Oscar Beat: Breaking Down This Year’s Toughest Races

     February 15, 2014


The Academy Awards ceremony is now only a few weeks away, and though it’s been a month since the nominations were announced, there are still a number of races that are shaping up to be very, very close.  It’s been clear since the fall festival circuit that this was going to be a tough year, but it really is shaping up to be one of the most competitive Best Picture races in history.  Moreover, there’s been plenty of nastiness behind-the-scenes from those trying to slow down the momentum of one film or another: Gravity is inaccurate!” “The Wolf of Wall Street” condones despicable behavior! “12 Years a Slave” is too hard to watch!

We’ve seen frontrunners rise and fall over the past few months in a number of categories, and with the official ceremony within arms reach, now seems like a good time to take a look at the toughest races.  There’s plenty of competition to thumb through, so hit the jump to check out this latest installment of Oscar Beat.

Best Picture 

american-hustle-bale-adams-cooperAs I said, this year is shaping up to be one of the closest Best Picture races in recent memory.  One of the more solid predictors of Best Picture is to look at the guilds, but that doesn’t help much in whittling it down from the top three.  The Screen Actors Guild (the actors branch is the largest voting body in the Academy) gave top honors to American Hustle, the Directors Guild awarded its trophy to Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity, and for the first time ever, the Producers Guild Award resulted in a tie between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.

Because of the Academy’s preferential voting system, it is possible that a film other than American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, or Gravity could win the big trophy, but it’s still highly unlikely.  Barring a major shocker in which a “well-liked by all” film like Philomena or Dallas Buyers Club sneaks in, I’m fairly confident in saying the Best Picture winner will be either American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, or Gravity.  But which one?

As we’ve seen over the past few years of the expanded nomination field and preferential voting system, the Academy has a tendency to lean towards awarding movies that almost everyone can agree on.  The Artist, The King’s Speech, Argo—these are all pretty non-controversial films that appealed to the Academy at large.  American Hustle would, at first glance, appear to be the more “consensus-friendly” choice out of the three given its lighter subject matter compared to Gravity or 12 Years, but there is a sizeable amount of people who find David O. Russell’s film to be shallow despite its entertainment value.  Moreover, the PGA Award has predicted the Best Picture winner for the past six years in a row, so I’m inclined to think that this year’s Best Picture winner will be either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave.

gravity-sandra-bullockBoth films have been the subject of negative campaigns, with some coming after Gravity for its “simple story” and scientific inaccuracy and others finding 12 Years a Slave’s depiction of brutality difficult to stomach or the film as a whole less relevant to contemporary issues.  As the “Important” film, 12 Years a Slave is the bigger target, and I think it’s harder to build a consensus around Steve McQueen’s picture than it is for Gravity—though not impossible.  Again, it’s virtually neck-and-neck between these two with American Hustle as a strong runner-up, so Best Picture will likely be too close to call all the way up until that envelope is opened.  That said, it feels like Gravity has the slight edge when it comes to being a film that has wide appeal to the Academy as a whole.

Advantage: Gravity

Biggest Threat: 12 Years a Slave 

Best Actor 

dallas-buyers-club-matthew-mcconaugheyMan, what a race this category has been.  Virtually any one of the five nominees has a shot at winning the Oscar, but the frontrunner right now seems to be Matthew McConaughey.  He faces strong competition, but McConaughey has been building for months now and he doesn’t even have to work to keep himself at the forefront of voters’ minds: he’s turning in a phenomenal performance on a weekly basis on HBO’s True Detective.  The actor currently has the most precursor Best Actor awards, including the Screen Actors Guild Trophy, but his biggest threat is basically everyone else.  Jack Nicholson has been lobbying hard behind the scenes for Bruce Dern’s work in Nebraska, Chiwetel Ejiofor is undoubtedly astounding in 12 Years a Slave and was the early frontrunner for the trophy, and Leonardo DiCaprio is gunning for his first-ever win with quite possibly the best performance of his career.  Christian Bale is likely towards the back of the pack since his American Hustle turn has been a tad polarizing—some say he’s brilliantly understated, while others say he’s overshadowed by his costars—but he’s no doubt still a viable candidate.

Most pundits have McConaughey in the lead with Ejiofor in second place, but momentum has been building for DiCaprio recently.  The actor is having a bit of a late surge and he and the Wolf team have been out in full force at numerous press events, Q&As, and awards ceremonies to drum up support for the film.  After five nominations, could this finally be his year?  It’s possible, but McConaughey still feels like the favorite.  The guy had an absolutely banner year with stellar turns in Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street in addition to Dallas Buyers Club, and now he’s got True Detective to top it all off.  The Oscars are very much “of-the-moment” awards and if anybody’s having a moment right now, it’s McConaughey.

Advantage: Matthew McConaughey

Biggest Threat: Leonardo DiCaprio 

Best Director

12-years-a-slave-steve-mcqueen-set-photoThough it’s not as crowded as Best Picture, the Best Director race has two firm frontrunners that have very strong shots at winning: Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity and Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave.  The former has been taking most of the precursor awards, but seeing as how Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are neck-and-neck for Best Picture, some are predicting a split between Picture and Director—the problem is, no one can come to a consensus as to which film gets which trophy.  Gravity is a technical masterpiece that would not exist if it weren’t for Cuaron’s ambitious vision, and the emotional impact of 12 Years a Slave is due in large part to McQueen’s unflinching portrait of one of America’s greatest atrocities.  These are incredibly different films with incredibly different directorial approaches, but both are fantastic displays of the filmmaker’s talent and execution.

Cuaron seems to be the slight favorite over McQueen given that Gravity is a film that owes a heavy debt to the filmmaker’s imagination and ingenuity, and Cuaron also has the DGA prize—a solid predictor of Oscar glory.  That being said, McQueen still stands a very strong shot at winning, and there’s also the (very slight) possibility that David O. Russell or Martin Scorsese squeaks out the surprise win.  Much like Best Picture, this one will go down to the wire.

Advantage: Alfonso Cuaron

Biggest Threat: Steve McQueen

Best Supporting Actress 

12-years-a-slave-lupita-nyongoHere’s another seemingly two-person race.  When 12 Years a Slave premiered last fall, the name on everyone’s lips was Lupita Nyong’O.  In her feature film debut, the young actress turns in an absolutely devastating performance, and she’s been a regular on the awards circuit ever since.  Her main competitor, though, is a formidable one: Jennifer Lawrence aka “the most charming person ever.”  Lawrence won the Best Actress trophy last year for Silver Linings Playbook and though her role in David O. Russell’s follow-up American Hustle isn’t as prominent, she steals nearly every scene she’s in.

The Screen Actors Guild awarded its Supporting Actress trophy to Nyong’O and she’s seemingly in the lead at the moment, but Lawrence is a very close second.  Likeability goes a long way with the Academy and if Lawrence hadn’t won last year I’d say she has this year’s trophy in the bag. But Nyong’O’s performance is undeniably stunning and her acceptance speech at the SAG Awards went over very well.  Again, it’s very close so don’t be surprised if you hear either of these actress’ names called when the envelope is opened.

Advantage: Lupita Nyong’O

Biggest Threat: Jennifer Lawrence 

Best Original Screenplay 

her-joaquin-phoenix-3In a year as good as 2013, we knew there’d be no shortage of fantastic screenplays.  The Academy singled out five strong scripts for Original Screenplay (though I’m still bitter about the Inside Llewyn Davis snub), and there are a number of viable candidates for the win.  The early favorite was David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer’s script for American Hustle, which many believed would bring Russell his first Oscar win.  However, the critical darling Her became a late favorite in the awards race and Spike Jonze ended up taking the Writers Guild of America Award for Original Screenplay over Hustle.  Jonze crafted a wholly original and delicate script with a hefty amount of heart, and while Her is also a nominee in a few other categories (including Best Picture), Original Screenplay seems like its best shot at a win.

There’s also Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, which harkens back to some of the darker pictures of Allen’s career as opposed to his lighter fare of late.  He won his fourth Oscar a few years ago for scripting Midnight in Paris, and while Blue Jasmine is certainly an impressive piece of work, the recent controversy surrounding Allen’s personal life has likely siphoned off the votes needed for Blue Jasmine to take the win.  As Dallas Buyers Club was the surprise nominee here it will likely have to be happy with a nomination, but there’s also the possibility that Bob Nelson could take the win for the understated Nebraska—a hit with older voters.

american-hustle-christian-bale-amy-adamsThe biggest contenders, though, are Her and American Hustle.  The latter scored a great deal of nominations so it’s clear that the Academy is a big fan of Russell’s pic, and that may very well result in a win in this category.  However, some have taken issue with Russell’s extensive rewrite work on the screenplay, and Her has picked up a considerable amount of steam lately.  Though the WGA isn’t an overtly accurate predictor of Oscar glory, Jonze’s film just seems too special to ignore.  Frankly, though, this category is pretty open, and we’ve definitely seen surprises in the past (remember Precious winning over Up in the Air?), so it’s hard to say with certainly which script is the frontrunner.  Nevertheless:

Advantage: Her

Biggest Threat: American Hustle 

There are a few other categories that will be a bit tricky to predict (namely Best Production Design), but the aforementioned ones feel like the toughest as of right now.  The awards season is finally coming to a close, and with that we’ll be bringing you a special Oscar edition of our podcast, The Collision, soon, as well as my official predictions on the Friday before the ceremony.  It certainly has been a fun ride sharing Oscar Beat with you folks over the past few months, and I look forward to doing it again for the next awards cycle.

What other categories do you think are significantly competitive this year?  Who do you think will pull out the win in the aforementioned ones?  Sound off in the comments below.  The Oscars will air on ABC on Sunday, March 2nd.


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