Anthony Breznican
January 30, 2014 AT 05:00 AM EST

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.

American Hustle is a crowd-pleaser that both the Academy and moviegoers are hugely fond of, but 12 Years has…gravity. As Nyong’o put it when she won the Screen Actors Guild award for best supporting actress for the film on Jan. 18, McQueen’s drama is “taking a flashlight and shining it underneath the floorboards of this nation, and reminding us what it is we stand on.” Many voters will be torn between the film that dazzled and entertained them and the one that moved them to tears.

The tightness of the Best Picture race could have ramifications all the way down the ballot. Academy voters have told EW that they’re strategizing about how to tick their boxes so that none of their favorites go home empty-handed. If they fear their film of choice isn’t going to win Best Picture, should they throw their vote to a dark horse in an acting race? With thinking like that — which was a major discussion among filmmakers, actors, executives, and publicists at the Sundance Film Festival in mid-January — not even the front-runners are safe.

Both Hustle and 12 Years are heavily represented in the acting categories — in Hustle‘s case, it marks the second year in a row that a Russell film has gotten nominations in all four acting contests, as Silver Linings Playbook did last year — but neither film’s stars are considered shoo-ins to take home a statuette. The Dallas Buyers Club duo, McConaughey and Leto, have all the momentum right now in the male races. McConaughey is pulling ahead as Best Actor, with Screen Actors Guild, Critics’ Choice, and Golden Globe wins under his arm. Leto is regarded as a sure thing to win Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a transgender hustler. “It’s an honor to have this warm and unexpected welcome back,” he told EW on nomination day. But he’s not taking anything for granted. Asked at the SAG Awards where he would put his Oscar if he won, Leto played it cool, joking, “What a dirty question.” So if the actor races go as expected, could the women of Hustle and 12 Years get the voters’ support instead?

Academy members love the idea of giving Amy Adams Best Actress for her turn as a sultry con artist in Hustle — until you remind them of Cate Blanchett, that is. Blanchett, who won Best Supporting Actress for 2004’s The Aviator, is the hands-down favorite to claim this year’s Best Actress trophy for her self-absorbed fallen socialite in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Adams’ glam grifter has gained ground in the past few weeks, but Blanchett is still as safe a bet as you’re likely to find on March 2.

So will Hustle be rewarded in the Best Supporting Actress category instead? After the movie started screening in early December, the energy seemed to belong to Jennifer Lawrence for her boozy, flirty, chaotic housewife who threatens to upend an entire FBI sting operation. Lawrence won Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook, and she looked to be headed toward a repeat victory.

Since then, however, there’s been a growing admiration for Nyong’o’s devastating turn as a field slave combating the lust and rage of her plantation master (Michael Fassbender, another of this year’s first-time nominees). The race for Best Supporting Actress is now a dead heat. Lawrence won the Golden Globe, but Nyong’o’s acceptance speeches at both the Critics’ Choice and SAG Awards were emotional and eloquent — and have made it hard not to root for her. Nyong’o wasn’t planning to watch the nominations announcement on Jan. 16, but she and her best friend were camped out in her Mexico City hotel, and they decided it was better to hear it “from the horse’s mouth.” That turned out to be more stressful than she expected. “We woke up and I just remember they were showing the weather [report] before the announcement,” she told EW. “I was just so angry,” she joked. “‘Get to the nominations already!'”

Just so you’re prepared for every possibility come Oscar night, you should know that there’s another dark-horse contender gaining speed on the outside track: director Alexander Payne’s small-town Americana tale Nebraska. Amid this year’s rush of new faces, it’s Nebraska‘s veterans who could throw a wrench into everyone’s predictions.

There’s June Squibb, a longtime theater actress who has charmed and cheerfully scandalized voters with her acid-tongued performance as a fed-up housewife. “People are now recognizing me and know the work I’ve done and are following the work,” she said. “And that’s great. I feel very good about that.”

And then there’s Bruce Dern, who plays Squibb’s husband, an addled elderly man who goes on a road trip with his grown son (Will Forte) to collect a sweepstakes jackpot he’s convinced he’s won. The 77-year-old actor, whose last Oscar nomination was for 1978’s Coming Home, has deep ties to the Hollywood community, is beloved by many, and boasts a comeback story that rivals McConaughey’s. “My whole career I’ve always wanted to be in that word-of-mouth movie that comes out every year,” he told EW on nomination morning. “This year, it seems to have been Nebraska. I’ve always had actors that come up to me and say, ‘God, I wish we could do a film together.’ The advantage of this to me is that I’m actually in a room with a lot of these people now.”

As for his odds of winning, he offers up some good advice not only for his race but for just about all of them this year: Hedge your bets.

“I’m a gambler, bud, and I would say, ‘Get as many points as you can,'” Dern said. “Don’t bet me straight up, and we’ll be okay.”

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