From “12 Year a Slave” and “Gravity” to “Captain Phillips” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” many of 2013’s best movies were all about survival.
On Sunday night, on the Ellen DeGeneres-hosted Oscars telecast, those four contenders, as well as five more entries, will be facing off in one final battle as they duke it out for the Best Picture Academy Award.
The field is littered with upset threats. Steve McQueen’s acclaimed “12 Years a Slave” and Alfonso Cuaron’s lost-in-space thriller “Gravity” are still the frontrunners, but the surprise 10 nominations garnered by “American Hustle” instantly turned that true-crime dramedy about an infamous FBI sting into a major contender.
“Hustle” has been hustling ever since it opened in December. The film not only became a surprise box office hit, but it shocked many industry insiders by landing nominations in all four acting categories, including Philly’s Bradley Cooper as Best Supporting Actor, Christian Bale as Best Actor, Amy Adams as Best Actress, and Jennifer Lawrence as Best Supporting Actress. It’s also nominated in the Director, Costume, Editing, Production Design, and Original Screenplay categories.
With the exception of Best Actress frontrunner Cate Blanchett, the other three actors likely to take home the top prizes are all first-timers, including “12 Years a Slave’s” Lupita Nyong’o and Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto from “Dallas Buyers Club.”
If that wasn’t exciting enough, there’s potential Oscar history to be made that night. If “Nebraska’s” wonderful June Squibb, 84, wins, she’ll be the oldest performer to capture the Golden Boy. But if her Best Supporting Actress competitor Jennifer Lawrence triumphs, she’ll be the first actress to pick up back-to-back Oscars since Katharine Hepburn managed the rare feat back the 1960s.
And if Steve McQueen takes home the Best Director prize, he’ll be the first African-American to win in a category in which, shockingly, only two other black filmmakers (John Singleton, Lee Daniels) have been nominated.
In recent years, Academy voters have enjoyed spreading the wealth around. It’s a tradition that will continue March 2 as actors and filmmakers representing “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity,” “Blue Jasmine,” and “Dallas Buyers Club” will all likely go home with Oscar.
The nominees: “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Will win: “12 Years a Slave”
Should win: “12 Years a Slave”
The rationale: Call it a dead heat between three contenders: “American Hustle,” which has some of the whirligig brilliance of “Goodfellas;” “Gravity,” arguably the most emotional sci-fi film ever made; and “12 Years a Slave,” the devastating saga of a free black man who’s kidnapped and sold into slavery. All three are worthy of a win, but the edge goes to “12 Years a Slave,” which, in addition to being the most deserving of the bunch, has all the trappings of an Oscar favorite. It’s based on a true story. It tackles an important theme. And it is beautifully acted. “Gravity” was a bigger hit ($262 million) and “Hustle” is a lot sexier than any of the other nominees, but the smart money goes on “12 Years a Slave.”
The nominees: Christian Bale in “American Hustle,” Bruce Dern in “Nebraska,” Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave,” and Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club”
Will win: McConaughey
Should win: McConaughey
The rationale: Cynics might say that McConaughey is the favorite simply because he was willing to undergo a severe physical transformation to play real-life homophobe-turned-AIDS crusader Ron Woodroff. Oscar voters, after all, love actors who suffer for their art. But McConaughey is likely to triumph not only for his willingness to drop 40 pounds, but also because he nails every nuance of a man fighting for his life.
The nominees: Amy Adams in “American Hustle,” Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine,” Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” Judi Dench in “Philomena,” and Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County”
Will win: Blanchett
Should win: Blanchett
The rationale: As the hopelessly deluded wife of a Bernie Madoff-esque swindler in “Blue Jasmine,” Blanchett somehow manages to make a snooty, greedy woman sympathetic. If that’s not worth an Oscar, what is? So towering is Blanchett’s performance that she’s won every pre-Oscars award that matters. But that was before the Dylan Farrow versus Woody Allen scandal began dominating the headlines. Also, Blanchett, Streep, Dench, and Bullock all have Oscars, which could set the stage for Adams to pull an upset. As a con artist with a shaky English accent and a penchant for plunging necklines, Adams was a revelation. Could this be her year? It’s a possibility. But Blanchett still looks like the one to beat.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
The nominees: Barkhad Abdi in “Captain Phillips,” Bradley Cooper in “American Hustle,” Michael Fassbender in “12 Years a Slave,” Jonah Hill in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club”
Will win: Leto
Should win: Leto
The rationale: Leto is a lock thanks to his heartbreaking turn as Rayon, an HIV-positive transgender woman in “Dallas Buyers Club,” which was co-written by Plymouth Meeting’s Craig Borten. There’s a delicacy about Leto’s performance that beautifully captures Rayon’s warmth, humor, and persuasiveness. If Leto loses this award, it will probably be to Fassbender, who plays a monstrous plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave.” An upset seems unlikely, though, given the acclaim Leto’s performance has already garnered.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
The nominees: Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine,” Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle,” Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave,” Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County,” and June Squibb in “Nebraska”
Will win: Nyong’o
Should win: Hawkins
The rationale: This is among the night’s tightest races. Why? Because it’s almost impossible to predict if Lawrence or Nyong’o will take home the top prize. As Christian Bale’s dangerously unpredictable wife in “American Hustle,” Lawrence steals every scene she’s in. But she won the Best Actress statue last year for “Silver Linings Playbook.” Some Academy voters might think she’s too young at 23 to repeat. Playing the abused slave Patsy in “12 Years a Slave,” Kenya’s Nyong’o delivered a raw, unforgettable performance. She also netted the Screen Actors Guild Award in this category, which indicates she has her fellow actors on her side. Hawkins is the longest of long shots, but as Blanchett’s younger sister in “Blue Jasmine,” she breaks your heart with a performances that’s funny, authentic and, when you least expect it, incredibly touching.
The nominees: Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity,” Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave,” Alexander Payne for “Nebraska,” David O. Russell for “American Hustle,” and Martin Scorsese for “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Will win: Cuaron
Should win: Payne
The rationale: Cuaron is in the lead thanks to co-writing and directing a movie that was 2013’s most purely cinematic. If Cuaron fails to conquer, then McQueen will win for his flawless recreation of the pre-Civil War South in “12 Years a Slave.” While Payne doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning, he managed to make the black-and-white charmer “Nebraska” a joy to behold. This delicate father-son story starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte isn’t as flashy as the other nominees, but it’s likely to stand the test of time. That’s a testament to Payne, who never makes a false move.
BEST ANIMATED FILM
The nominees: “The Croods,” “Despicable Me 2,” “Ernest & Celestine,” “Frozen,” and “The Wind Rises”
Will win: “Frozen”
Should win: “Frozen”
The rationale: With Pixar surprisingly out of the running, look for Disney’s “Frozen” to ice the competition. With outstanding voice work from Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, and Josh Gad, “Frozen” is a delightful update on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” Everything works in this toon, from the gorgeous animation to the smart songs by “Book of Mormon’s” Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez to the snappy humor that guarantees you leave the theater giggling.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The nominees: “The Broken Circle Breakdown” (Belgium), “The Great Beauty” (Italy), “The Hunt” (Denmark), “The Missing Picture” (Cambodia), and “Omar” (Palestine)
Will win: “The Great Beauty”
Should win: “The Hunt”
The rationale: Paolo Sorrentino’s “Great Beauty” is the frontrunner. Critics have lavished praise on the nearly plot-less saga of an author (Toni Servillo) struggling with writer’s block, comparing the visual feast of a film to Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” It’s a wonderful movie, but “The Hunt” is even better. The magnificent Mads Mikkelsen stars as a kindly kindergarten teacher who is unjustly accused of sexual abuse. It’s a tragic masterpiece that’s impossible to get out of your head.
The nominees: “The Act of Killing,” “Cutie and the Boxer,” “Dirty Wars,” “The Square,” and “20 Feet from Stardom”
Will win: “The Act of Killing”
Should win: “20 Feet from Stardom”
The rationale: Talk about comparing apples and oranges. “The Act of Killing” is a hardcore examination of genocide, while “20 Feet from Stardom” seeks to shine a spotlight on background singers like Darlene Love who never lost their love of music despite going through hard times. While “Act of Killing” – and the other timely docs like “Dirty Wars” (about drone warfare) and “The Square” (about the Egyptian revolt) – are worth seeing, “20 Feet” is, hands down, the most soulful movie of the bunch.