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Nebraska (#110 of 20)

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Picture

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Picture
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Picture

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.

Ranking Oscar’s 2014 Nominees

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Ranking Oscar’s 2014 Nominees
Ranking Oscar’s 2014 Nominees

This week, the polar vortex will make an encore performance in the United States, but this upcoming Sunday, when Ellen DeGeneres signs off as host of the 86th annual Academy Awards, the collective nightmare known as awards season will be effectively over. This year, 57 56 films received nominations across 24 categories, and with the exception of The Invisible Woman, I’ve seen them all. Below is a ranked list, from most euphoric to most pungent, of those 56 films.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Director

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Director
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Director

It’s a good thing the Best Director category didn’t go the way of Best Picture to accommodate more nominees, because this year’s campaign has only ever been a three-man race even in its most competitive stages. The two non-contenders are Alexander Payne (Nebraska) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), who’ve each enjoyed a nearly spotless recent track record for landing in the category. Payne has received nods for his last three films, while five of Scorsese’s last six non-documentary films have earned the legendary director an aisle seat at the ceremony. But with only one win between the two filmmakers (Scorsese’s The Departed) in that stretch, their nominations likely speak more to the compulsory voting habits and pre-digested tastes of Academy voters than to the merits of either Nebraska or The Wolf of Wall Street. And though David O. Russell has been on a nomination hot streak of late, with American Hustle capping a trio of Best Director nominations over the last four years for the filmmaker, his chances, which seemed much higher back when his crime caper stormed onto the scene last December, have since fizzled along with the film.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Actor

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Actor
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Actor

If this year’s Best Actor race is all about which nominee brandishes the most compelling story, then Christian Bale faces some mighty long odds. Not only is the actor only two years removed from his Oscar win for The Fighter, but the consensus is that he gained enough of a victory by being nominated this year. Not faring much better is Leonardo DiCaprio, whose “always the nominee, never the winner” stasis—admittedly a sexier narrative—still needs about 10 more years of ripening before voters begin to sympathize. And as if those reasons weren’t enough, the cheating, swindling characters Bale and DiCaprio play, in American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street respectively, are the two that Academy voters will surely find most unlikable, which effectively guarantees their losses.

Bruce Dern’s case is admittedly more complicated. While his confused character from Nebraska elicits more pity than outright contempt, the actor’s emergence from nearly two decades of relative obscurity for “one last shot” at Oscar gold almost certainly played a part in awards prognosticators deeming him the early favorite after the Cannes Film Festival last May. But as the Best Actor campaign took shape through the fall and into the winter, it has whittled down to a two-way race between Chiwitel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey, a development no doubt aided by the charged racial and gender politics of their respective films.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Original Screenplay

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

To shove the elephant out of the room right off the bat, two actually relevant things are working against Woody Allen’s chances for a win here, despite having extended his record for most nominations ever in this category. First, the justifiable but still faintly ludicrous categorization of Blue Jasmine as an original screenplay despite its obvious debt to A Streetcar Named Desire. Second, the tangible evidence recently pointed out by Mark Harris that suggests the Academy’s expansion of the Best Picture lineup has consequently made the screenwriting category more adjuvant to the main race than ever before. In other words, with Blue Jasmine the only nominee here not also competing for the top prize, voters were already likely to leave Allen babbling on a park bench while whoever’s sitting next to him thumbs through the editorial page of The New York Times.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Supporting Actress

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actress
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actress

As was recently reported by the hive of Oscarologists over at Gold Derby, American Hustle has history on its side when it comes to the acting races, as only two of the 14 films to see their stars nominated in all four categories have walked away without a single acting Oscar (those two, for the record, were 1936’s My Man Godfrey and 1950’s Sunset Boulevard). Like Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” which her drained-out desperate housewife, Rosalyn, blasts in her living room while rocking dishwashing gloves, that bit of Gold Derby trivia should be music to the ears of Jennifer Lawrence, who, of American Hustle’s quartet of contenders, has the strongest shot of clinching a statuette on March 2. The recipient of the Golden Globe and a handful of critics’ prizes, Lawrence is still riding high on a wave of success that ushered her to last year’s Oscar podium, where she claimed Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook, another David O. Russell dramedy to score across-the-board acting bids.

Oscar 2014 Nomination Predictions: Picture

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Oscar 2014 Nomination Predictions: Picture
Oscar 2014 Nomination Predictions: Picture

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.

Oscar 2014 Nomination Predictions Director

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Oscar 2014 Nomination Predictions: Director
Oscar 2014 Nomination Predictions: Director

The most pleasant surprise of this awards season has been the widespread embrace of Her, a film that seemed a bit like a bland “Oscar movie” in its marketing, didn’t feel like one at all amid the actual experience of watching it, then wound up something of a guild darling with a heap of critical support. Both the Producers Guild and the Writers Guild have shown their love for this swoony, very-near-future heartbreaker, and it’s wildly admired by everyone from the National Board of Review to the Hollywood Foreign Press, who tossed it a Best Screenplay trophy at Sunday’s Golden Globes. But what of its adorably odd director, Spike Jonze? Having been snubbed by the Directors Guild, whose members nominated Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), David O. Russell (American Hustle), and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), can Jonze still sneak into Oscar’s final five? He’s done it once before, with 1999’s Being John Malkovich, and if he is indeed this category’s spoiler, he has the benefit of statistics behind him: Director nods from the DGA and Oscar have only matched up three times in the last 15 years, thanks to overlapping, but differing, voting bodies that number more than 10,000 and fewer than 400, respectively. A work of personal, consummate vision, Her may be the film whose maker shakes up this race come Thursday morning.