The slavery drama "12 Years a Slave" won the Academy Award for best picture on Sunday, making history as the first movie from a black director to win the film industry's highest honor in 86 years of the Oscars.
British director Steve McQueen's unflinching portrayal of pre-Civil War American slavery also won two other Oscars, including best supporting actress for newcomer Lupita Nyong'o and best adapted screenplay based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man sold into slavery in Louisiana.
"Everyone deserves not just to survive but to live, this is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup," said McQueen in his acceptance speech.
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It prevailed over space thriller "Gravity" from Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, which nevertheless racked up the most Oscars of the night with seven, including the best director honor for Cuaron, a first for a Latin American director.
"Gravity," starring Sandra Bullock as a stranded astronaut, swept the technical awards like visual effects and cinematography, a reward for its groundbreaking work on conveying space and weightlessness.
In one of the strongest years for film in recent memory, the 6,000-plus voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences scattered golden Oscar statuettes among the many acclaimed movies in contention.
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It was a good night for the scrappy, low-budget film "Dallas Buyers Club," a biopic of an early AIDS activist two decades in the making that won three Oscars, including the two male acting awards.
Matthew McConaughey, in a validation of a remarkable career turnaround, won best actor for his portrayal of the homophobe turned AIDS victim turned treatment crusader Ron Woodroof, a role for which he lost 50 pounds (23 kg).
His co-star, Jared Leto, won best supporting actor for his role as Woodroof's unlikely business sidekick, the transgender woman Rayon, for which he also slimmed down drastically.
Australia's Cate Blanchett won the best actress Oscar for her acclaimed role as the socialite unhinged by her husband's financial crimes in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine."
"Thank you so much Woody for casting me," Blanchett said.
The tale of Nordic princesses, "Frozen," won best animated film, a first for Disney Animation Studios since the category was introduced in 2002.
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Comedian and talk show star Ellen DeGeneres returned as Oscar host on Sunday in an appearance many saw as calculated to project a lighter, more affable tone for Hollywood's biggest night after the provocative performance of her immediate predecessor, Seth MacFarlane.
In the comedian's easy breezy style, DeGeneres mixed with the crowd, taking a star-studded selfie with the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie that broke the record for retweets on Twitter.
The big loser of the night was director David O. Russell's 1970s crime caper "American Hustle," which walked away empty-handed despite earning 10 nominations, the same number as "Gravity."
Kenyan actress Nyong'o was one of the big stars of the night, not only for her winning pale blue Prada gown on the red carpet, but for her touching speech.
In accepting the first award of the night for "12 Years a Slave," Nyong'o, 31, paid homage to her character.
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"It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's, and so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey, for her guidance," a tearful Nyong'o told the audience.