* "Gravity" leads field at top British film awards
* British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in running for best actor
* Veteran British actress Judi Dench in running for "Philomena" (Adds details throughout, quotes)
By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON, Jan 8 Space thriller "Gravity" won 11 BAFTA nominations on Wednesday, putting it just ahead of the pack at Britain's top film honours, while "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle" were in the running in 10 categories.
"Gravity", starring Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, was shortlisted in categories including best film, best actress, best director for Alfonso Cuaron, best sound and visual effects, and outstanding British film.
The nomination for top British film gave "Gravity" the edge over U.S. rivals in a highly competitive year in which the unflinching slavery drama, "12 Years a Slave", from British director Steve McQueen, is topping many U.S. award lists.
That film is heading the nominations across the Atlantic for the Jan. 12 Golden Globe awards and is a favourite for the Oscars on March 2. Its British lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is also nominated for the BAFTA best actor prize.
Ejiofor, 36, gained recognition as the lead in the 2002 dark crime thriller "Dirty Pretty Things" but his role in "12 Years a Slave" as a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery has thrust him into the limelight, winning him a list of award nominations.
"I continue to be immensely proud of the recognition this film is getting around the world. There is, of course, something particularly special about receiving a BAFTA nomination from home," Ejiofor said in a statement.
Other films competing for the BAFTA best film award are 1970s con-men caper "American Hustle", Somali pirate thriller "Captain Phillips", and the heart-tugging adoption drama "Philomena".
Of these five films vying for the top prize, all but "Philomena" are also competing for the best director award with Cuaron running alongside McQueen, David O. Russell for "American Hustle" and Paul Greengrass for "Captain Phillips". The fifth in this field was Hollywood veteran Martin Scorsese for his tale of American greed "The Wolf of Wall Street".
Vying for the best actor prize are Christian Bale in "American Hustle", Bruce Dern in "Nebraska", Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street" and Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips".
Veteran British star Judi Dench was one of five women competing for the best actress award. The biggest surprise in that category was that Amy Adams was nominated for "American Hustle" but Meryl Streep was overlooked for "August: Osage County".
The two others vying for best actress are Emma Thompson in "Saving Mr. Banks" and Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen's tragic comedy "Blue Jasmine".
The BAFTAs have had a patchy record in predicting which films go on to scoop the biggest movie honours, the Oscars, although the main winners in London in the past two years, "The Artist" and "Argo", stormed to best picture victory at the Academy Awards.
The awards ceremony for the BAFTAs, formally called the EE British Academy Film Awards, takes place in London on Feb. 16. (Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, editing by Elizabeth Piper)