The Academy Awards always produce odd contradictions. This year, Oscar-watchers say we are heading into the home straight for a three-horse race. American Hustle and Gravity – equal on paper with 10 nominations each – are neck-and-neck with 12 Years a Slave, which has nine nominations but a lot of Academy-friendly gravitas.

Feed the various results of the other awards this season – the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors' Guild awards, the BAFTAs and what have you – into a tea-leaf reading machine and it will tell you either that American Hustle will win everything or that it will walk away with nothing but the award for best costumes.

Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle. Click for more photos

Oscars 2014: Best Picture nominees

Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.

  • Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave.
  • Sandra Bullock in Gravity.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.
  • Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club.
  • Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in Philomena.
  • Joaquin Phoenix in Her.
  • Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips.
  • Bruce Dern in Nebraska.

It may also tell you that while a science-fiction film has never won best picture, Gravity gets kudos for being a huge gamble – a film with very little dialogue that cost $US100 million – that went on to break box-office records. It's the tightest finish ever.

Edge-of-your-seat stuff, right? Except that it isn't, apparently, in that The New York Times reports the bubble of interest from the paying public that is expected to result from nominations hasn't materialised. 12 Years a Slave, the most successful of the films branded "arthouse" that needed a push, has taken $US48 million. That makes it a hit, but amounts to less than half the receipts for Black Swan at the same point in the Oscar race a couple of years ago. Producers worry that the public is sick of the awards season in general and the Oscars in particular. Maybe 10 best picture nominees is too many for punters to keep in their heads, says one. Maybe there's too much hype.

At this point, my personal tea-leaf reading machine is about to boil over. 12 Years a Slave has also made $US61 million overseas so far – with several big markets yet to open – but that won't make much difference to the contents of the envelopes due to be opened at Los Angeles' Dolby Theatre tomorrow, Sydney time; the Oscars are international only in the sense that World Series Baseball is international, which is to say they are all about America.

Up for it: Cate Blanchett in <em>Blue Jasmine</em>.

Up for it: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine.

Actually, even that isn't true: they're all about the tiny pocket of the world that is the film industry based in Hollywood. And, nobody in Hollywood, again according to The New York Times, is discussing these closely contested Oscars at all; all the talk last week has been about The Lego Movie. It is difficult to imagine what anyone could have to say about The Lego Movie except that it's got Lego characters that save the world for click-clack plastic bricks and is making big money, but that pretty much covers Hollywood's ballpark interests.

Of course, everyone knows these awards are nonsense. "There are only two things you really need to know about the Academy Awards: that Citizen Kane didn't win the Oscar for best picture, and that Driving Miss Daisy did," wrote critic Mark Kermode in The Observer. Alfred Hitchcock was never named best director; nor was Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hawks or Stanley Kubrick.

Every year throws up at least a couple of films that should have been nominated and weren't: this year, the fact that the Coen brothers' delicately dark portrait of '60s Greenwich Village life, Inside Llewyn Davis, wasn't nominated for any of the major awards is the most egregious sin, closely followed by the fact that Robert Redford wasn't nominated as best actor for his gutsy tour-de-force as a lone sailor in trouble in All is Lost.

sh cover for Unwind pub 2/3/14 Mucci illo for Unwind cover 2 march 2014 - Oscars

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

Still, there's something compelling about the Academy Awards that nothing else can match; the frocks, the spectacle, the greed, the smug self-congratulation of it all. And the fact that there are some pretty good films around made by committed, sometimes inspiring film-makers and, when it comes down to it, it's nice to see people grinning happily over prizes. So, come tomorrow, who will be smiling the widest?

Best Picture

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

The Wolf of Wall Street

Even without Inside Llewyn Davis, it's a strong list. I wish Nebraska, Alexander Payne's story of old age and small towns, would win, but it's too gingery, too funny and much too black-and-white. (Remember: the French "silent" film The Artist won two years ago; that cuts out films in black and white for the next two decades.). The Wolf of Wall Street is loud and nasty; from the dwarf-throwing competition on, director Martin Scorsese attempts to raise a limp finger to these red-braces boys but is visible revelling in every excess. The longstanding favourite to win is artist Steve

McQueen's epic story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery in the 1800s, in 12 Years a Slave; it's classically harrowing Oscar material. Except that now we have David O. Russell's American Hustle, the con-man spectacular, swaggering into the middle of the field. What does this film tell you? That it's very important to have distinctive hair. That's about it. And it will probably win.

Best Director

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

● Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

● Alexander Payne, Nebraska

● David O Russell, American Hustle

● Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Alfonso Cuaron will probably collect this for Gravity's sheer technical bravura: this is a film made entirely on green-screen, with the actors suspended from machines like fun-park rides to simulate floating, yet it still holds its unrelenting tension for a full (but nicely brisk) 90 minutes. It would be thrilling if Steve McQueen became the first black director to win this award, but he's a cantankerous character; it's hard to imagine him doing enough schmoozing to get past the Academy members' resistance to rewarding an outsider from Britain. Either would be a deserving winner. But if Russell prevails, I'm eating a wig in protest.

Best Actor

Christian Bale, American Hustle

● Bruce Dern, Nebraska

● Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

● Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

● Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Christian Bale's minutely calculated turn as a Brooklyn con-man in American Hustle has been rather overshadowed by the sideshow of Amy Adams' breast-led femme fatale. In fact, he's the best thing in that film. Bruce Dern won best actor in Cannes and deserves another. This prize, however, belongs to McConaughey. Every box is ticked: he plays a redneck cowboy assailed by AIDS, he has to dwindle into sickness, he loses a lot of weight, he has to reconcile himself to being part of a new community of gays and weirdos, thus he has the kind of "emotional journey" seemingly beloved of Oscar. Most of all, he's the man on form. It wasn't so long ago that he was being served up as the bland burger in every doughy rom-com bun: you may not remember him in Failure to Launch with Sarah Jessica Parker but he-elll, dude, I do. Let's not go there again.

Best Actress

Amy Adams, American Hustle

● Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

● Sandra Bullock, Gravity

● Judi Dench, Philomena

● Meryl Streep, August: Osage Country

The Oscar isn't just for the best of something, it's for the most of something. Anyone can see there is a whole lotta acting going on in Blue Jasmine. But will Cate Blanchett's chance at the statuette - considered a lay-down misere until Dylan Farrow's incendiary piece about her father ran in The New York Times - be poisoned by association? Will Dame Judi's career-best performance as a woman who has lost her child or Amy Adams' fascinatingly frosty turn in American Hustle edge her out? Well, folks: no. Nobody will want to think they made her pay for Woody's supposed sins. It's in the bag.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

● Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

● Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

● Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

● Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

They say it's Jared Leto's to lose for his flouncing, cross-dressing junkie. They also say that Michael Fassbender won't win because none of those Hollywood liberals could bear to vote for a vicious slave-owner; it would be like voting for the real thing. I'm not so sure. Fassbender's is the stand-out performance here, although Barkhad Abdi's Somalian pirate, who talks tough but whose irresolute movements betray his underlying desperation, is as subtle as Fassbender is striking.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

● Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

● Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

● Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

● June Squibb, Nebraska

June Squibb is 83. She's also great as Bruce Dern's carping wife in Nebraska, her voice seemingly rubbed raw by a lifetime's fury. I'd love to see her go home with the little gold guy. But you can't begrudge it to Lupita Nyong'o, almost certainly the winner, who goes to hell and back as an abused slave. Plus there's a moral angle to it; for the Academy members, voting for her is a bit like lighting a candle in remembrance.

Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years a Slave

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

The Wolf of Wall Street

Why is Before Midnight - quite famously, a script cooked up by director Richard Linklater with actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy out of endless conversations that meander bewitchingly through this observational dramedy - in this category? Because it follows - after a 10-year gap - Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and sequels are considered adaptations under the Academy's rules, apparently. Rick and his friends should win because that's not fair. They should win anyway.

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

Spike Jonze's Her is nominated in five categories. This, along with the best original score, represents its best chance: the sheer imaginative power of its vision of the future - our current electronic relationships are ramped up to fill every gap once filled by pesky real people - leaves everything else in its wake. Joaquin Phoenix should have been nominated for his dork in love with the voice in his ear, but he wasn't. Actually, it's encouraging that Her was on the Academy's radar at all.

Best Animated Feature

The Croods

Despicable Me 2

Ernest and Celestine

Frozen

The Wind Rises

Disney will get it for Frozen: that's the current wisdom. Miyazaki's The Wind Rises is by no means his best work; even so, he should probably get the award for a lifetime of clever, original animation that bucks every commercial trend. Ha! No chance of that when that Mouse is roaring.

Best Documentary Feature

20 Feet from Stardom

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

You would think there would be some argie-bargie every year in this section, given that the docs are often feistily polemical. This year it's happened: The Act of Killing, in which Josh Oppenheimer interviews Indonesian militia thugs about their fond memories of killing millions of their compatriots in the '60s, has divided opinion: it is on a lot of critics' Top 10s but was recently condemned by a BBC documentary editor as "a high-minded snuff movie". It should win. But this year, the Academy has changed the rules so that instead of documentary makers voting for their own, all 6000 members can vote if they want. This may mean the prize goes to the much jollier story of female back-up singers, Twenty Feet from Stardom. It's fine, but The Act of Killing is formally and journalistically remarkable.

Best Foreign Language Film

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)

The Great Beauty (Italy)

The Hunt (Denmark)

The Missing Picture (Cambodia)

Omar (Palestine)

The Academy's rules of engagement have changed for this category too: members used to have to prove they had seen all the contenders before they could vote for a foreign film, but they can lob in and just vote for their favourite country if they want to. Paolo Sorrentino's delirious The Great Beauty, a portrait of an empty-headed, sybaritic Rome that is clearly a modern homage to Fellini, thus has a decisive headstart. The Broken Circle Breakdown - about a tattooist and a bluegrass musician who fall in love and must then deal with the death of a child - has collected prizes all over Europe, but it's unlikely anyone in Los Angeles is looking forward to a holiday in Antwerp. Or Palestine, come to that.

Everything else ...

There are Oscars for short films. I haven't seen any of them. I hope we all will.

Reducing the technical prizes to an afterword is also wrong, obviously but unavoidable. Gravity - yep, them again - is likely to take cinematography; The Great Gatsby has its one chance for glory in the costume department, but lacking a best picture nomination the prize may go the thrift-store chic of American Hustle. Editing could go the same way; shot for shot, Russell's film flows like a pina colada.

Best make-up: usually the wrinkles win, and McConaughy gets pretty haggard, though, so I'd bet on Dallas Buyers' Club.

Of the remaining tech awards, I expect Gravity should romp home with best visual effects, possibly collect production design along the way - although I like 12 Years a Slave's chances here - and one of the sound gongs (editing or mixing) for its singular appreciation of the value of silence.

Best music will, I hope, go to Arcade Fire for Her.

The song: well, does anyone remember a theme song unless it's a James Bond movie? The pundits are saying Let it Go, which will bump up the count for Frozen, but after watching Jennifer Lawrence gyrate to Live and Let Die in - again, already! - American Hustle, it's taken up permanent occupation in my head.

Bah-BAH, bah-BAH! With all that bombast, it could be an Oscar theme.

The 86th annual Academy Awards air live at 12.30pm on Monday and are repeated at 9.40pm on Channel Nine.