What makes a good year at the Oscars? Great films? Yes and no – what really counts is the talk. That probably makes this year's Academy Awards, the 83rd ceremony, a good upper-middling vintage. You may not care for the two most prominent titles in contention, The King's Speech and Black Swan – personally, I can take them or leave them – but everyone you know has a strong opinion about them. Passions run equally high over Inception and Winter's Bone. You can't imagine that anyone ever got into fist fights over bygone contenders such as Terms of Endearment or Out of Africa.
But what makes an awards year eligible for the all-time annals? When was Oscar at his sleekest and shiniest, and when did the gold turn to a dull bronze? Here are some of the academy's unforgettable years, as well as a few to forget.
When we think of Hollywood in its glory days, we're probably thinking of a year like the 12th Academy Awards. The Best Picture and the overall barnstormer – with eight awards and nominations in 13 categories – was Gone with the Wind. It also won Best Director for Victor Fleming, and Best Actress for Vivien Leigh – although Clark Gable lost out as Best Actor to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr Chips.
GWTW set the template for the kind of prestige leviathan you expect to triumph at the awards, but look at the nominated films it beat: among them, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights and The Wizard of Oz, among others. Acting nominees that year included Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, James Stewart and Laurence Olivier. But the night (and history) really belonged to Best Supporting Actress Hattie McDaniel, whose Mammy in GWTW made her the first African-American to win an Oscar, even though the role itself hardly struck a blow for black representation.
Some years have the great and the good, and the obscure too, as awards are won by names well known in their day, but now remembered only by the historians – a moment of respect, please, for Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Katina Paxinou. Other years, on the other hand, simply throb with deathless celebrity cachet, and one of the foremost has to be 1951. Try this roll call: Bogart, Brando, Clift, Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, Shelley Winters, Peter Ustinov... and let's not forget hard-boiled Hollywood dame Thelma Ritter, a Best Supporting Actress nominee. The big films included The African Queen (Best Actor for Bogart), A Streetcar Named Desire (Best Actress: Leigh), A Place in the Sun, Death of a Salesman and that year's all-singing, all-dancing Best Picture, Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris. And, just to prove there are second acts in American lives, in 1951 Gig Young (in the now-forgotten Come Fill the Cup) lost out to Karl Malden as Best Supporting Actor – but returned to win the prize 18 years later for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
The 40th was an eminently serious year for Hollywood – it marked (temporarily) the end of the age of studio super-productions and gave credibility to a generation of names, the 1960s hipsters. One such was Mike Nichols, former comedy celebrity, who came of age as a director with that year's zeitgeist-defining neurotic-youth statement The Graduate. The other epoch-making film was Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, with leads Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty both nominated.
In fact, it was the old guard that walked off with awards – Best Film was In the Heat of the Night, with Rod Steiger as Best Actor, while Best Actress was Katharine Hepburn for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. But it's remarkable that another lead in both Heat and Dinner, Sidney Poitier, had no nominations that year, given both films' racial themes; and remember, this was the year that the Oscars ceremony – originally scheduled for 8 April 1968 – was postponed for two days because of the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Sweeping the board in the 48th Awards was Best Picture One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which also won acting awards for Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, plus Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (Milos Forman), and a Best Support nomination for Brad Dourif. Other films running were Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws and Nashville – while acting talent included Al Pacino, Walter Matthau, Isabelle Adjani, Lily Tomlin and Glenda Jackson. The other Best Director nominees were Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Federico Fellini – I mean, how blue-chip do you want? There was also a popular choice of Best Supporting Actor for George Burns - then, at 80, the oldest acting winner yet. The 48th year was one of those when it just felt as if the Academy had its head screwed on and was getting it right – and that Hollywood was too.
The following year, of course, it all went pear-shaped again when Rocky beat Taxi Driver as Best Picture. It happens sometimes – as in 1944, when Going My Way beat Double Indemnity, or two years earlier, when Citizen Kane missed out to How Green Was My Valley. But then, not everyone had quite realised that it was Citizen Kane yet.
This was an encouragingly tough year, with The Silence of the Lambs winning Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was a surprise to see something this dark and confrontational feted by the Academy, but it was a salutary change. After all, the previous Best Picture was the forgettably earnest Dances with Wolves while Best Director was Kevin Costner, whose auteur-dom hasn't exactly resounded through the ages. Other key titles were Thelma and Louise, Oliver Stone's aggressively contentious JFK and John Singleton's ghetto drama Boyz n the Hood. This 64th ceremony effectively marked the end of Oscar's Beige Period, running through the 1980s, when the ceremonies were dominated by drab, middlebrow prestige pictures: from Kramer vs Kramer in 1979, to 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, by way of Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, and Robert Redford's Ordinary People (which beat Raging Bull as Best Picture in 1980).
My predictions for tonight...
This year, Black Swan and The King's Speech are the two popular front-runners, and of the two, I suspect that The King's Speech will trounce all-comers – it has European patrician cachet, its historic content makes people feel serious, and it discreetly flatters our sense of compassion. And Black Swan – for all its perverse thrills and its feathery high-culture trimmings – is too ostentatiously loopy for Best Picture. Of the others, The Kids Are All Right is socially important, and a smart, witty treat, but voters may find its humour too fluffy. Of my other favourites, the Coens' True Grit is at a disadvantage – a Western and a remake (of sorts). And Toy Story 3 is an animation that's as rich in vision and emotional depth as anything else on show, but that would be a daring vote indeed.
But the film that really should win Best Picture is The Social Network. It's socially up-to-the-minute, yet against the grain – not of the hipster phenomenon but wryly analysing it, as well as flying the flag for smart screen dialogue. And although his film won't take Best Picture, expect David O Russell to win Best Director for the sheer punch and gritty joyousness of his comeback film, The Fighter.
I'd bet on Colin Firth winning for The King's Speech, but personally, I'm backing Jesse Eisenberg for the introverted outsider anti-hero of The Social Network.
Geoffrey Rush may win on sheer charm for The King's Speech, but if you're after something truly idiosyncratic and full of spark, I'd go for Mark Ruffalo flexing his comic chops in The Kids Are All Right.
I'd both predict and back Annette Bening, who brings massive wit, intelligence and force of personality to The Kids Are All Right.
It's a close call – Helena Bonham Carter could win on sheer mischievous grace in The King's Speech. But everyone loves a plucky debutante, so consider putting money on 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. But really, the award should go to either (it's a tough choice) Amy Adams or Melissa Leo, both terrific as scrapping blue-collar dames in The Fighter. But watch out also for an intriguing outsider bet: Jacki Weaver's criminal matriarch in Australian thriller Animal Kingdom (released this week).
And a final plea...
Now for the award that the academy most often gets wrong, the Foreign Language title. The leaden social compassion of the Javier Bardem vehicle Biutiful is, I'm afraid, a dead cert. But there's one film in this category that is easily as good as any other in the entire Oscars competition this year – and that is the utterly inspired, wildly left-field and compellingly perverse Greek drama Dogtooth. In with a chance? Not unless someone has spiked voters' cocktails – but what a lovely, crazy miracle if it happened.
This year's main nominations...
The Kids Are All Right
Toy Story 3
The King's Speech
The Social Network
David O Russell – The Fighter
Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Tom Hooper – The King's Speech
David Fincher – The Social Network
Joel & Ethan Coen – True Grit
Javier Bardem – Biutiful
Jeff Bridges – True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Colin Firth – The King's Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours
Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter's Bone
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine
Christian Bale – The Fighter
John Hawkes – Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner – The Town
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush – The King's Speech
Amy Adams – The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter – The King's Speech
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom
How to Train Your Dragon
Toy Story 3
Biutiful – Mexico
Dogtooth – Greece
In a Better World – Denmark
Incendies – Canada
Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi) – Algeria
Mike Leigh – Another Year
Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington – The Fighter
Christopher Nolan – Inception
Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg – The Kids Are All Right
David Seidler – The King's Speech
Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy – 127 Hours
Aaron Sorkin – The Social Network
Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich – Toy Story 3
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen – True Grit
Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini – Winter's Bone
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The British are coming...
Feeling patriotic? Here's a list of the British talent nominated for Academy Awards this evening.
Leading actor - Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
Directing - Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
Supporting actress - Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech)
Supporting actor: Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Original screenplay - Mike Leigh (Another Year), Christopher Nolan (Inception), David Seidler (The King's Speech)
Adapted screenplay - Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours)
Animated feature - The Illusionist, a British-French co-production
Cinematography - Roger Deakins (True Grit), Danny Cohen (The King's Speech)
Costume design - Colleen Atwood (Alice in Wonderland), Jenny Beavan (The King's Speech), Sandy Powell (The Tempest)
Editing - Tariq Anwar (The King's Speech)
Documentary - Banksy (Exit Through the Gift Shop), Lucy Walker (Waste Land)
Song - Dido and her brother, Rollo Armstrong, for "If I Rise" (127 Hours)
Animated short - The Gruffalo, a BBC co-production based on Julia Donaldson's and Axel Scheffler's children's book
Art direction - Stuart Craig (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1)
Live-action short film - The Confession and Wish 143 are UK productions; The Crush is Irish
Visual effects - A British team was largely responsible for the mindbending special effects in Christopher Nolan's thriller Inception