Have the Academy Awards lost the element of surprise? Or are we now so well-informed about the film awards season, wiser to its patterns and readier to second-guess its feints and bluffs, that when the Oscar nominations are announced the most you can do is sit back, nod and look forward to the ceremony?

The big shock of yesterday's press conference: there was no big shock. The predicted big-hitters all hit big. American Hustle and Gravity won 10 nominations apiece; 12 Years a Slave won nine. Next came the more divisive contenders, buoyed up, perhaps, by affection for the people who made them. Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street was nominated in five categories, Alexander Payne's Nebraska in six.

Together, those five films are the only ones to secure nods for both best picture and best director, which positions them as early frontrunners; again, as was widely expected. In the end, 12 Years a Slave will win, but we'll come back to that in a moment.

You had to lean in to catch the controversies, which were minor and mostly untroubling. Two measly nominations for the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis - and unsexy ones at that, for cinematography and sound mixing? Well, the film is undeniably great, but it's tricky, too, downbeat and slippery - and the Academy prefers the Coens when they make genre films anyway.


Only one nomination for Saving Mr Banks, for best original score, might also look like an oversight, but only to anyone who hasn't actually seen the thing. Disney's comic drama about the making of Mary Poppins is sweet enough, but it's too hungry for awards recognition, and too visibly engineered to secure it. In a year as strong for cinema as this one, that makes it surplus to requirements.

And this was not a good year to be Tom Hanks either: his supporting Walt Disney in Saving Mr Banks was ignored, as was his leading turn in Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass' hijack thriller. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if he had worked with David O. Russell?

Whatever it is the American Hustle director does with actors and actresses, the Academy loves it. This is the second year in a row in which a Russell film has had nominees in all four acting categories: he pulled it off last year with Silver Linings Playbook.

Before that, you'd have to go back to 1981, and Warren Beatty's Reds, to find another film nominated for that particular full house, although no film has ever won all four.

Who and what are the sure things? Cate Blanchett winning best actress for her performance in Blue Jasmine seems likely, as does Alfonso Cuaron winning best director for Gravity. Cuaron's film will also surely triumph in the best visual effects category, which at least gives Britain one guaranteed winner: its beautiful extraterrestrial environs were created by the London-based effects house Framestore.

More happy news for the British film industry: Stephen Frears' Philomena was nominated in four categories, including best film. Judi Dench, now a five-time best actress nominee, might not have what it takes to topple Blanchett on Oscar night this year.

While we're hazarding guesses, let's plump for Leonardo DiCaprio for best actor, on possible career-best, certainly career-wildest form in The Wolf of Wall Street. With DiCaprio having nothing to show for his three previous nominations, the Academy may well feel that they owe him one. Chiwetel Ejiofor's tempered, subtle work in 12 Years a Slave is the best performance in that category, but he is at risk of being drowned out.

Where 12 Years a Slave's voice will surely be heard, though, is when it comes time to name this year's best picture. Steve McQueen's history-making drama is so monolithically brilliant that its component parts are perversely harder to honour individually than the ones in, say, American Hustle, where the performances and music and costumes slot together as neatly as flatpack furniture.

But McQueen's film is too important to not win the top prize. If it doesn't, there will, and should, be an uproar.

Greatest Oscar rosters of all time

It's often rare enough to have a showdown at the Oscars between two great films, as we're getting this year with Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.

Do a straw poll on the outstanding years for Best Picture, sift through the answers, and you'll get a lot of two-horse races with solid back-up - All About Eve vs Sunset Boulevard (1950), or No Country For Old Men vs There Will Be Blood (2007), or Annie Hall vs Star Wars (1977).

To qualify for true creme de la creme status, a given year wants strength across the whole field, with no makeweight contenders, no filler, no embarrassments. Here's a pick of the five best rosters. The eventual winners are marked in bold.


Best Picture: Dark Victory, Gone with the Wind, Goodbye Mr Chips, Love Affair, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights

A famously landmark year in Hollywood, with an immortal winner, and archetypal genre achievements right down the list. What stands out, given the overwhelmingly manly bent of many Best Picture fields, is how female star power, and not just the megawattage of Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, drives so many of these. From Bette Davis's tragic bravura in the fine Dark Victory to Judy Garland's incandescent charm in The Wizard of Oz, it was a great year not just for Hollywood, but for Hollywood feminism.


Best Picture: Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, The Godfather, Sounder

It's remembered as the year when The Godfather triumphed, in the sense of winning Best Picture, but when Cabaret outdid it, by winning eight Oscars overall to that film's three. That's a tussle for the ages, but look closer: it's also an amazingly strong and provocative line-up all over.


Best Picture: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Kubrick, Lumet, Spielberg, Altman, Forman. Four vividly contemporary American classics, tackling the counterculture, authority, political disillusionment, country music, psychiatry and a very hungry great white shark. Barry Lyndon looks like the odd film out for being an exquisite picaresque, one of the most fastidious recreations of the past ever put on film; but even Thackeray's disillusioned rogue, as played by Ryan O'Neal, chimes with the cynical, feckless modern sensibility all the others put on display. You can imagine passionate arguments for all five, and it feels hard to believe any one of them was out of the running. A singular year in that sense, even if the winner turned out to be the movie that's arguably dated least well.


Best Picture: The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, The Remains of the Day, Schindler's List

Spielberg's Holocaust epic was always going to sweep all before it, but the performances on show across the board here are pretty awe-inspiring. It was a high-water-mark year for many careers - Jane Campion's, Holly Hunter's, Pete Postlethwaite's, Liam Neeson's, Jim Sheridan's, and Fugitive director Andrew Davis'.


Best Picture: The English Patient, Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets and Lies, Shine

It was pitched as "the year of the independents", since only the US$50 million Jerry Maguire had serious studio clout behind it, but it was also a testament to just how far your movie dollar can stretch. After 20th Century Fox (and Demi Moore!) jumped ship, Miramax funded The English Patient to the tune of US$27 million. That still seems a remarkably frugal figure for a film of this ambition and scope. When you add the bills for Shine (US$6 million), Secrets and Lies (US$4.5 million) and Fargo (US$7 million), it brings the total cost for all five to way under half a single Titanic. The Oscars' most cost-effective year? It was also another one driven by splendid lead performances, and so stylistically diverse you could barely credit a single frame to the wrong film by mistake.