Oscar Beat: Best Picture – 12 YEARS A SLAVE, GRAVITY, and Everything In Between

     December 22, 2013


We launched our awards column Oscar Beat earlier this fall, and over the past month or so we’ve been taking an in-depth look at some of the individual Oscar races: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.  With the holidays approaching and the Oscar nominations poised to be announced in just under a month, now feels like a good time to survey the Best Picture category.  The critics continue to weigh in, and while 12 Years a Slave currently leads with the most “Best Film” wins, the results have surprisingly been a bit all over the place as Gravity, Her, and American Hustle received top honors as well.

Hit the jump to read on as I take a look at the current state of the Best Picture race in this edition of Oscar Beat.


12-years-a-slave-michael-fassbender-lupita-nyongo-chiwetel-ejiofor12 Years a Slave

A giant target was painted on the back of director Steve McQueen’s unrelenting and moving portrait of slavery when it first screened to rapturous critical acclaim at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals in September.  It was the early frontrunner and therefore open to smear campaigns, backlash, etc. (see: Zero Dark Thirty, The Social Network).  While the road to December hasn’t been without its troubles, 12 Years a Slave remains a serious frontrunner for Best Picture, and deservingly so.  The majority of critics groups have bestowed it top honors, and it picked up a considerable amount of nominations from the Screen Actors Guild—an important precursor for Oscar.  We’ll have a better idea of the Best Picture landscape once the Producers and Directors Guilds weigh in on January 2nd and 7th, respectively, but for now 12 Years a Slave remains at the lead of an impressive pack. 


The other major frontrunner for Best Picture also emerged in September on the film festival circuit.  It was certainly a long wait for Alfonso Cuaron’s highly anticipated drama, but the filmmaker delivered a genuinely awe-inspiring piece of work that represents movie magic at its very best.  Early predictions were that the critics groups would be split between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, and while the Los Angeles Film Critics singled Gravity out as Best Picture (in a tie with Her), it hasn’t been as prominent a winner on the critics award circuit as 12 Years.  That being said, the high level of craft on display in the film will no doubt appeal to the Academy at large, likely resulting in an impressive number of Oscar nominations.  Whether it can pull off the Best Picture win is still unclear, but it’s still a serious contender. 

american-hustle-christian-bale-amy-adamsAmerican Hustle

Director David O. Russell has been on a bit of an Oscar roll with his last two films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and his latest film appears to be continuing the streak.  The first critics group out of the gate, the New York Film Critics Circle, lauded American Hustle as the best film of the year, and it has gained considerable notice from other groups.  Although many are enthusiastic in their praise of the film, a significant number of people are more lukewarm on American Hustle as a whole—the fact that the performance-driven pic only landed one individual SAG nod (Best Supporting Actress for Jennifer Lawrence) could be telling.  Still, Russell seems to be something of an Academy favorite, and Hustle could very well be a big hit among voters, so right now I see it as the only serious threat to besting 12 Years or Gravity for the Best Picture trophy. 

Major Threats 


Alexander Payne is another filmmaker whose pictures regularly tend to pop up on the Academy’s shortlist.  Nebraska is a considerably smaller movie than the other major Oscar frontrunners, but it’s no less resonant.  The pic has been building steam for a few months now, with Bruce Dern and June Squibb favorites to land Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress nominations, respectively, and Will Forte gaining support as a surprise Best Supporting Actor entry.  With Best Original Screenplay also a serious possibility and Payne just coming off the lauded The Descendants, all signs are currently pointing to Nebraska landing a Best Picture nomination.

saving-mr-banks-tom-hanks-emma-thompsonSaving Mr. Banks 

Time and time again the Academy has taken to honoring movies about Hollywood.  In fact, the past two Best Picture winners have had a movie-making angle, and this year’s “making of Mary Poppins” film, Saving Mr. Banks, seems likely to strike a chord with Oscar voters.  Once considered a serious threat for the win, Mr. Banks has been taken down a few pegs recently given the hubbub surrounding the film’s fact-stretching and questionable thematic implications, but at its heart it’s a feel-good Disney film about the movie production, so it’s still a highly possible Best Picture nominee. 


Though the Academy can be fairly predictable, every once in a while they’ll turn out an inspired left-field choice.  At least one “artsy” movie has made the expanded Best Picture cut the past few years (Amour, Tree of Life, A Serious Man), and this year’s bold entry might be Spike Jonze’s unconventional love story Her.  The film has been a bit of a critical darling the past few weeks, earning Best Picture honors from the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics, and if that momentum can hold through the various guild honors, a Best Picture nomination might be in its future.

Other Contenders 

inside-llewyn-davis-oscar-isaac-justin-timberlakeCaptain Phillips

Captain Phillips is another film that broke out big this fall, but its status has slipped just a tad as the season has moved on.  Director Paul Greengrass nabbed a Best Director nomination for 2006’s United 93, and his latest foray into real-life stories found him expertly putting together a nuanced chronicle of the 2009 Somali hostage crisis.  Captain Phillips is a serious contender in a number of Oscar categories—including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor—and it seems like a very good bet for a Best Picture nomination as well.  Though the film has gotten lost in the shuffle a bit as we’ve been flooded with November and December releases, it’s definitely not out of contention entirely. 

Inside Llewyn Davis

Three of the past four Coen Brothers films have been nominated for Best Picture, and their look into the 1960s folk music scene with Inside Llewyn Davis could very well make it 4 for 5.  The film has had one of the longer roads to Oscar this year, as it first premiered way back in May at the Cannes Film Festival.  It’s certainly one of the more melancholy entries in the Coens’ oeuvre, and it still has yet to pick up a Best Picture award from any of the critics groups, but fans of the film are incredibly passionate.  As Academy members start to dig into their screener stacks over the holidays, Inside Llewyn Davis could pick up even more supporters before the Oscar nominations close, and it has a strong shot at landing a Best Picture nomination. 

The Wolf of Wall Street

the-wolf-of-wall-street-jonah-hill-leonardo-dicaprioIt was down to the wire as director Martin Scorsese’s nearly three-hour treatise on American excess was the very last of the potential Oscar contenders that screened for critics and voting bodies, but The Wolf of Wall Street appears to have been worth the wait.  The film screened too late to be eligible for Screen Actors Guild Awards voting, but it’s landed on a number of critics group Top 10 lists.  The borderline NC-17 film may be a bit too hardcore to pull off a Best Picture win and isn’t a 100% lock for a nomination, but I’d say it has a fairly good chance of landing a nod.  Then again, this is the same voting body that took over three decades to give Martin Scorsese a Best Director statue. 

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

The first 2013 film that had critics crying “Oscar!” was the historical drama Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which opened way back in August.  The (overtly) sentimental film is just the kind of thing that the Academy usually goes nuts for, especially given its star-studded cast, but the crowdedness of this year’s Oscar race has pushed The Butler all the way down to “maybe” status regarding a Best Picture nomination—something many thought was a sure thing a few months ago.  The pic is still a contender in a couple of the acting categories and its multiple SAG nods certainly help its case, but it’s definitely on the fence. 

Possible Dark Horse 

dallas-buyers-club-matthew-mcconaugheyDallas Buyers Club

Should the Academy be feeling gutsy, there are a few less-likely Best Picture candidates that just might make the cut.  One such film is Jean-Marc Vallee’s AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club.  While the performance-driven picture has been drawing more focus in the acting categories for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, it could also make the Best Picture cut for its chronicle of the AIDS epidemic as seen through the eyes of an HIV-infected, homophobic, Texas electrician.  


Another possible candidate is director Stephen Frears’ sweet drama Philomena, which can best be described as “a very nice film”.  Judi Dench is already a serious Best Actress contender for her portrayal of the title character, but the Academy could spark to the older-skewing film as a whole for its character-centric focus and thematic resonance with those on the other side of 50.  With regards to voter appeal, think of it as this year’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. 

August: Osage County

You’d think an ensemble film based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by Tracy Letts starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and a host of celebrated character actors would be a slam dunk for Oscar, but director John Wells’ adaptation of August: Osage County has received a more mixed response from critics.  The film did land SAG nods for Best Ensemble, Actress, and Supporting Actress, but its late release date and the overall lack of enthusiasm surrounding the picture mean it’s an uphill battle to Oscar.  However, August is very much an actor-driven movie, and a late surge in the guild nominations could propel the film to a Best Picture nomination.  

Fruitvale Station

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s feature debut Fruitvale Station landing a Best Picture nomination would be a most pleasant surprise.  The film enjoyed an enthusiastically positive response when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last January, but The Weinstein Company opted to release the picture in the middle of the summer where it failed to strike a chord with general audiences.  The small-scale pic has since been overshadowed by many of the star-driven heavy hitters, but it remains an outside possibility for a Best Picture nomination.

If you’ve missed any of our previous Oscar Beat articles, click here to catch up.


Latest News