The tightest race in years comes down to “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” — and it's not easy to figure out who has the edge
When it comes to Oscar predictions, some years are easier than others. This one isn’t easy.
In fact, with three films going into Oscar weekend with a legitimate chance to win, this looks like the most wide-open Oscars since 2000, when “Gladiator,” “Traffic” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” battled to the end. The first of those won five Osars, including Best Picture; the second won four, including Best Director; and the third won four, including Best Foreign Language Film.
I don’t think the loot will be spread as evenly this year – “Gravity” should handily be the night’s biggest winner in terms of numbers – but the biggest single race, Best Picture, is maddeningly close. And the main Hollywood guilds, which usually anoint a clear frontrunner, did something they’d never before done, giving the top five awards to five different films. (“Gravity” won the Directors Guild and tied at the Producers Guild, “American Hustle” won the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award, “Captain Phillips” and “Her” won the Writers Guild’s adapted and original prizes, and “12 Years a Slave” tied for the PGA.)
You can get hopelessly confused trying to read the tea leaves this year, but it’s time to stop dithering and go on the record. I’ve also indicated who would get my vote in each category – and while the “Will Win/Should Win” dichotomy is an irresistible label, these are really just my favorites. In matters of awards, as Clint Eastwood once said in “Unforgiven,” a movie that won lots of ‘em, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
Nominees: “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Will win: Honestly? I don’t know. Although “American Hustle” has the potential to ride its popularity with the Actors Branch all the way to victory, I’m pretty sure this race will come down to “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave.”
It’s hard to ignore the way “Slave” was named best picture at the Golden Globes and BAFTA even though it lost in most other categories at both of those shows. It’s got import and weight and history on its side … but did a chunk of Academy voters never watch it because they thought it was too tough? In a tight race, even a small number of recalcitrant voters could be crucial.
“Gravity,” meanwhile, has made the most money and is going to win the most Oscars on Sunday … but since it only tied with “Slave” at the Producers Guild, a group that you'd expect to go for the blockbuster, does it have enough support to win? (And why the heck couldn’t the Producers Guild use the easy-to-implement tiebreakers built into the preferential system?)
With Alfonso Cuaron a strong favorite for Best Director, a prediction of anything other than “Gravity” means predicting a picture/director split; not only does history say that’s a foolish prediction to make, there’s no precedent for a split that gives Best Picture to the smaller, tougher, artier movie. I’ve been predicting “Slave” since September, and most of my colleagues still are, but I just have a nagging feeling that the preferential ballot used in best-pic voting will work in favor of “Gravity,” which will eke out a narrow win.
Should win: I won’t complain if any of the frontrunners win—but my second-favorite movie of the year, the fresh and lovely “Her,” is a nominee. (My favorite, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” isn’t.) So if I were an Oscar voter, I’d put it in the No. 1 spot on my ballot, followed by “Nebraska”—though given the way the preferential count works, it’s likely that my vote would eventually fall to “12 Years a Slave,” which I’d rank higher than “Gravity” or “American Hustle.”
Will win: How do you compare the degree of difficulty between an outer-space 3D thriller, a wrenching period drama, an impeccably-calibrated domestic story and two wild seriocomic romps? I’m not sure, but voters have taken notice of the enormous technical challenges faced by Alfonso Cuaron, and made him a winner at the Globes and the DGA. They’ll do it again at the Oscars, whether or not his movie wins Best Picture.
Should win: Cuaron and his crew of wizards did an amazing job, but I’d have to go with the movie I liked better. I’d give this one to Alexander Payne for the deft balancing act he pulls off in turning the slow-paced “Nebraska” into a sparkling blend of tragedy, comedy and heart.
Nominees: Christian Bale, “American Hustle”; Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”; Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Will win: The category once seemed to belong to Chiwetel Ejiofor, and nobody has worked harder this Oscar season than the 77-year-old Bruce Dern. But for the last month, Matthew McConaughey has been on a roll through one awards show after another: Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, SAG …
Leonardo DiCaprio came on strong in the final weeks of the campaign but faltered when he didn’t win BAFTA over a field that didn’t include McConaughey. And McConaughey’s narrative — the laid-back pretty boy turns into a real actor — is so irresistible that voters will be delighted to give him a chance to drawl “alright, alright, alright” from the Dolby stage.
Should win: McConaughey’s transformation is remarkable and Ejiofor is the soul of a movie that will last — but I’d have a hard time not checking the box next to the name of Bruce Dern, who threw away his usual manic mannerisms and delivered a quietly devastating performance.
Nominees: Amy Adams, “American Hustle”; Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”; Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”; Judi Dench, “Philomena”; Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
Will win: One of two locks in the acting categories. Although an Amy Adams upset may be within the realm of possibility, it’s hard to imagine anybody beating Cate Blanchett in this category. All that controversy surrounding her director, Woody Allen, won’t do a thing to keep her from the Dolby stage.
Should win: The undeniable and unstoppable Cate Blanchett.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Nominees: Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”; Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”; Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”; Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Will win: The other acting lock. Jared Leto has won almost everything else, and there’s no reason to think he won’t win this, too.
Should win: Michael Fassbender didn’t campaign – but with a performance this unsettling and haunted, he shouldn’t have had to.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Nominees: Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”; Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”; Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”; Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”; June Squibb, “Nebraska”
Will win: The award will either go to someone we know the Academy loves, Lawrence, or someone they’ve just met, Nyong’o. The category has a history of rewarding newcomers, and Nyong’o is the year’s biggest breakout. But J-Law’s wins at the Globes and BAFTA say that she’ll win the Oscar, too – and in a race this tight, even a small number of voters reluctant to watch “12 Years a Slave” could make the difference. Jennifer Lawrence by the thinnest of margins.
Should win: I love Squibb and Hawkins and think Lawrence makes the most out of every one of her scenes, but Lupita Nyong’o delivered the performance that lingers.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Nominees: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, “American Hustle”; Woody Allen, “Blue Jasmine”; Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, “Dallas Buyers Club”; Spike Jonze, “Her”; Bob Nelson, “Nebraska”
Will win: This is most likely a two-horse race between “American Hustle” and “Her,” and the race should come down to a photo finish. The more adventurous voters will want to give Spike Jonze’s movie something, and the logical place for it is a category that often goes to small movies that don’t win anything else (“Midnight in Paris,” “Juno,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).
But the four acting nominations for “American Hustle” show that it has the support of the Academy’s largest branch – and as Quentin Tarantino’s three screenplay Oscars attest, voters like screenplays with lots of energy and lots of words. A “Her” win wouldn’t be surprising, but I’m guessing that “American Hustle” will take it.
Should win: A relationship movie about a man and his operating system shouldn’t work. “Her” does, beautifully.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Nominees: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, “Before Midnight”; Billy Ray, “Captain Phillips”; Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, “Philomena”; John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave”; Terence Winter, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Will win: If the more-words rule holds in this category as well, you can give it to “The Wolf of Wall Street.” If the body-of-work factor comes into play, “Before Midnight” could stage an upset. But “12 Years a Slave” has the gravitas, the history and the emotional clout.
Should win: While I’d flirt with recognizing the “Before Midnight” team for a trilogy that just kept getting better, in the end I’d go with “12 Years a Slave,” too.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Nominees: “The Croods,” “Despicable Me 2,” “Ernest & Celestine,” “Frozen,” “The Wind Rises”
Will win: Between the box-office grosses and the amateur tribute videos on YouTube, “Frozen” has turned into something of a phenomenon. As hard as “The Croods” and “Despicable Me 2” have campaigned, they’ll be left out in the cold.
Should win: For me, the only question is whether to give it to the decades-spanning Japanese epic “The Wind Rises” or the charming French film “Ernest & Celestine.” History, or heart? History, scope and ambition: “The Wind Rises.”
Will win: The new rules in this category, which mean that every voter got screeners and could cast a ballot without having to see all five movies in a theater, have the potential to do away with the kind of upsets that often happened in years past. Based on what I’ve heard from AMPAS screenings, “Broken Circle Breakdown” will win if the voters watch all five movies—but if they don’t, momentum swings to the better-known “The Hunt” and “The Great Beauty.” I think the passionate admirers of the divisive “The Great Beauty” are enough to give it the victory.
Should win: One of these movies is something you’ve never seen on screen before: a personal account of genocide told in a mixture of archival footage and clay figurines. Wholly singular and deeply moving, “The Missing Picture” would get my vote.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Nominees: “The Act of Killing,” “Cutie and the Boxer,” “Dirty Wars,” “The Square,” “20 Feet From Stardom”
Will win: If voters don’t watch all the screeners, “20 Feet From Stardom” takes the prize because it’s the best known and almost every voter can identify with the stories of those who toil in the shadows. If they do watch everything, they may still go for “20 Feet” – but I also think that the potent and straightforward eye-on-the-ground chronicle of “The Square” is a real contender, and the strange but powerful “The Act of Killing” will have passionate adherents.
For the second year in a row, though, I suspect voters will go for the music movie that makes you feel good over the issue movies that leave you shaken: “20 Feet From Stardom” for the win.
Should win: While “20 Feet From Stardom” is thoroughly enjoyable and has some wonderful footage, it’s a scattered and uneven piece of storytelling. For the Academy to choose it to represent an adventurous and powerful year in docs, on the heels of choosing “Undefeated” and “Searching for Sugar Man” (both of which I liked a lot) the last two years, would show a body of voters who ignore what’s vital about today’s docs because they want movies that make them smile.
For me, this vote would be easy: Nothing else is as harrowing, as disturbing and as memorable as “The Act of Killing.”
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Nominees: “CaveDigger,” “Facing Fear,” “Karama Has No Walls,” “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall”
Will win: Conventional wisdom says “The Lady in Number 6,” about the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor (who died only days ago), has the heart to win in a category where voters always look for hope and redemption. Maybe they’ll ignore the lousy narration that makes it the most amateurish entry — or maybe they’ll opt for “CaveDigger,” a less overtly emotional story but a far more stylish and impressive piece of filmmaking, or “Facing Fear,” which would be more powerful if it wasn’t so dominated by talking heads. “The Lady in Number 6” is a problematic winner, but I guess it’s a winner nonetheless.
Should win: This isn’t one of the stronger doc-shorts lineups of recent years, with each of the nominees having elements that kept me from fully embracing them. I’d vote for the striking character study “CaveDigger.”
Will win: Two of the greatest cinematographers of the era, Emmanuel Lubezki of “Gravity” and Roger Deakins of “Prisoners,” are still looking for their first Oscars. That’s shameful, but both are nominees and one will get it this year. If you look at the last four winners, it’s clear that voters love big, effects-heavy movies that blur the line between photography and visual effects, meaning “Gravity” will join the recent roster that also includes “Life of Pi,” “Hugo,” “Inception” and “Avatar.”
Should win: This is the most high-profile category in which I could vote for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” so I would. Bruno Delbonnel turned the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” into a movie, and the look was perfect.
BEST FILM EDITING
Nominees: “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave”
Will win: “Captain Phillips” scored an upset at the American Cinema Editors’ ACE Eddie Awards, and it could do the same at the Oscars, halting what could otherwise be a “Gravity” sweep of many below-the-line categories. The Best Picture winner comes out on top in this category about half the time, but I suspect this will be one of the years it doesn’t: “Captain Phillips.”
Should win: I think the ACE Eddies got it right when they picked the tense, gripping and masterfully assembled “Captain Phillips.”
Will win: Voters could go one of two ways in production design and costume design. Either they do what they usually do, substituting the word most for best and giving the awards to the most lavish entry (in this case, “Gatsby”) or they give production design to “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity” (whichever one goes on to win Best Picture) and costume design to “American Hustle.” My guess here is “The Great Gatsby,” in which the fabulous furnishings are an essential key to character and story.
Should win: “Her” subtly and spectacularly creates a world of the near future that’s both enticing and alienating, with a vision that carries through buildings, furnishings, hand-held devices and immersive video games.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Nominees: “American Hustle,” “The Grandmaster,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Invisible Woman,” “12 Years a Slave”
Will win: See: Best Production Design. “American Hustle” is a serious threat, but I’ll once again go with “The Great Gatsby.”
Should win: In no other film do clothes make the man (and the woman) quite as dramatically, humorously and deliriously as in “American Hustle.”
BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
Nominees: “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” “The Lone Ranger”
Will win: Will Academy voters be comfortable with the phrase “Academy Award-winning movie ‘Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa?’” Or comfortable voting for a movie whose lead character gets his penis graphically stuck in a soda machine during the opening credits? Somehow, I doubt it. Best Picture nominee “Dallas Buyers Club” should be the irresistible compromise candidate.
Should win: The makeup artists of “Bad Grandpa” didn’t just have to persuade movie audiences that Johnny Knoxville was a 70-year old man, they had to persuade people who were standing next to the guy.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Nominees: “The Book Thief,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Philomena,” “Saving Mr. Banks”
Will win: It’s been more than a decade since this award went to a movie that wasn’t nominated for Best Picture – and unless voters feel obligated to give John Williams his sixth Oscar for “The Book Thief,” the huge role played by the “Gravity” score should make it yet another best-pic contender to win in the category.
Should win: In space, no one can hear you scream – but they can hear the music giving the audience cues that it would otherwise be getting from sound effects. Steven Price’s “Gravity” score did a lot of heavy lifting, and in the process became the category’s most essential and memorable score.
Will win: Once upon a time, “Let It Go” seemed to be a prohibitive frontrunner. But “Happy” has ridden a wave of goodwill and good vibes, U2 have come to Hollywood to turn heads on behalf of “Ordinary Love,” and suddenly we have a real race. While “Happy” has a real shot at an upset, and “Ordinary Love” might too, I think “Let It Go” rides its thousands of amateur YouTube versions to a narrow victory.
Should win: “Happy” is one line repeated two dozen times, with a few breaks thrown in to convince people that it’s more of a song than it really is. “Let It Go” is fine – but like the songs for which Randy Newman has won, its composer has done far sharper, stronger, wittier work. And while I think “The Moon Song” is a real charmer, I’m an old rock ‘n’ roller, and “Ordinary Love” – not a classic U2 song, but one that serves a key role in the movie – gets my vote.
BEST SOUND MIXING
Nominees: “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Lone Survivor”
Will win: Over the last 20 years, films have won both the sound categories about half the time, and in most cases they’re big, loud, dazzling movies: “Inception,” “King Kong,” “The Matrix,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Titanic” … This year, “Gravity” is the kind of big, loud film that seems primed for a sweep.
Should win: In a field full of booms and bangs, I’m most impressed by the way “Inside Llewyn Davis” revealed character in the sound of a crowded nightclub or empty audition room.
BEST SOUND EDITING
Nominees: “All Is Lost,” “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” “Lone Survivor”
Will win: Even if “Gravity” doesn’t sweep both sound categories, it’ll win this one.
Should win: With nothing to work with but the sounds of the sea, the breeze and the breaths of a man struggling to survive, the sound design of “All Is Lost” is a key reason why the film was able to tell its story without dialogue.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Nominees: “Gravity,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” “Iron Man 3,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Star Trek Into Darkness”
Will win: This is probably the biggest slam dunk on the entire ballot. Game-changing Best Picture nominees simply don’t lose in this category – in fact, a Best Picture nominee hasn’t lost to a non-nominee in 42 years, when “Tora! Tora! Tora!” beat “Patton.” As the only best-pic contender on the ballot, and a film whose effects are groundbreaking, “Gravity” can hardly lose.
Should win: The dragon Smaug in “The Hobbit” is astonishing, and the decision in “The Lone Ranger” to do at least half the effects in camera deserves kudos. But they picked the wrong year. “Gravity,” of course.
BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT
Nominees: “Aquel No Era Yo” (“That Wasn’t Me”), “Avant Que de Tout Perdre” (“Just Before Losing Everything”), “Helium,” “Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa?” (“Do I Have To Take Care of Everything?”), “The Voorman Problem”
Will win: Most pundits seem to be predicting “The Voorman Problem” because it’s the only English-language short, it has known actors and it’s funny. But it’s also slight and doesn’t have a big enough payoff. I think the race is between the touching “Helium” and the tense “Just Before Losing Everything,” and I think “Helium” will win.
Should win: “Helium” might be a touch sappy, but it got me.
Will win: Ever since the introduction of the animated-feature category, voters seemed to feel that honoring Pixar or Disney for a short would be tantamount to giving the Yankees a trophy in the Little League World Series. But I think they’re over that, which makes the spectacularly inventive 3D romp “Get a Horse!” a true frontrunner. Its biggest problem is that it loses much of its impact in 2D, which is how most voters probably watched it.
If they don’t respond to the flatter version – or don’t like the idea of a Mickey Mouse cartoon winning in 2013 – then the rich and emotional “Mr. Hublot” could win. But I’ll go with “Get a Horse!,” and a Disney double in the animation categories.
Should win: I love the look and daring minimalism of “Feral,” and “Get a Horse!” was dazzling. But “Mr. Hublot” would get my vote.