Battle of the ages as nostalgia sweeps Oscars

Scorsese may not have won over the critics, but he'll still take on the French silent movie, says Guy Adams

A year overshadowed by concern for Hollywood's commercial and technological future seems likely to end with a celebration of its simpler past. The stage is set for an Academy Awards dominated by two movies inspired by the film industry's golden era.

The Oscar nominations, unveiled yesterday, set up a race headlined by an intriguing battle between Hugo and The Artist, a pair of films which both set out in very different ways to pay homage to the earliest days of cinema.

Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a hugely ambitious, motion-capture animation which is shortlisted in 11 of the 24 categories, revolves around a heartfelt tribute to the Parisian movie pioneer, George Méliès. It will contest the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay awards, along with a slew of technical Oscars. Its nearest rival, The Artist, is a black-and-white silent film that explores Hollywood's transition to "talkies". It has dominated the 2012 awards season so far, and will now seek 10 Academy Awards, including Best Director for its French creator Michel Hazanavicius.

Playing into the nostalgic tone of proceedings is a wider shortlist dominated by some of the industry's most enduring legends. Woody Allen will rub shoulders with Scorsese and Hazanavicius in the Best Directing category, thanks to Midnight in Paris, his first nomination in six years; Steven Spielberg, who was last in the running for an Oscar in 2007, saw his War Horse shortlisted in six categories.

Favourite to win Best Actress will once again be Meryl Streep, for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. She is attempting to break a run of 12 straight Oscar defeats, and faces her stiffest challenge from Glenn Close, nominated for her lead role in Albert Nobbs.

Leading contenders for Best Actor crown include George Clooney, who is nominated for The Descendants, which picked up five nominations and now has an outside shot at Best Picture. His best-known rival will be Brad Pitt for the baseball film Moneyball. Underlining his growing creative stature, Clooney is also nominated for a share of a writing award, after The Ides of March – a critically acclaimed political thriller he co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in – was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Yesterday's shortlist adds clarity to what has so far been a confusing Hollywood awards season, in which The Artist has picked-up the lion's share of plaudits without gaining sufficient momentum for its march towards the industry's most prestigious award.

The film, made for just $15m, would be the first silent, black-and-white film to win Best Picture since Wings in 1927. It also has a chance of landing major acting awards, with unknown stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo shortlisted for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively. "I can't believe that a year ago I was learning how to tap dance and today I am nominated for an Academy Award," said Bejo yesterday.

Hugo's dramatic emergence, meanwhile, came as a surprise. The children's film gained only mixed reviews when it debuted before Christmas, and has so far disappointed commercially, returning only $83m globally, against a production budget of around $150m. Scorsese's backers will now hope that filmgoers take a second look at the title.

The UK's leading hopes lie with Gary Oldman, who wins his first ever nomination as Best Actor for Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Kenneth Branagh, shortlisted for Best Supporting Actor for My Week With Marilyn.