Under rules drawn up by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, up to 10 films can be shortlisted for its best picture prize when its nominations are announced on January 10, 2013.
These are the movies that are most likely to be up for the Academy’s top award, and assess their chances of recognition in other categories.
Ben Affleck won an Oscar in 1998 for the screenplay he co-penned with fellow actor Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting.
In the decade that followed, some dubious decisions saw his leading man status wane as his friend’s rocketed.
But in recent years Ben Affleck has cannily reinvented himself as a film-maker of promise and some distinction.
Argo, his third feature after Gone Baby Gone and The Town, is his most ambitious to date, dramatizing as it does a CIA attempt to spirit US diplomats out of Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979.
The fact this real-life, recently declassified rescue operation involved a phantom film production effectively casts Hollywood as the hero of the piece.
That, and Ben Affleck’s “comeback kid” story makes it a solid bet for best picture. Ben Affleck, who also appears in the film, is expected to receive another nomination in the director category.
On the acting front, Argo‘s best hopes of another citation lie with Alan Arkin for his entertaining turn as a cantankerous producer.
Having been named best supporting actor in 2007 for Little Miss Sunshine, however, the 78-year-old shouldn’t need to write an acceptance speech.
2. Django Unchained
Under normal circumstances, Quentin Tarantino’s slavery-era western would seem a sure-fire bet for Oscar consideration.
In the wake of the tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, though, Django Unchained’s graphic mayhem has seen it attract censure in a reopened debate on movie violence.
The elderly, more conservative contingent of the Academy membership might balk at rewarding such a bloodily visceral film in this charged political climate.
So while it may get a decent amount of nominations, not least for Quentin Tarantino’s typically florid screenplay, its actors probably stand a better chance of accolades than the film they star in.
Three years ago Christoph Waltz won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as an urbane Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s previous feature, the World War II caper Inglourious Basterds.
The Austrian could be in line for the same prestigious award for his role in Django Unchained as a loquacious bounty hunter.
Yet the smarter money is on co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, whose atypical portrayal of a sadistic slave-owner could finally give the three-time Oscar nominee a reason to leave his seat.
3. Life of Pi
Were there an Oscar for best performance by a computer-generated 3D tiger, Ang Lee’s adaption of Yann Martel’s Booker prize-winner would be the runaway winner.
As it is, Life of Pi will probably have to content itself with a best picture nomination and a few more citations in the technical categories.
Its captivating use of CGI to realize Yann Martel’s fantastical tale of a young Indian sharing a lifeboat with various zoo animals makes it an obvious contender for the visual effects award.
Ang Lee, meanwhile, is likely to get a best director nomination. The Taiwanese film-maker previously won the award in 2006 for bringing another literary work, Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, to the screen.
Argo‘s main competition for the best picture Oscar looks likely to come from Steven Spielberg’s respectful, hefty tribute to one of America’s most revered presidents.
Concentrating on the final few months of Honest Abe’s life and his fight to pass a bill abolishing slavery, it’s a big film about a big subject from one of Hollywood’s biggest directors.
Daniel Day-Lewis already has two Oscars, for 1989’s My Left Foot and 2007’s There Will Be Blood.
Yet there seems to be little resistance to the idea of giving him another for a dignified portrayal of Lincoln that has seen him showered with superlatives.
Sally Field’s performance as Abe’s devoted wife and Tommy Lee Jones’ turn as a wily political contemporary are likely to be included in the best supporting actor and supporting actress categories.
Steven Spielberg, meanwhile, will not be denied a seventh nomination for best achievement in directing.
5. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama about a cult leader and his troubled chief acolyte has the weight of producer Harvey Weinstein behind it.
Even with this Hollywood powerhouse fighting its corner, though, a best picture nod is by no means certain.
Joaquin Phoenix’s public pooh-poohing of the awards race earlier this year will have undoubtedly damaged both his chances and those of the film.
The Academy has recognized his co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in previous years, however, and will likely do so again for their supporting performances.
6. Les Miserables
Musicals used to be the toast of Oscar night. But it has been a decade since one of that ilk – 2002’s Chicago – was named best picture.
The producers of Les Miserables, the long-awaited film adaptation of the international stage sensation, will be hoping it bucks that trend.
Tom Hooper’s film has been well-received critically and is nominated for four Golden Globes.
That should be enough to secure it a number of Oscar nods, including one for best film.
Hugh Jackman, who hosted the Oscar telecast in 2009, should expect to receive a best actor nomination for his sturdy turn as the heroic Jean Valjean.
Anne Hathaway, meanwhile – another former Oscar presenter – is widely considered a best supporting actress shoo-in for her tear-jerking turn as the tragic Fantine.
7. Silver Linings Playbook
Romantic comedies tend to get overshadowed at Oscar time by meatier dramatic fare. Yet David O Russell’s follow-up to 2010’s The Fighter could be the exception.
It is a film voters may take to their hearts, especially in a year where lighter offerings have been thin on the ground.
Its ace in the hole is Jennifer Lawrence, a rising star who has combined roles in critically acclaimed awards bait with eye-catching performances in lucrative movie franchises – notably this year’s The Hunger Games.
Glamour, smarts and talent are a potent mix and could see the 22-year-old rewarded with a best actress Oscar.
Robert De Niro, too, could receive a supporting actor nod for his quirky role as an incorrigible gambler. If this happens, it would be the seventh nomination of his career.
8. Zero Dark Thirty
A relative late-comer to this year’s awards race, Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker may have some catching up to do.
This dramatization of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden also arrives trailing controversy for its depiction of terrorist suspects being interrogated and tortured.
If the Academy wanted to make itself appear relevant and contemporary, though, it could do worse than honoring a film that draws so vividly on recent events.
Kathryn Bigelow should get a best director nomination for her daring, while her leading lady Jessica Chastain is probably Lawrence’s most formidable rival for the best actress trophy.
The film’s title, incidentally, is a military term for half past midnight, the local time at which Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was raided by US Navy Seals.
The 85th Academy Awards will be held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles, on February 24, 2013.