Oscar 2013-14 – predicting the winners

I have been under the weather lately, and even had to cancel Thursday and Friday classes. Because I don’t normally get sick often, the roughly once-every-two-years happening always hits me like a ton of bricks.

Something that happens once every year is the Academy Awards Ceremony. The 2014 show (which honors the previous year’s movies, a naming quirk that has always confused me), is this Sunday. I just watched “Nebraska,” the Alexander Payne (“Sideways”)-directed, father-son road movie that garnered six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. It is a good little film, but my point is that once again I’ve managed to see just about every nominated film before the live broadcast. The only nominee I’m missing is “August: Osage County.”

Here are my predictions on who will – and who should – win Oscars tonight. I am only an amateur but I seem to have a knack for this sort of thing. Last year I correctly guessed five of the six winners in the Picture, Director, and Acting categories. I hope to improve upon that number in 2014!

Best Picture

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

Who Will Win: Gravity
Who Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Watch Out For: American Hustle

Comments: For the second year in a row, nine films are up for Best Picture. Last year, on the night before the big show, everyone knew “Argo” was going to win the top prize. This year it’s a three-horse race. “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” have been contenders ever since they opened last fall, and if their prospects dipped a bit upon the release of the lively “American Hustle,” they once again are leading the pack now that “Hustle’s” momentum appears to have slowed…

…but “American Hustle” is still very much in this race. David O. Russell remains a wunderkind in Hollywood, and this is his third consecutive film to be nominated for Best Picture (not to mention his third nomination in a row as Best Director). Still, a successful theatrical re-release for “Gravity” as well as a limited release schedule to build buzz for “12 Years a Slave” has worked wonders for both films, “Gravity” in particular.

Unlike last year, the 2014 Best Picture category is the toughest to predict. The Academy often votes for “period” or “message” movies, and the real-time sci-fi drama “Gravity” is neither of these things. Still, I’m predicting a win – albeit by the narrowest of margins – because every once in awhile the Academy realizes that it’s “about time” they vote a certain way. In 2010, they realized it was “about time” a woman won Best Director, and so they chose Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” – a good film but by no means the year’s best. In 2012, they realized it was “about time” living legend Meryl Streep won her third Oscar, and so they rewarded her work in “The Iron Lady” – a good performance but by no means her best. In 2014, I think we’ll find that the Academy has realized it’s time to honor so many great genre films, such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars,” by awarding “Gravity” the Oscar for Best Picture.

Final thought on the category of Best Picture: Who knew that “Gravity” would have such staying power? Its director, Mexico City’s Alfonso Cuarón, is one of my favorite filmmakers, but even so, as good as the film is, it’s basically just a disaster movie that takes place in outer space. It is a technical marvel to behold – and the one film in history that you owe it to yourself to see in 3D – but it doesn’t pack the visceral wallop of “12 Years a Slave,” the “Schindler’s List” of slavery movies. Seriously, there are sequences in that movie that I won’t soon forget, hard as they were to watch. To be clear: “Gravity” is very, very good…but “12 Years a Slave” is even better.

Best Director

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

Who Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón
Who Should Win: Alfonso Cuarón
Watch Out For: Steve McQueen

Comments: As with Best Picture, this is a three-horse race, with the same three films in contention. No disrespect intended, but in a weaker year, David O. Russell would almost certainly win for out-Scorsese-ing even Marty himself in the captivating Abscam comedy “American Hustle.” For the second year in a row, Russell coaxed Oscar nominated performances out of four cast members – one in each eligible acting category! Years ago, Russell had a reputation for being “difficult,” but all you hear these days is that everyone in Hollywood simply clamors to work with him. David O. Russell, your year is coming.

Steve McQueen is another director to watch. He has traveled the indie circuit for years now, and has a loyal fan in Michael Fassbender, who almost certainly missed a nomination two years ago (for “Shame”) by little more than a handful of votes. McQueen has come closest to mainstream success with his commendable antebellum period drama “12 Years a Slave,” a horrifying tale of a free man’s struggles to survive 12 years of indentured servitude. “Gone with the Wind” this is not. The fact that McQueen is black makes an Oscar win for him even more historic (and no less deserving).

But as with Russell, I think this simply isn’t McQueen’s year. This is Mexico’s year. Alfonso Cuarón, nominated this year for “Gravity,” has been making great films for years. Remember “Children of Men,” the Clive Owen-starring post-apocalyptic thriller? That was his. Remember “Y Tu Mamá También,” that colorful and sexy NC-17 road movie? His, too. Ask anyone to name their favorite “Harry Potter” movie and they usually say “the time travel one,” referring to “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Yep, that was his also. Cuarón was born in Mexico City and is something of a local hero. His mastery of craft – and his ability to never let his visuals substitute for story – have made him this year’s front-runner. I imagine that as I watch the show tonight, when his name is read a collective cheer will emanate across the neighborhood. I might just join my neighbors in celebration. Well done, señor.

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

Who Will Win: Matthew McConaughey
Who Should Win: Matthew McConaughey
Watch Out For: Leonardo DiCaprio

Comments: Matthew McConaughey is this year’s clear front-runner. His turn in “Dallas Buyers Club” as Ron Woodruff, a real-life Texas rodeo cowboy and horndog, forced to re-adjust his priorities and confront his own homophobia after being diagnosed with HIV, is an impressive late-career reinvention for an actor most famous for making disposable romantic comedies and playing the bongo drums while shirtless and barefooted. The movie is just okay (it makes the well-intentioned mistake of trying to tackle too many aspects of the AIDS crisis), but McConaughey is the best thing about it.

I also liked Chiwetel Ejiofor as another real-life hero, Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, separated from his wife and family, and at the will of cruel slave owners and barbarous plantation lords. Ejiofor has one of those “I’ve seen him before” faces, and has appeared in movies for over a decade; something tells me you’ll never forget him again after seeing this film. As Northup, Ejiofor is tough, moving, and subtle. If his name is called tomorrow night for “12 Years a Slave” it’ll be a surprise, but know that there will have been many less deserving upsets in years past.

On the opposite end of the subtlety spectrum is Leonardo DiCaprio as (yet another) real person, the (still living) “Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort. Many people think DiCaprio’s name could be the one called and not McConaughey’s. This is Leo’s fourth nomination and his most charismatic performance since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” 21 years ago!

Best Actress

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

Who Will Win: Cate Blanchett
Who Should Win: Cate Blanchett
Watch Out For: Judi Dench

Comments: This veterans-only roster of nominees is a formidable one: six Oscar statuettes and at least 35 nominations between them all. Had Emma Thompson – a surprising snub for “Saving Mr. Banks” – snuck in here it would hardly have changed anything. Yes, 2013 was a great year for women in movies. But alas, there can be only one winner, and I will be very surprised if it turns out to be anyone other than Cate Blanchett. As the title character in “Blue Jasmine” – a widow and former-one-percenter who has yet to comprehend that she is truly down-and-out – Blanchett breaks your heart. She is sure to become just the latest in a line of actresses to earn Oscar gold for appearing in a Woody Allen movie; others to receive Oscars under his tutelage include Penélope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”), Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”), and Dianne Wiest (“Broadway Danny Rose” and “Bullets over Broadway”), as well as a dozen more nominees.

There has been no small amount of controversy over the allegations of abuse leveled at Woody by his stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow. Some Oscar pundits fear that this may harm Blanchett’s chances at a trophy (her second Oscar; she previously won Best Supporting Actress for 2004’s “The Aviator”); a few even say she – and her co-stars – are complicit in the controversy by continuing to work with Woody rather than lambasting him for his alleged wrongdoing. This seems unfair to me. Either way, I’m not worried about her chances. It is the best Lead Actress performance I can recall from any film in years, and everyone knows it.

Best Supporting Actor

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

Who Will Win: Jared Leto
Who Should Win: Michael Fassbender
Watch Out For: Barkhad Abdi

Comments: This year’s list of Best Supporting Actor nominees is a solid one, with an average age of almost half that of 2013’s list. (That year’s eventual winner, Christoph Waltz for “Django Unchained,” was 17 years older than this year’s oldest nominee, Bradley Cooper, at the time of Waltz’s win. I loves me some Oscar trivia!)

And what an eclectic group of nominees! Bradley Cooper has the most screen time of everyone here (not to mention one heck of a perm) playing not-quite-on-the-level FBI agent Richie DiMaso in “American Hustle.” Jonah Hill steals his every scene as a Quaalude-popping stock trader married to his own cousin in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Somalia-born former taxi driver Barkhad Abdi impresses in his first acting role as the head hostage taker in the tense high seas drama “Captain Phillips.” And Michael Fassbender mesmerizes in his best performance yet as Edwin Epps, a slave-abusing, scripture-reading, hard-drinking plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave.”

But even more than Best Actress, the field of Best Supporting Actor is the easiest to predict. This year’s Oscar will go to “Thirty Seconds to Mars” frontman Jared Leto, a heartbreaker as pre-op transgender Rayon in “Dallas Buyers Club.” It is through Leto’s character, a delicate flower given a too-short life span due to her advanced AIDS prognosis, that the film’s main character, Ron Woodruff (Best Actor nominee Matthew McConaughey) earns his gradual redemption, shedding his blatant homophobia as he discovers that these sufferers don’t have time for bigotry.

That said, my vote is for Fassbender. He commands more screen time than Leto and he makes for one of the screen’s most hissable villains since Daniel Day-Lewis in “There will be Blood.” His character, Epps, believes it is his God-given right to do with his “property” (for that’s all a slave is to him) whatever he pleases, and this apparently includes rape, violence, and psychological abuse. Worse yet, Epps is not just a monster but also a buffoon, making him even more dangerous. Fassbender should win, but I take some comfort that someday soon, he will.

Best Supporting Actress

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

Who Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o
Who Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o
Watch Out For: Jennifer Lawrence

Comments: As early as last fall, this race was Lupita Nyong’o’s to lose. Her character, Patsey, is the emotional heart of “12 Years a Slave.” She is the plantation’s most productive worker, its most child-like spirit, and the tortured obsession of the plantation master (played by the aforementioned Michael Fassbender). One scene, mid-way through the film, finds Patsey begging our protagonist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to drown her in the river; I expect this to be the Oscar reel scene that the Awards show will broadcast.

But then came “American Hustle,” acclaimed upon its release as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Jennifer Lawrence, who has just a few scenes (she plays Christian Bale’s trash-talking wife), admittedly has the film’s best lines, and her showy performance had voters screaming “back-to-back Oscars” about the 23-year-old star. Seriously, she’s only 23; is there anything she can’t do?!

Oscar loves stories like Lawrence’s, and five other actors have won back-to-back statuettes in the past (the most recent: Tom Hanks for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump”). That said, she’s already on her third nomination. For Nyong’o, on the other hand, roles like that of Patsey come once in a lifetime. Lawrence has a small-ish chance at a trophy – and some are even betting on 85-year-old June Squibb for the win – but I’m confident that Lupita Nyong’o will take home the gold. If her name is read tonight, I’m betting pundits will say something to the effect of, were her chances ever really in doubt? 🙂

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club

Who Will Win: Her
Who Should Win: Her
Watch Out For: American Hustle

Comments: Oscar-wise, 2014 could be a great year for science fiction. I have already written about “Gravity,” poised for several wins in several categories (including, perhaps, Best Picture). There is also the not-too-distant-future-set “Her,” which finds mustachioed Los Angeles greeting card writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with his operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. As written by Spike Jonze of “Being John Malkovich” fame, “Her” is funny, observant, and yes, refreshingly strange.  The only competition, I think, is from “American Hustle.” This could be the Academy’s best chance of rewarding the film something. To be sure, “American Hustle” is sharply written. I wouldn’t complain – nor be too surprised – if it won, but I’m still betting on Spike Jonze and his wonderful, offbeat, man-and-machine love story.

Best Adapted Screenplay

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

Who Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Who Should Win: Before Midnight
Watch Out For: Captain Phillips

Comments: If you’ve seen director Steve McQueen’s sobering slavery drama “12 Years a Slave,” you no doubt were pulverized by the emotion of the story and by the images presented on screen. This is a true story, the screenplay based on the events penned by the film’s main character, Solomon Northup. As screenplays go it isn’t the best – we aren’t given enough information about why he in particular was duped by his traitors, if nothing else – but the story that McQueen, Ejiofor, and writer John Ridley tells is a powerful one nonetheless. I think it will win.

If I was allowed to vote, however, I’d choose “Before Midnight,” the third (and possibly last) film in Richard Linklater’s enchanting series about the tortured love between American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Frenchwoman Celine (Julie Delpy). The thing is, each “Before” film is better than the one before. The collaborative screenplay – Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy are the co-screenwriters – has nary a moment of untruth. Jesse and Celine feel like a real couple, and watching them, you feel as if you’ve known them all your life.

Other categories

Okay, I’ll keep this short: “Frozen” for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, “The Great Gatsby” for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, “Dallas Buyers Club” for Best Makeup, and “Gravity” for just about everything else.

What do you think, Loyal Reader? Will “Gravity” be the first sci-fi film to win Best Picture, as many people think it might? Or will it be “12 Years a Slave,” the first slavery film to win that honor? How will Ellen DeGeneres fare in her second time as Oscar host? Will the rain dampen everyone’s Oscar spirits?

Please take a moment to comment below. See you after the show!

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

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