A great year for film sometimes makes for a dull Oscars race, and this is looking like one of those times. There will doubtless be a few upsets Sunday night, some dark-horse winners and some show ponies that come up lame. But heading into the weekend there are clear frontrunners in most of the major categories. The Academy did a pretty solid job with the nominees—particularly in contrast with last year, when it offered a borderline-nonsensical slate for Best Director and caved to the (dubious) political pushback against Zero Dark Thirty, easily the year’s most accomplished film. This time out, a few movies got more Oscar love than they deserved (Nebraska, Philomena, August: Osage County), and a few got less (All Is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis, Saving Mr. Banks, Her). But in a field as crowded as this year’s there were a lot of tough choices to make, and the Academy’s were mostly defensible. As will be evident from my recommendations below, in many cases there were simply too many worthy nominees to squeeze in.
Here I should probably insert my annual caveat that a few years back I made an (as I then thought) extremely persuasive but (as everyone now knows) utterly discredited case for why Avatar would inevitably beat The Hurt Locker. So if you’re looking to score a little cash in your friendly Oscar pool, there may be better places to find advice. (That said, in the event you do come out ahead on the basis of my predictions, you may send any courtesies to me care of The Atlantic.) A final note: As is too often the case, I was not able to see enough documentaries or foreign-language films to feel comfortable second-guessing the Academy’s choices, so on those fronts you’ll have to look elsewhere. On to the categories.
Nominees: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street
12 Years a Slave has been the frontrunner pretty much from the moment it opened. It’s epic, it’s weighty—if anything, arguably a little too weighty for Academy tastes—and it earned a range of acting and technical nominations as well. In the early going, Gravity seemed to be its strongest competitor; later on, American Hustle seemed on the verge of an Argo-like dark-horse sprint. But now we seem to be back to the status quo of (probably) 12 Years a Slave, (possibly) Gravity, (probably not) American Hustle, and (very hard to envision) anything else. (If you really, really want to go out on a limb, you might give Dallas Buyers Club a tiny chance.) Which is probably as it should be. I would have liked it if Her, my favorite film of the year, had at least entered the conversation, but I’ll settle for its nomination. 12 Years a Slave is an extremely worthy—and, I think, very likely—winner.
What will win: 12 Years a Slave
What ought to win: 12 Years a Slave
What was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Nebraska, Philomena
What wasn’t nominated but should have been: All Is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis, Rush
Nominees: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
If you’re looking for a year to bet for a Best Picture / Best Director split, this is the one. As likely as it is that the producers of 12 Years a Slave take home the former statuette, it’s more likely still that Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron will be carrying the latter. I love Cuaron, but I think this is a case of a director being too closely affiliated with his movie’s visual strengths—and let’s be clear, on this front it’s a masterpiece—and not closely enough affiliated with its shortcomings elsewhere: the good (but not great) performances, the mediocre dialogue (from a screenplay co-written by Cuaron), etc. A directing award is not the same as a cinematography award (about which more shortly). The director has to make all the elements work. And, once you look past the visuals, Gravity falls back to Earth pretty quickly. Not a terrible choice, by any means—assuming it is the choice—but if it were me, I’d give the nod to 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen, whose film is a more ambitious undertaking that succeeds on many more levels.
Who will win: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Who ought to win: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), Spike Jonze (Her)
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)
Another category, another clear favorite (and rightly so, in my book) in McConaughey. His performance in Dallas Buyers Club was one in a recent stretch of stunners, including Mud (a very good film that might have gotten some Oscar love itself if it’d come out later in the year), The Wolf of Wall Street, and HBO’s True Detective. (If, as seems altogether plausible, McConaughey picks up an Emmy for his role as Rust Cohle, he’d be just the second performer to win an Oscar and Emmy in the same year. The first? Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets and Mad About You in 1998.) It’s hard to remember that only a few years ago McConaughey was most famous for starring in second-tier romantic comedies. The leading upset contenders here are Ejiofor and DiCaprio, with the former seeming to have faded a bit and the latter getting more buzz of late. The Academy loves to coronate its big stars, and DiCaprio hasn’t won in three previous tries, so if you’re looking for an upset, this may be the place for it. As a side note, this was an almost impossibly difficult category to crack this year, with at least four other strongly nomination-worthy performances not making the cut—notably (for me at least), Joaquin Phoenix’s wonderfully understated performance in Her.
Who will win: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Who ought to win: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Joaquin Phoenix (Her), Robert Redford (All Is Lost) …
Nominees: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
This award has been Blanchett’s to lose all year. Here, again, I’m not a huge fan: She was very good in a showy role, but she could have used a director who reined her in more tightly on occasion, something the ever-more-directorially-negligent Woody Allen declined to do. If Blanchett somehow loses, however, it’s less likely to be on the merits than as a result of the public re-litigation of Dylan Farrow’s charges of sexual abuse against Allen. And honestly, if the Academy is going to hold that against Blanchett, they should probably get into another business altogether. If she does lose, odds are that it will be either to Adams or Bullock. The real shame is that the woman who most deserves the award—Brie Larson, for her magnificent turn in Short Term 12—isn’t even on the ballot.
Bonus conspiracy theory that isn’t true (but it’s fun to imagine it might be): that Streep deliberately sabotaged Emma Thompson with the speech she gave honoring her friend at National Board of Review. In it, Streep lambasted Walt Disney as a sexist and anti-Semite. Lo and behold: Thompson—who was expected to be nominated for Best Actress for her performance as P.L. Travers in the Disney-made, Disney-themed Saving Mr. Banks—didn’t get a nod, enabling Streep, who wasn’t expected to be nominated, to sneak in. Like I said: It’d be fun if it were true. (Now, if Streep somehow manages to take a strong public stand against the horrors of child sexual predation, and then beats out Blanchett on Sunday, we may have to reevaluate….)
Who will win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Who ought to win: Brie Larson (Short Term 12); or among the nominees, Blanchett
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Meryl Streep (August Osage County)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: Brie Larson, Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)
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)
Another category that’s seemed sewn-up from the start—for Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club—and another I wish weren’t. Leto is entirely persuasive as the drug-addicted transgender woman Rayon, but his performance felt somehow familiar. It may be that this is simply another category of performance we can expect the Academy to consistently over-award (remember Kiss of the Spider Woman?), along with glamorous women in unglamorous roles, actors playing intellectually disabled characters, and anyone starring in a Holocaust movie. Here again, the performer I’d like to see win—Daniel Brühl for his utterly original turn in Ron Howard’s underrated Rush—wasn’t even nominated. (For consolation, I look to Jonah Hill’s Wolf of Wall Street nomination.) If someone pulls an upset, it will likely be Fassbender or maybe Abdi. But it’s a long shot.
Who will win: Jared Leto
Who ought to win: Daniel Brühl (Rush); or among the nominees, Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: Daniel Brühl
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)
At last, a genuinely competitive category! Or at least it seemed so until recently. Lawrence (for American Hustle) and Nyong’o (for 12 Years a Slave) are both worthy nominees and almost equally plausible winners, although Nyong’o appears to have gradually emerged as the favorite. This is one of those cases for amateur Academy psychologists. Will the voters’ demonstrated fondness for Lawrence prevail? Or will the fact that she just won an Oscar last year (at the tender age of 22), combined with Nyong’o’s own emergence as an It girl and fashion-cover regular be enough to give Nyong’o the win? This is almost as close to a toss up as it gets this year, with very, very long odds against any of the other three nominees.
Who will win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Who ought to win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Original Screenplay
Nominees: Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (Dallas Buyers Club), Spike Jonze (Her), Bob Nelson (Nebraska), Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Am I trying to work a little ham-fisted voodoo by picking American Hustle here? Yes I am. This race looks closer even than Supporting Actress, with odds-makers having Her as a very, very narrow favorite—the film’s only real shot for a major win. But the Academy never fails to infuriate me at least once per awards ceremony, and this is the obvious place for them to do it this year. So, American Hustle it is. This way I’m either right about how terribly wrong the voters are, or wrong about how terribly right. If you want to pick outside of the top two, Dallas Buyers Club might have a shot here, but it’s probably a reach.
Who will win: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Who ought to win: Spike Jonze (Her)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Bob Nelson (Nebraska)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost), Destin Cretton (Short Term 12)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (Philomena); Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight); Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Terence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street)
A relatively weak category this year, especially in contrast to its sibling award. John Ridley’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s harrowing 1853 memoir 12 Years a Slave is the clear but not overwhelming favorite. Philomena and Before Midnight are the most probable dark horses, but if one were inclined to go further out on a limb, Terence Winter’s script for The Wolf of Wall Street was a scorcher.
Who will win: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Who ought to win: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Actually, a pretty solid list in a slim year for adaptations
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: One could make the case for Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), but it’s a close call
Nominees: Roger Deakins (Prisoners), Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis), Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster), Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska)
In an awards ceremony full of heavy favorites, Gravity’s Lubezki (full name: Emmanuel Lubezki Morgenstern) may be the heaviest of all. And why not? In addition to his regular collaborations with Cuaron, he’s shot Terrence Malick’s last three films (and two upcoming ones). And with Gravity, he engineered arguably the greatest visual-effects game-changer since Titanic in 1997. (For some idea of what this entailed, see this Q&A from TheCredits.org.) He’s been nominated five times before without winning, but that streak is all but certain to be broken on Sunday. Alas, a still longer one will continue: Among Lubezki’s co-nominees is the great Roger Deakins (for Prisoners) who now has 11 nominations without a win—at least, that is, barring the upset of the night. Deakins’s next film is the Angelina-Jolie-directed Unbroken, scripted by Deakins’s frequent partners Joel and Ethan Coen. Don’t be surprised to see him back for a 12th bite at the apple next year.
Who will win: Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity)
Who ought to win: Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave)
Best Animated Feature
Nominees: The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises
Notice anything missing from the nominees? For just the second time since the category was introduced in 2002, Pixar’s annual offering—Monsters University, in this case—did not receive a nomination. Worse still, the previous occasion was Cars 2, a scant two years ago. Yes, Brave did win the award in the intervening year, but the era of Pixar Can Do No Wrong is now clearly visible in the rear-view mirror. Speaking as someone who found the studio’s late-2000s run of WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 among the most impressive cinematic—and I don’t merely mean animated—streaks of all time, I have high hopes for a return to form in 2015 with the long-in-the-works Inside Out by Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up). Of course, top Pixar guru John Lasseter can only win by losing this year, as he is also the chief creative officer for Walt Disney Animation Studios, which produced Frozen. That movie was a success by pretty much any available metric: box office (an eye-popping $980 million worldwide), critical appraisal (89 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes), and the countless millions of American children (two of whom reside in my house) who spent weeks singing the movie’s anthem, “Let It Go”—a likely shoo-in for Best Song—from the moment they got up in the morning to the moment they were asleep at night.
What will win: Frozen
What ought to win: Frozen
What wasn’t nominated and will hopefully light a fire under someone’s ass: Monsters University