Gyllenhaal, Watts, Aniston: SAG adds a few fresh pieces to the Oscar season puzzle

When I look out over this morning's Screen Actors Guild nominations, one thing is abundantly clear: “Foxcatcher” needed this. After landing with a major splash at the Cannes Film Festival, the film went on to feel more like a low-key blip (no real critics love so far) that wasn't going to connect with voters. Today, not only is Steve Carell chalked up for a lead actor nomination, but Mark Ruffalo is right there with him in a supporting race that was starting to seem very, very up in the air.

Speaking of up in the air supporting races, SAG gave us a pretty interesting bend in the road by nominating Naomi Watts' fiery turn as a Bill Murray's pregnant Russian stripper girlfriend in “St. Vincent.” Honestly I kind of love the nomination, because for a film that's pretty derivative overall, Watts was touching and fresh in that role. And she's a double nominee today, too, being part of the nominated “Birdman” ensemble as well.

Regarding that Best Ensemble field, there's no real shock there. “Into the Woods” was really the only other film that might have slid in (though I imagine “Foxcatcher” may have been close, given its showing). Paramount was not able to send screeners of “Selma” because of how late in the game the film was completed, so it's no wonder that it didn't figure here or in Best Actor for David Oyelowo. This is the exact same position the studio was in last year with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” however, and SAG simply continues to be a mile marker for an earlier phase of the race.

In that balls-to-the-wall Best Actor category, I'm personally over the moon to see Jake Gyllenhaal make the cut for “Nightcrawler.” There's a good possibility he lands a Golden Globe nomination, too. Oyelowo, “Mr. Turner's” Timothy Spall and maybe “A Most Violent Year's” Oscar Isaac are the only significant threats besides, but this will give some real firepower and confidence for Team Jake.

Oh yeah. “A Most Violent Year.” I see Jessica Chastain missed. She was eventually let off the reported leash for SAG Q&As but I'm not sure what happened there, whether the film didn't connect or, again, if it's just an issue of this particular guild announcement always feeling a couple steps behind the race by virtue of when the voting happens.

Interesting, too, to see Jennifer Aniston reaching for the brass ring in a Best Actress field that feels like it has a single slot up for grabs. Aniston, Hilary Swank (“The Homesman”) and Shailene Woodley (“The Fault in Our Stars”) are the actresses with dedicated campaigns, while Marion Cotillard (“The Immigrant,” “Two Days, One Night”) has fueled the tank with critics love this week. Aniston won this day, however. We'll see what the Globes do to add to that picture.

Things pretty much panned out as they were going to otherwise. Gyllenhaal, Watts, Aniston and Ruffalo are the truly enlightening notes. I don't imagine team “Unbroken” had a whole lot of hope for recognition across these races, and I've already mentioned why “Selma” might have been overlooked. Both were late drops in the race and I don't think their no-shows here will make much of an impact on the Best Picture race, but “Unbroken” certainly finds itself in a precarious position on the whole.

So the first industry group has spoken, the first group that truly has any sort of shared DNA with the Oscar voters who will select the Academy Award nominees in a few weeks. The HFPA's choices will go into the grinder tomorrow and the critics will continue to speak up throughout the month, with the next guild announcements set for early January.

The 21st annual Screen Actors Guild Awards will be held on Sunday, Jan. 25.