Hollywood has a lot to smile about going into this year’s Academy Awards.
The industry is coming off of a year of box-office records — raking in $10.9 billion in 2013, a notch up from the previous year’s record-busting haul of $10.8 billion. On top of that, audiences and critics seem to agree that there was a bumper crop of strong films last year. From the family-friendly, sing-along fun of Disney’s Frozen to the decidedly ribald bro-sploitation that is Martin Scorsese’s electric The Wolf of Wall Street, there seemed to be something for everyone.
Appropriately, no one movie is expected to dominate Sunday night. Just as last year’s Best Picture, Argo, had to share the top spots with Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained and Les Miserables, it’s doubtful that the searing 12 Years a Slave, the soaring Gravity or the playful American Hustle — the films that have the most Oscar mojo at the moment — will leave with all the golden statues.
The Golden Globes split among 12 Years a Slave for drama, American Hustle for comedy and Gravity’s Alfonso Cuarón for director. The Directors Guild gave its top prize to Cuarón, while the Producers Guild, for the first time in its history, had a tie between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. The Screen Actors Guild decided to go with American Hustle for a cast performance in a motion picture. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, England’s BAFTA Awards named 12 Years a Slave as best film, Gravity (an English co-production) as best British film and Cuarón as best director.
With that, here are our predictions for the Oscars’ major categories. Remember, the only sure thing seems to be that there are no sure things.
What’s up: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street
What’s happening: With the expansion of the number of nominees from five to as many as 10, academy voters can now honor indie, arthouse cinema even if most of those movies — like Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild last year — don’t stand a chance of nabbing the big prize. Her, Nebraska and Philomena fall into that category this year. However, there’s a good chance that 12 Years a Slave will take the top spot. Look at it from the average academy member’s point of view: They get to pat themselves on the back for honoring an important film that’s based on a relatively unknown true story about a free black man in 19th-century New York who’s kidnapped and dragooned into Southern bondage.
While there are some critics who are not on board the 12 Years a Slave love train, few doubt its gravitas.
By comparison, a technical marvel like Gravity, about an astronaut stranded in space, has some naysayers, like The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who called it “deadly boring” and absent of ideas.
I’d argue that Gravity has a sense of spirituality that makes it more than just a special-effects reel. Even American Hustle, through the lens of humor, has something cogent to say about American politics. I’d love to see The Wolf of Wall Street — Scorsese’s best film in years — get the Best Picture honor, but it’s doubtful that the academy would award a film that’s so morally ambiguous and profane. And, in a weaker year, the likes of the compelling Somali pirate story Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, and the uneven AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey, might have a chance. Not this year.
None of those films has the brutal power of 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen’s emotionally draining restaging of history.
That said, if the academy really wanted to wrestle with the subject of current racial realities, it might have also nominated Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s impressive feature about a California cop killing an unarmed man (also a true story) that was shut out of the nominations.
What should win: 12 Years a Slave
What will win: 12 Years a Slave
Who’s up: Alfonso Cuarón ( Gravity), Steve McQueen ( 12 Years a Slave), Alexander Payne ( Nebraska), David O. Russell ( American Hustle), Martin Scorsese ( The Wolf of Wall Street)
What’s happening: This one looks like it’s Cuarón’s to lose. The sheer technical feat of this lost-in-space saga — which actually makes good use of 3-D technology, a very rare thing — is the kind of accomplishment that should impress enough voters to put Cuarón over the top. But McQueen, who has a background as a visual artist, has also crafted a film that stitches visuals, story and music into a movie that may be less jaw-dropping but is equally beautiful in its horrific way. If McQueen wins, he will be the first black director given the honor. Russell could sneak in here because American Hustle is so well-liked by actors, but Scorsese and Payne will be staying in their seats on Oscar night.
Who should win: Steve McQueen
Who will win: Alfonso Cuarón
Who’s up: 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)
What’s happening: Dern gave an endearing performance as an elderly man on a futile quest. Bale put on weight and a hairpiece. And Ejiofor delivered an indelible portrayal of a man waking up in a nightmare. They’ve all rightfully garnered raves. But McConaughey — who dropped nearly 40 pounds to play the late real-life Dallas AIDS patient Ron Woodroof — seems to be on an easy cruise to victory. The academy loves physical transformations (see Charlize Theron, who won the 2004 actress Oscar for Monster), and McConaughey does deliver a strong performance. But, for me, the knockout is DiCaprio, who gives a limber, athletic performance as conniving, coked-up Wall Street warlord Jordan Belfort that is at once funny and frightening. Scorsese offers DiCaprio a sweeping showcase and he takes full advantage of it.
Who should win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Who will win: Matthew McConaughey
Who’s up: Amy Adams ( American Hustle), Cate Blanchett ( Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock ( Gravity), Judi Dench ( Philomena), Meryl Streep ( August: Osage County)
What’s happening: On the surface, this seems to be a tight race. Dench and Streep are icons, of course. Bullock carries the entire weight of Gravity on her shoulders; she’s in just about every shot. And Adams has been celebrated for her colorful characterization as Hustle’s unlikely con artist. But it’s Blanchett, riveting as a woman on the edge of a breakdown, who has been getting all the gold. She won the BAFTA, the Golden Globe and the SAG Award for best actress. Despite some saying the controversy surrounding director Woody Allen’s alleged child abuse might have made some voters wary of giving Blue Jasmine any praise, expect Blanchett’s run of the board to continue.
Who should win: Cate Blanchett
Who will win: Cate Blanchett
Best Supporting Actress
Who’s up: Sally Hawkins ( Blue Jasmine), Jennifer Lawrence ( American Hustle), Lupita Nyong’o ( 12 Years a Slave), Julia Roberts ( August: Osage County), June Squibb ( Nebraska)
What’s happening: Hollywood just loves Lawrence, which is why she’ll probably go home with another Oscar. She won Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook. Certainly, she gives a strong performance as the no-nonsense wife of Bale’s two-timing character, but the actress I found most endearing was Squibb as the foul-mouthed but good-hearted wife who provided the common sense to the obstinance of Dern’s character. Runner up would be Nyong’o, who plays the much-abused slave Patsey.
Who should win: June Squibb
Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence
Best Supporting Actor
Who’s up: 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)
Going with the theory that the academy loves transformation, Leto — playing Ron Woodroof’s best friend and a transvestite — probably will take this category. He does inhabit the role with a sense of smarts and grace without stumbling into cliche. He won the SAG Award in this category, though it’s possible he might find his way blocked by Cooper (an industry favorite) or Abdi, whose debut acting turn as a steely-eyed Somali pirate is remarkable and won him the BAFTA supporting actor category. As harrowing as Fassbender’s take as a cruel slave owner is and as entertaining as Hill’s no-holds-barred performance as DiCaprio’s assistant is, they’re bringing up the rear in a very solid pack.
Who should win: Barkhad Abdi
Who will win: Jared Leto
THE 86TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS
• 6 p.m. Sunday
• WFAA/Channel 8