Oscar Nomination Predictions 2014

E:  Who will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences choose to reward with film’s highest honor? Or at least with their second highest honor, Oscar nominations?  That’s the question for today, and come Thursday morning, we’ll find the answers.  Here’s the thing that happens every year; we don’t know what we think we know.  Every year, somebody who looks like a lock gets dumped.  Some other worthy comes out of left field.  It’s so tough a job that Nate Silver can perfectly predict the presidential election down to county totals, and yet he can’t figure this out.

So is it a lost cause, predicting the nominations?  Not really.  With a research into the various precursor awards, a attention to the buzz and the controversies surrounding various films, experience and good gut instincts, you can anticipate much of what’s to come.  Precursor awards, in case you’re wondering, come from a welter of sources, beginning with the National Board of Review and spiraling out to include a bunch of straight critical group prizes – the L.A. Film Critics, the New York Film Critics, the American Film Institute, film critics groups from every other major city and region in America, and then the groups with nominations like the Independent Spirits, the Screen Actors Guild, the Broadcast Film Critics/Critics Choice, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and the Golden Globes. And together, those awards help tell a story.

This is what I think that story is.

Best Supporting Actor:

The Overwhelming Favorite:

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Nomination Lock:

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Strong Shots:

Michael Fassbender, 12 years a Slave

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

He’s Made the Most Short Lists:

Daniel Bruhl, Rush

But Then Again:

James Gandolfini, Enough Said

Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks

Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Longest of Crazy Long Shots:

James Franco, Spring Breakers

Which four men will have the privilege of losing to Jared Leto?  All the precursor awards tell us that Jared Leto – after a six year absence from acting – has burst into the limelight.  Sure, he’s younger and prettier than the average male nominee, but there’s more wiggle room in the supporting categories, and he has been so dominant that a snub for him would be a Ben Affleck level shake up.  As the dying transvestite Rayon, Leto changes minds and breaks hearts in the immensely moving true story Dallas Buyers Club, about AIDS patients who smuggle black market medicine across the Texas border from Mexican clinics which managed to crack the code long before American pharmaceutical companies did.  Leto’s work is real, and touching, and vibrant, rendering him unrecognizable as the teen heart-throb you remember from My So Called Life. Of course anything can happen – could his British Academy (BAFTA) snub presage an American one rather than just a mishap of his film’s release schedule? – but you should prepare to see him achieve not only his first nomination tomorrow, or hear quite a lot about it in the press if he doesn’t.

There are five solid candidates for those four losing slots and several others with an outside chance. So first let’s say who it won’t be.

Older Academy voters are likely to choke not so much on previous nominee James Franco himself as on the movie Spring Breakers itself. One time nominee Jonah Hill has had considerable buzz, but hasn’t managed to turn this into any precursor nominations.    Two time Oscar winner Tom Hanks has a shot at pulling off a double nomination, but with the campaign against Saving Mr. Banks‘ accuracy in full swing, he may not be able to manage it.  It’s a shame, because his canny, determined Walt Disney rounded out one of my favorite movies of 2013.  In fact it pains me to consider him out of contention, but unfortunately the odds don’t seem to be in his favor.

Three men have actually made all the same shortlists as Jared; the first is limo driver Barkhad Abdi, now poised to receive his first Oscar nomination for his very first acting role as the terrifyingly desperate and commanding leader of the Somali pirates who highjack Tom Hanks’ boat in Captain Phillips..  The most significant precursor awards are the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, the BAFTAs and the Critics Choice/Broadcast Film Critics Association Award.  Michael Fassbender has made all four lists for his mercurial, vicious plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave.  Granted, Fassbender was widely nominated back in 2012 for his role in Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama Shame and then left off the Oscar shortlist; we can only wonder if the conservative Academy members who found his physically and emotionally naked performance in that film too distasteful are more comfortable seeing him beat, whip and rape slaves this time.

Also making the four shortlists is German actor Daniel Bruhl for his role as a race car driver recovering from catastrophic injury and battling again in Rush.   If there were to be a snub this year (and it’s always someone – ask Fassbender, John Hawkes or Mila Kunis), I’d guess it could be Bruhl.  Aside from a role in the enormous ensemble Inglourious Basterds, he’s largely unknown to American audiences, and he didn’t receive a huge amount of buzz when the film first came out.  The film itself was an uncharacteristic box office miss for director Ron Howard, and unlike his previous effort Frost/Nixon the sexy racing flick aimed for box office numbers. Of course, what makes something a shocking omission is that you don’t see it coming at all.

If you do accept that those four are a lock, however, there’s still an interesting calculus that goes into anticipating the final slot.  James Gandolfini was nominated by SAG and the Critics Choice (which picks 6 instead of 5 contenders in all categories).  Bradley Cooper was honored by BAFTA, the Critics Choice and the Golden Globes. American Hustle is having a moment, which might help Cooper.  Heck, Cooper’s having a rather extended moment himself; witness his first nomination last year against very impressive competition. On the other hand, American Hustle‘s moment might have started a little too late, and Cooper’s FBI agent puppeteer is far less sympathetic than his mental patient Pat from Silver Linings Playbook.  I’ll be very curious to see how this pans out.  Though Enough Said garnered good reviews, James Gandolfini’s loveable lug/romantic interest has gathered attention largely because it’s the well-liked actor’s final role.  I think he’s seen more as a television actor than a film one, though, and a lot of Academy members are old enough and stodgy enough for that distinction to matter.  Sometimes you can have a huge groundswell of support for an actor’s final role – witness Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight – but if there was an overwhelming swell, we’d have seen it.  So will there be enough of a push?  It’s possible, but my gut says no.  Of course, my gut isn’t very excited about Daniel Bruhl either, but perhaps that’s just because I’m still holding out hope for Tom Hanks.

My Guess: Abdi, Bruhl, Cooper, Fassbender, Leto

Alternate: Gandolfini

The Shocking Surprise: Franco

Best Supporting Actress:

The Buzziest Performances of the Year:

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Ooops, It’s Been More Than a Decade – Time to Nominate Her Again:

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

Everyone Everywhere Knows Who She Is:

Oprah Winfrey, The Butler

Everybody Loves Her Even If They Don’t Know Who She Is:

June Squibb, Nebraska

Maybe This Time:

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

It’s Happened Before:

Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station

Long Shot:

Scarlett Johansson, Her

Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave

Lea Seydoux, Blue Is the Warmest Color

This year’s group of supporting actresses has been largely a consistent one.  Barring a left field surprise, this list ought to stay relatively easy.

Let me dispense with the long shots right away: I don’t even really understand why Sarah Paulson – an awards magnet for her television work – hasn’t been getting play for her role as a violently jealous Southern wife, but she hasn’t.  It’s a showier role than others on this list, but it just hasn’t gotten the requisite attention. Seydoux costars in a steamy French lesbian coming of age movie.  Actors get nominated for foreign films, but usually they have more sustained buzz. If Blue Is the Warmest Color were in theaters now, or if it had done more business in America, Seydoux might be getting more notice. As it is, she’s highly unlikely to make the shortlist. Scarlett Johansson has plenty of attention (and a Critic’s Choice nomination), but her role is entirely done in voice over.  No one has ever received an Oscar nomination for a purely vocal performance, though every few years there’ll be a campaign (and public debate) inspired by a particularly impressive one – Robin Williams in Aladdin, Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo, Andy Serkis in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, even Zoe Saldana in Avatar. Johansson wins this year’s Miss Voice Over sash. The Academy doesn’t seem to eager to break that barrier any time soon, and I don’t expect this to be the year.

Sally Hawkins edged out Oprah Winfrey on the Golden Globes shortlist, but the Hollywood Foreign Press appreciates and looks out for Hawkins in a way that the Academy doesn’t seem to. She’s made the BAFTA list, but they often favor British actors, especially over an obscure American like June Squibb. Critic’s Choice didn’t bite. While Woody Allen has given a boost to the career of many actresses (especially in the supporting actress category – think Diane Weist, Mira Sorvino, Penelope Cruz), this year all the air in the room has been sucked up by Cate Blanchett’s overwhelmingly beloved lead performance.  Sometimes that kind of dominance can elevate an entire film and bring attention to the supporting roles, but so far it doesn’t seem to be working out that way.  Still, of the contenders Hawkins has the best shot of slipping onto the slate.

Then again, I have a feeling that we’re not doing well to ignore Fruitvale Station, the indie that enraptured critics and fans for much of this year.  I have trouble imagining that it could break into the star studded Best Actor category, and even Best Picture would be a tough slog.  Not impossible – this is a Weinstein Company film after all – even if so far the signs aren’t too promising. But to reward a former supporting actress winner, one who pushed hard for this film to be made?  If this films gets noticed at all, screenplay and here would be my bets.

That leaves us to the main contenders.  Somehow – perhaps because of her celebrity, because of Harvey Weinstein, because of the movie’s subject, because of its popularity at the box office – Oprah’s held on to her chance at a nomination when the rest of the promising film’s prospects have faded.  Though she missed out at the Golden Globes, both SAG and BAFTA boosted her profile with a nod.  Most pundits believe she’ll capture the fifth slot.  After all, it’s actors who get to vote on the acting nominations.  Though SAG’s not a perfect mirror of the Academy’s acting wing (we’re talking 160,000 actors in SAG-AFTRA versus approximately 1200 in the Academy) it’s generally not a terrible guide either.  BAFTA, with it’s own biases and release schedule differences, can be an even better one. Winfrey also has a Critics Choice nod to bolster her campaign.

Four other actresses appear to have their slots sewn up, at least to judge by their presence on the major shortlists and a bevy of local critics awards as well. The marvelously named character actress June Squibb seems to be holding strong for her turn as the grounded, wisecrack spewing wife of Bruce Dern’s elderly dreamer.   The apple-cheeked grandmotherly 84 year old, a mainstay of Nebraska director Alexander Payne’s work, has only been making films since the early 90s, but she’s been acting for ages  – she was part of the original Broadway cast of Gypsy, even, back in 1959. Despite missing out on a BAFTA nod, she’s snagged ones from the Golden Globes, SAG and the Broadcast Critics.  Even without a BAFTA nod, it looks like she’s in.

I know it sounds silly, but BAFTA, SAG and Broadcast Critics nominee Julia Roberts has two nominations from the early 90s, then one from the early 2000s.  This seems to be her pattern.  Therefor, it is time.  Her role as Meryl Streep’s put-upon daughter has had Oscar watchers doing jazz hands since she was cast. Though Oscar is less impressed by stardom than the Golden Globes, they definitely relish the chance to reward their box office juggernauts with a little critical validation.  That’s what the show is all about, after all.  Selling tickets.  Selling the dream.  Showing film-making as a legitimate art.  Despite the movie’s strangely disappointing critical and box office reception, it’s still got a fantastic pedigree – Pulitzer winning play, ridiculously amazing cast – and Julia’s still America’s girl.

How to you play exceptional on screen?  Patsey, the slave played by Lupita Nyong’o in Steve McQueen’s watershed 12 Years a Slave, picks twice the cotton of the men and women who work with her in the field.  Yet we don’t need statistics to see that she’s different; she glows from within.  Without being defiant, she remains unbowed – she remains herself in the face of terrible attention from plantation owner Michael Fassbender, and the vengeful bitterness of his wife.  How do you play that?  How do you set out to be luminous?  How is that we can just watch her make straw dolls and fall in love with her confidant grace?  Whatever the technique, Nyong’o has accomplished it, and it is her story even more than Solomon Northrup’s that shows the true price of enslavement, the great potential wasted, the monster it creates in the master and the horrific crippling of the slave.

I think it’s fair to say that most of America is pretty obsessed with Jennifer Lawrence right now. Clips of her wacky talk show appearances litter the internet; her honesty, her humor and her absolute fearlessness enthrall us.  She already has the top box office spot of 2013 (apparently the first female lead film to top the yearly box office in 40 years) and she’s on the cusp of receiving her third Oscar nomination in four years.  The reigning Best Actress winner for David O. Russell’s previous effort, Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence manages to be utterly convincing as the loose cannon wife of Christian Bale’s conman and the comic highlight of an already funny movie.  (Seriously, the scene where she lip syncs while cleaning her living room?  Genius.) Can she win two years in a row?  That’s a tough question; it’s incredibly unusual. Whether she’s captured the national imagination enough to repeat Tom Hanks’ feat of twenty years ago or not, she’s clearly a lock for a nomination.

To Sum Up:  Lawrence, Nyong’o, Roberts, Squibb, Winfrey

Alternate: Hawkins

Shocking Surprise: Spencer

Best Actor:

These Two, The Critics Say:

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Solid as a Rock:

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Solid as an Ice Berg:

Robert Redford, All is Lost

The Ravening Hordes:

Christian Bale, American Hustle

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Once Frontrunners:

Oscar Isaacs, Inside Llewyn Davis

Forest Whitaker, The Butler

The Breakout Indie Star of the Year:

Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station

Long Shots:

Idris Elba, Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom

Joachin Phoenix, Her

Elba and Phoenix may have picked up Golden Globe nominations, but neither man’s movie seems to have taken off enough to propel them into what is classically the toughest nomination to get.  After all, pretty much every movie has a male lead; voters are spoiled for choice.  Her may be peaking too late (fault its late roll out schedule) and Phoenix’s work may suffer in comparison with his unforgettable wreck in 2012’s The Master: Mandela somehow failed to capitalize on our fascination with the towering statesman and the outpouring of attention brought on by his death.  Though his movie ruled in the critics thoughts for at least the first half of the year, Michael B. Jordan will most likely have to be satisfied with breaking into the big time for his role as shooting victim Oscar Grant.  He’s landed on pretty much none of the precursor lists despite the huge amount of attention he’d gotten in the press. (No one stays on top forever; this is why most Oscar movies come out in the last few months of the year.)  His reward may simply be better parts in the future.

Back in September, pundits would have told you that Forest Whitaker was on track to capture his second Oscar nomination if not a win for his work in the popular civil rights drama The Butler.  His character’s canniness lay in his silence, however, his ability to avoid controversy, and so perhaps the role didn’t provide enough scenery chewing to keep hold of voter’s attention.   Though his film was considered to be in the hunt until its omission from the Producer’s Guild Award nominations, Isaacs never really had a strong shot.  The Oscars are sparing with their unknowns, and handsome young men don’t make the cut nearly as often as beautiful young women do.  The Academy, they like their leading men aged up.

And that problem leads us to Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s been nominated 3 times though never in his youthful, matinee idol phase.  His snub for Titanic still rankles fans. His fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street, has been plagued by aspersions that it glorifies the vile behavior it depicts.  Defenders of the film cite works as old as Milton’s Paradise Lost, which was castigated for making the devil too charming; they argue that the lack of a moral point of view puts the burden on the audience to judge the film’s events. DiCaprio’s version of the real Jordan Belfort bursts with confidence, excess and debauchery. Though Hollywood – and the Academy – is hardly a bastion of gender equality, it’s possible the negative attention could sabotage DiCaprio’s chances in a cutthroat year. Though it came too late to influence the nomination voting, DiCaprio’s win at the Golden Globes for best actor in a Musical or Comedy could alternately suggest a surge in his direction.

There’s no such controversy between Christian Bale and another nomination (although Bale’s no stranger to such critiques). Like DiCaprio, Bale has a solid working relationship with his director, although in his case this has produced not only his single nomination but also a supporting actor win for The Fighter.  As a smart, vain 70s conman who’ll do anything to survive, the normally svelte and handsome Bale cuts one of the more memorable figures of the year with his elaborate comb-over and swollen beer gut.

Robert Redford was nominated for his acting exactly once, for 1974’s charming, brilliant Best Picture winner The Sting.  This time around, he’s poised to capture his second nomination for playing a old man against the sea – a sailor silent and alone fighting to stay alive through a terrible storm. The film had a small reception, but Redford still seems to be hanging on. One imagines that older Academy voters might relish the chance to reward a contemporary, and certainly younger members could honor him (as Oscar did in 2002) for his commitment to and championing of independent film.

Though he’s unlikely to capture the twofer, two time winner and five time nominee Tom Hanks is still poised to pick up his first nomination since the year 2000. Hanks blazed into the awards race, a contender for the first time since Castaway.  The true story Captain Phillips connected with audiences; not only is Hanks one of the most beloved actors in America, but his film is one of the most popular and well respected of the year.

These days Bruce Dern’s probably best known for being Laura Dern’s father.  Like Redford, he was nominated once before back in 1979.  Though his loss to DiCaprio at the Golden Globes might bode ill, he’s still likely to make the big dance for his well-loved comic turn as an irascible and somewhat delusional codger on a road trip with son Will Forte across the state of Nebraska. Alexander Payne’s managed to get his last two leading men nominated (George Clooney for The Descendants and Jack Nicholson for About Schmidt) so that helps too.  A few months ago, I’d have guessed that Dern could win; though he’s taken a few critics prizes, it doesn’t really look like that anymore.  It does look like he’ll hang on for the nomination, though; he’s lucky the votes were due before the Golden Globe ceremony.

This leaves us with the two men who’ve taken the bulk of the critics prizes – Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyer’s Club‘s homophobic cowboy turned a AIDS entrepreneur and patient advocate, and Chiwetel Ejiofor for the searing historical drama 12 Years a Slave. That both films are based on true stories and real individuals helps; that both stories show the protagonists overcome real and horrific obstacles does as well.

The already slender McConaughey lost 45 pounds to play disease ravaged cowboy and oil industry electrician Ron Woodroof; the trajectory of his journey from bigot to advocate brings is the kind of inspirational true story Hollywood loves to celebrate.  When McConaughey made his big break in Dazed and Confused, Hollywood embraced him as a thrilling new presence; in the years since, however, he squandered his Southern charm on third rate romantic comedies.  Finally, within the last year or two, he returned to the promise many thought they saw in A Time To Kill.  He had a bit of buzz last year for the very unlikely awards bait Magic Mike, but has cruised to prominence this year in Mud and of course Dallas Buyers Club.  Though he too missed out on a BAFTA nod, he’s been everywhere else. And though some members of the Academy may still have trouble taking him seriously, as the winner of the drama Golden Globe he must be considered the frontrunner for this year’s Oscar.

Now Brit Ejiofor (seen in American Gangster and the film version of Kinky Boots, but is perhaps best known for Keira Knightley’s husband Peter in Love, Actually)  brings no such burdensome baggage.  His film, on the other hand, is a lot harder to stomach.  Though he too comes to a happy ending, the suffering that this talented, dignified free man endures after being kidnapped and sold into slavery is extraordinarily painful to see, even at a 150 years remove.  Based on Solomon Northrup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave, the unflinching film describes a horrific fate; cruel trickery, savage beatings, whippings, lynchings, murder.  In its center we see a man cling fiercely to his true identity; a man in hiding, a man compromised, yet still in possession of his faculties, capable of hope.  To exclude him would be unthinkable.

In all, oldies Redford and Dern will probably hang on to their positions: Bale and DiCaprio may cancel each other out. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see either of them sneak in, but who could they pick off?  The competition is just so strong.

My Guess: Ejiofor, Dern, Hanks, McConaughey, Redford

Alternates: Bale, DiCaprio

The Shocking Surprise: Jordan

Best Actress

The Queen of the Day:

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

The Alternate:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Lock For a Nomination, No Chance At the Win:

Judi Dench, Philomena

Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Duking It Out For the Last Slot:

Amy Adams, American Hustle

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

The Long Shots:

Adele Exarchopolous, Blue Is the Warmest Color

Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha

Brie Larson, Short Term 12

Kate Winslet, Labor Day

Six actresses.  Five slots. One pre-determined winner.

Oh, fine.  You can’t pick the winner for sure now, but Cate Blanchett – five time nominee, supporting actress will – is surely going to receive her sixth nomination for her work in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.  As noted above, Allen’s famously propels his actresses onto the Oscar stage, and Blanchett (who told reporters this weekend that she’s long waited for the chance to work with him) will reap the benefits this time as the newly impoverished wife of a Bernie Madoff type tycoon who’s dumped into the lap of her working class sister.  Many critics single Blanchett out as the seminal performer of the year in any category.

So again, that leaves us with four slots up for grabs.  I don’t really know why I think that Adele Exarchopoulos deserves to be on the list of contenders; all I can say is that people have been buzzing about Blue is the Warmest Color since Cannes, and they just haven’t stopped.  A Critic’s Choice nominee in their young performer category, her teen (who falls in love for the first time with a fascinating and somewhat older woman) has made quite a mark.  I acknowledge this is just me being completist, but after being burned by Quvenzhane Wallis (who, by the way, has a small role in 12 Years a Slave), I feel like I need to be.

In contrast, Brie Larson has made some critics lists for her work in Short Term 12, including but not limited to the Critics Choice, the Gotham Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Chicago Film Critics Awards (CFCA).  As a social worker who runs group housing for children and teens with no place else to go, Larson excels.  The film itself didn’t get much traction, but perhaps her presence on end of the season lists will help change that. It does go to show, however, that great roles for women don’t come easy in mainstream films today; how many male movie stars do I have listed above, and yet to find more than six women I have to resort to films and actresses most people have never heard of.  (Trivia for fellow fans: Larson’s costar and love interest in the film is John Gallagher Jr, who plays Jim Harper from The Newsroom.)

Even further outside the field than Larson are Golden Globe nominees Greta Gerwig of the comedy Frances Ha and Oscar winner Kate Winslet for Labor Day, a film just opening now to little acclaim.

And now for the real contenders. Two women on the list above are sure to be nominated, although neither has the tiniest shot of beating out Cate Blanchett.  They are, of course, British darlings Emma Thompson and Judi Dench.  Two time Oscar winner Thompson was last nominated in 1996; she ruled the mid-90s with 4 acting nominations and one adapted screenplay nod.  This year, she returns in delightful force with Saving Mr. Banks, playing crusty author P.L. Travers, who engaged in a titanic battle with Walt Disney over the film rights, script and treatment for her classic novel Mary Poppins.  I don’t think its possible for me to overstate how much I adored this movie, or snippety, persnickety martinet Thompson in it.  Though the movie has it’s detractors, her performance does not.

And then there’s Judi Dench, supporting actress winner for her work as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, who this year takes on yet another real woman, the titular Philomena Lee, a young unwed mother whose baby was adopted away without her consent.  Fifty years later, she enlists a journalist in the epic task of finding her son.  Whether she’s being imperious or shy, there’s something we just love about Dench; Philomena should bring the leading lady her seventh nomination.

This brings us to the only woman with a real chance of taking away Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-to-be: Oscar winner Sandra Bullock.  Nominated only once before, the former queen of comedy (action, romantic or otherwise) proved she could take on drama in The Blindside.  Here, she calls on every facet of skill and anchors the entire brilliant film as a grieving astronaut who – in the face of disaster – must recover her will to live.  This is an enormous acting achievement, easily the best work Bullock has ever done, and come Thursday morning she’ll be justly rewarded for it.

That leaves us with the two friends who compete for the last spot, Amy Adams and acting legend Meryl Streep.  Adams averages zero for four Oscar nominations so far: the Academy likes her, but not enough to give her a win.  It’s always an interesting case to see actors who rack up nominations never to win (Peter O’Toole springs to mind, but among living and working actors you’ve got Michelle Pfieffer, Glenn Close and Julianne Moore) , actors who rack up nods and eventually get pushed over the edge for lesser roles because it’s about time, damn it (Kate Winslet) and then others like Bullock, Bale, Spencer and Gwyenth Paltrow who win on their first try.  So is it ever going to be Adams’ turn? Amy and her sternum provide yet another iconic image in American Hustle.  She beat Meryl for the comedy Golden Globe and for a BAFTA nomination, and her movie’s beating Meryl’s at the box office and with critics.

On the other hand, Meryl has a few things Amy does not, and I’m not talking about her 17 nominations (roughly one every other year since 1979) or her three wins or even Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize winning words.  No, I’m talking about Harvey Weinstein.  It’s easy to count Meryl out in a year that just hasn’t gone her film’s way, but can we disregard that ace in her pocket?  Oh, she can still lose out – he has Philomena and Dench to focus on as well, and he’s not infallible – but in a year when the master of the Oscar campaign has seen so few of his best hopes prosper? Since he didn’t manage to turn either August: Osage County or Fruitvale Station into a frontrunner, he’s got to put his considerable campaigning talents somewhere. People have counted Harvey out before only to be completely wrong. Streep’s bitter, viciously funny matriarch may triumph in the end.  Also, she wasn’t nominated last year; it’s only happened twice since 1979 that she’s had to wait as long as two years between nominations.

Really, it’s almost just as likely to be Adams as Streep.  And maybe it’s just a groupthink issue: if voting started now, after Adams won the Globe and beat Meryl out for a BAFTA nod, people might see her as a more likely candidate and vote her way.  But back in December, when the airwaves were blanketed by Meryl’s nasty putdown of her children?  Academy voters tend to make their nomination choices early rather than late. We’ll find that out as soon as the first Best Actress name is called; Adams will be first, or not at all.

My Guesses: Blanchett, Bullock, Dench, Streep, Thompson

Alternate: Adams

Shocking Surprise: Larson

Best Director:

The Trinity of Possible Winners:

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

David O. Russell, American Hustle

The Big Names:

Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

Spike Jonez, Her

Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Martin Scorsese, Wolf of Wall Street

The Workman:

Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips

The Long Shots:

Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine

J.C. Chandor, All is Lost

Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station

Lee Daniels, The Butler

Stephen Frears, Philomena

John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks

Jean Marc Vallee, Dallas Buyers Club

Welcome to the worst category ever!  I doubt anyone who even casually follows the Oscars has forgotten last year’s major snubs of Oscar winning directors Tom Hooper, Kathryn Bigelow , and of course Best Picture helmer Ben Affleck.   Now, granted that was a particularly unusual and even egregious instance of the director’s branch haring off on its own; only three times in its 80+ year history has Oscar failed to nominate the director of the film that went on to win best picture.  In fact, I would argue that Argo won in large part because of the overwhelming backlash over Ben Affleck’s exclusion; it became the story of the year, a slight against all actor/directors, and something of a cause celeb.  In the face of that, I’ll be very curious to see if the nearly 400 directors in the Academy are touch more conservative in their picks this time around. Every category except Best Picture, you see, is picked by the members of its branch (eg. cinematography by cinematographers), and some of the branches are small and unpredictable.

To serve that end, I’ve given you a very long list of directors who might come out of left field.  They’re too many even to detail, and they’re most likely going to be irrelevant to the race.  Or so I imagine.

The precursor awards haven’t been a big help as far as determining the future winner, but they have been quite consistent as far as the top five most honored directors of the year.  Cuaron, McQueen and Russell all seem pretty solid, but you know everybody including me said that about Affleck, Hooper and Bigelow last year. I can’t imagine this slate without Cuaron, however, who won the award at the Golden Globes; Gravity is a director’s movie, and an extraordinary, groundbreaking one at that.  It’s Sandra Bullock’s achievement as well, but the incredible thrilling vision is Cuaron’s.  You can’t help but pay homage to what he’s done, fusing animation with brilliant live action into the most exciting film of the year.  And he has his fingers sunk into every aspect of this film – he’s been nominated before, twice for screenplay and once for editing, a feat he could easily repeat this year.

Fellow multi-hyphenate David O. Russell is on a roll.  Two films this beloved in two years?  It’s impressive. He’s had two directing nominations since 2011, for Silver Linings Playbook and for The Fighter.  Russell is an actor’s director; his words and vision have pushed Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Jennifer Lawrence into the winner’s circle, and he’s dragged nomination-worthy performances out of many more.  Amusingly named Brit Steve McQueen would become only the third directors of African descent to be nominated in this category, the first ever if he were to go on and win. There is simply no denying the cultural significance of the devastating movie he’s made; I have trouble believing that the Academy would fail to recognize him when his work has been so very Important.

Also clearly in the mix is Paul Greengrass, nominated for the Director’s Guild Award, the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice and the BAFTA. Working with non-actors?  On water? Yeah, it’s impressive.  While not a star, Greengrass has built a very solid and respected career.  Nominated once before for United 93, Greengrass could easily pick up another nod for his true life adventure.

And finally, the Critics Choice, DGA and BAFTA nominations were rounded out by legendary director Martin Scorsese.  Again, though the film courts controversy, the film community is pretty united in its love for Scorsese. Though he’s far and away the biggest name on the list, he’s the man I think most likely to be omitted in favor of someone totally off-beat.

The Director’s Guild historically makes far more conservative and expected choices than the notoriously idiosyncratic director’s branch of the Academy. This year, as is probably clear, they’ve chosen Cuaron, Greengrass, McQueen, Russell and Scorsese, and indeed those five are the clear consensus choices, wracking up the most nominations as a group.  Leo DiCaprio’s win over Bruce Dern at the Golden Globes might signal the fading of Payne’s Nebraska, though great controversy still surrounds the very making of a film about Jordan Belfort, and the misogyny inherent in Wolf of Wall Street.  On the other hand, Scorsese didn’t even make the list at the Globes.  So where do you go from there?  The trouble is, if the Academy’s going to be wacky, there’s really no saying in advance how they’re going to choose to do it.

My Guesses: Cuaron, Greengrass, McQueen, Russell and Scorsese

Alternates: Jonez

The Shocking Surprise: Coogler

Best Picture:

The Favorites:

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Gravity

Generally Agreed Upon Locks:

Captain Phillips

Nebraska

Then Pick 3-5 From:

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Philomena

Saving Mr. Banks

The Wolf of Wall Street

Fading Fast:

August: Osage County

Inside Llewyn Davis

Outside Shots:

All Is Lost

Blue Jasmine

The Butler

Fruitvale Station

The great frustration of the current Oscar balloting system, from my vantage point, is that there’s no way to know how many Best Picture nominations there are going to be.  The complicated math boils down to one thing – any film that receives 5% of the number one votes from AMPAS voters (all of who can vote for Best Picture) will make the not-so short list.  This category was difficult when it was only 5, because invariably there’d be four obvious choices and one sneaky slot.  Today, we have to worry not only about which nominees, but how many.

In 2009 and 2010, the category admitted 10 films without any flexibility. Since the reforms instituted in 2011, we can have between 5 and 10 Best Picture nominees.  Thus far, each year has produced 9 nominees.  The math works out to make 10 nominees quite difficult; the scant evidence suggest 9 as the magic number.  Last year I guessed that they’d settle for 8; this year, I’ll go with the scant precedent, though it would certainly be my luck if this time it went down to 8.  There are 11 films in close contention for those 9 slots.

Academy voting began on December 27th.  That was late enough for the negative buzz around August: Osage County to have already appeared.  Now, I’d have expected Inside Llewyn Davis to be one of the main contenders until the Producers Guild passed it by.  BAFTA snubbed it too.  Still, could its early awards success have put it over the line in early Oscar voting?  Will the love for the Coen brothers save this story of a talented but struggling singer/songwriter in the 1960s New York City folk scene?

The year 2013 will be remembered not for its brave epics or literary adaptations, but as the year of the (mostly) true movie.  The process of making a film involves the compressing of timelines and characters, the invention of dialogue, creative license.  But this year more than most we ask, what is truth, and how much does it matter in great film-making?  American Hustle skirts the issue by stating from the outset it was merely inspired by the Abscam scandal. Inside Llewyn Davis too is a jazzy riff off of a real musician’s life.  On the flipside, the internet has been flooded with condemnations of  Saving Mr. Banksaccuracy in its portrayal of author Travers and her real feelings about Disney’s Mary Poppins.  And for more conventionally told films we have 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Fruitvale Station, Philomena, and the deeply controversial The Wolf of Wall Street.  In fact the only literary adaptations this year come from memoirs. It’s probably only marginally relevant to the race, this preponderance of true stories, but it’s just an unusual fact in its own right.

Now, as I’ve said above, space adventure Gravity, the unflinching drama 12 Years a Slave, and 70s comic sting flick  American Hustle should all make the grade with ease.  12 Years brings us a story we think we know from history books and from sprawling historical miniseries – and proves how little we know it.  It holds our faces to the fire.  There’s nothing else like Gravity, nothing like it ever for visceral thrill – and yet it makes an incredible emotional impact as well. Though it lacks depth, American Hustle‘s clever script and flashy characters have won a wide audience. Hostage-taking thriller Captain Phillips and road trip/odd couple comedy Nebraska should make the grade as well.  Even though “greed is good” excess-fest The Wolf of Wall Street is strongly disliked, it seems to also have enough partisans to put it over the 5% threshold for a nomination.

That brings the total to six, which leaves three slots open.  Of the remaining films, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Saving Mr. Banks have the highest number of precursor nominations, followed by Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club.  Now, BAFTA ignored Her, though most people attribute this to the film’s release schedule, but it was nominated by the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice, AFI, and the PGA . Despite it’s oddball subject matter (awkward man falls in love with his computer’s operating system), Spike Jonez’s comedy seems likely to woo voters.

From here out it gets pretty damn murky. I feel hopeful for Philomena when I think about Harvey Weinstein working on its behalf, even though it doesn’t really seem like the kind of movie that would be a lot of people’s absolute favorite of the year.  The system, you see, favors films that inspire great passion. What you need to capture a Best Picture nod (which is voted on by all members) is a small but intense fan base.  The insanely moving and delightful Saving Mr. Banks bests Philomena by the numbers and by its star wattage; it’s also the most likable, even lovable film of the year. More in line with Philomena in terms of numbers is the awe-striking story of transformation Dallas Buyers Club after that.  The PGA never produces the exact same slate as Oscar (and this year they honored 10 films with nominations which muddies the waters even further), but when they and then BAFTA ignored Inside Llewyn Davis, it makes me pretty nervous for the Coen Brother’s latest flick.  After all, A Serious Man was beloved by critics and shut out by the Academy; it can happen to the most famous and well received makers. The PGA did give a little boost to Blue Jasmine, but I have trouble imagining such a small movie will break into Oscar’s line up without a little more warning.

I’ve been messing around with the idea of an entire post on this subject, and hopefully will be able to do it soon, but for now I want to say a few words about historical accuracy.  The Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind was dogged by controversy about historical accuracy, and it went on to win Best Picture anyway.  But that was before the proliferation of online criticism, which can influence a film’s prospects more strongly; when once you had to visit a library to discover the critical consensus, now you can just google it. And there are so many more voices talking!  Everyone has access to every little claim against a film’s integrity.  Are we sorry or grateful that A Beautiful Mind escaped that fate?

Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, sank under the attacks on its verity, particularly because the film painted itself as journalistic style reporting instead of fiction.  It managed to get caught up in the national debate about the issue of torture, to the point of inspiring debate in Congress.  Though it did go on to a nomination, the debate over whether the film untruthfully supported torture as information gathering destroyed any chance of winning. And it is sort of curious that two of the very few award-worthy female-led films of the last few years have been derailed by this question of fidelity.  The press is so concerned about P.L. Travers’ feelings that we’re ready to throw her film away altogether. Though there was controversy surrounding The Social Network‘s mucking with Mark Zuckerberg’s biography, that film lost Best Picture because it (and Zuckerberg) wasn’t likable, not because we cared if billionaire Zuckerberg wasn’t portrayed truthfully.  And I haven’t heard one critic talk about the specifics of Solomon Northrup’s ordeal and how they were orchestrated to make the film 12 Years a Slave.  I can almost guarantee certain scenes were invented for the film, and would have deeply humiliated a 19th century gentleman like Northrup were he alive to see them.

Think of Dead Man Walking, nominated for Best Director though not (in the days of a mere 5 nominees) Best Picture.  That’s one of the films that had the strongest emotional impact on me, along with Schindler’s List and 12 Years A Slave (all films I revere and will only see once). But when I read the book on which the film is based, I learned out that the film’s emotion high point – the killer’s 11th hour confession – was created for the film.  Does it make the film any less impactful?  No.  Does it change how I feel about the story?  In a way.  It certainly changes the story; in the film, the confession is torn out of the killer by his fear of his impending death.  In life, the death penalty produced no such saving grace; his guilt or innocence is in fact irrelevant in the face of God’s love. Did I read one word about that change in the press at the time? No.  Of course today you would, because someone who’d read the book would write a blog post about it even if the entertainment press didn’t bother.  Should it have mattered to Oscar?  I don’t know.

So where does that leave us? I’m afraid it leaves me with quite a head ache.  I do think that there will be 9 nominees.  I feel confident in predicting 7 of them. I feel like I’m taking a risk choosing two female-lead films for those last two slots, but the combination of precursor success at the right time, passionate support and Harvey Weinstein makes me guess those could be the ones. And in the end I just can’t believe that Saving Mr. Banks – a film that elicits spontaneous applause from its packed audiences – couldn’t win over that measly 5%.  Once you’ve seen it, how can you escape it’s spell?

My Guesses: 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street for sure.

Last Slots: Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks

Alternates: Dallas Buyers Club, Inside Llewyn Davis

And there we have it!  I’m going to guess that 12 Years a Slave and Gravity will come out with the highest nomination tallies at around ten a piece; Gravity looks to clean up on all of the effects categories, but 12 Years should have the edge in number of acting nominations and costumes.  American Hustle will also do very well.  I’ll be very disappointed if Frozen doesn’t have a strong showing in both animation and song, and I’d really love to see Ryan Coogler walk out with a nod for turning a police shooting into a moving concatenation of betrayal and loss.  And I would really love to be wrong about both Dallas Buyers Club, and unnecessarily worried about Saving Mr. Banks.

Please sound off!  What have I missed? I’ll be back tomorrow morning with reactions – I simply cannot wait.

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One comment on “Oscar Nomination Predictions 2014

  1. […] Ha, written and starring Gerwig. And I’ve only heard of that because E talked about it in her awards previews last […]

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