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Oscar Predictions Part V: Best Picture - '12 Years a Slave' or 'Gravity'?

In Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV of my 2014 Oscar Predictions series, I offered my takes on all four of the acting categories, plus the Foreign and Animated fields as well as all the craft awards. Shit, I even went through the trouble of watching all the shorts. So, if you want to get an upper hand on that Oscar pool of yours, make sure you take a gander at those predictions. After all, I did go 20-24 last year (humble brag). You can read the four parts by clicking on the links above.

What will win Best Picture? 'Gravity,' '12 Years a Slave' or 'American Hustle'?
WB, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures

And at long last, we’re at the home stretch! Today, I go over the remaining four categories – Best Production Design, which I somehow forgot about, the crucial Best Film Editing award, the Best Director prize, whose winner will make history this year, and Best Picture – that big award everyone puts on a pedestal until we realize this award that has gone to cinematic milestones like The Artist, Crash, The Greatest Show on Earth and Driving Miss Daisy. On with the show.



American Hustle
The Great Gatsby
12 Years a Slave

Like Best Costume Design, which I talked about in the very first part of this series, the Academy tends to award Best Production Design to the most lavish, most polish production set in the past; the key word being “most” not “best.” The fact that Gravity and Her, two of the most sublime yet non-showy achievements in production design, managed to score nominations is some type of minor miracle. A big “Thank You” goes out to all those production designers who deemed those two achievements worthy. It would have made my awards season if they’d have also nominated Inside Llewyn Davis and Stoker. But beggars can’t be choosers.

Alas, as I stated earlier, this is an award that’s going to the period film with the most design. American Hustle would be a worthy winner for bringing the “me” decade to sparkling life but do voters really want to award a design award to anything from the 70s? 12 Years a Slave fits the bill of a previous winner – the period setting, the grand houses, the slavery camps – but when I think of this film, its sets aren’t the first thing that comes to mind. It’s mostly an exterior-set film. That would leave us with Catherine Martin’s exquisite sets of The Great Gatsby. By all accounts, Martin’s work on this film was one of the finest achievements of 2013. Not only were the sets evocative of the roaring 20s but they were absolutely integral to the film’s themes of excess. The movie itself may have not been much but Martin’s achievement is worthy of the prize.

Will Win: The Great Gatsby
Could Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Her
Should Have Been Here: Inside Llewyn Davis



American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave

Ah, Best Film Editing, also known as the invisible art. But here’s the Academy’s definition of the term: The award for Best Film Editing is to be awarded to the film that is the most frenetic, has the most cuts, and/or most obviously juggles multiple plotlines. When in doubt, vote for your favorite Best Picture nominee. By that definition, you can probably count out Dallas Buyers Club, which had a linear narrative, wasn’t frenetic or rapidly cut and isn’t the majority’s favorite Best Picture nominee. This methodology would also eliminate, in my opinion, the most deserving nominees of the bunch, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, because, you know, according to most Academy members, they had too many long takes so they couldn’t have possibly needed any editing work.

That leaves us with American Hustle, the ACE Eddie winner for Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy/Musical) and Captain Phillips, ACE Eddie winner for Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic). Although David O. Russell’s film has many hallmarks of a Best Film Editing winner – multiple characters, numerous sub-plots, sprawling structure, and great use of music – it’s also comedy. Apparently, a film’s tone is enough to render its chances nil in this category because the last time a comedy that wasn’t a musical won this category was back in 1973 when Best Picture winner The Sting triumphed. That would mean that the frenetic, intense, rapidly cut action-oriented Captain Phillips is your winner. It’s also the one place voters can actually throw it a bone. After all, Paul Greengrass movies tend to do well here (also see 2007 winner The Bourne Ultimatum).

Will Win: Captain Phillips
Could Win: American Hustle
Should Win: Gravity
Should Have Been Here: Rush



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

This year’s Best Director lineup is one of the strongest in recent memory. I would have liked to have seen Spike Jonze or Paul Greengrass shortlisted here instead of Alexander Payne but the final bunch has the rare luxury of being completely hack/newbie/journeyman free. No Tom Hooper, no Michel Hazanavicius, no Paul Haggis, no freaking Stephen Daldry. Some may contend that David O. Russell is a hack but no man who can get five nominations in four years, direct seven actors to those nods in the same time period, and more importantly, who has films as varied as Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter and this year’s American Hustle on their resume deserves such a tag. Russell’s got vision. So what if that vision is Scorsese-influenced? He did it well and he deserves to be here. He may win an Oscar on Sunday but it’s more likely to be for his screenplay than his direction. Surprise nominee Payne (Nebraska) is here for the ride since no director who didn’t get nominated at the DGA has won the Oscar. He has two Oscars at home to give him company anyway. As for Scorsese, he’s reached a point in his career where anything he makes gets Oscar buzz. His nomination for The Wolf of Wall Street is a worthy one but it’s not a winner. Since he’s the directing equivalent of Meryl Streep, he’ll be back.

When British artist Steve McQueen’s film first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, a couple of Oscar prognosticators were quick to anoint it Best Picture. Many also expected McQueen to become the first black man to win the prize. While his film still stands, rather insecurely, in the frontrunner position on the eve of the big night, McQueen himself has slipped comfortably into second place. In any other year, he’d be the landslide victor (imagine McQueen going up for the prize in 2011 against Michel Hazanavicious). Unfortunately, when you’re going up against one of finest directorial achievement of all time (yes, all time), it’s just shit luck. Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuaron’s work on Gravity has won him directing prizes at every awards show from the Critics Choice to the Globes to the BAFTAs to the extremely important DGA. In its 65-year history, the DGA winner has gone on to win the Best Director Oscar all but seven times. Granted, the last time the two split was just last year but that was because the Academy failed to nominate DGA winner Ben Affleck. That’s not happening this year because Cuaron’s becoming the first Mexican filmmaker to win a Best Director Oscar.

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Could Win: Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Should Have Been Here: Spike Jonze – Her



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

“And it all comes down to this; the final award of the evening.” At least that’s what Sidney Poitier will say at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday night. Not all of the nine films nominated are worthy of the Best Picture nomination but when has that not been the case? When watching the Oscars, we have to always keep in mind that this is an award voted on by 6,000 vastly imperfect people who work as craftspeople in the film industry. Many of them may have extraordinary tastes (the cinematographers, the directors are examples) but for the most part, their tastes tend to align more with your average mom, dad or grandpa than your average film critic or movie buff. As Mike D’Angelo once said, and I paraphrase his thesis: The Oscars tend to have a casual relationship with greatness. We cheer for the times they get it right, and we hate-tweet and write long-winding “think pieces” when they get it wrong. But in the end, the only true judge is time. In 1952, Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t even nominated for the Best Picture prize. It landed two lousy nominations – Best Supporting Actress and Best Score. The Best Picture winner that year was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Today, Singin’ in the Rain is generally regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time while the only reason anyone even remembers The Greatest Show on Earth is because it’s generally regarded as the worst film to ever win that prize. In short, it’s an answer to a trivia question.

And now, to this year’s crop. Although Argo’s win last year showed that any rule can be thrown out the window when it comes to what can or cannot win Best Picture, its win was a combination of many factors (not exclusive to the Affleck pity party). It was also greatly by the Academy’s preferential balloting system – a complicated method that rewards consensus rather than passion. That being said, the historical impact of the editing and directing nominations always play a part in deducing popularity. Argo may have not received a directing nomination (which was an anomaly anyway) but it did receive an editing nomination (which it subsequently won). That said, you can probably strike off the nominees that received neither directing nor editing nominations: Her and Philomena. Among the remaining seven nominees, two received directing nominations but no editing nod (The Wolf of Wall Street and Nebraska), two others received editing nominations but no corresponding directing nod (Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips), and only three (American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave) have both. Unsurprisingly, they’re also the three films with the most nods.

Although there was a small two week window between the Golden Globes and the PGA awards in which American Hustle gained frontrunner status by taking the SAG Ensemble prize, it lost that ground immediately after the aforementioned PGA awards. That group, notably the only organization that also uses the preferential balloting system, awarded its Best Film prize to both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave in an unprecedented tie. The probability of such a result coming from a preferential balloting system is shocking not only because it meant that the two films had the exact combination of first, second, third, fourth and so on… votes but also because it came from a voting pool of over 4,000 members. While the Academy has commented that their rules exclude the possibility of a tie in the Best Picture category, we know that it’s going to be an extremely close vote – possibly one of the closest ever.

The ace in Gravity’s corner is Alfonso Cuaron’s DGA win. Only three films have won both the DGA and PGA prizes and then lost the Best Picture Oscar (Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan and Brokeback Mountain). Will Gravity become the fourth? It’s hard to say. The DGA prize, the star-appeal, plus the undeniable support the film will receive from voters in the craft fields (Gravity is widely expected to be the night’s big winner) may give it the edge. Some say the film’s lack of a screenplay nomination will hurt its chances but that didn’t hurt Titanic, which won many of the same awards Gravity is expected to win, and then some.

But in 12 Years a Slave, the Academy has that rare, golden opportunity to reward a film that, like Schindler’s List before it, is an immaculate cocktail of artistry and capital I Important subject matter. Slavery is a big, stinking and abhorring shame this country has tried to sweep under the rug for over 100 years so by awarding this film – an artistic triumph on a playing field similar that of Gravity – they can send a message that they’re a forward-thinking, okay, semi-forward thinking, organization. Then again, you could argue the same mentality works in favor of Gravity too, albeit from a different angle. If Cuaron’s film wins, it would make it the first (quasi) science fiction film to win Best Picture and it would also send the message that the Academy is rewarding a landmark.

Judging by McQueen’s Best Film wins at the Critics Choice, Golden Globes, PGA and BAFTA awards, it’s clear that the majority of industry voters are placing it at number one on their ballots. But in a voting system that rewards the film with not only the most number one votes but the highest ranking combination of first, second, third, and so on… it’s really difficult to gauge whether it’s going to be Gravity or 12 Years a Slave. One thing’s certain, either film will be the best movie to win the prize since No Country for Old Men in 2007. For now, I’m predicting that the slavery drama will pull it through by 10 votes on Sunday, thereby giving the Academy’s PR branch a giant sigh of relief.

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Could Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Should Have Been Here: Before Midnight

Trivia: If 12 Years a Slave does indeed win Best Picture, producer Brad Pitt will win an Oscar, meaning the Academy will have awarded three of People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” winners in back-to-back years (George Clooney and Ben Affleck were producers of last year’s Best Picture winner Argo). I’m sure ultra-serious Steve McQueen will be thrilled about that fact.

Oscar Predictions Part I: Best Supporting Actor, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Animated Feature and Animated Short

Oscar Predictions Part II: Best Supporting Actress, Documentary Feature, Documentary Short, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing

Oscar Predictions Part III: Best Actor, Foreign Language Film, Live Action Short, Original Score & Original Song

Oscar Predictions Part IV: Best Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, Cinematography and Makeup & Hairstyling