Like anyone who’s been covering what’s become, as the party line goes, “the closest Best Picture race in recent memory,” I’ve gone through many mental rewrites of this top-prize breakdown. The one I clung to the longest involved the word “bullshit.” It took shape, of course, after American Hustle, formerly known as American Bullshit, strutted through steam clouds of victory on nomination morning, collecting 10 nods before also claiming the SAG award for Best Ensemble (not to be confused with any costume-design kudos the film enjoyed throughout the season). Was this awfully great, unrepentantly tacky crime caper really the new frontrunner? If so, then the filmic narrative peddled by pop-culture journos since early 2013—that the year’s wealth of black-centric cinema was bound for unprecedented Oscar glory, capped off with a crown for 12 Years a Slave, the most confronting and “important” flick of the bunch—would have to be thrown out. What’s more, Steve McQueen’s insta-contender, a historical indictment many perceive as being as deep as young Patsey’s (Lupita Nyong’o) abyss of despair, would be overtaken by an epic of unadulterated shallowness. American Hustle’s win would insist, with all the fuck-it-all thump of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” that the notion of Oscar wins signifying some sort of sociopolitical responsibility is, indeed, bullshit.
As perversely gratifying as such a scenario might have been, David O. Russell’s ABSCAM opus has undeniably lost its groove, either because enough slam-piece authors expecting traditional “prestige” made a dent, or because it never really had the mojo to go the distance in the first place. (In a bit of absurd irony, American Hustle may follow the path of The Color Purple, of all things, netting an armful of nominations, but not a single award.) The scales of this particular standoff, then, tip back in the favor of 12 Years a Slave, which has managed to largely sustain the momentum incited by its embarrassment of precursor riches, winning top honors from BAFTA, the Hollywood Foreign Press, and, in all likelihood, the forthcoming Indie Spirit Awards. There’s no denying that this movie’s supporters are a highly devoted group, armed and ready to go to bat for a work that’s unflinching, if not the masterpiece so many want to believe it to be.
But why, then, is the current feeling in the air in regard to this film one of increasing ambivalence? Regardless of our varying reactions to 12 Years a Slave (which seem to be in the same ballpark, but hardly in alignment), we in the Slant Oscar Predix Club unanimously feel that the palpable, sweeping passion incumbent on a Best Picture winner has now curiously betrayed this once-steamrolling heavyweight.
That’s great news for Gravity, the movie that, really, was always 12 Years a Slave’s most formidable competitor. On Sunday, when the interstellar survival tale splashes down on the Dolby stage, clinching a victory that everyone here believes is coming, the message boards and comment threads will surely catch fire, and debates will be open as to whether Gravity won because it’s more white, more accessible, more “entertaining,” more technically dazzling, or perhaps, more artistic. And a viable answer, honestly, might be “all of the above.” It remains impossible to ignore distressing reports that have been circulating for months, telling insiders’ stories of Oscar voters who won’t even screen a brutal slavery film, an indefensible act of willful neglect that warrants revoking of memberships. But beyond Gravity’s embraceable appeal as a demographic-crossing spectacle, one that even the Academy’s faction of Scientologists can drool over, there’s the matter of its virtuoso technical merits, which are all but guaranteed to be anointed in every field in which they’re nominated. Actors may comprise the AMPAS’s largest branch, but never forget that every card-carrying member votes on the big night’s winners. And when it comes to what’s most likely to place first, second, or even third on these voters’ tricky, preferential, Best Picture ballots, the odds-on favorite is Alfonso Cuarón’s $100 million baby. As for anyone who wants to make a case for Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street, or our favorite, Her, we have one word for you: bullshit.
Will win: Gravity
Could win: 12 Years a Slave
Should win: Her