They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
The Oscar Race as it Stands Pre-Nominations
By J. Don Birnam
January 15, 2014

You drew a painting of Kate Winslet's WHAT?

Trying to predict the Oscars has always been a dicey proposition - advisable only if one doesn’t mind constant embarrassment - particularly in (increasingly rare) competitive races like Oscar year 2013. Widely considered a strong year for movies, 2013 has as of yet not shown itself predictable regarding the Best Picture race. At least not as predictable as the last few iterations of Oscar have been, with the Best Picture winner known well in advance of the big night. While there is an undeniable frontrunner - the challenging and important 12 Years a Slave - there is at least an argument that critical darling American Hustle and its star-studded cast poses a serious threat. On the outside looking in is a third film, likely the actual Best of the year, about a woman’s literal and figurative heart-wrenching travail back to Earth - Alfonso Cuaron’s technical masterpiece, Gravity.

In a few weeks, when the three major guilds (PGA, DGA, and SAG), have spoken, we may have a clearer picture of where the Oscar chips are falling (or, for the sake of excitement, perhaps we may not). But with more than six weeks to go to the big show, on the eve of nominations, and fresh off the heels of the Golden Globes, it is a little harder to predict what will reign victorious on March 2nd. Indeed, the three films vying for the top prize each won significant awards at this weekend’s Golden Globes (12 Years won Best Drama; Hustle won Best Comedy; and Gravity won Best Director). While of course there is no overlap between the 80-plus foreign correspondents that hand out the Globes and the eclectic 6,000 or so members of the Academy, both groups are, after all, composed of human beings. There is only so wide a range of emotions.

Thus, with the Golden Globe three-way split offering little insight as to where the little gold man may land, we are forced to resort to Oscar’s vast history to illuminate the way. Indeed, even a quick dip into Oscar’s recent trends reveals several clear propositions and, perhaps/probably/likely, our eventual winner. The first, and easiest proposition, is that Gravity cannot and will not win Best Picture. I can give several dozen reasons. Sci-fi and/or space movies never win. Movies about strong female lead characters never win. A movie about basically one person will simply never win. It just doesn’t feel “important” enough. Oh, of course one can find exceptions here and there over 85+ years of Oscar. But the overall trends are undeniable. If Gravity won Best Picture it would signify a stunning shift in the Academy’s tastes that simply is not in the cards.

The second proposition is that the race will be decided by whatever movie makes Oscar voters feel best about themselves. Sprinkled over the last several Best Picture races is a subtle but undeniable message: give us the movie that will make us feel the best when we vote for it when we leave the movie house. Examples include Argo, with its underdog story about snubbed Ben Affleck and about an American hero; The Artist, with its cute little dog and quirky, happy soundtrack and dance; and The King’s Speech, with the quintessential hero that must overcome adversity and personal flaws to save the world. These three movies undeniably have that feature in common - they lift up the human spirit. Certainly, they make one “feel” a lot better than the films each of these winners vanquished - the darker Lincoln or the more complex Life of Pi, or the unforgiving, hope-killing Social Network.

So, using this rule, which of 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle has the edge as the race stands here today? Well, it is closer than one may think. 12 Years is a difficult movie to watch, for some at least. It is unforgiving in its realistic and honest depictions of the most shameful chapter in our history. I fear that many Oscar voters will simply think “Thanks, but no thanks.” On the other hand, voting for 12 Years also has the potential to make some members feel good about themselves. “See, slavery is bad. Vote.” American Hustle, by contrast, is an easy movie. It tells the typical anti-hero story that the Academy loves, one featuring an ultimately redeemed individual who sees the light. But it is widely known that its director, David O. Russell, is not universally beloved in Hollywood, and a vote for his movie may not leave everyone “feeling good about themselves.” And, what’s so important about American Hustle in today’s moment, anyway? It undeniably does not have the gravitas that 12 Years possesses. So it’s an astonishingly difficult choice to make. Certainly, a strong nominations tally will be an indication that either movie resonated with several branches. As it is now, I have to pick 12 Years for the win, simply because it is plainly the better movie than the more rambling, and at times overacted, American Hustle.

Predicting the Nominees : Best Picture and Director

With that first, bold, doomed-to-be-wrong prediction out of the way, I will offer a few more that can give you a head start in winning your Oscar pools, should you dare to listen. What movies will join this trifecta at the Best Picture nominations podium, and exactly how many nominees will there be? Predictions vary widely across the web, but here’s my stab at it.

First, it is a foregone conclusion that 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and American Hustle will roll off of Chris Hemsworth’s pretty face on nominations morning. Done deal, take it to the bank, etc. The consensus fourth slot will most likely go to Captain Phillips, a solid film with respected acting turns by a well-liked director, Paul Greengrass. From here it gets dicier. My gut tells me that Martin Scorsese’s controversial masterpiece The Wolf of Wall Street has enough passionate supporters to easily nab a nomination. The well-known saying amongst Oscar pundits is that controversy gets you a nomination but never a win, and I believe this will hold true for Wolf as it has for other movies in recent memory, The Tree of Life being the example that first comes to mind.

Next up is likely Alexander Payne’s exquisite portrayal of an American Life in Nebraska. Perhaps one of my favorite movies at the New York Film Festival, Nebraska has enough love from the acting branch, in my view, to get it through easily to a Best Picture nod. The next two movies seem to be teetering on the edge, yet PGA nominations for Dallas Buyers Club and Saving Mr. Banks, along with a SAG nod for the former indicate at least some guild respect for the two films that ought to be enough to send them to the group of finalists on nominations morning. Saving Mr. Banks, however, appears to be the weakest after starting off strong post-release. Still, Emma Thompson’s sure-to-be-nominated performance, Tom Hanks’ popularity, and the appeal of a movie about the making of a movie ought to prove sufficiently irresistible to enough Academy voters.

And so it’s come down to this. Two potential more spots. The PGA, of course, went with Blue Jasmine and Her. Neither, however, will make my list. Blue Jasmine has not really gained much traction outside of Cate Blanchett’s likely Oscar-winning performance, and it’s sufficiently dark and dreary to turn off some voters looking for that last spot. And Her, I fear, is too quirky and even weird to appeal to voters, and its low box office returns are not a good sign for the witty and insightful Spike Jonze movie, despite its somewhat surprising Screenplay accolade at the Globes. The limb I’m going out on here is to predict that there will be a ninth nominee, but that it will be the mostly unheralded August: Osage County. The SAG nominations are an indication of popularity within the actors’ branch, and the Weinsteins are not about to miss out on a Best Picture nominee for the first time since who knows when. No, I expect them to have at least one successful nominee on Thursday, and I’m going to go with August over the arguably better Philomena on the strength of the star-studded cast and name recognition for the Streep/Roberts vehicle.

As for the Directing category, I think they will match my top five Best Picture nominees and be Steve McQueen for 12 Years, Cuaron for Gravity, Russell for American Hustle, Greengrass for Captain Phillips and, yes, Scorsese for Wolf. I realize this lines up perfectly with the DGA five, and that this is folly by definition as there are normally at one or two discrepancies (last year, of course, was a notable anomaly in that the discrepancies are likely explained by the fact that Oscar nominations closed before the DGA nominations had been released; this year, the trigger-shy directors of the Academy directing branch had the benefit of the DGA nominations before they filled out their ballots). But I really believe that the Academy branch will recognize Wolf for the masterpiece that it is, and that it will go the conventional route by nominating the perceived Best Picture front runners. The last thing they want is another Argo-type mini-scandal on their hands.

Predicting the Nominees: Lead Actor and Actress

The lead acting categories are somewhat tougher. In the Best Actress race there are again three sure-bet contenders. The far-and-away front-runner Blanchett, who turns in the best performance of her career; Sandra Bullock for Gravity, who gives what is perhaps the hardest performance of the year in terms of simple degree of physical difficulty; and Emma Thompson for Mr. Banks, a subtle, beautiful performance that would have reigned supreme any other year. From there it gets messy. Amy Adams is no sure thing for American Hustle, but a nomination will surely be sign of the relative strength of the film. Some are saying Judi Dench for Philomena, a sublime performance that should not be missed by any moviegoer this year. And of course there’s the undeniable Meryl. Although my gut tells me that Meryl fatigue may rob her of her record-breaking 17th nomination this time around, for the sake of consistency with my view that the movie is stronger than some people believe, I will slot Meryl in the fifth spot, with Dame Judi sadly missing the cut. But it’s fairly certain to be somewhere within those six actresses. No one else has a realistic chance.

Best Actor is much more of a cluster**. By my count there are at least eight, if not nine, actors with serious chances at a nomination. Probably safe are Tom Hanks for Phillips and Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years, as those performances anchor two Best Picture front runners and, in any event, are strong on their own merit. Bruce Dern for Nebraska is arguably next, given that he gives what is probably the best performance of the year in this category, and that he has led a remarkable and admired career. It gets dicier after this. If I had an Oscar ballot I would undoubtedly pencil in Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio for two astonishing performances. Like Bullock, Redford gets in simply based on the degree of difficulty of heading up an entire film - literally every scene - and doing so masterfully without uttering more than a handful of words over the course of two hours. And DiCaprio’s versatile, moving performance, although at the level of what we’ve come to expect from Leo, cannot be discounted. But Matthew McConaughey’s transformation from romantic comedy oaf to serious actor has rightfully earned him respect amongst the Hollywood elite, and his performance in Dallas Buyers Club, while somewhat clunky at times, cannot be ignored. Nor can Christian Bale’s transformative turn in American Hustle, and if the movie is strong he will likely be swept in with its coattails. Other movie-stealing performances like Oscar Isaac’s in Inside Llewyn Davis and Forest Whitaker’s The Butler are likely on the outside looking in, but hearing their names called would not be entirely shocking. In the end, however, I’m going to predict either Bale or McConaughey to squeeze out Redford for the nomination.

So there you have it. Come back Thursday morning to check out how wrong I am.

Final Nominations Predictions

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street
Dallas Buyers Club
Saving Mr. Banks
August: Osage County

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actor
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County