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who will BE the winners at the 86th academy awards?

As the dance numbers are perfected, the polythene is pulled off the red carpet and Jack Nicholson is given his annual respray and tune-up, one question about the Academy Awards lingers in the air, pertinent but unasked. 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 in which 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.

That's why I hope 12 Years A Slave is named Best Picture tomorrow night, even though I think Gravity is, by a hair's breadth, the better film.

Does that make sense? Maybe not. In another 86 years, we'll know for sure.

"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 photo calls 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 12 Years A Slave

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

That he hasn't lost a single significant directing prize this awards season also helps.

Will win Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Should Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Matthew McCon- aughey's painfully spindly frame in Dallas Buyers Club is just the latest milestone in his on-going career reboot. The Academy loves physically transformative performances, and he's given them one they can't ignore.

Will win Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Should Leonard DiCaprio

(The Wolf of Wall Street)

Cate Blanchett (inset) has dominated all discussion of this category since last August, and it's true that her performance in Blue Jasmine is a terrific piece of craft. But the nominations have also worked in her favour: her rivals seem mostly to be there on name-recognition grounds, and far better work from less-established talent was overlooked.

Will win Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Should Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

In the history of the Academy Awards, only two actresses have won Oscars back to back: Luise Rainer (1936, 1937) and Katharine Hepburn (1967, 1968).

If Jennifer Lawrence wins again tomorrow night for her scene-stealing work in American Hustle, she'll be the third, and with the Golden Globe and Bafta already taken care of, her lifting a statuette looks like the one to be backing.

Will win Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

Should Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years)

Michael Fassbender towers over his rivals here, but he soured on the campaigning process after his hard work promoting Shame two years ago failed to bear fruit. It seems likely that Jared Leto, who's perfectly good in Dallas Buyers Club but even better at lunches and photo calls, will come out on top.

Will win Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

should Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]