BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) – “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is the Academy Awards heavyweight with 13 nominations, yet the shadow of Batman loomed large with the absence of “The Dark Knight” in the best-picture race.

An epic romance that earned a best-actor nomination for Brad Pitt and a directing spot for David Fincher, “Benjamin Button” was joined in the best-picture category Thursday by the Richard Nixon tale “Frost/Nixon,” the chronicle of gay-rights leader Harvey Milk in “Milk,” the Holocaust-themed drama “The Reader” and the rags-to-riches crowd-pleaser “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The Batman blockbuster “The Dark Knight” had picked up so much momentum from honors by Hollywood trade unions that awards watchers generally thought it would land a best-picture nomination.

“Benjamin Button” producer Frank Marshall said “it was a bit of a surprise” that his movie would not be competing with “The Dark Knight” for the top prize.

As expected, “Dark Knight” co-star Heath Ledger earned a supporting-actor nomination on the one-year anniversary of his death from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.

“The Dark Knight” picked up seven other nominations for technical achievement, among them cinematography and visual effects.

“Benjamin Button” leads a bold batch of best-picture candidates, among them Golden Globes champ “Slumdog Millionaire,” which came in second at the Oscars with 10 nominations.

Based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, “Benjamin Button” stars Pitt as a man aging backward toward infancy, caught in a tragic romance with the love of his life as she ages in the opposite direction.

The Oscars will be a family affair for Pitt, whose romantic partner Angelina Jolie has a best-actress nomination for the missing-child drama “Changeling.”

“Slumdog Millionaire” has found similar acceptance, its poor-boy-makes-good theme mirroring its success among fans and critics.

The best-picture field includes two 1970s tales of fallen political figures. “Frost/Nixon” stars best-actor nominee Frank Langella as the disgraced president in his battle of wits with TV interviewer David Frost. “Milk” features best-actor contender Sean Penn as the slain gay-rights pioneer.

Along with Langella, Penn and Pitt, best-actor picks are Richard Jenkins in the cross-cultural drama “The Visitor” and Mickey Rourke in the sports-comeback story “The Wrestler.”

Joining Jolie in the best-actress field were Anne Hathaway for the family drama “Rachel Getting Married,” Melissa Leo for the smuggling saga “Frozen River,” Meryl Streep for the Roman Catholic tale “Doubt” and Kate Winslet for “The Reader.” The 81st Oscars will be presented on ABC on Feb. 22

at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre and broadcast on ABC.


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