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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Once upon a time in Hollywood, Golden Globe voters helped narrow the list of contenders for Oscars but when the dust cleared from Thursday's Globe nominations, the opposite seemed to hold true.
Best film drama nods for dark tales "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader" over "Milk," which has drawn strong reviews and early praise for its story of slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk, surprised many industry watchers and added tension to the race for the world's top film honors, the Oscars.
"This is one of those weird years. I think the Globes does everything to muddy the picture and nothing to clear it up," said Pete Hammond, veteran Oscar watcher and critic for Web site Hollywood.com.
Also competing for best film drama at January's Golden Globes will be "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," about a man who ages backward, "Frost/Nixon," which recounts the interviews of former U.S. president Richard Nixon by British TV host David Frost and "Slumdog Millionaire," the tale of an Indian boy competing for love and money on a TV game show.
The Golden Globe Awards, given by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in January, are a major awards show, and the media spotlight they bring can give films momentum in the race for Oscars, which are given out in February by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In the 2003-2004 award season, for instance, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" came out of the Golden Globe awards with four wins, including best film drama, and went on to win 11 Oscars, including best film.
But none of this year's top movie contenders seems to have the strong base of voters needed to bolster an Oscar campaign, said David Poland, founder of blog site Moviecitynews.com.
"What we are seeing this year, in general, is that there is not a huge amount of passion about any of these movies. The LA and New York critics are going in different directions, and the Globes have gone in an odder direction," he said.
Indeed, critics group The National Board of Review last week named "Slumdog Millionaire" as its top film, and earlier this week the New York Film Critics Circle picked "Milk."
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave its best movie honor to animated "Wall-E," a choice that LAFCA president Lael Lowenstein called "unusual" for the group.
The Oscar race's next tips come on Thursday, December 18, when the Screen Actors Guild names nominees for top film roles.
For their part, Golden Globe voters had one big surprise in acting categories -- the absence of Cate Blanchett from the race for best dramatic actress in "Benjamin Button."
Tom O'Neil of awards Web site TheEnvelope.com called Blanchett's absence among the biggest snubs of Thursday.
Competing for best actress in a film drama will be veteran Meryl Streep for "Doubt," Angelina Jolie in "Changeling," Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road," Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married" and Kristin Scott Thomas for French movie, "I've Loved You So Long."
As with the wide open race for best actress, nominees for best dramatic actor are all top performers and will fight a close battle for the Globe, pundits said. They include Sean Penn in "Milk," Leonardo DiCaprio for "Revolutionary Road," Brad Pitt in "Benjamin Button," Frank Langella for "Frost/Nixon" and Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler."
Editing by Jill Serjeant