in the running for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, and Spirit nominations were expected for director Steve McQueen, screenwriter John Ridley, cinematographer Sean Bobbit, lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and supporting actors Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender. It would only have been a shock if one of them had been snubbed.

But Nebraska — director Alexander Payne’s black-and-white dramedy about a terse Midwestern family — is only a possible Oscar contender for Best Picture, and these six nominations will reinforce its bona fides and perhaps add some box office momentum just as the movie is gradually expanding beyond a handful of theaters.  The film had nods for director, first screenplay for Bob Nelson, lead actor Bruce Dern, and supporting actors June Squibb and Will Forte. The one surprise omission was the lack of a cinematography mention for Phedon Papamichael’s silvery images of the desolate rural landscapes.

A few films that could have fared better: Inside Llewyn Davis, another movie on the Oscar bubble, which really could have used a director or screenplay bid for Joel and Ethan Coen; Dallas Buyers Club, which was only recognized for its two actors (lead actor Matthew McConaughey and supporting actor Jared Leto), and Before Midnight, which got only female lead for Julie Delpy and best screenplay.

Other curiosities among the nominees included a posthumous honor for James Gandolfini’s supporting performance as a middle-aged lonelyheart in Enough Said, a best director bid for Upstream Color‘s Shane Carruth, even though the poetic science fiction drama was named in only one other category (best editing), and a best first screenplay mention for Don Jon writer-director-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt.


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