The Oscar nominations underscore a particularly strong year for Hollywood. USA TODAY's Scott Bowles examines the nine nominees for best picture and the challenges they face in pursuit of the granddaddy prize.
12 Years a Slave
• In its corner: Scope. The true story of a free New York man of color sold into slavery has the tenor and sweep that the academy loves.
• In its way: Disco. American Hustle, considered Slave's chief rival, has been upstaging the competition with strong acting performances and 1970s-drenched style.
• In its corner: Timing. David O. Russell's Abscam comedy has cleaned up in the early awards competitions. And for Oscars, timing is everything. Sunday's Golden Globewin is a big boost in its campaign.
• In its way: Tone. Hustle is the only comedy in the group and the academy is known to prefer serious fare.
• In its corner: Tom Hanks. Though he's not nominated for best actor, Hanks is considered royalty by the academy and his films can never be taken lightly.
• In its way: Gravity's shadow. Phillips opened a week after Gravity and has never gotten out from under the sci-fi saga's shadow (Gravity opened with $55.8 million,Phillips $25.7 million).
Dallas Buyers Club
• In its corner: Acting. The film might sweep the acting categories via knockout performances by lead Matthew McConaughey (a favorite with Nebraska's Dern) and supporting actor Jared Leto. Strong casts often make for best-picture winners.
• In its way: See above. DBC is being recognized mostly as an actors' showcase and has gotten little attention as a film overall,
• In its corner: Populism. It's the best reviewed and highest grossing film ($256 million domestically) in the Oscar race. As the academy proved with Titanic and Avatar, it loves juggernauts.
• In its way: Blowback. Even though it's a feature film, Gravity has taken some shots from the scientific community for inaccuracies. You never want to be on the wrong side of science in an Oscar race.
• In its corner: Quirkiness. No film touches Spike Jonze's romance between a man and a computer operating system. It's seen as the "unusual'' film of the race.
• In its way: Quirkiness. The academy is not known for taking chances and usually sides with classic subject matter.
• In its corner: Bruce Dern. Across the board this Hollywood icon is getting hailed as having turned in the best performance of his long career, and he was rewarded with a leading actor nomination.
• In its way: Lack of grandeur. Shot in black-and-white and with a small budget, Nebraska is seen as a two-person vehicle, with supporting actress nominee June Squibb holding her own with Dern. Outside of those two, the movie hasn't generated much notice in any category.
• In its corner: Dame Judi Dench. Aside from Meryl Streep, no actress is as beloved. Any of Dench's top movies should be considered a threat.
• In its way: Lack of popularity. No one besides critics and movie circles has seen this film, and moviegoers don't appear to be eager to catch the drama.
The Wolf of Wall Street
• In its corner: Pedigree. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have become the most iconic director/actor duo since Scorsese and Robert DeNiro.
• In its way: Coarseness and length. The f-bombs, three-hour length and celebration of greed has some voters taken aback. And if anything the academy is known for its conservative traits.