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Best actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, second right, in 12 Years a Slave.FRANCOIS DUHAMEL/The New York Times

The movie most bets are on for Best Picture at the 86th Academy Awards is 12 Years a Slave, a harrowing account of one black man's experience in chains in pre-Civil War America. It's favoured partly because it's already taken home a pile of prizes, partly because it is of unmistakable quality, and partly because it fits one of the Best Picture patterns: It's a movie with a message about race and intolerance, and Oscar is impressed by movies that speak to us about serious matters.

If you consider the Academy Awards ceremony as a glimpse into the American film industry's ideal image of itself, the Best Picture of the year constitutes an especially vivid snapshot of what movie people think movies ought to do. While this might not always – or rarely ever – correspond with what movies actually do, which is to provide whatever form of entertainment the market currently demands, it is a fascinating way of looking at the way America, through its notion of prestige filmmaking, imagines itself to be. It's the dream factory's dream of itself.

Since the first Best Picture Oscar was granted to melodramatic aviation spectacle – William Wellman's Wings in 1928 – certain standards were already set: A good movie is one that addresses serious issues – in this case, war; tells a story of the human spirit enduring adversity; and showcases the technical grandeur of the medium. In 1928, this was also informed by the aviation craze sweeping the country and the all-too-recent memory of the First World War.

With the crash of the stock market and onset of the Depression, the movie industry was immediately enlisted for its powers of distraction, and the Best Picture Awards granted through that decade demonstrate the pendulum swung by the industry between addressing or escaping the misery outside. Oscar bounced accordingly, from musicals and comedies like The Broadway Melody, It Happened One Night, Calvalcade and The Great Ziegfeld to more sober, solidly middlebrow historical spectacles such as All Quiet on the Western Front, The Life of Emile Zola and Mutiny on the Bounty.

Gone With the Wind – historical, literary, concerned with war and cognizant of race – ushered in the Second World War decade. If America had regained its prosperity, it was at the cost of horror overseas, and the era's Best Picture winners were almost cleaved mid-decade between swooning romanticism – Rebecca, How Green Was My Valley, Casablanca – and real world despair – The Lost Weekend, The Best Years of Our Lives, Gentlemen's Agreement. It was as though a dread of domestic harmony had crept in as the war wound down, and it had, as the Best Pictures of the 1950s would suggest largely by omission. While mid-decade winners like Marty and On the Waterfront acknowledged concrete urban despair, the rest were almost entirely exercises in sheer scale and spectacle, the movie industry's way of convincing the nation there was more sensation to be had at the cinema than at home on that viral new appliance known as TV: An American in Paris, Around the World in 80 Days, Ben-Hur and, most shamelessly, The Greatest Show on Earth.

By the 1960s, nose-diving box office revenues, TV competition and insurgent anti-establishment sentiment protracted the Awards' hunkering in denial, which resulted in Best Pictures for My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and West Side Story while the turmoil mounted outside. By the decade's end, reality – at least of the movie sort – had set in, and Best Pictures like In the Heat of the Night and Midnight Cowboy spoke to the splits and fractures in American life.

The 1970s were the decade of epidemic disenchantment: the counterculture revolution hadn't happened, the war still raged, Nixon won that distressing second-term landslide. And look at the Best Pictures, a virtual parade of criminality, disfunction, alienation and divorce: The French Connection, The Godfather movies, The Sting, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kramer vs. Kramer.

If this was the "malaise" U.S President Jimmy Carter so impolitically spoke of, nobody wanted to hear about it from either the White House or Hollywood by the 1980s, and that decade's Best Pictures were the most conservatively comforting, retro-spectacular bunch since the Second World War: Out of Africa, Gandhi, Amadeus, Chariots of Fire. There was no better place to be in the present than the past. Oliver Stone's Platoon was the single, rule-proving exception.

The 1990s were a curious Best Picture decade, consistently preoccupied with violence and its trauma – The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler's List, The English Patient – but also invested in a past retrofitted to salve trauma: Forrest Gump, Titanic, Dances With Wolves, Braveheart.

But the trauma only grew worse in the 21st century's first decade, and it didn't help that the primary cause of that trauma – 9/11 – was so widely likened to watching a movie. Had Hollywood lost its way on the road to the millennium, and had the new facts of computer-generated imagery, franchise blockbusters, demographic marketing and the Internet rendered so-called "quality" movie-making a thing of the past? If so, what were the Oscars to do? Well, one thing was to insist on the persistence of seriousness: A Beautiful Mind, Million Dollar Baby, Crash. But, as suggested by these last two titles, look how often serious was inextricable from violence: No Country For Old Men, The Hurt Locker, The Departed – even The Lord of the Rings. It was an acknowledgement that violence was no longer entertainment but the new reality.

It's too early in the current decade to call the patterns, but so far a certain preference for soft historical comfort seems to prevail: The King's Speech, The Artist, Argo. Although there's little comfort in the historical spectacle of 12 Years a Slave, it has award history on its side: This would seem to be the kind of movie the industry wishes to stand for it. Or maybe all earthly hope is lost, in which case Gravity might be just the ticket.