We come to it at last. By now, even the most casual Oscar-watcher should know that the big three bound for the Academy’s top race are Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and David O. Russell’s American Hustle. The first two have become defining films of the moment for technical and cultural reasons, and the third has bewitched every major awards body, if only for its unabashed bigness and its throng of can’t-look-away performances. With minimal reservation, I’ll also slap the label of “lock” on Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, two films that have been showered with adoration this season, and are poised to surge forward in crucial categories (in addition to multiple acting bids, look for the former to land that all-important Editing nod, and the latter to be recognized for its Original Screenplay). And while The Wolf of Wall Street is spreading audiences apart like the legs of its subject’s demeaned conquests, perhaps no film this year has prompted more impassioned discussion. Being directed by Martin Scorsese helps; being a white-hot, unavoidable, shouting-match-starting phenomenon cements a slot for what was already an insta-contender.
So that’s six nominees in a field that can include anywhere from five to 10 candidates. Since this new, sliding system was put in place two years ago, we’ve seen two slates of nine Best Picture hopefuls. I’m thinking that, this year, we’re going to see 10, as there are at least 13 films that could conceivably end up at the top of voters’ ballots. Odds are the seventh nominee will be Her, a beloved, surprise heavyweight whose script and director have strong shots at recognition too. It’s also safe to count in Dallas Buyers Club, which, regardless of its unexpected WGA nod, was already a likely shoo-in thanks to its actors’ must-see transformations.
And here’s where things get tricky. My instincts tell me that next in line is Philomena, as the modest film has reportedly charmed the orthopedic shoes off older voters, impressed the Brits enough to score major BAFTA nominations, and become the best endgame hope for the uncommonly underperforming Weinstein Company. But would predicting nods for both Philomena and PGA nominee Saving Mr. Banks be an unwise call that makes too much room for old-guard comfort food? Would it be better to bet on the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which hasn’t clinched a lot of guild recognition, but has overwhelming critical support?
And what about Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Weinstein’s former threat of apparent Oscar bait, whose reception has cooled thanks to Daniels’s singular disheveledness? A SAG nominee in the categories of Best Actor (Forest Whitaker), Best Supporting Actress (Oprah Winfrey), and Best Ensemble, The Butler clearly has support from the actors branch, but that’s a small faction when one considers the entire Academy membership, and likely not enough to push the film into top contention. As for Blue Jasmine, which netted a PGA nod, should score some Original Screenplay love, and, barring a miracle, will yield a Best Actress trophy for Cate Blanchett, there’s likely minimal admiration among the many technical branches, who don’t have much to cheer about here. For its campy, yet near-operatic, chronicling of the civil rights movement, I’d love to see The Butler find a place in this category, and it’d be grand to see a few foreign masterworks recognized too, like Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, and Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways. Spring Breakers deserves a space here, as does Before Midnight, but I’m not going to bang my head against a wall for films with snowball-in-hell chances. The last spot comes down to a shoot-out between Saving Mr. Banks and Inside Llewyn Davis, both of which are going to net attention in aural and visual categories. In what’s practically a coin flip, I’m going to give the edge to Banks, and let Llewyn Davis go the way of its bound-for-failure protagonist.