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Up In The Air

This is one of those great, unnerving Oscar seasons where there are very few sure things and a real fight for Best Picture; whatever happens on March 2 is going to be a surprise

Until a few years ago, the only person who thought Matthew McConaughey was Oscar material was Matthew McConaughey. The Southern-fried dude surfed a long wave of B-list romantic comedies before he transformed into a serious actor with high-risk roles in low-wattage films. On Jan. 16, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declared him one of the five best actors of the year — eclipsing the likes of Tom Hanks and Robert Redford — the 44-year-old saw it not as a shock but as the fulfillment of sustained hard work. "I'm not going to say it feels surreal," he told EW the morning of the nominations. "It feels real. I'm looking at it in the eye with a high head and a high heart."

Don't expect business as usual at the 86th Annual Academy Awards on March 2, because the roster of nominees is packed with contenders who were on no one's radar just 12 months ago. Some of them have never been nominated before (Chiwetel Ejiofor from 12 Years a Slave, Sally Hawkins from Blue Jasmine, June Squibb from Nebraska). Hell, some of them had never been in a movie before (Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips, Lupita Nyong'o from 12 Years). And those Oscar virgins, if you'll pardon the phrase, have teamed up with actors who've been gone for ages — Bruce Dern (Nebraska) and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) — and have seized the spotlight from icons like Redford (All Is Lost), Hanks (Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks), Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks), Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels' The Butler), and James Gandolfini, a sentimental favorite for one of his final roles, in Enough Said. Call it the Crash of the Titans.

All this is either exhilarating or unsettling, depending on your POV, and nowhere is the thrill of the unknown more palpable than in the race for Best Picture, which is shaping up to be one of the closest battles in years.

Nine films are up for Best Picture, but if you talk to Oscar voters, it's really a too-close-to-call split between three titles, each with roughly the same number of noms: the searing historical drama 12 Years a Slave (nine), the outer-space survival spectacular Gravity (10), and the swinging 1970s con-artist dramedy American Hustle (10).

Ordinarily, the spate of pre-Oscar prizes helps clarify the race — last year's Best Picture winner, Argo, scored almost all of them — but this time it's only kicked up more dust. The Critics' Choice Awards gave its best-picture honor to 12 Years. The Screen Actors Guild rewarded Hustle with its coveted best-ensemble honor. And the Producers Guild of America? It announced the first tie in its 25-year history: Gravity and 12 Years. Feeling twitchy yet? Ellen DeGeneres will host the Academy Awards telecast in March, but the name inside that show's final envelope is nowhere near being written. If the voters are perfectly split, we just may see a first-ever tie for Best Picture.

The biggest threat to Gravity's Best Picture chances could be its own director. Alfonso Cuarón is the clear front-runner for Best Director, thanks to his visionary work and technical innovation on the film, but some voters say that honoring him means they don't have to give the movie the top prize. If so, that would leave a two-way race between David O. Russell's Hustle and Steve McQueen's 12 Years.

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