Two-horse race for "Best Picture"

To historian Brenda Stevenson, a scholar on American slavery, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful cinematic work that achieves more than any other film on slavery, so worthy that she plans to screen it in classes at her university, UCLA.

Two-horse race for "Best Picture"

It’s the kind of validation the film has been earning from experts, critics, audiences, and the film industry for six months now. Even so, the acclaimed drama may falter in the final test, losing out on the most coveted of movie prizes, the Academy Award for best picture.

The film from British director Steve McQueen appears to be the frontrunner for film’s highest honour at tomorrow night’s ceremony, but has at least three factors conspiring against it: another high-quality, groundbreaking film called Gravity; the tricky maths of Oscar voting; and the film’s own brutal depiction of American slavery.

“I think it is a hard film to watch,” said Stevenson. “One of the things I think Steve McQueen does extremely well is capture the violence of the institution.”

That unflinching portrayal of a real American story, that of the free black man Solomon Northup who is tricked and sold into slavery, may win on the gravitas scale.

But sometimes the 6,000-plus voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just want to reward enjoyable entertainment and Gravity gives that in spades.

If this year’s nine best picture nominees add up to the strongest year for film in recent memory, they also have injected a good dose of uncertainty into Hollywood’s biggest night. Voters had a good and varied lot from which to choose, with big successes such as American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, and smaller films Nebraska and Philomena.

“In the 12 to 13 years that I have been doing this stuff seriously, I can’t remember a best picture race in which there was less certainty than there is this year,” Scott Feinberg, awards analyst at The Hollywood Reporter said.

Over at trade publication, Variety, awards editor Tim Gray said that “more than ever, I’m totally flummoxed”.

“I think best picture is between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity but I wouldn’t bet money on that,” Gray said.

In a telling sign of the tight battle, the two films had an exact tie in one of the most reliable predictors of the Oscar best picture, the Producers Guild Award.

The heightened drama around the big prize could give viewers an extra reason to tune in to the glamorous event, hosted this year by comedian Ellen DeGeneres. The cliffhanger category also stands in contrast to more predictable outcomes in the top acting races.

Cate Blanchett should win best actress for Blue Jasmine, while Matthew McConaughey is favoured for best actor for Dallas Buyers Club and co-star Jared Leto has a lock on best supporting actor.

The best supporting actress category could see favourite Lupita Nyong’o, the slave Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, upset by Jennifer Lawrence’s loopy wife in 1970s caper American Hustle.

For best animated film, Frozen is expected to give the Disney Animation Studios its first Oscar in that category since it was added in 2002.

American Hustle and Gravity lead nominations with 10 nods a piece, followed by 12 Years a Slave with nine. But if the best picture award were decided at the box office, Gravity from Warner Bros and Mexican director Alfonso Guaron would be the winner.

The outer-space thriller starring Sandra Bullock, has brought in $270m (€195m) in North America and $703m worldwide. That’s nearly as much as the $780m earned collectively by the nine best picture nominees in the US and Canada. For his feats, Cuaron is favoured to win best director.

12 Years a Slave pulled in $49m at the domestic box office, respectable, for a hard-to-watch picture.

Oscar stats

* 6,028 — members of the academy who are eligible to vote.

* 50 — Oscar statuettes created for the ceremony.

* 2,900 — Oscar statuettes handed out since ceremony began.

* 13.5 (34.3cm) — the height in inches of the statuettes.

* 500 — the length of the red carpet outside the Dolby Theatre in feet.

* 75 — photographers on the red carpet.

* 19 — times that Bob Hope hosted the Oscars.

* 76 — countries submitting foreign language films.

* 225 — countries where telecast will be seen.

* 40.3m — Americans who watched last year.

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