By EW Staff
Updated January 22, 2014 at 05:00 PM EST

Will it be 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, or American Hustle? That’s the question even Oscar voters are asking themselves as the most contentious race in years gets underway. The nominations announcement set the field, but in a year of snubs for Robert Redford, Oprah Winfrey, Emma Thompson, and Tom Hanks (twice), anything can happen — and probably will.

It’s a year of first-timers, second chances — and a three-way battle for Best Picture

The roster for the 86th annual Academy Awards is packed with contenders who were on no one’s radar just 12 months ago: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), 84-year-old June Squibb (Nebraska), and 12 Years a Slave’s Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. These freshmen nominees (two of whom, Abdi and Nyong’o, had never appeared in a film before) and actors who had been out of the spotlight for years or decades — Bruce Dern (Nebraska) and Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto (both of Dallas Buyers Club) — seized the spotlight from icons like Redford, Hanks, and Winfrey. The newcomers and comebacks caused a crash of the titans.

That’s 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 a razor-thin victory — especially given the recent Producers Guild Award that ended in a tie for 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. Could this be the first split decision ever for the Academy’s top honor?

In our special double issue, Entertainment Weekly features exclusive interviews and profiles of the nominees, dives deep into the politics of the race, and explores how the Best Picture fight is rippling through the acting categories. We also highlight some of the underdogs who might just pull out a victory during the March 2 telecast. Plus: Your EW Oscar Ballot so that you can begin handicapping how to win your office Oscar pool right now.

Also in the issue, stories from the Academy Awards of yesteryear:

• GUESS WHO CAME TO THE OSCARS: Sidney Poitier’s landmark 1964 Best Actor win for Lilies of the Field was the first time a black actor won the prize — and the only time, until Denzel Washington claimed it 38 years later for Training Day.

• GENDER BENDERS: From Marlene Dietrich to Jared Leto, actors have a long, rich history of snagging Oscar nominations by stepping outside their sex.

• LA-DI-DA, LA-DI-DA: A look back at the most memorable and awards-worthy actresses from Woody Allen’s long filmography — a list that ranges from Annie Hall‘s Diane Keaton to Blue Jasmine’s Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins.

• COSTUME QUEEN: Irene Sharaff, who used her artist’s eye to design costumes on Broadway and in Hollywood. We explore her five Oscar wins, including the one she earned for 1963’s Cleopatra.

For all things Oscar, pick up the new double issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday, Jan. 24.