It’s 12 Years a Slave in a landslide. No, it’s Gravity in a near toss-up.
Really, the only certainty in this year’s crop of nine Academy Award nominees for Best Picture is that it comes down to these two acclaimed dramas with a common theme: survival at all costs.
Still, would it really be a shock if American Hustle spoils some Oscar pools by claiming the evening’s top prize?
RELATED: Full list of 2014 Oscar nominees
Even the tea leaves for Best Picture -- pre-Oscar awards season -- offer mixed signals for the top prize at the 86th annual Academy Awards, which airs locally at 7 p.m. on WTVG-TV, Channel 13.
Gravity’s director and co-writer Alfonso Cuarón picked up directing trophies from the Director’s Guild of America, the Golden Globes, and British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), while his film, which is nominated for 10 Oscars, won the BAFTA for Best British Film. Nominated for nine Oscars, 12 Years a Slave won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama and the BAFTA for Best Film, though its director, Steve McQueen, has been shut out thus far. American Hustle, which is also nominated for 10 Oscars, won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Comedy.
To further complicate the Best Picture race, the Producers Guild of America awarded its top honor to 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the first time in the PGA's nearly 25-year history there's been a tie for Best Theatrical Motion Picture. Could the Academy do the same?
In my November review of 12 Year’s a Slave I remarked that the Oscar season belonged to this gut-wrenching biographical account of a free black man in New York who is kidnapped and sold into Southern slavery decades before the Civil War. I stand by that declaration. Despite the film’s minor flaws, the emotional strength of 12 Years a Slave will prove too much for the nearly 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to ignore.
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Cuarón, though, will win Best Director, for accomplishing a rarity in Hollywood these days with his 90-minute thriller about two U.S. astronauts stranded in space: an intelligent popcorn flick.
Perhaps the two gimmes of the night are in the men’s acting categories as the stars of the lauded biographical drama Dallas Buyers Club will shine, as they have throughout the awards season in highly competitive categories.
Matthew McConaughey will win Best Actor as a Texas redneck dying of AIDS who discovers his ability for compassion in his one-man crusade for access to medications to help himself and others. Jared Leto will win Best Supporting Actor as a transgender AIDS activist and drug addict who’s also dying of AIDS.
While Woody Allen has never won an Academy Award for his acting, he's written five Oscar-winning roles for actresses in his movies. He’ll have number six tonight: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. As a self-involved New York socialite whose life has come crashing down, Blanchett is haunting, tragic and, most impressive, empathetic. This will be win her first Best Actress Oscar -- and her second overall.
Best Supporting Actress will go to newcomer Lupita Nyong’o for her heartbreaking performance as a tortured slave who begs for death rather than endure further gruesome beatings and punishments in 12 Years a Slave.
Equally powerful and difficult to watch at times is The Act of Killing, which will win Best Documentary Feature, while Denmark’s The Hunt (Jagten) should win over Italy’s The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza).
In one of the few years Pixar isn't nominated in the Best Animated Feature Film category, Disney will represent just fine with Frozen, a box-office and critical smash that stands tall with the studio’s best work from the 1990s. The fact that young girls are belting out Frozen’s “Let it Go” -- trust me, I know -- speaks to the popularity of the song and makes it a front-runner to win Best Original Song over U2’s “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom.
The Writers Guild of America awarded Original Screenplay to Spike Jonez for Her, a future love story between man and machine, and Adapted Screenplay to Billy Ray for Captain Phillips, the tense true-to-life ocean-rescue drama. I see no reason Academy voters veer from WGA's judgment.
Cinematography is between two beautiful black-and-white films (Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis), the eye candy of a disaster-in-space drama involving large amounts of green screen and CGI (Gravity), and a gorgeously shot morality play by one of the great cinematographers to have never won an Oscar, despite 10 previous nominations (Roger Deakins for Prisoner). As much as Deakins deserves to finally get his, the grandeur of Gravity’s opening orbital sequence above the Earth and its seamless blend of real and conjured images will win out. Gravity will also win in the editing and visual effects category, and probably original score and in the two sound categories.
It will be a big night for Gravity -- except for the Oscar that matters most.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.