By mid-November last year, the majority of awards contenders were already in the public domain. Only a handful of stragglers - There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, The Great Debaters, Charlie Wilson's War, The Bucket List - remained to be seen by press and Oscar commentators. As it turned out, the season's heaviest hitters - No Country For Old Men, Juno, Michael Clayton and Atonement - were screened at film festivals earlier in the year, namely Cannes, Venice and Toronto.

This year is an entirely different picture. By mid-November, the season's big guns were still under wraps with media and public anticipation reaching fever pitch over the outcome. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, Gran Torino, Valkyrie, Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Seven Pounds, Shanghai and Fox's super-epic Australia were all still sight unseen at time of writing.

The reasons for this end-of-year glut are various, although the fact that only one of those films is distributed by a specialised division (Paramount Vantage is handling Revolutionary Road for DreamWorks) might be a contributing factor. Major studio releasing arms are far less inclined to expose their prized awards contenders at autumn film festivals than their specialised arms, which trade on building word of mouth and critical awareness in advance of release.

Otherwise several of the films - Gran Torino, Revolutionary Road and The Reader being well-documented examples - needed all the post-production time they could muster before being screened. And epic films Valkyrie and Australia are being launched into the marketplace with all the might their respective studios would put behind a summer blockbuster.

So as Screen launches its annual awards coverage, the picture is unclear. Summer spawned a megaton blockbuster in The Dark Knight, which was so roundly admired for its dark audacity that it could be a major awards player. The Dark Knight was a box office record-breaker and possessed the heft and scale to feel awards-worthy.

Wall-E hopes to extend reach

Disney is attempting to lodge in voters' minds that Pixar's Wall-E was sufficiently brilliant to merit consideration in best picture categories as well as best animated feature, a tall order which movies such as Finding Nemo and Ratatouille failed to achieve. But few could argue that Wall-E isn't one of the year's most inspired creative achievements.

Early on in the year at the Berlin film festival, which in 2007 launched the awards path of Marion Cotillard, no fewer than three best actress candidates appeared in the shape of Sally Hawkins, star of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, Kristin Scott Thomas, giving her boldest performance in years in Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long and Penelope Cruz, proving that she has mastered acting in English in Isabel Coixet's Elegy.

The Cannes film festival was chosen by Clint Eastwood and Universal Pictures as the launchpad for Changeling, the first of two Eastwood movies this year, which won strong reviews and launched Angelina Jolie into the best actress race. Reviews were not so unanimous when the film opened domestically in October, although Jolie's chances are still high. Cannes also saw Steven Soderbergh's Che - which won Benicio Del Toro the festival's best actor prize - and Woody Allen's exuberant Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which immediately won plaudits for its amusing script and revelatory comic supporting performance by Penelope Cruz.

Venice saw world premieres for The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky's independently financed drama featuring a tour-de-force performance from Mickey Rourke, and Jonathan Demme's verite ensemble piece Rachel Getting Married which won special praise for Anne Hathaway's performance as a recovering addict.

Toronto world premieres

Toronto saw world premieres for a slew of smaller movies: Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Secret Life Of Bees, Saul Dibb's The Duchess and Ed Harris' Appaloosa. Perhaps most striking of all was the emergence of Danny Boyle's exhilarating Mumbai-set crowd-pleaser Slumdog Millionaire which walked off with the audience prize, a dedicated following of fans and some serious Oscar buzz.

The London film festival was the kickoff for Frost/Nixon in October. Ron Howard's film of Peter Morgan's stage sensation features original stage-cast members Michael Sheen and Frank Langella and generated an enthusiastic response which could lodge the film firmly in the race.

AFI Fest in Los Angeles was chosen as the launchpad for another stage adaptation, John Patrick Shanley's film of his Tony-winner Doubt, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Talk immediately focused on Streep's performance as an awards contender. Also coming out at AFI were Defiance, Ed Zwick's Second World War drama with Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, and Joel Hopkins' Last Chance Harvey, a showcase for the acting of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.

Other films chose to bypass the festival route. Miramax/Wdsmpi opened Mark Herman's The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas straight onto screens in its native UK, while Focus Features' well-reviewed Milk, featuring Sean Penn and James Franco, enjoyed a glittering world premiere at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

One of the year's most beloved films was also one of its biggest box-office surprises. Overture Films released Tom McCarthy's The Visitor in April and took over $9m with the film which had first premiered at Toronto in 2007. With a performance by Richard Jenkins that is gaining ground in awards terms, The Visitor is the year's little film that could.