Oscars 2014: The 86th Academy Awards!

Grab your gown, tighten that tux and pop the champagne. It’s the 86th Academy Awards Sunday night with host Ellen DeGeneres, a salute to movie heroes and a celebration of the 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz.”

After a year of depressing apocalyptic films, the Academy is lightening the mood, honoring films about space disasters, disease, hijacking, baby-selling, slavery and a coked-up, philandering crook who made millions on Wall Street.

Cate Blanchett and Matthew McConaughey look like locks for the top acting statues, but the nine movies vying for best picture could spark some surprises in several categories, and at least three titles look like serious contenders.

The night could come down to a face off between “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave.” But the wild card is “American Hustle.”

Alfonso Cuaron’s outer space misadventure and Steve McQueen’s sad saga of the Old South carry the weight of a visual stunner (old time storytelling) and a shameful piece of history (old time horribleness).

But then there is director David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” All four of his main performers are nominated: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. (Russell pulled off the same feat last year with four acting nods for “Silver Linings Playbook.”)

American Hustle” was a fun, well-acted retro-blast of late ’70s scandal, with some nice assists from Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. But it is hardly the best film of the year. I wouldn’t even rank it in the top 10. Like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it caught the wave of end-of-the-year awards buzz fueled by big names and big casts.

But none of that matters. The Academy is dominated by the acting branch, a group that tends to vote for friends and films with large ensembles. Plus, “American Hustle” is well-liked. I have probably heard from more folks who loved that movie over all of the other nominated films.

It’s not as if it’s a sleeper. “American Hustle” is up for 10 nominations, tied with “Gravity” and one ahead of “12 Years a Slave.” It’s just that it will be battling the aforementioned weight of the other two. The key for all of those voting actors: They may not necessarily think “American Hustle” is the best film, but they definitely want to be in Russell’s next film.

So let’s break down the 86th Oscars and try to figure out who will win the big statues.

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”

Hawkins was wonderful as Cate Blanchett’s put-upon sister and it’s great to see the British actress score some recognition. Roberts was so-so in a so-so film (I thought Chris Cooper and Julianne Nicholson delivered the more awards-worthy turns in “August: Osage County”), and I’ve already spent months saying Squibb’s cranky character was over-written and overrated, so I’ll give it a rest and just say, “Thank you for participating.”

This one comes down to Nyong’o and Lawrence. Nyong’o, in her first film, was exceptional as the top slave to Michael Fassbender’s twisted master, and was a study in heart-rending anguish as she pleaded with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to end her life.

Then you have the IT Girl, Lawrence. I have professed my love for her talents many times, so I’ll tamp it down today. But let’s just say that once again she pulls off a stunner, as Christian Bale’s obnoxious wife. And oh, by the way, she won best actress just last year for “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Should win: Nyong’o. Her performance had the most emotional impact of the five roles.

Will win: Lawrence. She gets bonus points for also fronting the top-grossing film of 2013, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” The only thing Hollywood loves more than a self-congratulatory party is the bottom line.

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”

Cooper is on a roll. He has been nominated two years in a row. Last year he was up for best actor for “Silver Linings Playbook,” and now shifts over to the supporting ranks in another David O. Russell film.

Although Fassbender has wowed us in “Shame,” “A Dangerous Method” and “Hunger,” among other films, this is his first Oscar nod. He was both over-the-top intense and subtly nuanced as a slave owner.

Abdi (in his first film) was suitably scary and realistic as a Somali pirate, and Hill, with big teeth and big glasses, served as a worthy drug-addicted right hand man to Leonardo DiCaprio’s hyper-speed drug-addicted Jordan Belfort. Hill was previously nominated in this category for playing Brad Pitt’s right hand man in “Moneyball.”

Should win: Jared Leto. He was superb as Rayon, the transgender friend, and unlikely business partner, of Matthew McConaughey’s character in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Rayon is savvy and sweet, and dying, but Leto never veers into sentiment or caricature.

Will win: Leto.

Best Actress

Amy Adams, “American Hustle”

Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”

Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”

Judi Dench, “Philomena”

Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”

When it comes to awards, Streep is the goddess among us. She has been nominated for more acting Oscars — 18! — than any other performer in movie history, and has already won three times. So she is always a threat. Except this year.

Streep’s manic matriarch was half-baked and overdone. Wait. Those two things don’t add up. Just like her performance.

Bullock won recently for “The Blind Side” and Dench is a hall of famer, having scored one win (as Queen Elizabeth in “Shakespeare in Love”) from her six previous nominations.

If you’re playing the percentages, Adams is the one due for a win. Nominated four times as a supporting actress, this is her first foray into the lead category. But she has never taken home a gold statue. Adams also had a busy year: She was impressive in “Her,” and not so impressive in “Man of Steel.”

Unfortunately, all of these women are nominated in a year that includes one of the great film performances of all time from Cate Blanchett.

Should win: Blanchett. She was breathtakingly brilliant as the neurotic, insecure, lying, conniving, over-medicated, self-obsessed Jasmine. (When the film landed in Cleveland last August, I wrote, “Let’s just give her the Oscar right now and save all the needless chatter, publicity and predictions.”)

Will win: Blanchett.

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”

Bale is arguably the most gifted performer if this group, and I thought he was even better last year as the tortured soul in “Out of the Furnace” than he was as the con man with a conscience in “American Hustle.” Ditto DiCaprio, who impressed in “The Great Gatsby” more than “Wolf.” But “Gatsby” came out last May and no once cares.

Ejiofor and Dern were both terrific, but they are going to have to settle for being bookends – the first-time nominee and the lifetime achievement guy.

As Oscar followers know, the ways to smooth your path to a nomination include being willing to undergo a dramatic physical transformation (Robert De Niro’s weight gain for “Raging Bull; Tom Hanks weight loss for “Cast Away”), or by playing someone real.

McConaughey is a two-fer. Not only did he lose 47 pounds to play a man who discovers he is HIV positive, but he played Ron Woodroof, the real-life Texas electrician who ran afoul of the FDA to try and bring alternative medications to AIDS sufferers in the 1980s. “Dallas Buyers Club” also shines a light on a serious health issue, which makes McConaughey a three-fer with voters.

Should win: McConaughey. He also completely disappeared into the role (a four-fer!).

Will win: McConaughey

Best Director

David O. Russell, “American Hustle”

Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”

Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”

Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”

Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Directors rule, as they should, but there is sometimes a weird Oscar disconnect when the best picture and best director prizes are split.

Last year was especially strange when “Argo” took the top prize while its director, Ben Affleck, did not. In fact, Affleck wasn’t even nominated. Best director went to Ang Lee for “Life of Pi.” (Lee had played this game before, in 2006, when he took best director for “Brokeback Mountain,” but lost out on best picture to “Crash.”)

This year could see a similar split between Cuaron’s “Gravity” and McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.”

Cuaron, whose first nomination came more than a decade ago for co-writing the sublime “Y tu mama tambien,” is a triple threat. He is also nominated this year as a co-producer and co-editor. Cuaron will score points for creating not only a far-flung visual effects extravaganza, but also for digging deep into the soul of his lead character, the scientist played by Sandra Bullock.

McQueen took a little known story – the true tale of Solomon Northup who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s – and turned it into a stirring tale for modern audiences. He also had a much more extensive cast, garnering excellent performances out of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sarah Paulson.

For the bronze medal: it’s the Legend (Scorsese) vs. the Hot New Thing (Russell) vs. the Quirky Dude from Omaha (Payne).

Should win: Cuaron.

Will win: Cuaron.

Best Picture

“American Hustle” – fun

“Captain Phillips”– intense

“Dallas Buyers Club” — moving

“Gravity” – outstanding

“Her” – well-written

“Nebraska” – overrated

“Philomena” – touching

“12 Years a Slave” — powerful

“The Wolf of Wall Street” – too long

The Not Reallys: “Philomena” is a lovely film with the great Judi Dench and “Nebraska” is a funny diversion with a nice turn by Bruce Dern.

The Also Rans: “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are mostly engrossing films and, like many of these, are based on true stories (a plus with Academy voters).

The Almost: “Her” is wickedly clever and sharply written. Writer-director Spike Jonze has a fascinating imagination, but he’ll have to settle for the best original screenplay prize.

The Contenders: It’s the con artist cavalcade, “American Hustle,” vs. the visually stunning “Gravity” vs. the weighty “12 Years a Slave.” I think Cuaron’s other-wordly majesty and edge-of-your-seat intensity will trump “Hustle’s” bravado. But the big themes and big performances in “12 Years” will take the top prize.

Should win: “Gravity.”

Will win: “12 Years a Slave.”


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