Who will win, and who should win, at the Oscars this Sunday

Who will win, and who should win, at the Oscars this Sunday

After months upon months of tearful acceptance speeches, timely think pieces, blog-post speculation, relentless studio campaigning, obligatory talk-show appearances, and endless “precursor” awards ceremonies, the annual dog and pony show that is Oscar season finally draws to a close this Sunday. And like many other entertainment journalists who should know better, we here at The A.V. Club can’t resist throwing our final two cents into the overflowing fountain.

Below, you’ll find highly unscientific predictions in 21 of the 24 Oscar categories. (You’re on your own with the shorts, which we haven’t seen.) Historical precedent, gut feeling, and which way the winds seem to be blowing all played a part in the prognostication process. Because opinions, not predictions, are our usual stock-in-trade, we’ve also singled out which films and artists actually deserve to win, and which worthy contenders were overlooked entirely by the Academy. As film critics make for notoriously uneven soothsayers—sometimes betting with the heart when we should be betting with the mind—take these educated guesses with several grains of salt. And while you’re at it, share your own predictions and preferences in the comments section. The Oscars may be silly, but they can spark some fine debate.

BEST PICTURE
Nominees: American Hustle; Captain Phillips; Dallas Buyers Club; Gravity; Her; Nebraska; Philomena; 12 Years A Slave; The Wolf Of Wall Street

Prediction:
Will voters throw their weight behind the groundbreaking technical achievements of Gravity, a blockbuster that seduced audiences, critics, and Hollywood craftspeople alike? Or will they be compelled instead by the dramatic pull of 12 Years A Slave, indisputably the most “serious” and gut wrenching of the nine nominees? The Producers Guild, whose selection aligns with the Academy’s about 70 percent of the time, is no help this year: For the first time ever, the group issued a split decision, declaring a tie between both films. Either could win—and so too could American Hustle, David O. Russell’s flavorful con-artist comedy. Briefly the presumed frontrunner, Hustle has lost some momentum, but don’t count it out: The film’s a crowd-pleasing actors’ showcase, which should appeal to the most sizable branch of the Academy (the actors, naturally). Many Oscar “experts” are giving Gravity the edge during this final week, but something tells us that 12 Years A Slave will squeeze by it—not just because it’s picked up the BAFTA and the Golden Globe, but also because its nearest competition looks like mere entertainment by comparison.

Preference:
While sorely (but typically) lacking in foreign-language fare, this year’s Best Picture lineup is hard to hate. One could make a convincing case for at least six of the nine nominees. Gravity is a gripping sensory experience. Wolf is a scathing laugh riot. And for as wrong as it rubs this particular writer, Nebraska is a singular, idiosyncratic ode to American longing. Hustle, too, feels distinctive: The target of a preemptive backlash, the film is no anonymous middlebrow trifle, but a true auteur work—flawed, but bursting with neurotic character (and characters). Ultimately, 12 Years A Slave will make a fine, commendable choice; if it wins, it’ll be the strongest Best Picture selection since No Country For Old Men. But our heart really belongs to Her, Spike Jonze’s surrealist comic love story. As in the best science fiction, its vision of the future is really a window into our present. If that’s not Best Picture-worthy, we’re not sure what is.

Overlooked:
How did Before Midnight, the profoundly insightful third installment in Richard Linklater’s episodic romance series, fail to slip into the race? It’s American, it’s accessible, and it drew plenty of arthouse patronage last summer. The film’s exclusion from the lineup seems especially egregious when you consider that there was room for one more on that ballot. Is it too late to get it instated, maybe at the expense of total also-ran Philomena?


BEST ACTOR
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

Prediction: This is a close race, too, but consensus seems to be that Matthew McConaughey will soon become “Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey.” (Who saw that coming three years ago?) Shedding the abs for his art, the actor falls into the middle circle of a very Academy-friendly Venn diagram: If there’s anything AMPAS voters love more than drastic weight loss, it’s biopics, characters with terminal illnesses, and the suggestion of a social agenda. As for the competition, they’re just too subdued—except, of course, for DiCaprio, a surprise nominee who’s looking now like the only contender capable of upsetting.

Preference: Dern disappears into his role, DiCaprio scores huge laughs, and McConaughey continues his transformation from beach bum into magnetic character actor. But only Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the sold-into-shackles Solomon Northup, truly bares his soul. The genius of his performance in 12 Years A Slave is the way it constantly expresses two layers of identity—the mask of resigned obedience Solomon wears to survive, as well as the fierce intellect and great sorrow raging underneath.

Overlooked: The Oscars rarely recognize great comedic turns, especially in the lead acting categories. That’s a real shame, because Simon Pegg’s work as the heavy-drinking hero of The World’s End is a master class in denial, narcissism, and willfully arrested development. Not even DiCaprio made self-destructive addiction this funny.


BEST ACTRESS
Nominees: Amy Adams, American Hustle; Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Judi Dench, Philomena; Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Prediction: This one’s no contest: Cate Blanchett is basically a lock to win Biggest Acting for her twitchy Blanche DuBois routine in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.

Preference: Year after year, Academy members crowd this category with the same familiar faces, as though there were only a dozen actresses working today. Is anyone truly passionate about Dench’s faintly charming, mostly unmemorable work in Philomena? Does no one see that Streep is just chewing scenery in August: Osage County? Doesn’t everyone agree that Bullock is the weak link of Gravity? Only Amy Adams, digging deep into the role of a scheming scammer in American Hustle, truly deserves her spot in what should have been the year’s most fiercely competitive race. Case in point…

Overlooked: Greta Gerwig. Julie Delpy. Cristina Flutur. Adèle Exarchopoulos. Brit Marling. Hadas Yaron. Suzanne Clément. Danai Gurira. Anna Margaret Hollyman. Amy Acker. Bérénice Bejo. Brie Larson. Amy Seimetz. Take your pick.


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

Prediction: Unless the actor’s somewhat controversial remarks about playing a trans woman really do catch up with him, Jared Leto’s winning streak is likely to continue on Oscar night.

Preference: Truth be told, all of these performances are very solid; even Hill’s hilarious, improvisational mugging is worthy of consideration. But the best in show is probably Michael Fassbender’s chilling turn as a sadistic plantation owner in 12 Years A Slave. Repeat viewings reveal new dimensions to the character, a human monster whose cruelty springs at least partially from a fear that his loathsome way of life will sooner or later come to an end.

Overlooked: No posthumous sentimentality is required to appreciate James Gandolfini’s penultimate performance in Enough Said. Warm, witty, and about as vulnerable as he ever allowed himself to be on-screen, the late Sopranos star made for a surprisingly convincing romantic lead. It’s too bad we won’t ever get to see him do it again.


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

Prediction: Last year’s Best Actress winner, Jennifer Lawrence, is neck and neck with another ingénue, newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. Many awards analysts have already called it for the latter, whose scenes in 12 Years A Slave are among the film’s most devastating. But Lawrence is now Hollywood royalty, and we have a hunch that voters won’t be able to resist her brassy, loose-lipped housewife in American Hustle. Anyway, this category sometimes yields surprise winners, so don’t be too shocked if Christoph Waltz reads, say, June Squibb’s name instead.

Preference: Sally Hawkins is definitely the highlight of Blue Jasmine, but she can’t quite match the depths of sorrow Nyong’o conveys in 12 Years A Slave. Every frame she occupies seems to quake with the full horror of her character’s ordeal. Here’s hoping we’re wrong about that prediction above.

Overlooked: Creating a vivid, three-dimensional character with nothing more than her disembodied voice, Scarlett Johansson demonstrates in Her that one need not actually appear on-screen to deliver a great performance. Academy members evidently disagreed.


BEST DIRECTOR
Nominees: David O. Russell, American Hustle; Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity; Alexander Payne, Nebraska; Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave; Martin Scorsese, The Wolf Of Wall Street

Prediction: Gravity’s Best Picture victory may still be up in the air (or in the cosmos, har har), but everyone seems to agree that this award is Alfonso Cuarón’s to lose. He’s certainly racked up all the necessary prerequisites (the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, the DGA). Besides that, Gravity is nothing if not a directorial achievement; if Ang Lee can win for the much-less-beloved CGI spectacle of Life Of Pi, Cuarón should be considered a shoo-in for this groundbreaking experiment.

Preference: Gravity is a remarkable technological achievement, a triumph of blockbuster orchestration from a true visionary. We’ll neither blink nor scowl if its director wins, but we will be pleasantly surprised if Steve McQueen somehow pulls the upset. No, his film isn’t as plainly awe-inspiring as Cuarón’s. But there are intangibles in directing, and McQueen’s accomplishments—the elegant compositions, the atmosphere of dread and despair he sustains, the astounding work he coaxes out of his actors—are every bit as impressive as the eye candy of Gravity.

Overlooked: Every shot, every frame, every second of Upstream Color pulses with the artistic personality of its creator, Shane Carruth, a filmmaker so devoted to getting the movie in his head up on-screen that he handles the lion’s share of the responsibilities himself. He’s DIY to the expressionistic extreme, and should have been recognized for it.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Nominees: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell, American Hustle; Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine; Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club; Spike Jonze, Her; Bob Nelson, Nebraska

Prediction: Spike Jonze’s emotional, idiosyncratic script won the WGA award, and it’s clearly the most original of these original screenplays. But the whole Academy decides the winners; even if writers band together in support of Her, the other branches may go for American Hustle, a film that’s surely been seen by more members.

Preference: It has to be Her, which bends what could have been a cynical one-joke premise into something clever and sincere and deeply resonant. An Oscar for Jonze would be the best win in this category since the filmmaker’s old collaborator, Charlie Kaufman, picked up the same prize for Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind in 2005.

Overlooked: Narcissists and neurotics are Noah Baumbach’s stock-in-trade, but he’s never made a film as warmly funny as Frances Ha—an effervescent post-college comedy whose greatness begins with its terrific script, co-authored by star Greta Gerwig.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Nominees: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight; Billy Ray, Captain Phillips; Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, Philomena; John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave; Terence Winter, The Wolf Of Wall Street

Prediction: John Ridley’s eloquent wordplay, combined with the importance of his source material, makes 12 Years A Slave the frontrunner in this category. But just about all of these scripts have a chance, except perhaps…

Preference: …for the one that deserves to win, Before Midnight. Brilliantly structured, and stuffed with the kind of heady, sparkling chatter that distinguished its predecessors, this superlative sequel boasts the best screenplay of the year—original, adapted, or otherwise. (The otherwise refers to some imaginary third category where voters might relegate sequels, which aren’t really “adaptations,” are they?)

Overlooked: Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s screenplay for C.O.G. preserves the wounding insight of its source text—an autobiographical essay by David Sedaris—without co-opting its first-person musings. It’s a model in how to translate memoir into cinema.


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Nominees: The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises

Prediction: Frozen, the biggest hit in the history of Disney animation, is an unstoppable juggernaut. Nothing, not even the supposed final feature from animation giant Hayao Miyazaki, is going to stand between it and this award.

Preference: The Belgian, hand-drawn import Ernest & Celestine is a relic of a simpler, less hyperactive age of big-screen cartoons.

Overlooked: The Wind Rises wasn’t the only Miyazaki project to make its way Stateside last year: From Up On Poppy Hill, by Hayao’s son, Goro, is an earnest, gorgeously animated teen melodrama. Certainly, it was a hell of a lot worthier of a nod than Despicable Me 2.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Nominees: Philippe Le Sourd, The Grandmaster; Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity; Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis; Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska; Roger A. Deakins, Prisoners

Prediction: The sixth time will probably be the charm for Emmanuel Lubezki, whose typically virtuosic tracking shots move on all axes in Gravity. But given how little of what we’re actually seeing in the film is actually “there,” is the camerawork really camerawork, or just another amazing digital illusion?

Preference: Looking at his 11th nomination without a win, the great Roger Deakins is even more overdue for this award than Lubezki is. His stunningly beautiful, evocative work on Prisoners lends that morally muddled kidnapping thriller an atmosphere of seductive, oppressive doom. Plus, it captures actual physical environments, not just the mirage-like surfaces of a green screen.

Overlooked: Documentaries are rarely cited for their cinematography, as most of them feature purely functional camerawork. Leviathan is an expressionistic exception, its nightmarish vision of the open sea achieved through some of the most dynamic, adventurous tracking shots of the year. (In its own low-budget way, it’s as technologically innovative as Gravity.)


BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Nominees: American Hustle; The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman, 12 Years A Slave

Prediction: In this category, it’s unwise to bet against opulence. As The Great Gatsby sports the most elaborate, eye-catching designs of the bunch, it’s the probable winner. But Hustle’s garish ’70s couture could sneak past Gatsby’s garish ’20s fashion.

Preference: Baz Luhrmann’s anachronistic spin on Fitzgerald has plenty of flaws, but the outfits aren’t among them. For their elegance and audacity, the Gatsby duds deserve the Oscar.

Overlooked: Her’s high-waisted pants and primary-color shirts—remixed fashions from early ages—play an integral role in the creation of a credible future.


BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Nominees: The Act Of Killing; Cutie And The Boxer; Dirty Wars; The Square; Twenty Feet From Stardom

Prediction: The highest-grossing documentary of last year, Twenty Feet From Stardom has been winning fans and earning standing ovations since it premiered at Sundance 2013. There’s little reason to believe its mixture of melancholy and triumph won’t work wonders on Academy voters, too.

Preference: That a film as queasily powerful as The Act Of Killing managed to slip into an Oscar race—any Oscar race—is something of a miracle. For it to win, Academy members will have to choose Indonesian gangsters re-enacting their genocidal crimes over unsung backup singers getting their belated due. Don’t count on it.

Overlooked: Sarah Polley’s family-secrets documentary Stories We Tell was funny, sweet, and insightful—a tribute from a daughter to a mother, stuffed into a decades-spanning mystery. What gives, AMPAS? Did you watch your for-your-consideration screeners in alphabetical order, never getting around to this gem in the process?


BEST EDITING
Nominees: American Hustle; Captain Phillips; Dallas Buyers Club; Gravity; 12 Years A Slave

Prediction: Most of the time, the frontrunner in this category is the film with the most editing. Gravity, with its frequent (and possibly artificial) absence of editing, will probably break that trend.

Preference: For the way it condenses time, for the elegance of its match cuts and the poetry of its rhymes, 12 Years A Slave deserves to take this one home.

Overlooked: Editing is crucial to the films of Edgar Wright, whose comedy relies on a kind of steel-trap precision. The World’s End is no exception.


BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Nominees: The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Hunt (Denmark), The Missing Picture (Cambodia), Omar (Palestine)

Prediction: Made in the spirit of a bygone era of Italian cinema, Paolo Sorrentino’s gorgeously shot, Fellini-esque The Great Beauty is the one to beat on Oscar night.

Preference: That special committee the Academy appointed a few years ago, whose job it is to help genuinely interesting, acclaimed films break into a category previously dominated by middlebrow international pap, has evidently been doing its job. This is an imperfect but eclectic slate of contenders—the best of which, The Missing Picture, uses clay figures to evoke the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Overlooked: Five years after AMPAS snubbed his Palme-winning masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu has been shut out of the Foreign Language race again. His slow-boiling Beyond The Hills is a more deliberately paced (but no less intense) portrayal of female friendship buckling under the pressure of oppressive rules.


BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
Nominees: Dallas Buyers Club; Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa; The Lone Ranger

Prediction: Since there’s no way in hell the Academy is going to hand an award to a Jackass movie or a notorious Hollywood bomb, expect Dallas Buyers Club to own this abbreviated field.

Preference: Thing is, though, Johnny Knoxville’s old-age makeup in Bad Grandpa is genuinely remarkable.

Overlooked: For rendering Paul Dano unrecognizable under a mass of swollen prosthetic flesh, the makeup wizards of Prisoners should have been nominated.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Nominees: John Williams, The Book Thief; Steven Price, Gravity; William Butler, Owen Pallett, Her; Alexandre Desplat, Philomena; Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks

Prediction: Steven Price’s Gravity score is memorable and majestic enough to make a lasting impression—though we can’t be the only ones who wished that the film let audiences experience more of the terrifying silence of space, unaccompanied by a dramatic orchestra.

Preference: Wedged into a group of frequently nominated composers, unlikely contender Arcade Fire offers an achingly melancholic soundtrack, heavy on melodic fuzz and ambience. It’s impossible to imagine Her without it.

Overlooked: Thomas Newman’s snaky, seductive score for Side Effects uses a earworm-catchy guitar hook to amp up the mystery and menace. It creeps into the brain and stays there.


BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Nominees: “Happy,” Despicable Me 2; “Let It Go,” Frozen; “The Moon Song,” Her; “Ordinary Love,” Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Prediction: The soundtrack to Frozen has proved about as insanely profitable as the movie, which means that the Broadway-worthy “Let It Go” is probably a done deal.

Preference: “Ordinary Love” is too generic. “The Moon Song” is too cutesy. For those sick to death of the Frozen showstopper, Pharrell’s smoothly pleasant “Happy” is the best alternative.

Overlooked: Whoever made the decision to disqualify “Please Mr. Kennedy” from Inside Llewyn Davis on the grounds that it’s technically a parody has not only denied the category a truly great song, but also robbed the world of getting to see Adam Driver deliver those hilarious interjections (“One second please!”) on live television.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Nominees: American Hustle; Gravity; The Great Gatsby; Her; 12 Years A Slave

Prediction: Here’s another race that will come down to a Hustle vs. Gatsby title fight—and another opportunity for the Academy to double down on its allegiance to big, flashy, “noticeable” craftsmanship. Gatsby wins.

Preference: Combining architectural elements of Shanghai and Los Angeles to envision the city of the future is a stroke of art-direction genius. Her should win.

Overlooked: Dressing a haunted house is no easy feat. The Conjuring should have been nominated.


BEST SOUND EDITING
Nominees: All Is Lost; Captain Phillips; Gravity; The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug; Lone Survivor

Prediction: Despite its frequent lack of sound effects, Gravity will probably win this one, too.

Preference: Much more impressive is the constant maritime soundtrack—the roaring ocean, the creaking wood—of All Is Lost, another survivor tale that pits its protagonist against the elements. And these elements, born of a body of water and not the vacuum of space, make actual noise.

Overlooked: A film about the creation of sound effects might seem like an obvious choice, but that’s no reason to disqualify the discomforting library of sonic effects heard in Berberian Sound Studio—especially given how often the film relies only on its soundtrack to create unease in the audience.


BEST SOUND MIXING
Nominees: Captain Phillips; Gravity; The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug; Inside Llewyn Davis; Lone Survivor

Prediction: Gravity’s sweep of the technical categories will likely continue here. This one makes a bit more sense than Sound Editing, as controlling what we hear or (more crucially) don’t hear is a chief responsibility of the mixer.

Preference: The musical performances in Inside Llewyn Davis are warmly, expertly mixed. Besides, it’d be nice to see the film win at least one Oscar.

Overlooked: Levels, audibility, and sonic textures are key components of Upstream Color, which actually builds its mystery around sound.


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Nominees: Gravity; The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug; Iron Man 3; The Lone Ranger; Star Trek Into Darkness

Prediction: Surest thing of the night: Gravity will win for its special effects. They might as well have just left the other four slots blank.

Preference: Considering that Gravity boasts some of the most awe-inspiring, how’d-they-do-that imagery in the history of cinema, we’re happy to support the conventional wisdom of this inevitable choice.

Overlooked: How Pacific Rim failed to lumber its way into this lineup is a real mystery. It’s got giant robots, giant monsters, and the type of city-destroying mayhem for which Michael Bay films frequently get nominated. Next to Gravity, it was the special-effects showcase of the year—and certainly more consistently drool-worthy than that Hobbit sequel.

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