The Napoleonic era naval adventure "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" was right behind with 10 nominations, among them best picture and director.
Bill Murray, Diane Keaton, Sean Penn and Charlize Theron — all Golden Globe winners Sunday — were among the leading acting nominees. The most notable snub came for the Civil War saga "Cold Mountain," which failed to get nominations for best picture, director Anthony Minghella, or lead actress Nicole Kidman.
Other best-picture nominees for the 76th annual Oscars included "Lost in Translation," about two lonely Americans in Tokyo; the brooding murder thriller "Mystic River"; and the horse-racing drama "Seabiscuit."
Along with best picture and director, the nominations for "Return of the King" included original score and song, visual effects, film editing and adapted screenplay for the script based on J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic.
None of "Rings'" nominations were in the acting categories. The same was true of "Seabiscuit." Both were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, however.
"Return of the King" led last weekend's Golden Globes with four wins, including best dramatic picture and director, and its broad critical and fan support give the film the inside track at the Oscars.
Besides Jackson and "Master and Commander" director Peter Weir, the directing nominees included Sofia Coppola for "Lost in Translation," only the third woman ever nominated for best director. The previous nominees were Lina Wertmuller for 1976's "Seven Beauties" and Jane Campion for 1993's "The Piano." Both lost.
Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, also earned an original-screenplay nomination for "Lost in Translation."
The other directing nominees: Clint Eastwood for "Mystic River" and a surprise choice, Fernando Meirelles for the Brazilian film "City of God."
"Cold Mountain" did get seven nominations — among them, best actor for Jude Law as a Confederate deserter making his way home to his sweetheart and best actress for Renee Zellweger for her role as a no-nonsense Confederate woman.
Along with Law, the actor nominees were Johnny Depp as a wily buccaneer in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"; Ben Kingsley as an Iranian immigrant fighting for possession of a home in "House of Sand and Fog"; Murray as a has-been actor shooting a commercial in Japan in "Lost in Translation"; and Penn as an ex-hoodlum out for revenge over his daughter's death in "Mystic River."
Depp's Best Actor nomination for "Pirates Of The Caribbean" was something of a surprise, said Jess Cagle of People magazine on CBS News' The Early Show, because it's a comedy.
"The best actress category is really surprising," said Cagle. "No Nicole Kidman but Keisha Castle-Hughes from this movie 'Whale Rider,' and Samantha Morton in 'In America.'"
The other best actress nominees: Keaton as a down-on-love playwright unexpectedly romanced by two men in "Something's Gotta Give"; Theron as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster"; and Naomi Watts as a grieving wife and mother seeking vengeance in "21 Grams."
Contenders for supporting actor were Alec Baldwin as a sleazy casino owner in "The Cooler"; Benicio Del Toro as an ex-con whose effort to go straight ends in tragedy in "21 Grams"; Djimon Hounsou as a standoffish artist dying of AIDS in "In America"; Tim Robbins as a man tormented by childhood abuse in "Mystic River"; and Ken Watanabe as a samurai battling Western influences among his countrymen in "The Last Samurai."
Besides Zellweger, supporting actress nominees were Shohreh Aghdashloo as a compassionate Iranian immigrant in "House of Sand and Fog"; Patricia Clarkson as an acerbic mother coping with breast cancer in "Pieces of April"; Marcia Gay Harden as a suspicious wife in "Mystic River"; and Holly Hunter as a single mom trying to rein in her defiant daughter in "thirteen."
Cagle considers the acting nominations to be a free-for-all.
"I think Renee Zellweger will probably get [Best Supporting Actress], Tim Robbins for Best Supporting Actor, [and] Best Actress, I would say, probably Charlize Theron."
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated all six Golden Globe acting winners for Oscars. Penn and Theron won the Globes for dramatic lead roles, Murray and Keaton won for comedy leads and Robbins and Zellweger took the supporting-actor prizes.
The blockbuster "Finding Nemo" was nominated for animated feature film, along with "Brother Bear" and the French film "The Triplets of Belleville."
Foreign-language nominees were the Canadian film "The Barbarian Invasion," Sweden's "Evil," Japan's "The Twilight Samurai," the Netherlands' "Twin Sisters" and the Czech Republic's "Zelary."
Joining "The Return of the King" in the adapted screenplay category were "American Splendor," "City of God," "Mystic River" and "Seabiscuit."
Original screenplay nominees: "The Barbarian Invasions," "Dirty Pretty Things," "Finding Nemo," "In America" and "Lost in Translation."
Nominees in most categories are chosen by specific branches of the 5,700-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, such as actors, directors and writers.
All academy members are allowed to vote for best-picture nominees. The full academy also is eligible to vote in all categories for the awards themselves.
ABC will broadcast the Oscars on Feb. 29 live from Hollywood's Kodak Theatre. Billy Crystal returns as host after a four-year absence, his eighth time as Oscar master of ceremonies.
Director Blake Edwards, whose films include "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Victor/Victoria," "Days of Wine and Roses" and "The Pink Panther" movies, will receive an honorary Oscar for career achievement.