This is really a 3 way race between Gravity, American Hustle, and 12 Years a Slave. Captain Phillips and Her are longshots given their lead actors failed to secure Best Actor nominations, while Philomena and Nebraska may be too indie to gather a strong enough contingent of Academy voters (Nebraska was one of my favorite films of the year and should find its audience not in the indie cinemas of the metropolis, but in the hearts of anyone who has lived a rural existence - aka Mom and Dad please rent this when it comes out). Wolf of Wallstreet received too many mixed reviews, though Dalllas Buyers Club could sneak away with the statue, especially should Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey win in their respective categories. As usual, the heir-apparent to this award will be more apparent as the evening unravels. If Gravity sweeps the technical categories, the momentum could be on its side, though if American Hustle manages to take statues in all 4 acting categories it could look near invincible. And what about 12 Years a Slave? Perhaps the most important film of this year, the most gut wrenching, and I suspect the film that shall be remembered and shown in classrooms ranging from Film Studies to American History to African-American Studies for years. For 12 Years, the tone may set at the start of the ceremony with Best Supporting Actress category. Should Lupita knock out Jennifer Lawrence, it could give the film momentum to go all the way. In all likelihood, American Hustle has a chance of two, maybe three of the acting Oscars (Cooper's curls could trump Leto's rouge, plus he is a former nominee). More than a tale of winners and losers, this year's collection of nominees are all fantastic and worth a viewing. The Times has Gravity taking Best Director, with 12 Years sneaking away with Best Picture. However, I feel like gambling this year, and would love to see Dallas Buyers Club walk away with prize.
A category without one time favorites Tom Hanks and Robert Redford, Matthew McConaughey has this on lock, though he could be pushed out by 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor. McConaughey physical transformation, not to mention his metamorphosis from dumb, pretty leading man to indie movie creeper (Paperboy, Killer Joe), has earned him wide praise from everyone in the industry and this viewer especially. If Joaquin Phoenix were on better behavior or drank the Kool-Aid that is Awards Season Promotion, he could have walked away with this prize for his touching appearance Her, this category's equivalent of Sandra Bullock in Gravity (he is onscreen throughout and his only scene partner, an unseen Scarlett Johansen). Alas Leo, like poor Amy Adams, will have to wait for a better received movie and another year to get his Oscar, something he has been chasing since The Basketball Diaries and Who's Eating Gilbert Grape? And then there's Bruce Dern. giving a lovely performance in Nebraska, a film no one seemed to watch. Restrained and internalized, it is lovely to watch, but will beat out by the HIV positive, drugged up, rodeo clown McConnaughey conjures in Dallas Buyers Club.
For my dollar, Cate Blanchett has this one in the bag. Sure, she already has one. But that was in the Supporting category in a somwhat (forgive me) forgettable movie playing a movie star who won 4 Academy awards herself. Isn't it time Ms. Blanchett earned something with her own stamp upon it? Not to mention she is brilliant, volatile and unstable, like a Blanche (which she recently played to great acclaim) let loose from the sanitorium, yet at times clear and exacting as any 5th avenue matriarch. This is not to say she is without competion. Meryl Streep, the seemingly omni-present nominee, eats up the movie meant to contain her, August:Osage County, yet for all her tumbles, outbursts, and cancer bob, she fails to incite the true terror and desperation in the on-screen Violet I saw in 2005 (played by the indispensable, theatre master Estelle Parsons, returning to Broadway this spring in a limited run). Streep's performance captures the acid and wit of Violet, but fails to capture the fast paced driver with no clear trajectory conjured by Ms. Parsons (to see her rush down the stairs, full speed, then immediately halt, pilled out, at the bottom step, proved terrifying in its own subtle way. How many grandparents/parents/friends do we have who seem to be driving with no headlights - or no driver?). Given Streep just won for The Iron Lady, this is an almost arbitryary, though fully earned, nomination. Judi Dench managed to strike a chord as Philomena, the title character of the film by the same name, on the hunt for a son she once gave up. While her performance is comendable, it lacks some of the fireworks seen in other nominees (especially Streep and Blanchett), and thus make for a heartening but not gut wrenching performance (I much preferred her in Notes on a Scandal). Perhaps Dench should take great pride in the fact that her film proved to not only be a star vehicle for her, but a legitimate Best Picture nominee (of which Blue Jasmine and August: Osage County were not). On other hand, Sandra Bullock manages to carry her entire picture, literally defying gravity or a need for a male lead/co-star (George Clooney only accounts for about 1/3 third of the movie). Bullock channels the best of herself in this film (completely self-aware as in Miss Congeniality or The Heat, independently strong willed as in Blind Side, Congeniality, and The Heat, brittle and avoiding her emotions (Crash), not to mention summoning her early career action flicks (Speed 2, Congenialty). Despite this combination of all her skills 1) she just won a few years ago and 2) her only scene partner for most of the film is herself. Oscar voters tend to enjoy their actresses to have a strong connection (standoff) with their costars a la Silver Linings Playbook, Monster's Ball, The Reader, The Blind Side, and Erin Brockovich. Though if the Academy turns to its The Hours or even The Iron Lady days, Ms. Bullock could find herself the surprise winner on Oscar day. Alas, Amy Adams. Sweet, adorable, talented, dedicated, acclaimed Amy Adams. After years of lingering in the Best Supporting Category, Adams has finally graduated to the Leads. Despite her Golden Globe win, I fear she will remain always a nominee never a winner (a modern Glenn Close or for many years Kate Winslet). At least this year. While her costumes are by far the most striking throughout the film and use of accents and disguise put to great use, she is not the true star of American Hustle. Not to mention, the Academy gave the Lead Actress to a David O. Russell muse just last year, Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence. However, if the Academy should really get in a conundrum about Woody Allen's bizarre (and possibly criminal) parenthood, the Academy could turn its attention to a deserving darling next in line for Oscar gold. In the end, my money is on the great Cate Blanchett, a woman who has earned rave reviews in limited theatre runs of A Streetcar Named Desire and Uncle Vanya, with a possible steal by Amy Adams. The only real major snub in this category was Emma Thompson for Saving Mr. Banks. Her work superb, she seemed to be appearing in a different movie than everyone else, one much darker, deeper, and less Disneyfied.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Like his Dallas Buyers brethren McConaughey, Jared Leto has this one in the bag, in this a case a shimmery handbag, as he gracefully embodied party-transgirl Rayon. Jonah Hill largely (no pun intended) repeats his loveable schitck, but an ward-winning performance it is not. Bradley Cooper's curls are adorable and his acting is actually quite good, but he too will be put on the wait list, along with Amy Adams and Leonardo DiCaprio. Glenn Close has been there for years. Michael Fassbender's adamant dismissal of the Awards race, after a snub from his performance in Shame, will get him no votes this year, and while Barkhad Abdi is this year's newcomer along with Lupita N'yongo, they both will take promising careers away from tonight's ceremony, but sadly no hardware.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Jennifer Lawrence scored a surprise win in this category at the Golden Globe awards and for many is the front runner. This is the tightest race of the year, and while I would love to see Lupita N'yongo take the award for 12 Years, or better, my favorite, June Squibb from Nebraska, the Academy will crown Lawrence with her second Academy Award (despite some spotty and inconsistent dialect work), this generations own Jane Fonda.