You know what? I’m glad I’ll be wrong.
Every year, no matter how much I lean on Internet aggregation or Oscar truisms (the movie that wins best picture always always gets a win for best director, except sometimes), about a third of the wins come as a surprise. And that’s great — even if Hollywood films tend to be predictable, at least the big night for awarding the “best” of the preceding year can offer moments of unexpected joy and disappointment. So when, on Sunday, March 1, I tune in to ABC for the 86th annual Academy Awards show (which starts at 8:30 p.m.; check in at 7 p.m. to catch the dresses and the super awkward red carpet banter), I’ll be just as happy for the times I won’t have predicted the winner as I will for the picks I got right. (And, disclaimer for those who are part of an Oscar pool: I tend to be right only about 66 percent of the time.)
And my predictions are...
• Best picture
Nominees: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street
Who should win: Gravity. How do you compare films on serious and difficult subjects (12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena) with lighter fare like the bittersweet romance of Her or the cinematic spectacle of Gravity? I suspect it’s that very question that keeps most comedy and popcorn action movies, no matter how well made, out of the best picture category. But let’s consider for a minute just the movie itself and not its place in the wider political conversation. Gravity does not have the heft of 12 Years a Slave, and the very source of its greatness (its awe-inducing use of special effects) is also what will probably have it looking dated 20 years hence. But for this year, for the films of 2013, Gravity was extraordinary — it told a simple story, had an engaging central character and blew me away with its imagery. It is the one movie that does “movie” better than the rest — you could see the other nominees working as TV series or mini-series, magazine articles or books. Gravity is only a movie — and one that I still think is best viewed in 3-D on the big screen.
Who will win: 12 Years a Slave. And here’s where I say “but” — but, I think 12 Years a Slave checks more of the Oscar boxes: It’s epic, the story is of great historical importance, it features a top-notch cast with several standout performances, and even when it is depicting something grim, the movie is beautiful-looking. 12 Years A Slave will stand the test of time and is a film not just for the year it was made in but probably a new entry into the canon (joining the likes of Roots) of stories about slavery in America.
Dark horse: American Hustle. The actual runner-up in this category is probably Gravity. If 12 Years doesn’t take the award, Gravity probably will. But what happens if the previous two movies split the bulk of the vote? Of the rest of the field, the win would probably go to American Hustle, which has nominations in all the acting categories.
Shoulda been a contender: Before Midnight, Fruitvale Station, Much Ado About Nothing, Don Jon or The Spectacular Now. Even with additional nominee slots, the best picture category doesn’t throw much love to smaller films or films released before the fall. Much Ado About Nothing and Don Jon in particular stand out as two of the best movies I saw in 2013.
• Best director
Nominees: David O. Russell for American Hustle; Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity; Alexander Payne for Nebraska; Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave; Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street.
Who should win: Alfonso Cuarón. He made me forget that I was watching something created in a studio and pulled me in to both the human element of the story and the dazzling effects.
Who will win: Steve McQueen. Even though predictions are that voters will split the usual pairing of best picture and best director, I still have a hard time seeing how you can award McQueen’s artfully brought together film and not give him credit as well. (And, for the record, it would be a deserved win — he masterfully tells a difficult story, getting the details right as well as the broad strokes.)
Dark horse: David O. Russell. See best picture re: vote splitting.
Shoulda been a contender: Spike Jonze. Her has its flaws but this interesting tale could have a been a syrupy mess without the occasional injection of oddball-ness and I credit Jonze for that.
• Best actress
Nominees: Amy Adams for American Hustle; Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine; Sandra Bullock for Gravity; Judi Dench for Philomena; Meryl Streep for August: Osage County.
Who should win: Sandra Bullock. She’s the whole ball of wax in Gravity. She gives her sad and frightened scientist layers and imperfections that make her feel like a real person and not just a performance.
Who will win: Cate Blanchett. I won’t say that Blanchett’s Blanch DuBois riff isn’t interesting but it is very mannered.
Dark horse: Amy Adams. Adams is the only nominee in this category who hasn’t won before.
Shoulda been a contender: Julie Delpy. Speaking of natural-seeming flawed and layered people, Delpy’s performance as the middle-aged Celine, whose blend of confidence and insecurity seems perfectly calibrated, deserved a spot in this bunch (I don’t think the world would have ended if Streep hadn’t been nominated just this once).
• Best actor
Nominees: Christian Bale for American Hustle; Bruce Dern for Nebraska; Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street; Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave; Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club.
Who should win: Chiwetel Ejiofor. Of this bunch, at least, Ejiofor gave the standout performance of the year.
Who will win: Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey has pulled off a turn in his career — from rom-com blah into something more interesting and serious — that is similar to the one Bullock pulled off (and received an Oscar for) a few years back. It makes sense that he’d be rewarded for that — that and the physical transformation he went through for Dallas Buyers Club. Plus, who would pass up the crazy fun of his acceptance speech?
Dark horse: Leonard DiCaprio. He’d win the “give the boy an award, already” vote.
Shoulda been a contender: Tom Hanks. I think I’d actually swap him with Bale. Though not the totality of the film in the same way Bullock’s was in Gravity, Hanks’ performance in Captain Phillips is at least half of what makes that movie entertaining. I would also accept Joseph Gordon-Levitt for his comic but ultimately heartfelt performance in Don Jon.
• Best supporting actress
Nominees: Sally Hawkins for Blue Jasmine; Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle; Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave; Julia Roberts for August: Osage County, June Squibb for Nebraska.
Who should win: Lupita Nyong’o. In a sea of stand-out performances, hers as the much-tortured Patsey is perhaps even more memorable than Ejiofor’s.
Who will win: Lupita Nyong’o. For reasons stated above. Plus, Jennifer Lawrence will play some version of her American Hustle character in plenty of movies in the future and there will be plenty of chances to shower her with more accolades then.
Dark horse: June Squibb. The graveyard scene where she explains, with gossip, her husband’s family history is worth the price of admission alone.
Shoulda been a contender: Scarlett Johansson — but not for Her. Her performance as the perfect girl who is slowly revealed to be kind of manipulative and terrible in Don Jon is a nice play on the kind of roles she generally plays.
• Best supporting actor
Nominees: Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips; Bradley Cooper for American Hustle; Michael Fassbender for 12 Years a Slave; Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street; Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club.
Who should win: Barkhad Abdi. Talk about your natural, human performance: Abdi takes his character way beyond stock bad guy and gives him a full emotional life.
Who will win: Jared Leto. See McConaughey, re: physical transformation. It’s hard for Oscar voters to pass up a performance that involves dramatic weight loss and a total physical restructuring and is skilled and engrossing.
Dark horse: Barkhad Abdi. Though Michael Fassbender would likely be the bronze-medal competitor in this matchup, it seems unlikely that, if the award didn’t go to Leto, it would go to anyone other than Abdi.
Shoulda been a contender: Benedict Cumberbatch. For whatever. Nominate him for the dragon in The Hobbit for all I care. If Meryl Streep can get a nomination just for stepping out of the dressing room, why not? (Need something specific? Star Trek Into Darkness. He was the best thing about that movie.)
• Best original song
Nominees: “Happy” from Despicable Me 2, music and lyric by Pharrell Williams; “Let It Go” from Frozen, music and lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez; “The Moon Song” from Her, music by Karen O and lyric by Karen O and Spike Jonze; “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, music by U2 and lyric by Bono.
Who should win: “Let It Go.” It is the song of the year, movie-wise. This ballad will be sung by high school show choirs and American Idol contestants from now until forever.
Who will win: “Let It Go.” Google it, it’s officially a thing.
Dark horse: “Ordinary Love.” Who doesn’t love U2? Plus it’s the only song to get any kind of regular radio play.
Shoulda been a contender: “Fare Thee Well” from Inside Llewyn Davis. OK, so this folk standard is (according to Wikipedia) at least 106 years too old to have been in consideration, but the goofy (but tone perfect) “Please Mr. Kennedy” was written for the movie and considering the role that music plays in the Coen brothers film, it would have been nice to see something from the movie nominated.
• Best adapted screenplay
Nominees: Richard Linklater Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for Before Midnight; Billy Ray for Captain Phillips; Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena; John Ridleyfor 12 Years a Slave; Terence Winter for The Wolf of Wall Street.
Who should win: Richard Linklater Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Loose and messy and charming and genuine is how I’d describe this gem of a script.
Who will win: John Ridley. There’s something really impressive about the way the film uses language to made the historic feel modern (but without being anachronistic) and to craft the emotional life of characters, even those we see for just a few minutes, that is impressive.
Dark horse: Terence Winter. Anybody who can come up with that many variations on the f-word deserves a prize.
• Best original screenplay
Nominees: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for American Hustle; Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine; Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack for Dallas Buyers Club; Spike Jonze for Her; Bob Nelson for Nebraska.
Who should win: Spike Jonze. He gets the details of this future world just right — we’re interested in the sci but not distracted from the more emotional fi.
Who will win: Spike Jonze. Her isn’t taking home Best Picture, so here’s the place to give it applause. Also, Jonze took home the Golden Globe in this category.
Dark horse: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell. This would seem to be the place to recognize the movie that, a month or so ago, looked like a serious contender for the top prize.
• Best cinematography
Nominees: Philippe Le Sourd for The Grandmaster; Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity; Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis; Phedon Papamichael for Nebraska; Roger A. Deakins for Prisoners.
Who should win: Gravity. I forgot I was watching special effects, forgot this movie wasn’t in space. Who gets the nod for that if not the cinematographer?
Who will win: Gravity. For all the reasons stated above.
Dark horse: Inside Llewyn Davis. Shot in black and white, this Coen brothers tale of a folk singer didn’t always hold together for me but it was beautiful to look at.
• Best animated feature
Nominees: The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises.
Who should win: Frozen. As two of the five films haven’t had much U.S. distribution yet, I’m basing this on my viewing of The Croods, Despicable Me 2 and Frozen. Of that bunch, Frozen stands out to me as the best, though this year’s category isn’t nearly as impressive as last year’s (where the nominees were Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits and Wreck-It Ralph — potential classics all).
Who will win: Frozen. In a lackluster crowd, it’s the clear winner.
Dark horse: The Wind Rises. This could be the final film from Hayao Miyazaki.
• Best documentary
Nominees: The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, The Square, 20 Feet From Stardom.
Who should win: 20 Feet From Stardom. Admittedly, it’s the only one of the bunch I’ve seen. But this look at backup singers tells engrossing stories and gets you excited about these heretofore unknown (to mainstream audiences) performers.
Who will win: 20 Feet From Stardom. Though this is another category where serious subjects have to compete with lighter fare, I think this inside show biz tale might win more fans.
Dark horse: The Act of Killing. This documentary (the other one with big buzz) contains both a Hollywood element (the shooting of a film about mass killings in Indonesia featuring some of the people who carried out the murders) and a more weighty topic.
• Best foreign language film
Nominees: The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Hunt (Denmark), The Missing Picture (Cambodia), Omar (Palestine).
Who will win: The Great Beauty. I’m completely at the mercy of the Internet here, as I’ve viewed none of these yet myself (though both The Hunt and The Broken Circle Breakdown are available now via Comcast OnDemand and The Great Beauty is available for purchase on iTunes). The Italian film does, however, have the most name recognition of the bunch.
Dark horse: The Hunt. Entertainment Weekly picks this film as the most competitive of the other four.
• Best animated short film
Nominees: Feral; Get A Horse!; Mr. Hublot; Possessions; Room on the Broom
Who should win: Get A Horse! This Disney short nicely blends black and white “Steamboat Willie” era Mickey Mouse with 3-D animation.
Who will win: Get A Horse! It’s Disney’s year.
Dark horse: Mr. Hublot or Room on the Broom. The former is about a set-in-his-ways robot who makes a new friend and the latter is a sweet, kid-friendly tale of a witch and her animal buddies. Both are charming (and all are available for viewing now via Comcast OnDemand and other outlets; see shorts.tv/theoscarshorts for more).
• Best live action short film
Nominees: Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me); Avant Que Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything); Helium; Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have To Take Care of Everything?); The Voorman Problem.
Who should win: The Voorman Problem. This short, clever comedy won me over with its use of Martin Freeman (Watson from Sherlock or Bilbo from The Hobbit, depending on how you like your Cumberbatch) and its cute punch line.
Who will win: Aquel No Era Yo. I tend to think the more serious subject matter of this film (child soldiers in Africa) will win out over the comedies in the category.
Dark horse: Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? This Finnish comedy is laugh-out-loud funny.
As seen in the February 27, 2014 issue of the Hippo.