In one sense, the Oscars continue to matter as much, maybe more, than they ever have. For the past ten or twenty years, the number of films that are good enough to get awards attention has been shrinking. If it weren’t for the Oscars and the additional money they generate, would the incentive to make prestige films be vanishing even faster? The Oscar race is virtually an industry unto itself. It spans the entire year, with films opening at Sundance, moving through Cannes, Telluride and Toronto, all hoping to hang on through year’s end. To say nothing of the smaller fests, like Santa Barbara and Palms Springs which operate as both Oscar showcase and a venue for smaller films.

So, yes, the Oscars still matter. They matter to actors, producers, filmmakers and audiences who still want to see movies that aren’t prepackaged and sold to the broadest demographic and lowest common denominator. They matter, still, to film preservationists and Oscar historians. Will they ever matter to critics who have a long tradition of writing them off? Perhaps if critics recognize that they’re the finger holding up the dyke they might someday appreciate their importance. If only the consensus choices by the industry were more often worthy of the title, “Best.”

With the homogenizing volume of 100,000 SAG voters, 4,500 PGA members, and 14,500 DGA members it is next to impossible now to find much variety among their picks. With the time crunch, and the sheer number of voters it seems there will never be a specialized Oscar preference that’s different from the larger industry choice for Best Picture. Do the guilds try to mimic or to influence the Oscars? Do people really think that much alike? It’s hard to say; though there does seem to be a trend afoot. Through the haze of nostalgia emerge the last three Best Picture winners — The Artist, The King’s Speech, and Argo — films that could have come from any decade because they aren’t about the times we’re living through.

By whatever means voters arrive at the final chosen few that wind up in the race for Best Picture, chances are their strategic positioning has begun long before the film gets to critics and certainly before it gets to audiences. How rare to have had so many $100 million earners last year vying for Best Picture, from Lincoln, which totaled out at $180, to Life of Pi, which earned $600 million worldwide, and the eventual winner, Argo, topping out at $120. What a year to witness and then to suddenly declare cinema is dead.

One aspect that few people see is all the schmoozing that goes on long before the Oscar race begins — HFPA members being flown out to visit various sets, before the movie even wraps is fairly standard practice. The realm of VIP parties and private screenings — all of that happens beyond the of all but the most well-connected among us. The films that are headed for the race, with the exception of those that get in by some miracle — like Beasts of the Southern Wild — are already knee deep into the race before they even open, which makes it somewhat easier to predict than if we tried to consider every one of the 300+ films released in a given year. The truth is that the “Big Oscar Movies” are just a handful of prestige films studios produce in hopes that they’ll capture some of the elusive buzz of enduring quality. What’s more, it’s been that way for nearly 90 years.

That brings us to the year at hand. Sight unseen, several titles rise to the top — those that, on paper, look the most like Oscar Movies .

The Contenders

Captain Phillips – (Sony) starring Tom Hanks, directed by United 93’s Paul Greengrass, to be released in October, the perfect Oscar window of opportunity – not too late, not too early. While Hanks isn’t exactly the guaranteed Mr. Box Office he once was, he’s lately been stretching himself as an actor, taking riskier roles. The story of brazen high-seas piracy is taken from recent headlines, so it’s more relevant than your average Oscar movie, and sure to be more raw than glossy.

The Monuments Men – George Clooney guided Ben Affleck through to his Oscar win with Argo and seems to know the Oscar game inside out. He knows it’s mostly political and he knows he has to talk to everyone from the top tier reporters on down to the lowly Oscar bloggers. He’s one of the few in the business who’s a master of the game, and he clearly schooled Affleck last year. He also, quite simply, makes great movies. He has sharp instincts as both as actor and director. That puts Monuments Men, sight unseen, in great stead.

Nebraska - (Paramount) If I were a betting woman this would be my call to win the whole thing. Not just because Alexander Payne is overdue, but because the film itself passes the crucial test: “you can sit anyone down in front of it and they will get it if not love it.” But we’ve been down this road with Payne twice before, and though Sideways and The Descendants got close they each faltered in the 11th hour.

American Hustle – David O. Russell is headed for a Best Picture/Best Director win. He keeps getting closer and closer. This film not only puts two of his Oscar winning performers in the same movie — Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence — but adds Bradley Cooper and Amy Adam n the mix. With a strong ensemble and Russell’s impressiveness track record of late this looks as promising as anything.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount) – Scorsese and DiCaprio together again. Scorsese and the mob together again. (If one wants to call a bankster a specialized gangster — and I do). No one knows where this will land, but with this director there’s always a good chance for recognition.

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Fruitvale Station, the debut of writer/director Ryan Coogler won big at Sundance, then went on to Cannes, where it was also a standout. Though it didn’t win the top awards that Beasts of the Southern Wild did, it’s being rolled out in essentially same manner by the Weinstein Co. Helming an outstanding film already earning buzz, Coogler is a rising star as an African American filmmaker, one of the few. Fruitvale Station has a long way to go. It needs to face down a noisy gauntlet of bloggers and critics, but it’s off to a great start.

Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coens go deeper once again, delivering a film that is more subtle than many expected, but brilliant nonetheless . It won the Jury Prize at Cannes and wowed critics there. It’s never easy to call where a Coen brothers film will land but their last two each earned Best Picture nominations. It will be an easy call, naming Llewyn Davis one of the year’s best.

August: Osage County (TWC). It’s tempting to rename it August: Oscar County because it has ensemble written all over it, not to mention Meryl Streep. Though it will have to overcome the strange trend that often sees Meryl Streep hailed as the standout in films that otherwise miss the cut Best Picture.

The Counselor (Fox) Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt. It might be too graphic, too violent, but you can’t count it out. Will Ridley Scott’s vision dovetail as tightly with Cormac McCarthy’s sensibilities as the Coens’ snug fit?

The Fifth Estate -(Dreamworks) the story of Julian Assange, directed by Bill Condon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. How great to see Condon back in this rarefied realm. Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie also star. Another film — along with Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips and Nebraska — that touches flush against the tough issues of our times. We know Oscar likes to dwell in the past. Nevetheless, this year could prove different.

Gravity (Warner Bros)– the seemingly strange pairing of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney look to be perfectly matched in what has to be the year’s best trailer so far. The pic looks terrifying and if it hits the right emotional chords could be among those chosen for Best Picture. Gravity is directed by Alfonso Cuarón and is already garnering great word of mouth.

Before Midnight — It looks as though the third installment of the Jesse and Celine story could very well make a play for a Best Picture nomination. The reviews are the best of the trilogy thus far, though ultimately how do you ignore something at this level of artistry? It is most definitely in the race, though it will be a tough sell to get it a Director nomination to go with it. More likely are screenplay, picture and actress.

Twelve Years a Slave — Steve McQueen’s drama about a New York man sold into slavery on the wrong side of a wavering border, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch. McQueen’s films are often intense, to be sure, and not everyone takes to them. But this is a subject (unlike sexual addiction) that might be a more comfortable fit for Oscar.

Her (Warner Bros) – Written and directed by Spike Jonze, starring Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix. A prophetic fantasy film about a writer who develops a relationship with an operating system designed to meet his every need. It could be a brilliant commentary on the virtual world we interface. This also looks to be Jonze’s first original screenplay for a feature film.

All is Lost – JC Chandor’s wordless film starring Robert Redford in career-best work. You’d think the film might be boring but it is compelling to the last possible second. It’s possible it will find its way into the Best Picture race, especially since Best Actor is almost a certainty.

These are, to my mind, the Big Oscar Movies demanding our long-term attention. There might be some other surprises here or there, like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, or something genre-y like Man of Steel. But for now, these seem to be the most prominent landmarks on the long road to Oscar.

The year is just beginning. For the past few awards cycles, the film that ultimately won Best Picture was seen before or during Toronto and Telluride, or thereabouts. When Telluride unfurls at the end of August, we’ll have a clearer picture of what’s coming.