A bizarre side-effect of internet-age democratization of information has been that there’s less and less in the world of entertainment journalism that can truly be called “inside baseball” anymore. Today’s example: The idea of the annual Academy Awards as less a measured, academic appraisal of film quality and more a dense game of political chess among intertwined Hollywood industry cliques – once considered the strict province of Los Angeles-area movie journos – has gone mainstream, leading to an explosion in the field of so-called “Oscar Blogging” or “awards handicapping.”

More than a few of my contemporaries think of this stuff as the death of the form – the continued Buzzfeed-ization of journalism. Maybe it is. But since I (also) do this for a living that ship sailed a long time ago; so let’s look at what’s likely to go down this Sunday…

mcconaughey-dallas-buyers-club

BEST ACTOR

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)

20 or so years ago, Matthew McConaughey (write it down: M-C-C-O-N-A-U-G-H-E-Y) was going to be the next great all-American actor. It didn’t quite happen, so he opted to spend two decades banking cash and audience goodwill on his winning combo of surfer-dude drawl, charismatic affect and famous physique in action vehicles and romantic comedies that made him a cineaste punchline but also a household name. Then, one day recently, he seemed to decide it was time to start acting again… and now he’s “happened” in a big way. His turn as a hard-living cowboy fighting AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club isn’t just the (initial) peak of “The McConassaince,” it’s exactly the kind of performance (attractive audience-fave star physically transforms themselves for The Craft) The Academy loves to reward.

But while he’s been a consistent favorite, this field isn’t exactly clear cut: Smart money has said for a while that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Wolf is simply too vile to win, but he’s admired by his peers. That goes double for Bruce Dern, a veteran who’s never won nominated in a year where letting the greats pass empty-handed has become a fresh topic. Ejiofor has probably the least “clout” of the roster, but he’s the center of Slave, which could well be a powerhouse. Bale is a polarizing figure among other actors, but his tic and affect-laden study in ham and cheese in Hustle is expert Oscar bait.

In all honesty, a betting man probably puts his money on Ejiofor; especially with the growing sense that The Academy expects to have many more opportunities to reward McConaughey.

cate_blanchett

BEST ACTRESS

Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

For pretty much all of 2013, this was considered the easiest possible category to call, with Cate Blanchett virtually guaranteed to pick up a long overdue prize for her bravura turn in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. However, it’s increasingly been felt that the ill-timed reemergence into the news cycle of decades-old abuse allegations against Allen (and with it, the revival of controversies surrounding his marriage to current wife Soon-Yi Previn) have made some voters reluctant to endorse his film even tangentially.

If indeed the Woody connection costs Blanchett the gold (which, for the record, I would call pretty unfair all around since she didn’t do anything wrong other than act in a movie, and Woody Allen has not been convicted of any crime at this point,) the most likely beneficiary would be Adams, who has been nominated four times previously without a win.

jared-leto-dallas-buyers-club

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Philips)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Another one-time “sure thing” called into question by an unplanned controversy. Jared Leto has been a racking up accolades for his role as a transgendered woman coping with the early days of the AIDs crisis, but questions of whether or not it can still be (or ever was) appropriate to cast a non-transgendered actors to play trans roles has turned the film and Leto’s performance in it into a point of protest in some circles. It’s doubtful that a plurality of Academy members are dialed-into the nuances of this particular controversy, however, so it’s not likely to hurt his chances.

If it does, the next guy in line is probably Cooper – though if you like to make the big, show-offy bet Barkhad Abdi is probably the longest shot that might still actually have a chance (this is his first professional acting role, and The Academy is quite enamored of a Hollywood’s rags-to-riches mythology and its own ability to play a part in it).

lupita-12yrs

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

Without question, the toughest of the “big” categories, even though it’s effectively seen as a two-woman race between Nyong’o and Lawrence.

Lawrence is Hollywood’s Precious Princess of the moment: Young, model-gorgeous, obviously talented, a major box-office draw with a money-printing franchise and she’s eager (to say nothing of capable) of doing prestige drama as well. Plus she’s well-liked in the business, meaning that even though she just won last year there’d be a certain widely-felt satisfaction in seeing her made Prom Queen for another night.

On the other hand, everything else is running Lupita’s way. She’s a force of nature in Slave, she’s the new darling of the talk-show and red-carpet scene, and – let’s be real about this – a lot of Slave‘s momentum is based on the historical touchstone that would be a big Oscar haul for a film directed-by, starring and focused on the history of Africans/African-Americans; and Nyong’o’s status as a Kenyan actress new to Hollywood is symbolic of the whole. My bet would be on her.

her-movie

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Her
Nebraska

My bet: This will be the win for Her, which has been widely praised by critics and industry pros, but faces an uphill battle in all other categories because its central premise (a man enters into a romantic relationship with the Siri-esque artificial intelligence that runs his home computer network) is so outside the comprehension of The Academy’s older, traditional ruling bloc. The writer’s bloc, on the other hand, loves it’s small-scale character pieces and writer/director Spike Jonze in general.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Before Midnight
Captain Philips
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

I get the sense that Slave‘s name was stamped on this months ago.

BEST PICTURE

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Despite the nine nominees, there’s really only four films realistically competing for this prize: Wolf, Hustle, Slave and Gravity. The others are a good crop, but they’re mostly just more “actor’s films” reflecting the Academy membership’s heavy slant in that direction.

Of those four, Gravity is the dark horse – the film that simply wouldn’t be here if it weren’t a major hit with two former winners in the cast. That also makes it a potential spoiler – until the various Guilds started voting, it was assumed that this was going to be another year of vote-splitting with Hustle pulling out a win as the “safe” universal second-choice while the others were too divisive (Wolf is too “dirty,” Slave is too violent, too grim, too… well, black) and canceled each other out.

But Gravity‘s status as an audience fave and crowd pleaser (it was THE “gotta see it on the big screen!” movie last year) has worked in its favor, and as a hard sci-fi drama making bank with an over-40 female lead it possibly siphons off some of Slave‘s “make a statement” votes. My heart is with Wolf (real talk: whoever wins just becomes another Dances With Wolves “Stole Scorsese’s Oscar” movies six months from now) while my money would be on Slave, but if an upset is in the offing Gravity would be the one.

gravity

BEST DIRECTOR

David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Alfonso Cuarron (Gravity)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

In my mind, the preferred outcome here is for Scorsese to win even though he likely won’t take Best Picture; both because I think he deserves it and because it’ll feel appropriate six months from now when the Cinephile Zeitgeist enshrines Wolf as the “should-have-won” of the year. However, that’s probably not going to happen.

My sense is still that Best Picture is going to go either to Slave or Gravity (with the caveat that the “extremes” of both could split the vote and turn the otherwise non-starter Hustle into the default winner) and that if so whichever director’s film “loses” there will win here. That means I lean toward Gravity here, because it’s the most obviously a “director’s film” in terms of its technical thrills.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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