In terms of the horse race for Oscars, this morning’s SAG Awards nominations are important on a couple of fronts. It’s the first Guild awards nomination announcement of the year, and that’s significant because the way guilds are thinking (with their strong crossover membership with the Academy) is usually the way Oscar voters are thinking. It’s much more significant in that regard than critics awards. These SAG Awards nominations, the only guild announcing before the Academy gets their ballots this year (10 days earlier than normal), also can have a strong effect on influencing acting Oscar nominations even more than usual due to the time crunch and the fact that many Oscar voters still have a lot to see. In the last few years, the correlation between SAG and Oscar has been strong: In the past two years, the two orgs agreed on 17 of 20 acting noms. Three years ago it was 19 of 20. And although the 2000-strong nominating committee that votes on this film list changes by lottery every year, it’s remarkably in step with the tastes of the Academy’s Actors Branch.

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What this year’s list really reflects is the tightness of the lead actor race. In September when The Master was released, it was almost unthinkable that Joaquin Phoenix’s highly praised performance would not be among the Best Actor nominees — but he’s AWOL here. I think it probably has less to do with the fact that he didn’t campaign (he didn’t appear at a single SAG Q&A and has been vocal about his disdain for the awards-season process) than the fiercely competitive nature of this category. Who are you going to cut out among Bradley Cooper, Daniel Day-Lewis, John Hawkes, Hugh Jackman and Denzel Washington? There is a long list of others left at the altar by SAG this year including Hitchcock’s Anthony Hopkins, Arbitrage’s Richard Gere, Hyde Park On Hudson’s Bill Murray, Django Unchained’s Jamie Foxx, Bernie’s Jack Black and Amour’s Jean-Louis Trintignant among others, but there just doesn’t seem to be room at the inn and the Academy is likely to have the same problem.

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Most surprising of any SAG omission for my money is the absence of Trintignant’s Amour co-star Emmanuelle Riva in the lead actress race. Her name is usually the first one out of the mouth of the Academy’s female actors with whom I have spoken. I think this is definitely a case where Oscar will differ. Nine-year old Quvenzhane Wallis, who was nominated for two Critics Choice Movie Awards yesterday as well as an Indie Spirit, was also missing. But that was expected as SAG ruled her film, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, ineligible since its production did not meet the union’s requirements. Still, even without those two Oscar-buzzed performances it is a strong list in a lighter field and among Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Lawrence, Helen Mirren and Naomi Watts. It’s hard to pick who doesn’t repeat when Oscar noms are announced January 10th. Someone’s got to make room for Riva though, and Wallis, despite her age, could be a factor too.

A James Bond villain has never been nominated in the SAG Awards’ 19 years or at the Oscars, but that seems to be changing with Javier Bardem’s SAG Supporting Male nod for Skyfall in another incredibly crowded category. Among the others — Alan Arkin, Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones and The Master’s Philip Seymour Hoffman — there were no surprises here, but considering the lack of SAG love for Hoffman’s Master co-stars Phoenix and quite surprisingly Amy Adams in Supporting Female Actor, his inclusion is the most wobbly. And there’s a looooong list of those overlooked who could find a slot at the Oscars including Magic Mike’s Matthew McConaughey, Eddie Redmayne and Russell Crowe of Les Miserables, Ewan McGregor from The Impossible – and that’s just for starters. John Goodman likely cancelled himself out with two well-regarded supporting turns in Flight and Argo. And there are at least three strong contenders in Django Unchained with Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz, but that Christmas Day release is a very late starter and wasn’t widely seen by the voting deadline. The Weinstein Company still hasn’t sent DVD screeners, but there may be time for one of those actors to sneak onto Oscar’s list.

On the Supporting Female Actor list, the aforementioned omission of Adams was eyebrow-raising but nominations for Sally Field, Helen Hunt and Anne Hathaway were foregone conclusions. Maggie Smith’s inclusion out of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ensemble isn’t really surprising. She is beloved and overall grabbed a whopping four nominations between this film and her work on TV’s Downton Abbey to lead all actors this year. I was also happy to see Nicole Kidman make the list for the risky turn she took in Lee Daniels’ boxoffice non-starter The Paperboy. Actors love their colleagues who take the leap, and Kidman gets points for that in her portrayal of this Southern tart, even if the film wasn’t widely seen. Millennium made sure the SAG Nom Comm all got screeners, and Kidman participated in Q&As.

LincolnAs for the Outstanding Cast (or Ensemble award), SAG’s equivalent of Best Picture, there can be little argument about Argo, Les Miserables, Lincoln or Silver Linings Playbook, all solidly at the top of Best Picture Oscar contenders. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, with its sterling who’s who of British acting giants, definitely belongs in this company. Still, with their remarkable casts it would have been nice to see a tip of the hat to Moonrise Kingdom, Flight or Django Unchained.

As for who will win on January 27th? It’s anybody’s guess at this point, but I would be very surprised if the names of Lincoln, Les Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook – which all led the pack with four nominations each this morning — were not in at least one of those envelopes.