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 Thursday'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. (See also: Ron Howard's Rush and Lee Daniels's The Butler, both of which were shut out completely.)
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's 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 off the same trick with Silver Linings Playbook in 2013, which led to Jennifer Lawrence's joyful victory. (This year, it may well lead to another one.)
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 us one guaranteed British winner: its beautiful extraterrestrial environs were created by the London-based effects house Framestore.
More happy news for the British film industry: Stephen Frears's Philomena was nominated in four categories, including best film. Judi Dench, now a five-time best actress nominee (she won the supporting award in 1999, for Shakespeare in Love) might not have what it takes to topple Blanchett on Oscar night this year, although Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, nominated in the best adapted screenplay category for their smart and nimble script, are appealing underdogs. 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 three previous nominations and no statuettes to show for them, 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.