By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The world's top actors and actresses gathered for the Academy Awards on Sunday to honor a year of high-quality film and crown the best picture, a cliffhanger race led by "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity."
As if on cue, the sun came out after four days of heavy rain just before the first movie stars began arriving on the red carpet for Hollywood's biggest night.
Workers unwrapped the giant golden Oscar statues and prepared a slightly soggy carpet for the glamorous parade of A-listers in designer dresses and tuxedos.
The 86th annual Academy Awards will be hosted by comedian and day-time talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who producers are banking on to deliver an entertaining yet tasteful three-hour show after critics widely panned last year's ceremony and host Seth MacFarlane's provocative humor.
As the crowds along Hollywood Boulevard cheered on arriving talent, nominees celebrated the end of the long awards season and the culmination of work on their films.
"This has been such a long time coming," said director Chris Sanders of the nominated animated film "The Croods." "It's like Christmas is finally here and it comes and goes so quickly, you just try to remember as much as you can."
Apart from the best picture race, it may be a night of predictable outcomes, from "Gravity" filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron's likely win of the best director statuette to the virtual shoo-in of "Frozen" for best animated film. The four acting races might also be foregone conclusions.
This year's Oscars celebrate what is widely regarded as one of the most high quality years in film and performances in recent memory. The president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, called it the best line-up "in the last decade or so."
That means that awards are likely to be scattered widely as the 6,000-plus members of the Academy seek to reward as many films as possible with the famed golden statuettes.
While British director Steve McQueen's brutal slavery drama "12 Years a Slave" is the presumed frontrunner for best picture, the groundbreaking space thriller "Gravity" lurks just behind.
CHANCE TO MAKE HISTORY
Among the other contenders is 1970s crime caper "American Hustle" from director David O. Russell, which scored 10 nominations. For the second year in a row, Russell has achieved the rare feat of having his actors nominated in all four acting categories. Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," a tale of financial greed and excess, has also been a hit with audiences and critics.
A total of nine films are competing for best picture, including Somali piracy thriller "Captain Phillips," the adoption drama "Philomena," the heartland comedy "Nebraska," the computer-age romance "Her," and the AIDS activist biopic "Dallas Buyers Club."
But the Academy could make history this year if it chooses "12 Years a Slave" for best picture. It would be the first time that the top film honor goes to a movie by a black director in the 86 years of the Oscars.
On Saturday, the real-life story of free man turned plantation slave Solomon Northup gained more momentum by sweeping the Independent Spirit Awards, a show that recognizes movies made on small budgets. It scored five wins out of seven nominations, including best feature film.
The acting categories may yield few surprises on Sunday. Cate Blanchett is heavily favored to win her first best actress Oscar for her portrayal of the disgraced socialite in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine."
Matthew McConaughey is also a solid bet for best actor for his role as the unlikely AIDS activist in "Dallas Buyers Club," for which he lost some 50 pounds (23 kg) while co-star Jared Leto is tipped for best supporting actor.
Of the four races, the best supporting actress race might be the most compelling. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is favored for her role as hardworking slave Patsey in "12 Years a Slave" but she faces a serious challenge from Jennifer Lawrence as the loopy housewife in "American Hustle."
The Oscars show will feature homages to movie heroes and "The Wizard of Oz" on its 75th anniversary. U2 and Pharrell Williams will be among the performers for best original song.
Among the presenters will be Hollywood power couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as well as Sidney Poitier on the 50th anniversary of his best actor win for "Lilies of the Field," the first Oscar in that category for an African American.
The show will be broadcast live in the United States on ABC television starting at 5:30 p.m. PST/8:30 p.m. EST and to 225 countries around the world.
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Sandra Maler)