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Oscars 2014: Predicting the winners in 10 major categories

Ellen Degeneres will host the 86th annual Academy Awards on Sunday.
Andrew Eccles/ Getty Images

Awarding trophies for art is an inherently ridiculous endeavor. Competition is about facing your opponent directly and winning or losing under a set of rules designed for neutrality. Weighing the performance of a man playing a desperate Somali pirate against someone portraying a comically avaricious investment banker doesn’t seem fair, or really even natural. It’s like debating the merits of your auto mechanic against a bartender.

But here we are, nevertheless. For many, the Oscars are an excuse to see all of Hollywood’s biggest names together in one room, where we can snipe over their outfits and watch them shift uncomfortably when they’re targeted with jokes. For others, it’s about reliving the year in film and seeing the year’s best cinema collect well-deserved honors. For others, like this writer, it’s about correctly predicting the winners so you can tout your precognitive abilities like a calling card.

Speaking of which, this seems a good time to state my qualifications. As America’s foremost authority on NFL playoff predictions, I'm bringing the same penetrating insight displayed by my bold yet ultimately accurate prognostication of the Philadelphia Eagles as NFC East champs to this year's Oscar pool. And if I’m wrong, oh well, these things are stupid anyway. Here are my picks for 10 major categories, sorted from surest bet to biggest surprise.

[Ed. Note: Predicted winners are marked with an *asterisk]

Score it, dude.

Best Visual Effects
Gravity (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould)*
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, Eric Reynolds)
Iron Man 3 (Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, Dan Sudick)
The Lone Ranger (Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, John Frazier)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann, Burt Dalton)

If Gravity doesn’t win this category, it will be among the greater injustices in recent Oscar history. With each passing year, we grow increasingly numbed by the arms race of wonder and scale wrought by CGI and other digital effects. When a film comes along that seems to redefine the possibilities of visual effects, as Gravity does, it’s a rare thing indeed. This is a film in which the literally suffocating danger of space is positioned as the antagonist in the story, making the visual effects as much as character as Sandra Bullock or George Clooney. The credit for this achievement leads us right into...

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

Again, it’s difficult to imagine an upset of Alfonso Cuarón in this category, given the level of technical accomplishment apparent from the first (17-minute) shot of Gravity. Of all the nominees in this category, Cuarón’s role in the overall success of his film is by far the greatest. Gravity is the work of a man who has discovered a way to blend story with special effects until they become indistinguishable.

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)*

First of all, how is it possible that Jared Leto is 42 years old? That bit of knowledge is making those of us who grew up concurrently with My So-Called Life feel pretty old right now. Also, can you believe that Jordan Catalano is about to win an Oscar? With Claire Danes’ Emmy’s, we’ll soon be halfway to a MSCL EGOT.

While there may be a number of befuddling details surrounding Leto’s presumptive Oscar win, the worthiness of his performance in Dallas Buyer Club isn’t one of them. As a transgender woman named Rayon, Leto is funny and touching and his evolving relationship with Matthew McConaughey's character is the film’s emotional center. All of the nominees in this category gave great performances (especially Cooper, who was even better in American Hustle than Silver Linings Playbook). It’s speaks to the quality of Leto’s performance that he’s the single biggest favorite at this year’s Oscars.

This could get interesting

Best Animated Film
The Croods (Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco, Kristine Belson)
Despicable Me 2 (Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin, Chris Meledandri)
Ernest & Celestine (Benjamin Renner, Didier Brunner)
Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Peter Del Vecho)*
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki)

Since Jared Leto’s age has us mulling over things in astonishment, can you believe the success of Frozen? Every Disney movie comes out of the gate with the assumption it will be a hit, but, according to Box Office Mojo, Frozen has cracked the top 20 in all time box office grosses, both domestic and worldwide. An Oscar for Best Animated Feature would sit nicely on the mantle along with all the other box office prizes the film has already reaped.

And yet the dark horse candidate, The Wind Rises, is gaining momentum. The final film by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises could win the award as a sort of lifetime achievement for the director or Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. In an odd way, this award could be an early litmus test for the Best Picture race and the Academy’s choice between rewarding artful, serious subject matter (The Wind Rises, 12 Years a Slave) or films with more panoptic appeal (Frozen, Gravity).

Best Adapted Screenplay
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)
Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)
Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope)
12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)*
The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter)

This appears to be the easier of the two screenwriting awards to predict. 12 Years a Slave was based on a 160-year-old memoir by Solomon Northup, a first-person account of a free black man kidnapped and sold into human bondage. Without the original text, the film would lose a lot of its power. While the other films nominated in this category are all fantastic, the haunting true story behind John Ridleys’ script adds sickening verisimilitude to 12 Years a Slave.

Best Original Screenplay
American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)*
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack)
Her (Spike Jonze)
Nebraska (Bob Nelson)

According to knowledgeable sources, the race for the Best Original Screenplay award comes down to American Hustle and Her, which won the Golden Globe in a more competitive field (the Globes only have one writing category, while the Oscars split it into two). Spike Joze absolutely deserves it for Her, as the dialogue between Joaquin Phoenix’s character and Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice is the heart of the film. Yet American Hustle will probably win, as it’s a smart, clever script filled with juicy characters and a surprise plot twist. Sadly, Her (the best film of 2013, in this writer’s opinion) seems doomed to be this year’s version of the quirky indie film that’s nominated for a handful of Oscars yet goes home with none.

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)

Like the competition for Best Actress, the race for Best Supporting Actress appears to be down to two nominees, in this case Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o. Her Best Actress win for Silver Linings Playbook last year seems to indicate that Lawrence is a favorite with Academy voters, but the award will go to Nyong’o. Lawrence’s age (hard to believe, but she’s just 23) might be somewhat of a liability as back-to-back wins would anoint her as the actor of her generation, male or female. But ultimately, Lawrence won’t lose for political reasons: Nyong’o’s heartbreaking performance is just plain better.

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)*

Many Oscar experts have weighed in on the effect of Matthew McConaughey’s acclaimed HBO show True Detective on the Best Actor race. While it might seem ridiculous to think that McConaughey’s performance in a TV show could have a tangible effect on his Oscar chances, Tom O'Neil of the site GoldDerby.com was told straight-up by one Academy voter that “he's voting for McConaughey because he's addicted to 'True Detective.’” Although his would seem to be a great time to roll your eyes at the decision-making process of certain Oscar voters, it also speaks to the shocking transformation McConaughey has undergone in Hollywood over the past couple of years (and we’re not even referring to the jarring weight-loss the previously shirtless- wonder underwent for this role). Three years ago, this was a guy who seemed destined for nothing more than cable-filling rom-coms and now he’s following a very committed turn as a dying AIDS patient by playing one of the most memorable detectives in television history (if you’ve seen True Detective, you’ll understand the comments from that voter). In fact, McConaughey’s Emmy might be more of a sure thing at this point than his Academy Award, as his chief rival (Leonardo DiCaprio) is very deserving of a career-achievement Oscar, a la Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. Still, McConaughey will win; fair or not, as that voter said, Rust Cohle makes a heck of an impression.

Upset Special

Best Actress
Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)*
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

If some voters are basing their picks on television shows, what effect might the recent rehash of the Woody Allen sexual abuse allegations have on Cate Blanchett’s Oscar chances? It sounds misguided and unfair to punish an actor for the scurrilous rumors surrounding their director but there seems to be a divide in Hollywood surrounding Allen, and his lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes was seen as unseemly by more than a few. Could Amy Adams or one of the other nominees swoop in and steal what’s long been seen as Blanchett’s award to lose?

Possibly but probably not. As Mark Harris shrewdly notes on Grantland, even if “Streep gets 5 percent, Bullock gets 15 percent, Dench gets 20 percent, and Adams gets 25 percent, Blanchett still wins, and wins easily.” The math doesn’t really add up for the other nominees, and it’s not exactly like the Academy has been loathe to award Oscars to Allen since this scandal first broke over 20 years ago (in fact, he won an Oscar in 2012 for the screenplay for Midnight in Paris). Even with all of the sordid allegations resurfacing in the past month or two, it’s doubtful the anti-Woody contingency will have the numbers to swing the race. We shall see.

Best Picture
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity*
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

There will, however, be an upset on Sunday night, and it will come in the biggest category of them all. According to GoldDerby.com, 22 of 30 Oscar experts have 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture, with the remaining eight picking Gravity. Count me with the latter group.

In some respects, 12 Years a Slave is a better choice for Best Picture, as it’s a powerful film rooted in history and filled with incredible performances. Yet the box office success of Gravity is hard to ignore. Both films were widely acclaimed by critics, so it’s not like this is the effects-heavy but featherweight Avatar going against The Hurt Locker. When critical consensus is roughly equal, Oscar voters almost always go for the film with the broadest appeal. Add to that the old-white-male demographics of the Academy and it’s difficult to imagine voters favoring a film that vividly explores the horrors of slavery over a surprisingly deep and well-acted space adventure.

For Brooke Wylie's take on how the Oscars will be awarded, click here.