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In Gone Girl Ben Affleck plays Nick Dunne who is the chief suspect behind the shocking disappearance of his wife.

Photo: Merrick Morton

Unless David Fincher's Gone Girl or Christopher Nolan's Interstellar unexpectedly crash the party, the most certain thing absent at Thursday's Oscar nominations will be major box-office hits.

When the nominations to the 87th annual Academy Awards are unveiled at 8:30 a.m. (ET) from the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif., none of the expected best-picture candidates will have grossed $100-million. Presenters Chris Pine, J.J. Abrams, Alfonso Cuaron and motion picture academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs will announce all 24 categories in a press conference streamed live on www.oscars.org and broadcast on ABC's Good Morning America.

This year's modestly sized but much-beloved favourites – Boyhood, Birdman – have been largely locked in place throughout much of Hollywood's ever-expanding awards season, where statuette-hunting campaigns span months and are feverishly chewed over by Oscar prognosticators. As studios have focused more and more on easily marketed blockbusters, Oscar season increasingly exists apart from the regular business of the movies, in its own hifalutin, red-carpeted realm.

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Among the things to look for Thursday will be the fate of the late-chargers of this season: Selma and American Sniper, both of which are only now hitting theatres nationwide.

Guild awards have been particularly tough on Ava DuVernay's Selma. Though acclaimed by critics and energized by contemporary relevance, the civil-rights drama has been subjected to scrutiny for its Lyndon Johnson portrayal. Many were surprised by its absence in nominees by the acting, directing and producing guilds, which many have attributed to the movie's late arrival and lack of available DVD screeners for the guilds.

Eastwood's American Sniper, however, has been strongly supported by the guilds (whose memberships overlap considerably with the academy) and appears poised for a big box-office haul when the Navy SEAL drama expands nationwide this weekend.

Either could potentially join the top contenders or fade away.

Richard Linklater's coming-of-age film Boyhood has been the season's unsurpassed front-runner, most recently taking best drama at the Golden Globes. Birdman is seen as its chief rival (Hollywood loves movies about itself), though it was upset by Wes Anderson's old Europe caper Grand Budapest Hotel at Sunday's Globes.

The Imitation Game, the World War II thriller starring Benedict Cumberbatch, could do especially well Thursday, since it offers the kind of handsome, well-rounded production that tends to chalk up nominations. The year's other British prestige project about a genius mathematician, the Stephen Hawking tale The Imitation Game, should also hear its name read repeatedly.

Adding a layer of mystery is how many best-picture nominees will make the cut, since there can be anywhere between five and 10. In the three years since the expansion of the category, there have been, oddly enough, nine movies nominated each year.

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On the fringe this year is a trio of indie dark horses: the jazzy psychodrama Whiplash, the creepy Jake Gyllenhaal thriller Nightcrawler and the tragic wrestling drama Foxcatcher. These are the films that could add a dose of darkness to the category's more mainstream favourites.

Ratings for the Academy Awards have been on the rise. Last year's Oscars, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, drew 43 million viewers, making it the most-watched entertainment telecast in a decade. 12 Years a Slave took best picture.

This year's ceremony on Feb. 22 will be hosted by Neil Patrick Harris. It's his first time hosting after four years leading the Tony Awards and two hosting the Primetime Emmys.

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