For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has fielded an uncharacteristically respectable field of best picture nominees. All nine are sterling examples of their kind of films, and all have minor flaws. Passionate preferences or strong distastes seem like particularly dopey wastes of energy this year.
The 86th best picture race doesn't even have a "cut it some slack" contender like "Les Miserables" or a perverse emotional factor on the scale of "poor Ben Affleck" to distort the recognition of a lot of very fine cinema.
The closest thing to the latter this year is the idea floating around that "12 Years a Slave" is the proper medicine good voters need to take, whether or not they found it too hard to watch or emotionally unengaging. But neither of those responses should blind anyone to the fact that the film's historic depiction of slavery is the most sober and unflinching ever made in America. No sense of guilt is required to vote for that - nor are attempts to provoke guilt, or snarking about it, necessary.
Of course, the whole Oscar Industrial Complex depends on picking a winner, and this year the hysteria is off the charts over the first genuine competition for the best picture prize in years. It's generally believed that the winner will be either "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity" or "American Hustle."
Which will win? The better question is, why should we have to choose?
But the academy has already promised there won't be a tie - and if that doesn't get you wondering if this thing might be fixed, nothing will - like when the Producers Guild split for "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" in January.
So, if not the historic achievement, will the best picture be the jaw-dropping combination of technical wizardry and artful composition with the thin storyline? Or the impossibly rich and delightful screwball political comedy that some considered undisciplined and others just found too hard to keep up with?
Or, if you're wise enough never to underestimate Harvey Weinstein's ability to manipulate elderly voting members, could "Philomena" take advantage of the academy's byzantine preferential voting system if the three frontrunners cancel one another out? The moving little British movie has the right balance of political liberalism and creative conservatism that defines "comfort zone" in Beverly Hills retirement homes, and linking the real Philomena Lee's cause to the film's Oscar campaign was a thing of dark genius.
However, "Philomena" is also a damn sight better than drivel like "The King's Speech," thanks mainly to ever-prickly director Stephen Frears' commitment to the story's inherent class prejudices and clashing perspectives. He made it much more than Judi Dench geriatric porn (and, of course, so did she).
OK, there are your four likely outcomes. Would it honestly be an upset or an embarrassment, though, if one of the other contenders took the crown?
"Captain Phillips," in its way, is as impressive a technical achievement as "Gravity." It has a better script, too, although director Paul Greengrass and writer Billy Ray's humanistic impulses are overwhelmed by the film's cowboy politics in the end.
"Dallas Buyers Club" provides a fitting cap to Matthew McConaughey's extraordinary evolution into a great actor over the past several years. Arguments regarding Ron Woodroof's true nature or whether the film could have been more gay/transgender-appropriate should not be dismissed, but I've never seen that kind of guy played that well.
"Her" created two distinctive worlds - the ones in and outside of Joaquin Phoenix's head - superbly. So persuasively, in fact, that some have mistaken this futuristic sci-fi love story for a contemporary film, which is another point in its favor. There's a certain whiny quality to it, but it's in synch with the storyline.
"Nebraska" is so low-key, its signature scene is a bunch of guys sitting around a room not talking. It could be said that there isn't a whole lot to this movie, but that would not be acknowledging Alexander Payne's virtuoso directorial control over the characters' smoldering feelings.
Finally, there's "The Wolf of Wall Street," by far the most controversial nominee. People either really dig it because it fulfills their fantasy of abundant excess, so can defend it because it enables them to sneer at lives of abundant excess, or they hate it because they think it endorses high-paying moral bankruptcy. I think it just needed better-written characters, but man, you've got to love that Martin Scorsese can still cause so much trouble at the age of 71.
So, as I usually say, who needs the Academy Awards? I've got to admit it's gratifying, though, not to think they're inevitably going to make the wrong choice. That can't possibly happen this year.
Follow Bob Strauss on Twitter: @bscritic.