What, in their 86th year, do the Oscars actually mean?

Sensible answers could fall anywhere between "diddly-squat" and "the nearest thing we have to an objective measure of quality in commercial cinema". But in a year where two unusually strong front-runners, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, offer impressive but wildly different accounts of what film can achieve, the question seems especially worth asking. Perhaps it's healthiest to see the Oscars not as the last word on what matters in film, or even the first, but as the industry's annual snapshot of itself at what it believes to be its best - a kind of communal selfie that will hopefully be looked back on with pride, rather than through parted fingers.

Best Picture
"It's time." That two-word slogan has appeared all over the campaign literature for 12 Years a Slave, reminding voters that a Best Picture win for Steve McQueen's slave-trade drama would echo far beyond the photocalls and speeches. It's a sharp tactic, but not a dishonest one: McQueen's film just feels too important, both artistically and historically, for the top prize to go anywhere else.

Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Should win: 12 Years a Slave
Best Director


I've used the phrase "feat of direction" to describe Gravity before, and it's that skin-prickling sense of a filmmaker being present in every frame and camera movement that gives Alfonso Cuaron the clear edge in this category.

Will win: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Should win: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Best Actor
Matthew McConaughey's painfully spindly frame in Dallas Buyers Club is just the latest milestone in his ongoing career reboot.

Will win: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett has dominated all discussion of this category since last August, and it's true that her performance in Blue Jasmine, complex, brittle and theatrically attuned, is a terrific piece of craft.

Will win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Should win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Best Supporting Actress
In the Academy Awards' history, only Luise Rainer and Katharine Hepburn have won back-to-back Oscars .
Will win: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

Should win: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)

Best Supporting Actor
Michael Fassbender towers over his rivals here.

Will win: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Should win: Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)