From the Golden Globes to the Oscars, the battle for awards glory gets serious

It's been a vintage year for Hollywood – and the big studios are now lobbying hard in a tight and high-stakes race

A diet of bubblegum blockbusters and inane sequels has exposed Hollywood for years to accusations of undermining western civilisation, or at the very least dumbing it down. Who could emerge from the likes of Battlefield Earth, Showgirls and Basic Instinct 2 and not wonder at Tinseltown crassness? How could an industry with so much money and talent produce so much junk?

You don't hear such questions these days. A run of exceptional films has restored Hollywood's cultural credentials and fuelled some of the most intense awards campaigning in living memory.

Studios, actors and directors are slugging it out – and allegedly slinging mud – in what promises to be a vintage season for gongs, starting with the Golden Globes on Sunday and climaxing with the Oscars in March. "For a time, Hollywood seemed stuck with all these prequels and sequels and then suddenly at the end of the year we were deluged with these masterpieces. It felt like a renaissance, a celebration of American cinema which we haven't seen in a while," said Husam Sam Asi, a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Golden Globes voter.

Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle are deemed frontrunners, but in an open race no one is counting out Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street or Inside Llewyn Davis for Oscar glory.

"It's a very, very strong year," said Mike Gebert, author of The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards. "It's not at all obvious which will emerge from the pack. People in the fall were calling Gravity the best movie ever made, then two weeks later it's behind 12 Years a Slave."

The Golden Globes named nominees last month and will announce winners tonight. The Baftas, which announced the nominees last week, will reveal the winners in February. Each prize confers kudos but does not pre-ordain success at the Oscars, which has a different and far bigger voting bloc.

For studios and filmmakers, stakes are high. A prize can boost a film's box office and the leverage and earning power of those associated with it. The producer Harvey Weinstein said in September that this was the most competitive Oscars season he had ever seen. Several films' releases have reportedly been delayed to give them a chance next year.

To have your name pulled from the envelope in such a climate will be all the sweeter, which is why lobbying, according to some, is all the dirtier. "Hollywood is in the midst of its meanest Oscar season battle in memory," declared the New York Post. Studios have been "sliming" rivals with whisper campaigns about supposed historical inaccuracies, in the case of Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, or about glorifying crime in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a real-life fraudster. The film has also been slated for its bad language.

Peter Bart, a veteran studio executive who is a voting member of the Oscars, the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild, said he had seen dirtier years, such as the attacks against Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind in 2002. "Every year there is a little bit of trickery but if anything I think there is less this year," he said. Campaigning was more intense, however, because the absence of a clear leader gave all contenders hope, added Bart. Another reason was that studios had smaller advertising budgets and thus put more pressure on stars to schmooze voters.

"They're being cajoled to get out there and do four or five events a week – you see them at parties, question and answer sessions. It's bruising. Some of the questions can be so stupid." Hastily organised events this weekend, which normally offered a lull in campaigning, betrayed studios' anxiety, he said.

Tom Hanks, who plays the eponymous Captain Phillips in Paul Greengrass's pirate thriller, and Sandra Bullock, who plays an astronaut adrift in Alfonso Cuarón's space drama Gravity, are "troopers" who stoically do promotional graft, said Bart.

Actor Bruce Dern, who at 77 is thrilled to have been given a shot at awards glory in the film Nebraska, is an exception in appearing to genuinely enjoy the endless round of appearances. In contrast, the prickly, mercurial Joaquin Phoenix, widely praised for his performance in Spike Jonze's Her, seldom appears in the limelight lest it backfire.

Studios traditionally release their strongest awards contenders close to December so they are fresh in voter minds, but that does not explain this crop's unusual quality.

Asi credits the ability of indie directors such as McQueen and Alexander Payne, who made Nebraska, to obtain funding for passion projects. "They were able to make their own movies and not be dictated to by the studio system."

Gebert's theory is that groundbreaking TV series such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad forced filmmakers to raise their game: "They kind of woke the studios up."

Few dare to make predictions. "Awards contenders and strategists are like primitive natives, looking for omens of whether the gods are angry or happy," wrote Tim Gray, Variety's awards editor.

Gebert, who literally wrote the book on film awards, has a hunch that, when no film has bandwagon momentum, Oscar voters plump for what they best relate to – hence the victory in 2006 for Crash, set in Los Angeles, and last year's win for Argo, about filmmaking.

In which case American Hustle, David Russell's black comedy about 1970s grifters, may have the edge. "A lot of Academy voters were themselves hustling at that time, trying to get into the movie industry," he said.

• This article was amended on 12 January 2014. The original version wrongly gave Steve McQueen's first name as Alexander.


Rory Carroll in Los Angeles

The GuardianTramp

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